Common Grace and Race

That Abraham Kuyper was a racist, following the conventions of his time, is something that no neo-Calvinist would deny. His views on race and his theological impact – to some degree – on the rise of apartheid in South Africa have been well documented. For Kuyper, this is no mere blind spot: the problem of race in his thinking is situated within some of his most important theological formulations, namely his doctrine of common grace. With Kuyper, common grace is linked to a racialized theological anthropology that disparages the cultures of non-European/American peoples. I raise this not in order to dismiss Kuyper, but because if we in the Reformed tradition don’t attend to this, we won’t be able to address the ways in which racial biases are reproduced in our thoughts and practices. Any assessment of the Reformed tradition’s strength or weakness to address the dynamics of institutional racism has to eventually go through Kuyper, and one place to begin is with common grace.

In his 1898 Lectures on Calvinism, Kuyper writes: “There is a particular grace which works Salvation, and also a common grace by which God, maintaining the life of the world, relaxes the curse which rests upon it, arrests its process of corruption, and thus allows the untrammeled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator.” Although sin has touched everything, God has given a common grace to the whole world. This sin-restraining grace allows Christians to still see God’s glory reflected, however imperfectly, in creation and in non-Christians. For Kuyper, common grace becomes the basis for Christians to not retreat from the world. The church has plenty to learn from “pagan” philosophy, literature, art and government.

A WHITE, EUROPEAN STANDARD

God shines in “all that’s fair,” except Kuyper posits a hierarchy in humanity, with the peoples ofAfrica, Asia and Latin America at the bottom. Just after introducing the idea of common grace, he turns to a discussion of Calvinism’s place in the stages of human development. In what is a recurring theme throughout the lectures, Kuyper sees competing worldviews, such as modernism and Calvinism, as more than just “religions” – rather, as total world and life-systems that change society and contribute to the development of humanity itself. It is crucial to realize that Kuyper’s development of common grace coincides with a particular view of human flourishing. While Calvinism has advanced humanity (e.g., through democracy), Kuyper wonders what the “isolated” people of China and the indigenous people of modern-day Mexico and Peru have done for the development of the human race. “In all these regions,” he says, “the people attained a high degree of development, but stopped there, and, remaining isolated, in no way proved a benefit to humanity at large. This applies more strongly still to the life of the colored races on the coast and in the interior of Africa – a far lower form of existence, reminding us not even of a lake but rather of pools and marshes.” The culture of these other peoples is criticized for not being beneficial, in any significant way, to humanity as a whole. Additionally, the bottom of humanity is marked by blackness.

It has become accepted wisdom in some circles to conclude that almost all disparities, such as wealth gap, are attributable to cultural habits, to a fundamental lack in virtue.

At the higher end of human development, Kuyper traces a golden stream: “It is as clear as day that the supreme force in the central development of the human race moved along successively from Babylon and Egypt to Greece and Rome, then to the chief regions of the Papal dominion, and finally to the Calvinistic nations of Western Europe.” After this, Kuyper acknowledges that yet a higher human realization is being achieved in “the American type.” The top of humanity is marked by a diverse, consolidated whiteness. Displaying parallels to thenotion of the American “melting pot,” Kuyper’s notion of the “commingling of blood” in this sectionassumes that race mixing can advance and strengthenthe human race. However, just as in the case of the melting pot, only the “higher” European races are seen as good ingredients. Kuyper’s anthropological hierarchy is now complete. With calm, cool aesthetic judgments about the rigor and cultural riches of successive civilizations, Kuyper has laid out the basic tenets of white supremacy.

RACIALIZING COMMON GRACE

On the one hand, Kuyper can be seen as inconsistently recognizing common grace across human culture. On the other hand, the doctrine of common grace can be seen as being racialized – as being attached to a particular theological anthropology – since its beginnings. Kuyper’stheological anthropology, his vision of how God has shaped humanity, assumes that common grace is concentrated primarily around a golden – or white – stream of humanity. While common grace covers the world, in Kuyper’s eyes, it is distributed along certain lines of social development and civilization building. All of this does not preclude a common grace in other peoples, but theirs is a lower form of existence. Darker, indigenous peoples are characterized by a spiritual and cultural stagnation and immaturity. Yet, the lower peoples can still benefit and grow from the advancements that Calvinism, Europe and now America have contributed to the flourishing of the human race. All of this is part of Kuyper’s theological vision. All of this, in spite of our best wishes, is part of the Kuyperian legacy.

Now, let’s move into the present. How are we, in the early 21st century, to relate to what Kuyper had to say in the nascent 20th century? Moreover, what would a theology of common grace look like that was unhooked from white supremacy?

