After encountering black evangelical William Pannell in the archives, I picked up his 1968 book, My Friend, the Enemy. It’s a fascinating read. Deeply relevant and contemporary in parts, while also being a clear product of the peculiar 1968 moment. If you think American society is more divided than ever, you don’t remember 1968. Pannell’s book came out in a time of rioting and violence and bitterness. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse and people really didn’t know where the bottom was.
In that moment, Pannell wrote with righteous anger to the white evangelical community (refer back to the title!). Pannell was deeply embedded in evangelicalism. A longtime professor at Fuller, he also worked with the campus ministry Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, the black evangelist Tom Skinner, and had a hand in numerous other projects and organizations. He received his early education at Wayne Bible College, a white fundamentalist school in Indiana. He was straddling the often separate worlds of black and white evangelicalism.
According to a retrospective article from Fuller Studio, white colleagues who thought they knew Pannell were shocked when the book came out:
It came from some place so deep in Bill that longtime white friends said they did not believe he wrote it. One insisted it was written by an outside agitator, because “that’s just not the Bill Pannell that I knew.” Both had grown up in the same small Michigan town, so Bill’s reply was harsh but true: “That’s because you didn’t know Bill Pannell,” he said, “or the world I lived in.” It was possible for a white person to call Bill a “close friend” and still know little of a black man’s life in a white world. Often white colleagues would say, “We never thought of you as a negro.” That, he says, was supposed to have been a compliment.
Here are a few choice quotes from My Friend, The Enemy. On his Bible college days and indoctrination into white fundamentalism:
I sometimes shudder when I recall that upon registering at Bible College I signed up in the missions course. I didn’t dream that mission boards would not have accepted me anyhow. My involvement in white culture hadn’t prepared me for that eventuality. All I knew was that the blacker the person’s face, the more desperate his need of salvation…
On the kind of Christianity taught at many evangelical colleges:
Sadly for me, and conceivably for non-white students on similar campuses today, this conservative brand of Christianity perpetuates the myth of white supremacy. It tends also to associate Christianity with American patriotism (it’s called nationalism when we criticize it in Africa), free enterprise, and the Republican party. I hope this is not intentionally done although I have outgrown most of my naivete. It’s not brainwashing, of course, for this is not done systematically or calculatedly. But it is perversion and it is subversion, the former with reference to Christianity, the latter with reference to the minds of young Christians.
And finally, on his friends, his enemies:
Don’t preach love to me. Especially if you intend I do all the loving. Amazing how white people who have owned black people have a way of demanding that we love everybody. What right has the oppressor to demand that his victim be saved from sin? You may be scripturally and evangelistically correct, but you are ethically wrong. You have the right message, but your timing is off. You have forfeited the right to be heard. Physician, heal thyself.
Because you see, I know that the same conservative brother who refuses to link my social needs with his preaching of of the Gospel is the same man who lobbies against the Supreme Court, fluoride in the water, and pornographic literature. “Something,” he declares, “must be done about creeping socialism. We must speak out against the Communist menace, and by all means we must support the Dirksen Amendment on prayer in the public schools.”
But mention the inhumanity of a society which with unbelievable indifference imprisons the “souls of black folks,” and these crusaders begin mumbling about sin. All right. I’ll play the game, my brother. Whose sin shall we talk about?
From here it is easy to write the script, for these friends are conservative Northern Christians. Increasingly, these are the roughest people to understand. They are so elusive, so committed to being uncommitted. What amazing indignation is theirs when moral issues are far away! What profound silence when threatened by similar issues next door! How earnest are their discussion groups!
As if this wasn’t provocative enough, Pannell went on to defend black power. Despite being rooted in the circumstances of the late 60s, it’s hard to avoid the prophetic implications for our own time.