In the summer of 1956, Carlton Nash was looking for a job. He was a working-class white Alabaman, already 44 years old and with four kids to support, but he believed God was calling him to enter the ministry. So he wrote a letter to a Southern Baptist leader asking for help.
Carlton Nash may have been struggling for many reasons, but it seems the root of his problem was this: he had decided it was wrong to hate black people.
According to his own account, Nash had lived most of his life apart from God, engaging in “the usual Sins.” He “lived a life of hate.particularly for my black brother and most others who did not see my point of view” [sic].
But recently, something miraculous had occurred:
About two years ago, the LORD JESUS came into my life. At that time, it was not a matter of bearing to the right or left, but it was necessary for me to completely reverse my thinking and my course of action. It took much serious STUDY, it took much FERvent Prayer […] It took consultation with those active and humble in GOD’S service to give me an understanding. Today, I AM THANKFUL TO GOD THAT I HATE NO MAN [sic].
Nash found that his encounter with Jesus gave him a “burning desire” to promote “brotherhood” and end “exploitation.” But when he tried to act on his new convictions, the blowback was severe:
For persuing this course, I lost many, so called, friends. I was surprised to see my former Sunday School Teacher, one of the organizers of a white citizen’s council, along with other prominent respected citizens of the town. When I sought to organize an INTER Racial council in the same town, I was discredited. My future in that town was already doomed by the economic squeeze, and that was the final effort, that made it necessary for certain one’s in the town to advise me firmly–TO LEAVE. My pastor would not even discuss the issue with me [sic].¹
When we survey the southern scene of the 1950s, it is easy to ask why more white Christians didn’t do the right thing. That’s a fine question to ask as long as we realize the gravity of what we’re asking. What we’re really saying is this:
Why didn’t more white Christians choose to be ostracized?
Why didn’t more white Christians choose to lose their jobs?
Why didn’t more white Christians choose to put their families in danger?
Why didn’t more white Christians choose to ruin their lives?
The way is narrow. Few find it.
What follows is something of an in-house conversation among white evangelicals. Many readers may believe I’m beating around the bush, being too forgiving of wrong beliefs, or centering the wrong people at this deadly moment. But precisely because white evangelicalism is central to the problem of white supremacy, we white evangelicals must try to speak to fellow white evangelicals in ways that can be heard, understood, and acted upon, if possible.
To my white evangelical sisters and brothers, known and unknown, let me say this: It takes genuine courage for you to take a public and Christian stand against racism. You probably won’t face consequences as severe as Carlton Nash, but the consequences are real. Many of you are living and worshiping in social contexts where speaking against racism will make people you love think less of you. Some may even cut you out of their lives. That is extremely hard. Most of us are not willing to bear those costs.
Because of your social context, because of what you see around you, your silence seems like the best way to honor Christ. You want to make sure that you don’t squander your witness on divisive politics. You want to focus on loving people. You want everyone to get along, and you certainly don’t agree with those crazy white supremacists in Charlottesville.
I don’t know how to adequately communicate to you how your silence looks from over here. I wish I could let you know, in a way that you can really hear, how your silence looks to Christians of color. It looks like you’re ashamed of the gospel.
You see, you and I are close to these white supremacists. We intuitively understand them. They fear they are losing their country. So do white evangelicals. They resent the changes that have upended traditional hierarchies. So do white evangelicals. They want a restoration of a prior America. So do white evangelicals.
That’s not fair, you say. We don’t hate. We don’t want to kill people. We want very different things. And yet the white supremacists and the white evangelicals both voted for the same racist candidate. And as you did so, we implored you to reconsider your decision to make an alliance with these evil forces.
It’s so much bigger than an election. We benefit from white supremacy every day, yet we remain silent about it. White evangelicals’ alliance with a racist demagogue is only a symptom of our broader alliance with the forces that deliver our racial privileges every day. When we’re silent in the face of this anti-Christian social order, we take the opposite stance of the Apostle Paul, who wrote that he treated the advantages his social order gave him as crap so that he could gain Christ.
When we’re silent about these matters we often mistakenly assume it’s because we’re avoiding politics. Actually, we’re avoiding talking about a whole swath of Christian discipleship.
When we’re silent, it looks like we’re refusing to take responsibility for our actions.
When we’re silent, it looks like we’re ashamed of the teachings of Jesus.
When we’re silent, we look like idolaters.
But don’t speak up for any of those reasons. Speak up because, when we’re silent, people die. It’s usually not in a spectacular incident on live television. Usually it is the slow and grinding poverty, the segregated schools, the oppressive justice system. Don’t speak up to salvage your reputation. Speak up because it’s right, and failing to do so causes harm to other human beings.
What might it look like for you to speak up? It’s not enough to say general things like, “racism is wrong.” Almost everyone agrees with you. We must identify in more specific terms the people and forces that perpetuate racism. On social media, or in conversation with friends, you might start by saying things like this:
I don’t agree with lots of things black lives matter activists have said, but it is important to recognize that black life really is devalued in the United States and we need to work to change that.
Saying this would be courageous for many of you. Let the saying of it be a beginning, not an end. For others, it’s not something you can even agree with right now. Please be open to learning more and seeking repentance.
Or you might say something like this:
I voted for Trump and I agree with some of his policies, but I am grieved by his racism and we need to oppose it.
I think I know something about how hard it could be for many of you to say things like this. But I don’t really know. Only you can count the cost. Following Jesus is worth it.
¹ Carlton Nash to A.C. Miller, June 27, 1956, Collection 138, Box 20, Folder 13. Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee.