Calvin and God’s Gift of … Racism? | Sojourners

Calvin and God’s Gift of … Racism?

John Calvin image, Georgios Kollidas/
John Calvin image, Georgios Kollidas/

I’ve had a number of interesting discussions with various people lately about the notions of hell, salvation and who goes where. It’s a rhetorical exercise for the most part, since no one really knows. But there are plenty of real-life implications, particularly in the sphere of religion. For some, the understanding of what happens to us after we die is the prime mover in their day-to-day faith.

I know that the times when I resonate with more hard-line evangelical theology are few and far between, but in this case, I tend to resonate more closely with them than with my brothers and sisters of the Calvinist (also called Reformed Church) movement. For some not familiar with the differences, common Evangelical belief would suggest that God’s saving grace is available to all who seek it, and that the only thing standing between us and eternal salvation is us and our unwillingness to accept God’s perfect gift. In the Reformed Church, however (represented most prominently today by pastors like Mark Driscoll and John Piper), salvation is reserved for an elect few. The rest of creation will suffer the eternal wrath of God, period.

So how do we know who will be saved? For that, Calvinists offer the idea of irresistible grace. Basically, this means that those already chosen to be saved will find their way in the world to obedience, faithfulness, and righteousness in the way God intends. And of course, the Calvinists tend to believe that it is those who incline themselves to the teaching of the Reformed Church who are clearly on this path. So although they don’t claim to hold exclusive authority over the dispensation of salvation (like some churches have done and still do), Reformed Churches are merely the venue within which the elect congregate.

It’s a subtle difference for those less familiar with religious history, but an important one, particularly to those debating the fate of humanity.

So what does this have to do with racism? Basically, Calvinists believe in the depravity of man, or that we cannot possibly attain God’s grace on our own. Not through works, and not through a confession of faith. It seems, then, that free will itself takes too much away from the sovereignty of God in the Reformed Church to be viable. So sorry, free will, but you’re out. In order for God to be properly sovereign (all powerful), humanity cannot have so much control over their own destiny.

Second, there is the notion that some of us are favored or chosen by God, and others are not. Why or how is this determined? Calvinists say this is to seek to know the mind of God — which is both impossible and blasphemous. It’s how it is, like it or not. Some Reformed Church leaders will even say (at least on public record) that they hope they’re wrong about this particular matter, but that their understanding of the Bible leads them inevitably to this conclusion.

There’s more to Calvinism than this, but these two ideas are at the heart of my point. If you believe humanity ultimately is depraved, and that only a preordained few are to receive God’s sovereign grace, this is fertile ground for seeing much of the world as “less than.”

And what’s more, Calvinists can divest themselves of the culpability for such supremacist thinking, because, after all, it’s God’s will! This isn’t how we want it, they say, but it just is how it is.

Sorry, but you’re depraved. You’re doomed. You have no hope, as evidenced by the fact that you’re not part of our tribe. Were you one of God’s chosen, you would find your way to our side of the line, because God would lead you there.

This is not to say that people of the Reformed Church inherently believe that white males are favored by God, but the very idea that some would be loved more than others by their creator sets up a kind of zionist thinking that would make Ayn Rand blush. It can be used to justify violence, even war, and the subjugation of the rights of many for the furtherance of God’s sovereign will.

Who decides what God’s will is? We can assume, based on the framework constructed by the Reformed Church that no one outside of their walls would have any credible authority on the matter.

I know that we can look to scripture for support that God favors some over others. For some Christians, this is precisely why we must lend so much military support to Israel, given that they are God’s chosen (what?!?! two groups claiming to be God’s elect?). But the issue I take with this is that everyone places themselves at the center of such a God-and-humanity love story when they are the ones telling the story. Mormons believe they have God’s favor. Jehova’s Witnesses believe they do. Calvinists think they have the corner on the salvation market, and so on.

But show me the faith that looks outside of their own tradition to point to another group as the ones favored by God, and I’ll consider changing my position. Until then, it seems to be more of a “Daddy loves me best” argument than any legitimate basis for a religious movement.

And what’s more, it furthers the toxic, violent notion that some are more worthy than others, which in my understanding, is entirely counter to the notion of God’s kingdom, in which love is made complete, all brokenness is mended, and all of God’s creation is reconciled with one another and with our Creator. And until then, it’s our job to help realize the closest approximation of this perfect, all-encompassing love.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He is Director if Church Growth and Development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date."

John Calvin image, Georgios Kollidas/