“The issue is not ignorance and inconsistencies though! It’s evil! It’s White supremacist evil! Why can’t you say that!?”
I didn’t actually yell at my monitor as if I were disputing the latest no-call that favored LeBron James in an NBA playoff game. It was a silent but rending protest in my mind to a speech by a relatively well-known White pastor. The speech was part of a public observance in memorial of the recent 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. I was listening to it in preparation for a Race In America class offered by a large, predominantly White church in Raleigh, NC.
My lament isn’t new. This refusal by many White, and a significant amount of non-White, evangelicals in America to name the evil that perpetuates racial injustice, race-based violence, and racist economic systems in America is pervasive and is a strand of the DNA from which American culture has grown its identity. America, due largely to the Christian church’s unwillingness to take a hard and bold stance against the White supremacy rotting its heart, is facilitating White supremacy’s crucifixion of the Christian faith within American culture.
Ignorance or Evil
If you zoom past a cascade of speed limit signs on one of America’s interstate highways at 20 miles per hour over the posted limit and get pulled over by a State Trooper, I’m pretty confident that if your first comment, race notwithstanding, to the officer is, “Um, I was ignorant of the speed limit,” that officer is unlikely to give you a pass. You are going to face a stark penalty that will have a measurable impact on your life. So, when faultless ignorance is bandied about as a cause for racism and White evangelical coddling of White supremacy, no honest, thinking audience will buy it.
According to Brooke Hempell, Vice President of Research for The Barna Group:
“Our research confirms the fear that the church (or the people in it) may be part of the problem in the hard work of racial reconciliation. If you’re a white, evangelical, Republican, you are less likely to think race is a problem, but more likely to think you are a victim of reverse racism. You are also less convinced that people of color are socially disadvantaged. Yet these same groups believe the church plays an important role in reconciliation. This dilemma demonstrates that those supposedly most equipped for reconciliation do not see the need for it.
“More than any other segment of the population, white evangelical Christians demonstrate a blindness to the struggle of their African American brothers and sisters. This is a dangerous reality for the modern church. Jesus and his disciples actively sought to affirm and restore the marginalized and obliterate divisions between groups of people. Yet, our churches and ministries are still some of the most ethnically segregated institutions in the country.
“By failing to recognize the disadvantages that people of color face — and the inherent privileges that come from growing up in a ‘majority culture’ — we perpetuate the racial divisions, inequalities and injustices that prevent African American communities from thriving. Research has shown that being cognizant of our biases leads to change in biased behavior. If white evangelical Christians genuinely care for the wellbeing of their African American brothers and sisters, the first step they must take is being honest about their own biases. History — and Jesus’ example — has shown that reconciliation comes from stepping out of our place of comfort and actively pursuing healing for those in need. We must do the same, if we really believe all lives matter.”
In a familiar narrative in the book of Genesis two brothers, Cain and Abel, brought an offering from their crops and livestock to God. The scriptures don’t go into literal detail on why, but Abel’s offering was pleasing to the Lord while Cain’s offering was rejected. This made Cain angry and in response he plots and kills Abel. Later, God asks Cain where Abel was (of course he already knew). Cain’s response was, “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?” ironically, feigning faultless ignorance before an all-knowing God. As a penalty for Abel’s murder God punishes Cain with a curse, forcing him to be a fruitless and restless wanderer on the earth for the rest of his life. His false claim of ignorance didn’t save him from God’s holy penalty.²
This passage immediately comes to mind when White evangelical leaders, however well-meaning, want to put the weight of the White evangelical intoxication with White supremacist borne privilege primarily on ignorance. An endless stream of statistics, data, studies, and documentary evidence show how racism destroys Black lives. But, it is still possible that the bulk of White evangelicals don’t know how influential the evil of White supremacy is in America. The Pew Research Center points out that evangelicals are the least educated of all the major American religious groups, including atheists.³ However, is ignorance a legitimate excuse for turning a hypocritically holy blind eye toward racial oppression when we live in an age and a culture where we have greater access to information than any group of human beings in the history of the world? No, it’s not. Pleading this kind of ignorance about the deadly racism that devised mass incarceration, contributes to and defends police murders of unarmed Black people, and is the root of historic economic oppression is exactly like Cain pretending before almighty God that he had no idea where his brother was and snidely shrugging off any responsibility for his well-being. Cain’s sin wasn’t ignorant. It was evil.
