Politically Correct Atonement
A sacrificial system for 21st century sins
I recently streamed the Munk Debate “Political Correctness: A Force for Good?” between Michael Eric Dyson, Michelle Goldberg, Stephen Fry, and Jordan Peterson.
Munk Debates are semi-annual debates held in Toronto. Usually covering a topic currently relevant — The End of Men, Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions, Europe, The Global Refugee Crisis — four experts on the chosen subject meet and debate a proposition. Before each debate, the audience takes a poll on the question at hand and their willingness to change their minds. Afterwards, the audience takes another poll to see how many have changed their minds, and in which direction.
A few days later, the debates are also posted on the internet, where people like me (a stay-at-home mom with no possibility of traveling to Canada) can also experience the arguments for and against each proposal. I wish, though, that I could have been there in person. There is a question that I would have asked if I’d had the chance. So now I’m going to pretend to go back in time, attend the debate, and say my piece. (If any of the following is confusing, this video will help provide the context.)
My question is for Mr. Dyson. It’s a long one, so please bear with me. Dr. Peterson, I’d welcome your comments, too.
In the Old Testament book of Leviticus, part of the Torah that God’s people have to follow, there is a section dealing with sacrifices for unintentional sin. If someone realizes they’ve done something against the law of God, even if they didn’t know it or mean it at the time, they have to take an animal they own or buy and kill it at the altar to pay for what they did. They’re basically saying, “This is the death I deserve because of my wrongdoing; but this animal is going to die instead of me, so I can turn away from wrongdoing and make a better life.” There is also a yearly ritual called the Day of Atonement, in which the priest makes a series of sacrifices for the sins of the entire nation, just in case any individual neglected to pay for their own. He also makes sacrifices for the sins of the entire priesthood and for his own sins.
My question is this: would you say white privilege falls under the category of unintentional sin by an individual, or of something to be covered in the Day of Atonement, where the whole group is represented?
I ask this because I’m thinking about my own children. I have a five-year-old and a six-month-old. They are both white. Neither of them intends any harm against their neighbors of color. My son goes to preschool with a few black children and calls them friends. But when my children get older, they will come up against the idea that because of the color of their skin — something they did not choose, and cannot change — they have to make reparations for any evil thing that was done against people of color, including injustices of centuries ago.
In this debate, Mr. Dyson, you’ve repeatedly made the claim that because of centuries of oppression, black people start at a disadvantage and white people at an advantage, at least in the United States. You’ve expressed contempt for white people who feel like their rights are now being trampled in the name of political correctness. You’ve also claimed Christianity as your own, so I would like to ask you: is white privilege a sin? If so, who has to atone for it? Every white individual, or the group as a whole, through a representative?
Dr. Peterson, you asked Mr. Dyson what he wanted you to do to make up for your white privilege. That’s what got me on this topic. I want more clarity. You’ve also been very adamantly against the idea of group guilt, while at the same time praising the hero who takes the sins of the world on his shoulders. I want to explore that a little further.
One central doctrine of the New Testament is that the old Levitical system of dealing with sin was never sufficient. The book of Hebrews devotes several pages to describing how the sacrifices went on and on, year after year, day after day, always having to be repeated because God’s people would keep on sinning (including by accident). Also, bulls and goats are not really equivalent to people, so their deaths couldn’t pay the whole debt owed to God. But when Jesus died, everything changed. To begin with, He was a Man like us, rather than an animal. Not only that, He was the only perfect Man who did what was right all the time and never sinned, not even by accident. He was the pinnacle, the epitome of what humanity could be. He was also, somehow, fully the incarnation of the God who created the universe. Ultimate Man and ultimate Being, united in one person, became the ultimate sacrifice. His death on the cross was enough to pay for all the sins, through all of time, of all His people. The resurrection proves that. His death doesn’t need to be repeated or even continue any longer.
That’s what Christianity is: it’s saying, “This is the death that I deserve for my rebellion against God. But the ultimate Man, the perfect and sinless Son of God, took that death instead of me, so I can turn from wrongdoing and by His power, make a better life.”
Much of the New Testament consists of Paul and the other apostles hammering home this truth to people who grew up in the Levitical system of sacrifices, the ones that had to be repeated again and again and again and were still never enough. Paul himself was a Pharisee, from the extra-strict branch of Judaism that was afraid to put even a toe out of line or a finger in what was impure. That fear is gone now, Paul declares in the book of Colossians. The whole “handwriting of requirements that was against us” — because we broke it even by accident — “He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:14, NKJV)
The New Testament says in other places that we keep the law now, not through fear of punishment, but out of love for the one who gave it and gave His Son to keep it fully in our place. And we are also empowered to obey through the free gift of the Spirit of God who indwells us.
This probably sounds very familiar to you, Mr. Dyson, and to everyone with knowledge of the Bible. But (Mr. Fry, I can see you gearing up to ask) what does it have to do with political correctness?
Political correctness is a secular parody of the sacrificial system and the legalism of the Pharisees. If anyone steps out of the social justice line and offends someone, even if the offense was unintentional, they have to make certain sacrifices. Apologies have to be issued, retractions printed, training sessions conducted to prevent such a thing from happening again. This might still not be enough, however, and the offender loses their job, their platform, or even their personal safety as they are threatened and harassed. Anyone who associates with them is in danger, too, leading many a company and public figure to denounce people in terms of rage, which they might not even mean but state out of fear that they’ll be next on the altar. People are afraid to put one toe out of line or one finger into anything deemed impure. And if someone belongs to a group pegged as historical oppressors, whether white, male, straight, cisgendered, or whatever the preferred term is at the moment, they are forcibly made the high priest of that group whenever they dare to speak in a public forum.
The alleged oppressors have to make the proper sacrifices to atone for their group guilt before they can be allowed in the holy presence of the people. And one such sacrifice is not enough. No, the confession of guilt and the giving up of rights has to happen again and again and again. But the sin is never completely atoned for, because the people trying to atone for it are themselves sinful! They offend, even by accident. They offend by their very existence. The politically correct are never satisfied.
Some, like the Pharisees, try to walk the tightrope. They metaphorically sacrifice not only bulls and goats, but even a tenth of every herb in their garden. They affirm every little thing that claims to be a victory for the oppressed, no matter who gets hurt along the way. Others become rebels and provocateurs, getting fiendish pleasure out of breaking the new rules in the face of the new enforcers. But I would guess that most of us are neither slaves of the system nor smashers of the system, but trying to stay outside the system because we can see that it doesn’t work.
Political correctness cannot change hearts. It can’t make people truly love the marginalized, the people they once hated or ignored. Love can’t be forced. Any attempt to do so only leads to resentment and hypocrisy; either that or the type of love that the protagonist has for Big Brother at the end of 1984, that is, a defeated, programmed response. Is that what we mean by progress? I certainly hope not.