‘Because evangelicals view their primary task
as evangelism and discipleship,
they tend to avoid issues that hinder these activities.
Thus, they are not generally
Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and Race in America
In honor of MLK Day, I’m posting a short series of posts about Evangelicals and Racial Relations. I’m indebted in this post to the book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and Race in America by Emerson and Smith, and all citations are from the 2000 edition. I’m also indebted to Rachel Held Evans and her post on “Historical Amnesia” last year that continues to influence me to think about how Christian remember.
Did you know that during the early days of America, the Church modified baptismal vows for Black slaves, so that when slaves converted to Christianity, they pledged fealty to Jesus and to the people that owned their bodies in the same “sacred” breath ?
I’ll bet you didn’t.
Did you know that George Whitefield, founder of modern evangelicalism, supported extreme physical punishment of slaves, because it made them more “receptive” to the “gospel” ?
I’ll bet you didn’t.
There are a lot of things we didn’t get taught in White Sunday School.
We didn’t get taught that church leaders in the South and North thought that “slavery is an institution of God” and preached and published on the subject using biblical, social, and political reasons that slavery was not only to be tolerated but celebrated .
We didn’t get taught that the segregation in our modern churches isn’t due to “diversity of worship” but to a history of Black Christians being excluded and restricted in White churches, intentionally and with “holy” motives – because “no Christian ought to allow his conscience to be disturbed by the thought that he violates the unity of the Church by insisting on an independent organization for the colored race. The distinctions are drawn by God Himself” .
We didn’t learn that White evangelicals were too preoccupied with “evangelism, fighting communism, and theological liberalism” during the Civil Rights era to participate, and that Christianity Today published less than two articles per year on race related topics during the ten most tumultuous years of the Civil Rights era .
We didn’t learn that Billy Graham rejected the practicality of fighting for MLK Jr’s dream by retreating to theological pre-millennialism with the statement that “only when Christ comes again will little white children in Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children” [ 47].
And we certainly didn’t learn that dispatches and articles from Civil Rights marches were suppressed from being published in Christianity Today because of “fear of giving the impression that civil rights should be part of the Christian agenda” .
God forbid that Christianity be known for something as irrelevant to the Gospel as Civil Rights.
And so instead of learning the dark history of our community, we look back at history, find out who was the Good Guy, and paint ourselves into the picture next to them.
We tell heroic stories about our white evangelical people. We tell the stories of William Wilberforce, and of Christians hiding slaves in the Underground Railroad, and of heroic white pastors marching with MLK Jr, and meanwhile in 2017 we repeat, repeat, repeat history when we keep fretting over “theological liberalism” while Black men bleed and die in our streets; when we continue to worry about socialism when our prison population is the largest in the world and disproportionately affects Black men; when we stay so concerned with “converting” people and ignore the bodies their souls are entwined with, repeating the ancient Gnostic heresy from our evangelical pulpits without a hint of irony.
White Christians, especially White evangelical Christians, bask in the light of the Civil Rights movement and paint ourselves into the pictures next to the heroes, while steadfastly refusing to acknowledge not only that we weren’t there then, but that we aren’t there now.
The problem with the story of heroic White evangelicals isn’t just that it’s a lie. The problem is that at every step along the way, from colonialism to slavery to Jim Crow, the evangelical community refuses to learn new lessons that can only be learned by repentance.
How are we supposed to engage this new Civil Rights movement, #BlackLivesMatter, if we can’t frankly and honestly look at how we dealt with racial movements in the past, repent of our failures, and re-learn how to read the Bible, re-learn how to do theology, and re-learn how to engage with the world in a way that is full of justice and grace?
We can’t. Unless we start to tell our story truthfully, we won’t ever change. Until we remember, we can’t repent.
Until we face how we used good Biblical exegesis to celebrate the enslavement of humans (Abraham had slaves without God’s disapproval, the Ten Commandments mention slavery two times, “showing God’s implicit acceptance of it,” and Paul explicitly tells slaves to obey their masters ), we will keep on using unjust social norms from thousands of years ago to justify our own commitment to an unjust cultural status quo.
Until we face how we use a future-centered theology of “the Kingdom of God” that will come with the reign of Christ but oughtn’t be fought for now, we will continue to join Billy Graham in lamenting injustice but not believing that we should act to end it.
And frankly, until we face the fact that we’re just plain scared about losing congregants, losing social power, losing money, and making waves – and that our reluctance to embrace #BlackLivesMatter is just as much about “craving order and fearing chaos” as it was for White Christians in colonial America – until we honestly face the root of our objections, we will continue to prioritize the comfort of privileged at the expense of the bodies of the oppressed .
Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it – White Christians, we’ve already repeated enough. It’s time to remember.