Where Is The White Church In The ‘Black Lives Matter’ Movement?

When black Christian rapper LeCrae first broke onto the scene in the late 2000s, he was almost immediately embraced by the white evangelical church. He had a story right out of the evangelical handbook — he’d grown up on Biggie and Tupac and had joined a gang by the age of 16. He started dealing drugs and was involved in what he calls “a party lifestyle.” But by his late teens, he was back in church. He converted to Christianity at the age of 19, went to the University of North Texas, and began to pursue a career in music. By the time he was 30, he had hit singles, a friendship with top athlete Jeremy Lin, and was making appearances on stage with famous evangelical Reformed pastor John Piper.

He and the white evangelical church formed an interesting bond, his appearances at their shows legitimizing their allegedly anti-racist stance. He appeared with John Piper in videos produced for Piper’s ministry, headlined major Christian music tours, and took stances in his music against gay sex and fornication, saying “Al [Sharpton] and Jesse [Jackson] don’t speak for me.” In many ways, willingly or not, he became the black friend that the white evangelical church could point to when they were challenged as racist, as disgraced pastor Mark Driscoll did when he called LeCrae “a faithful missionary for Jesus in the hip-hop and music cultures.”

This was the relationship between LeCrae and the white evangelical church — until the Black Lives Matter movement started up. Since then, the relationship between the two has become strained, as evidenced most clearly by the responses to LeCrae’s articles and tweets on Black Lives Matter. Notably, on Independence Day this year, he tweeted:

Consequently, the white evangelical internet exploded. He was accused of “stirring the pot,” of engaging in “divisiveness,” of being the “real racist,” and of saying that freedom in Christ isn’t enough. Roger Goforth of the Theology Rocks blog wrote that LeCrae’s tweet — because it called specific attention to race — was “antithetical to the gospel.” Many of the tweeted responses have now been deleted, though some very telling threads spiraling off those replies still exist.

The embrace and later rejection of LeCrae by the white evangelical church illuminates many of the larger issues that the white church in America has with social justice movements — especially those surrounding systemic racism.

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Many church leaders sternly insist, both in blog posts and from the pulpit, that they are not racist, and that they believe black people are made in the image of God. Yet they do so from within churches that are 95% white and rest comfortably in homogenous suburban landscapes, rather than from a position where they have to confront people who experience a different form of life.

From this privileged position, the white evangelical movement in America tends to consider itself — like many in the conservative right — “post-racial.” This ideology hinges on the idea that a person — typically a white person — can be “colorblind,” meaning they “don’t see race,” and therefore, allegedly, don’t take race into account when it comes to making decisions or engaging with people.

But though this thinking is often heralded as progressive, the reality is that any self-identified “colorblind” person ends up failing to confront ingrained racism and their position within a larger system. Saying “I don’t see race” is about as useful as saying “I don’t discriminate between foods” when handed a menu at a restaurant.

This isn’t to say there hasn’t been any progress within the evangelical church; the Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, which was historically created out of a desire to maintain segregation between the races, resolved in June of this year that the Confederate flag should be taken down from state capitols and should be rejected by Christians — a huge step forward for a denomination with deeply racist historical roots.

But despite such bright spots, the white Christian embrace of a colorblind theology has mostly just embedded racism deeper into church actions. Pastor John Piper, for example, who grew up in South Carolina, has been lauded for confessions that he “was racist” but has learned better because of his relationship with Jesus. There is also the notable case of Douglas Wilson, a pastor from a small congregation in Moscow, Idaho. Wilson has been largely embraced by leaders in the evangelical movement as a positive and necessary leader — most recently writing guest articles for John Piper’s “Desiring God” website, the same site where LeCrae’s confession of his ex-girlfriend’s abortion appeared.

Wilson appears at conferences, writes for numerous large Christian magazines, has started his own unaccredited seminary-esque school in Idaho, and has developed a ministerial career that stretches far beyond his own small church. But Wilson’s views on race leave much to be desired: In 1996, he co-authored a pamphlet called “Southern Slavery As It Was” with the founder of the racist secessionist organization, League of the South. The pamphlet argued, among other things, that slavery was actually a time of racial harmony and that the Civil War was largely a mistake. In 2005, he revisited those views in the short book, Black and Tan, arguing that black people had it better under slavery than they do now in modern-day America — an argument other pastors have attempted to explain away to cover for Wilson.

A world where Wilson and LeCrae can appear virtually side by side is a world that has ignored any and all understanding of systemic oppression and historic and modern racial inequity. The evidence of this is more than anecdotal; according to research from the Barna Group, evangelicals are the least likely religious group to support Black Lives Matter.

Why is the white evangelical church so committed to overlooking systemic racism? One reason is its basic theology of sin — the idea that any and all problems can be tied to individual action rather than the results of systemic, societal forces of oppression. This is why white people feel comfortable saying that LeCrae is being “divisive” for pointing out that black people are historically oppressed by white people in America. There is no individualized theological response to such a claim — the claim itself is heresy in a world where racism is purely individual. It is this reasoning that has, in part, kept the white church in America five steps behind on nearly every major social justice issue.

LeCrae’s work in challenging this theology means he has a long battle in front of him. But he shows no signs of letting up. Just a couple of days after his controversial Independence Day tweet, he posted Frederick Douglass’s “The Meaning of Fourth of July For the Negro” and wrote a long Instagram post on how #AllLivesMatter erases black lives. For many white people in the evangelical church, this is a function of LeCrae’s radicalization and liberalization.

But for LeCrae, this is a chance to bring together all parts of himself and his fan base: “If you’ve ever trusted in anything I’ve said, if you’ve used my words to stir your hope or joy, then trust that same voice now. This is an epidemic that school books or church services haven’t taught you.”

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Lead image: flickr/Ronald Woan