Virtue Signaling or Virtual Silence?

This last week the Southern Baptist Convention created a media storm over confusion regarding a resolution renouncing the white supremacy of the alt right movement. For those of you who don’t know too much about how the SBC works, the convention publishes a list of resolutions every year. These are items of concern the SBC wants to communicate to the broader culture.

After a lot of discussion, some editing to the original resolution, a social media hikois, the SBC voted nearly unanimously (over 99%) to affirm a resolution that condemns racism of all kinds, including the white supremacy of the alt right movement. This was a good and necessary thing to do. I’m in full support.

I will be honest that I have been surprised by some comments I’ve seen from Christians that seem aimed at slowing down, hampering, or muting discussions related to racial equality. It’s not surprising to me when it’s coming from anonymous Twitter accounts. But I’ve been genuinely shocked by Christians who are uncomfortable talking about issues of racial equality. That we are all created equal under God seems to be a rather straight forward issue in the Bible.

Sometimes challenges to these discussions can come in the form of a question, a common question/statement that is used often online. Post something about racial equality or justice and you will get a response of “Virtue signaling?” I’d seen this from various places on Twitter, mostly from alt right accounts, over the last several months, but I hadn’t really seen this used by legitimate accounts, particularly from Christians, until recently.

This seems, when it’s coming from a Christian account, to be an accusation that someone is being self-righteous in how they talk about the issue of race and gospel. That seems to me, to be the best-intention-interpretation of the use of this expression. For this post, I’ll only deal with that interpretation of the use of this expression.

So, if someone questions my motives when talking about topics of race and gospel ⸺ then I want to up front concede that they are right. I’m sure my motives aren’t entirely pure, my heart is not entirely innocent, my words may be poorly chosen, and my tone may be uncharitable. The accusation that my motives aren’t entirely good is well-placed. The heart is above all things highly deceptive and I’m sure I am far from being without fault.

Only Jesus could be perfectly angry without sinning. I’m sure my righteous anger is often mixed with more anger than righteousness. God can see my heart, and He knows better than I do, how flawed I am. This demonstrates a few things: first, we cannot have perfect motives, second, we don’t fully understand our own flawed motivation, and third, we certainly then cannot fully understand someone else’s motivation.

This can quickly move into an infinite regress of “Jesus-jukes.” Someone condemns the sin of racism, and someone calls them out for being self-righteous in publicly declaring a sin, which is itself a public declaration of a sin, which leads to the similar counter rebuke, and on and on it goes. We can spend our whole day defending our motivation and attacking others. No thanks.

You can see how this could easily and quickly distract from the original topic of racism. For some, not all, that may be the point. When it comes to discussing one another’s motives we can post a comment like “virtue signaling” (which is itself a virtue signal), or we can be silent on the issue leaving the person’s motives between them and God (the only one who can really tell their motives), or confront them personally offline, just to name a few options.

But it is a different issue with racism. I don’t think as Christians we have the right to be silent about racial inequality or injustice. Our silence communicates something. We say something by saying nothing. And by this, I don’t mean that I have figured out the “sin free” way of talking about this issue. I just know that not talking about the issue isn’t on the table for me.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said we would remember the silence of our friends more than the words of our enemies. I think he’s right. Silence can be a greater sin. And I don’t want my friends to remember me for my silence.

That’s why I’d rather be guilty of virtue-signaling than virtual-silence. You think my motives are imperfect? You’re probably right. But I’m not going to let my flawed, stammering tongue be idle on this issue. As much grace as God gives me to speak on it, even with a stutter, an imperfect heart, and mixed motives, silence isn’t the best path forward. Call that what you will.