To address ignorance, racial bias training has (somewhat) been proven to improve people’s ability to understand where their blind spots are when it comes to lived racism.⁴ This, I assume, is the impetus of Starbucks’ most recent attempt to save face (and market value) after an employee racially profiled two Black customers which led to their arrests and murmurs of boycotts and protests. The irony is that it was the active intervention of a White, female patron who captured the footage of the arrests and lodged her own vocal protest in real-time that made the event of national concern. This is exactly where White evangelicalism is facing and failing to maximize their opportunity to testify to their Christ-likeness. Unlike the young lady who swiftly saw her part in responding to racism in America and immediately went to work fighting it, White evangelicalism is more likely to at worst justify and at best ignore police violence and injustice against Black people.⁵ It refuses to deal with the fact that the culture of American policing is possessed by the White supremacist spirit. Did the woman with the camera phone need racial bias training to know evil was being perpetrated against the two Black citizens? Did she need a class? Statistical analyses on end? I don’t know if she had any training, but her actions show that she saw wrong, knew it was wrong, and immediately did what she could within her means to defend those being treated to a large cup of injustice. This is Christ-likeness on full display.
You Need More People
In the 2016 presidential election White evangelicals voted for Donald Trump at a clip of around eighty percent.⁶ Eighty. Percent. Since that time, I have heard many rationalizations for this from those same voters, some understandable and some very, very bizarre. For instance, I can understand being pro-life which was the defense of many White evangelical Trump voters. But, this pro-life stance is in actuality only pro-birth because Trump supporters also tend to be staunchly against helping immigrant youth, saving unarmed Black citizens from police terror by demanding justice in clear cases of police murder, and social assistance for the poor — all of which are clear cut admonitions of the Bible, Christ’s life, and Christ’s teachings.⁷
The other major defense I’ve heard for voting for and strongly supporting President Trump is a stance against gay marriage and our cultural slide deeper into sexual depravity. To be sure, the Bible is clear on God’s view of homosexual lifestyles.⁸ Christ himself also pointed out that the only marriage that is ordained by God is that between one man and one woman.⁹ So a pro-biblical marriage worldview is again understandable and commendable. But what is not understandable is the lengths to which evangelicals go to preach that God hates the lifestyle but loves the participants while treating our human brothers and sisters in just the opposite manner. Ironically, this is one of the primary reasons young people say they are making an exodus from the church.¹⁰ So, what White evangelicals would largely see as their Christian duty when it comes to protecting God-ordained sexuality is, in reality, a thinly-veiled attack on people who need to be overcome with God’s love rather than brass-knuckle rhetoric dipped in scriptures.
In the most bizarre turn, I have heard the same evangelicals who comment that they voted for President Trump pawn their responsibility off on God by misinterpreting biblical scripture pertaining to God’s sovereignty and outright ignoring those that condemn people actively choosing ungodly leaders.¹¹ It’s as if they have convinced themselves and are attempting to convince others that God, putting their free will on pause, used their hands to mark a ballot for an ungodly candidate to the presidency.¹² Like I said, bizarre.
What these ideas illustrate is that White evangelicals have no problem addressing issues that cause other people to have to change to fit the biblical view of holiness. Even the pastor I mentioned at the start noted that he easily gets applause and attaboys from his congregation when preaching against abortion or homosexual lifestyles. However, he also admitted that preaching about racism caused a significant portion of his congregation (he refers to them as “fools”) to leave his church and suggests it’s likely that any pastor of a predominantly White church could be committing career suicide by unashamedly applying the gospel message to their congregants’ racist spirits. Nevermind the fact that the scriptures speak far more about defending the oppressed,and standing for justice than they do homosexuality and abortion. Yet, some would have thinking people believe that this is all done primarily not out of the evil spiritual influence of White supremacist philosophy but out of faultless, innocent, ignorance.
We don’t believe you.
The Gospel on the Cross
I attended that Race In America event that I mentioned in the opening section of this piece. To my pleasant surprise it was at a predominantly White church, with a White senior pastor, but led by a young Black minister and included an all-Black discussion panel. It was sharp. It was to the point and lovingly confrontational. And while I don’t recall the phrase “White supremacy” being mentioned, it otherwise pulled no punches in applying Christ’s gospel to the racist DNA of our country and our churches. I was excited to see pastors and leaders, of all races, confront this evil boldly and it is encouraging to know that there are churches who do see themselves as leaders in the racial reconciliation of our culture and are, as a body, striving to live the gospel they preach.
And this is the work. This is the way the American Christian church will have to move forward if we intend to build a Christ-like culture in the church that washes over our cities, towns, and backwoods communities, through our schools, courthouses and marketplace. It is by living the gospel and confronting evil — including and especially White supremacy as evil, not as faultless ignorance — then being and doing the good we know and have the means to do, that we will draw other broken people to a place where they are convicted by the Holy Spirit to lay their lives down before a risen Savior. Calling it by its name and dragging it out into the light of Christ is the only way it can be cast out of the American heart. This is how we take the hammer and nails out of the hands of White supremacy and pull American Christianity down from the cross that was already defeated over 2000 years ago.
² Genesis 4:1–12 NIV
4 Pull from Barna Study
⁸ Mark 10:1–12
⁹ 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 NIV; 1 Timothy 1:8–11 NIV
¹¹ Daniel 2:21, 4:17 NIV; Psalm 75:6–7 NIV; Hosea 8:4 NIV