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The second wrong

The second wrong

Why affirmative action cannot lead toward racial reconciliation

California referendum, Texas case, Congressional legislation-affirmative action is being debated among God's children throughout the land once again, with learned discourses on both sides. I'm not a very good "briefer," as they say in Washington, because I tend to throw complications at politicians who want simple answers, but on this issue I can keep it simple.

Here goes: God is our father. I'm a father too. And although I can in no way fathom the depths of God's mind, I can know what God thinks about race from reading the Bible. I can get a sense of his emphasis on the importance of evenhanded treatment for all his children from the way my children-created in God's image-explode when they believe they have been treated unfairly.

First, what God thinks about racial and ethnic barriers: The New Testament very clearly and repeatedly says that we are to concern ourselves with "sin, not skin," as Glenn Loury puts it. What's not in the Bible speaks almost as loudly as what is: In 66 books of the Old and New Testaments filled with descriptions of historical figures from three continents, flesh color is left out of the IDs. In the Bible, man's surface is no big deal.

Second, my experience as a father of four sons (three pink, one brown) also suggests that we just say no to differential treatment. Were all my children's first words, "It's not fair"? Maybe not, but any show of favoritism, real or supposed, is a sure cause of trouble, as it should be. I am charged to teach my children about God by showing evenhandedness-and I also teach them about our need for Christ by messing up.

For those who want detailed analysis of the wrongness in practice of government racial preferences, I'd suggest reading Terry Eastland's excellent new book, Ending Affirmative Action. But I, facing the constraints of a column, can keep it simple: Two wrongs don't make a right. Restitution is an important biblical concept, and maybe restitution for slavery would have worked after the Civil War, with help going directly to injured parties, although the complexities even then would have made the task daunting.

Today, however, we have the spectacle of job and educational prospects taken from the descendants of Irish, Italian, and other immigrants who themselves faced great discrimination, and given to minority members, and all women, whether or not their ancestors were enslaved. This affirmative action has no biblical base.

The last generation's leading liberal Supreme Court justice, William O. Douglas, argued that "Racial discrimination against a white is as unconstitutional as race discrimination against a black." Justice Thurgood Marshall responded to that statement by telling Mr. Douglas, "You guys have been practicing discrimination for years. Now it's our turn." That response is natural and understandable, but tragic for a simple reason: Two wrongs don't make a right.

The current emphasis on race leads us to overlook the wisdom T.S. Eliot once offered: "Do we want a wool sweater? We need to plant the grass to feed the sheep to get the wool to make a sweater." If we want 21st-century America (unless Christ comes first) not to be a country divided into white, black, brown, yellow, and red factions at war with each other, then we had better plant the right sort of grass now, instead of sitting back as weeds sprout. If we hope to move toward a biblical lack of race-consciousness, we are not well served by measures that make race the prime defining characteristic, trumping faith and character.

We can't make a big deal out of race in so many areas of our lives without making it a big deal in our minds-and it doesn't have to be that way. Making skin more important than sin is one of the sins that God can empower us to overcome. The epistle-writing Paul would not have instructed the Galatians and the Colossians that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek" if it were impossible for our minds to be freed from racial and ethnic obsession.

God is the father of children of different races. I'm a father like that too. God tells us to pay attention to sin, not skin, and I believe him. I look to the future and ask, Do I want my family divided against itself by government-mandated unfairness, no matter whom it benefits? No. And if I don't want that in my own family, why would I want it in my country? c

This column is also appearing in The Reconciler, a publication devoted to fostering racial healing among Christians.