The issue today is that while virtually no one would explicitly endorse Kuyper’s racial vision, it is undeniable that this kind of vision shaped the Christian making of culture, society and institutions. Yet, because the problem of race today is often reduced to the problem of the blatant racist, to the conscious and deliberate acts of individuals, it is easy to shirk responsibility and to overlook the continued effect of that vision. While Kuyper confessed his vision as a creed, its deployment, its impact, has been felt on a broader aesthetic and institutional level. That is because race is not simply a proposition; it does not operate merely on the level of a worldview. Racial biases have seeped deeply into our imaginations and desires. Segregated schools and churches have further inculcated race as a habit through practice. Research such as Jason Silverstein’s study on the “racial empathy gap” confirms that racial bias continues to operate in us apart from our conscious awareness of it.

Issues related to race highlight some of the limits of the Reformed tradition’s confessionalism. If race is deeply wedded to the construction and practices of our institutions, confessions and committee reports alone will not easily eradicate it. Even if all of the Reformed, Anglo-American leaders warm-heartedly endorsed the Belhar Confession (not an unimportant gesture), it would still only be about as transformative as virally retweeting a message about overcoming consumption. Naming history, naming beliefs and even naming practices are all important for producing substantial change, but they must never be confused for being the change itself.

JUST FOR WHITES?

While the Kuyperian tradition has claimed that common grace is operative throughout the whole world, it has often failed to recognize it across human culture. What would it mean to begin to unhook common grace from the legacy of white supremacy? To start, it would mean listening to and dialoging with historically marginalized voices. Additionally, it would mean recognizing the cultural contextualizations of Christian discipleship.

It is precisely at this point, concerning culture, that I believe that Kuyper can still present to us opportunities for a different kind of theological imagination. Within neo-Calvinism, there is a beautiful vision that is large in scope about how everything in this world matters to God. The gospel is not reduced to a personal relationship or to the church but extends to all of creation and human culture. As Kuyper would say, the triune God is sovereign over the whole cosmos. If this is the case, then questions about identity, ethnicity and even gender are not peripheral to some more “spiritual” gospel. Given creation’s goodness, the issue of children identifying beauty/ goodness with lighter skin is a gospel issue. Kuyper’s culture-affirming account should also help us to appreciate the importance of cultural particularities. So, for example, the Jewish identity of Jesus matters. There is no generic, culture-transcendent “Christian” identity that can be neatly separated from the particularities of one’s culture.

Nevertheless, we need to remember that common grace was never originally extended, in its best sense, to black or indigenous people and their cultures. In light of this history, what does it mean to practice Christian social engagement for the common good? Behind debates about social policies today are theological anthropologies that continue to grapple with issues of culture and race.

Working for the common good requires us to try to keep many people in mind, including the “little” people. Some important issues in American society today have to do with the treatment of black youth and immigrants, for example. There have been high-profile cases related to black boys getting shot for listening to loud music, such as Jordan Davis, or while walking home unarmed, such as Trayvon Martin, which have struck a nerve for those already disillusioned by gun violence, incarceration and a broken criminal justice system. Neither should we ignore the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows or the deportation of nearly 2 million immigrants under President Obama’s administration , which has split and devastated numerous families. These are just a few of the issues currently afflicting minorities in the United States. Neither let us forget about the Aboriginal peoples in Canada as they struggle to survive on reserves, account for their missing and murdered women and deal with the aftermath of residential schools.

BLAMING VICTIMS

It would be a mistake for anyone interested in the social architecture of North America to overlook the situation of black, brown and indigenous peoples. Yet it would be far worse to assess the situation and place most of the blame back onto them. It is one thing to distrust the power of the state and social welfare programs to function as panaceas for the poor, but it’s quite another to collapse all problems onto the “social pathologies” of the so-called underclasses. Nevertheless, it has become accepted wisdom in some circles to conclude that almost all disparities, such as wealth gap, are attributable to cultural habits, to a fundamental lack in virtue. Blame it on rap. Blame it on the n-word. Blame it on laziness. Blame it on drunkenness. Blame it on bad liberal theology. Blame it on broken homes. Deflect criticism away from how institutions and laws have historically failed them and instead show how they are failures. However, what such analyses accomplish is the perpetuation of an imagination that sees the culture of darker peoples as inherently inferior. And in spite of the best intentions, pathologizing and moralizing the plight of the darker poor sits comfortably within a racialized Kuyperian legacy. In a sense, this is – as Ta-Nehisi Coates would say – “socially engineered prophecy.”

I’m reminded that Christian educators saw little goodness in the culture of Aboriginal peoples. In Canada, over 130 residential schools run by churches were set up “to eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development of Aboriginal children.” The last school closed in 1996.

Far too often, the notion of common grace has been a missed opportunity. Still, not all is lost. At least, that is my hope. As I’ve said before, I think that the Kuyperian tradition still presents to us opportunities for moving forward when it comes to issues of race and culture. If indeed this whole world were to be graced, then perhaps I can – in spite of sin – see the goodness in the color of my skin, in the texture of my hair, in the poetry of Kendrick Lamar and in the dance of my people (though Kuyper was iffy about dancing). All of this matters to God; all of this is theologically significant.


Daniel Jose Camacho is a master of divinity student at Duke University Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina.