The “unreckoned-with reality of white evangelical racism permeates American life,” an evangelical leader reminded more than fifty prominent evangelicals gathered recently at Wheaton College in Chicago.
The group met to discuss the crisis in evangelicalism, a crisis also seen across the rest of Christianity in the United States: the church has become too tied to the Republican Party and in particular the radical right and its agenda. A colonized Christianity has spread a fake news Gospel that betrays the good news of Jesus Christ. One result is that young people, recognizing hypocrisy, are fleeing the church in droves.
My first post in this series of five discussed some of the reasons for this, and highlighted the analysis given by Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. The other posts highlight his discussion of what he called “the top four arenas in which this violation of spiritual and moral character has shown itself.” While there is much more that can be said about this crisis, Labberton’s talk was remarkable not only for cutting straight to his points, but for essentially reading the riot act in a kind voice. The second post focused on the issue of power; this post will focus on the issue of racism. Here’s what Labberton said:
The Bible knows all people to be fully human, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image, knit together in our mother’s womb. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, not just those who arrive as poor, hard-working immigrants fleeing violence or those wasting away in private prisons. All are dead and in Christ made alive, and the evidence of the resurrection is that the peculiar body of God’s people, a new humanity of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are to be the evidence of a resurrected God. This is the glory of creation and new creation.
Those of us who are white evangelicals must acknowledge that our story is intertwined with, and often responsible for, much of the violence and oppression around racial injustice in our American story. The stories of Native American, African American, Latino/a, or Asian peoples in the history of the United States cannot be told truthfully without naming the role of white evangelicals who testified to a God of redemption but whose theological, political, social, and economic choices contributed to suffering and injustice. Stories of devastation are often absent from a happier white evangelical narrative of promised-land life, or buried in a sanitized story that claims that past injustice is not relevant for people of color today—despite the fact that nearly all people of color experience racism and its implications every day around the nation, including those in this room today.
This unreckoned-with reality of white evangelical racism permeates American life, and its tinderbox was lit on fire by the rhetoric of our national life in recent years—whether in reference to Ferguson, or Charlottesville, or “shithole countries” deemed without value. White history narrates the story of America’s heroes, and white evangelical history views those “good guys” as the providence of a good and faithful God. When some white evangelicals triumphantly pronounce that we now have “the best president the religious right ever had,” the crisis it underscores to millions of people of color is not an indictment of our President as much as it is an indictment of white evangelicalism and a racist gospel.
Labberton says something crucial: Christianity in America is intimately involved with the nation’s history, including the reality that Christians stood by and even used scripture to justify enslavement and genocide. It will take a deep willingness to learn an unflattering history, as well as how that history continues to affect the present, for Christianity in America to begin to place Jesus at the center of all things. It also will take repentance and a firm determination to change for the better. That moment seems a long way off, as white Christians have been gravitating toward an ever-more-strident antagonism toward people of color. But for those white Christians who still place more trust in Jesus than in white power, this is the time to show it. Seek out and listen to other voices, to people of color who describe their own experiences of living in the United States. Read works of history that focus on the perspectives of the indigenous peoples and African Americans and other people of color. Recognize that your understanding of history comes from the narrow perspective of victors, and open your heart in God’s own empathy and love for the vanquished, the enslaved, the ones confined to reservations, the ones who experience mass incarceration. Don’t be afraid to hear out even those voices that strike you as radical. Chances are, they reflect some of the radical truth of Jesus. Don’t shut Him out by turning away from the voices of the poor and disenfranchised. They are close to His heart; let them into yours, too. You will be transformed, and will no longer cling to fear. It is the path to joy.