White Evangelical Self-Criticism in the Civil Rights Era

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1963 was a pivotal year for the civil rights movement, and white evangelicals increasingly took notice. As Eternity magazine put it in August, “Let’s not kid ourselves…this is a revolution. And before it is over it will affect your family, your community and your church.” Amid a climate of protest all over the country, evangelical media commented on high-profile events such as the Birmingham Campaign in the spring, followed by the March on Washington at the end of the summer, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church weeks later. But while mainstream media debated the prospects of a civil rights bill in congress, white evangelicals debated the responsibilities of the church.

An August 1963 editorial appearing in Eternity magazine is revealing of the way evangelical self-criticism could be at once hard-hitting—brooking no excuses from white evangelicals who supported the status quo—and yet blind to its own theological paternalism.

The magazine criticized white evangelicals for being “ostrich-like with our heads in the sand” while a revolution swirled around them. “For too long we’ve contented ourselves with platitudes,” when decisive action was needed. What would it look like to move beyond platitudes? It would look like local, church-based activism. “[I]f there are Negroes living in your community, these Negroes are as much the spiritual responsibility of the church as the whites are.” And white evangelicals’ responsibility extended beyond the church walls. If a black family moved into a white neighborhood, white evangelicals must love them.

To those who did not want to upset the norms of a segregated church, the editorial pointed to 1 John 3:14: the Bible said that those who did not love their fellow human beings “abideth in death.”* This was an explosive context in which to raise this biblical interpretation, for it implied that white evangelicals who supported Jim Crow had not actually experienced a saving faith and were thus on the path to eternal damnation.

In an evangelical context, this was the equivalent of going nuclear. In the broader setting of American political debate, there was nothing quite like it. Perhaps the closest analogy would be calling an American citizen unpatriotic or traitorous, a claim that casts one’s opponent outside the community of belonging. For some white evangelicals, the stakes involved in their community’s response to the civil rights revolution were eternal.

For all the hard-hitting criticism the editorial contained, it interpreted white evangelical failure through the lens of theological paternalism. The main reason white evangelicals’ ambivalent posture toward African Americans was so sinful was because black people would be without the gospel if white evangelicals did not reach out to them. The editorial assumed that the gospel was somehow something that white evangelicals—despite their failures—had possession of, in contrast to the gospel void in the black community.

The editorial rhetorically asked its readers if they were trying to reach out to African Americans, or were they forcing them into “a Negro ghetto where they have neither the chance nor the inclination to hear the saving gospel of Jesus Christ?” Combining assumptions about the inadequacy of the black church and the evils of the city, the absence of Christian witness in the ghetto was so obvious to Eternity that it could be assumed. In conclusion, the editorial said the gospel was “hid to the ten per cent of the American citizenry who happen to have colored skins. And we are doing the hiding.” This only made sense if the gospel was the property of white Christians.


*The editorial quoted 1 John 3:14 in the King James Version. The entire verse and the one immediately following it reveal the intensity of Eternity’s criticism: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.”

 

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