In a survey in the book Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, when Evangelicals were asked what the major issues of concern were for the church, only 4% of white Evangelicals mentioned race issues, while 66% of black Evangelicals mentioned race and 1/4 said race was the major issue to address in the church.
How can Christians who read the same Bible and claim the same LORD, be so far apart on such a crucial issue? Emerson concludes that
It is not active racism that prevents evangelicals from recognizing ongoing problems in American society. Instead, it is the evangelical movement’s emphasis on individualism, free will, and personal relationships that makes invisible the pervasive injustice that perpetuates racial inequality. Most racial problems, the subjects told the authors, can be solved by the repentance and conversion of the sinful individuals at fault.
Many white Evangelicals simply don’t admit or understand the nature of systemic and structural racism at work in our society’s institutions.
In my own experience, when I have been confronted with claims of racial injustice, white privilege, and racism as a social issue, I was taught to dismiss such thinking as a concoction of liberals and certain black leaders who are still living in the past. I thought by constantly bringing up race and blaming societal problems such as poverty, inner city crime, etc. on racial factors, we were making it a race problem.
I was wrong. I didn’t know any people of color at the time. I wasn’t listening to my black brothers and sisters in Christ.
Furthermore, I was seeing the world through individualistic lenses that sees racism in terms of a few bad apples out there who are personally prejudice and mean (you know, the KKK and people who use the “n-word.”) Since I’m a nice person and try not to see color, I was free from the effects of racism. Like many whites, I had grabbed onto the one line from Martin Luther King, Jr. that nicely facilities this “colorblind” view. “I try to judge people by the content of their character, and not the color of their skin.”
I was wrong. I didn’t know any people of color at the time. I wasn’t listening to my black brothers and sisters in the church.
I never asked the follow up question about exactly what kind of “character” I should judge people according to — including my fellow white Christians. What kind of character traits was I raised to value most? Is it Christ-like character that denies my own self and uses my power and privilege in service of others (e.g., Phil 2:5-11)? Or was it the kind of character celebrated in the rags-to-riches stories of the American Dream that prizes those rugged individuals who pulled themselves up out of their circumstances and rose to the top by hard work and self-determination?
(The irony here is that while many conservative Christians nod in church and shout “Amen” when the pastor preaches that we are saved by a pure handout of grace and we didn’t do anything to deserve it, on Monday we bash a liberal for advocating handouts to the poor, and preach that they need to pull themselves up onto their own feet. I know, I know, “enabling” is a real issue, personal responsibility is needed, and I’m not denying the shortcomings and harmful aspects of the welfare state. But still sit in the paradox a second and let Jesus’ bleeding heart compassion make you think.)
Individualism taught me that every individual’s fate was in their own hands, and if every individual would just take responsibility for their life, work hard and stop blaming the past or playing the victim in the present, then racism would evaporate and all people, regardless of race, would be able to climb the ladder and achieve the American Dream.
I was wrong. I didn’t know any people of color at the time. I wasn’t listening to the experiences of my black brothers and sisters.
My views on race in America have dramatically shifted over the past decade, while I have I remained largely quiet on the issue. As an Anabaptist on the relationship Christians should have to worldly politics, I have tended to call Christians to not get sucked into American partisan politics because evangelism and Christ’s reputation suffer when His agenda gets aligned with the Right or Left. I have refrained from speaking out more on race issues because I didn’t want my congregation to think I’m “going liberal.”
I was wrong for remaining silent. Not just wrong, but complicit in the problem. I was dishonoring my black brothers and sisters, and betraying a central part of the gospel of reconciliation that celebrates that “Christ is our peace” and the cross has dismantled the “dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2) and the church is the birth of a New Humanity characterized by the elimination of sinful societal barriers.
My change in perspective on this issue has come in three main ways and took a long time:
First, I have slowly shed my modern western individualistic lenses through which I used to read the Scriptures. I have gained a greater understanding of the corporate and collective nature of human society, as well as the systemic nature of sin, evil and spiritual warfare. I am now aware that privilege isn’t an accusation to get defensive about, but simply part of the societal conditioning that I was brought up in. A few years ago I began preaching both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the gospel. Our current Revelation series is all about exposing the ways Satan, Sin and Death are at work in societal structures, exploitative economic systems, and deceitful and seductive cultures of corruption and Death. For a sample, see below.
Secondly, I am re-learning the history and reality of racism in America by reading more broadly books such as White Fragility, The Color of Compromise, Divided by Faith, White Awake, The New Jim Crow, Rethinking Incarceration, and other more scholarly books in my doctorate program. Most of these are by Christians within the Evangelical movement, and not liberal propaganda. They have challenged my inherited narratives and opened my eyes to understanding concepts like “colorblindness”, “meritocracy”, etc. Like most white Americans, I was living a life very sheltered from the experience of people of color and the everyday realities of racism for non-whites. Ignorance was bliss for me.
Thirdly, and most importantly, my perspective has been changed by my participation and relationships in an increasingly multiethnic church denomination (The Evangelical Covenant) that is working hard to bring us together across racial differences, and to help white Christians and pastors like me hear the firsthand experiences of my brothers and sisters of color. Because of my multiracial relationships and commitment to working together toward unity and understanding, this is not a political issue for me anymore. This is not a social issue impacting “those people over there,” but a personal issue affecting my church family.
For me, #BLM is not a political statement or identifier. It’s a cry from my black brothers and sisters (and fellow pastors) at neighboring Covenant churches. I don’t respond with “All Lives Matter” anymore, because my white suburban life has never given me a reason to doubt it.
I’m not “going liberal” by taking up the cause of racial justice. I am not “getting woke” because it’s trendy and jumping on a social activist bandwagon to assuage white guilt or add some excitement to a dull suburban life.
No, I am getting serious about an aspect of discipleship in the Kingdom of God that has always been there, but has been screened out in white protestant teaching for far too long.
I was wrong for too long. I didn’t know any people of color. I wasn’t listening to my black brothers and sisters. My eyes are being opened and I’m listening. I hope you’ll join me in this ongoing journey.
Here’s a great place to start: