my friend the enemy

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.

The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism

first baptist church

Sunday service at First Baptist Church, Dallas Texas. June 25, 2017.

Evangelicalism is splintering. And Trump’s presidency is hastening the process. John Fea, professor of history at Messiah College (and an evangelical himself) has a perceptive column in the Washington Post this week about the people he calls “court evangelicals” and how they’re changing evangelicalism:

If you want to understand white evangelicalism in the age of Trump, you need to know Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas.

Jeffress is not a household name in the United States, known mainly in Southern Baptist circles. But he has recently gained national attention as a “court evangelical” — my term for a Christian who, like the attendants and advisers who frequented the courts of monarchs, seeks influence through regular visits to the White House.

The court evangelicals are changing the religious landscape in the United States. The Trump presidency is only six months old, but it is already beginning to alter long-standing spiritual alignments. It seems as though Christians are not changing Trump, but rather that Trump could be changing Christianity.

Historians will write about this moment in terms of both continuity and change. On one hand, court evangelicals are part of a familiar story. For nearly half a century, evangelicals have sought to influence the direction of the country and its laws through politics. But Trump has forced them to embrace a pragmatism that could damage the gospel around the world, and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations….

[Trump’s] campaign and presidency has shed light on a troubling wing of American evangelicalism willing to embrace nationalism, populism, fear of outsiders and anger. The leaders of this wing trade their evangelical witness for a mess of political pottage and a Supreme Court nomination.

Not all evangelicals are on board, of course. Most black evangelicals are horrified by Trump’s failure to understand their history and his willingness to serve as a hero of the alt-right movement.

The 20 percent of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump — many of whom are conservative politically and theologically — now seem to have a lot more in common with mainline Protestants. Some in my own circles have expressed a desire to leave their evangelical churches in search of a more authentic form of Christianity.

Other evangelicals are experiencing a crisis of faith as they look around in their white congregations on Sunday morning and realize that so many fellow Christians were willing to turn a blind eye to all that Trump represents.

Read the whole thing. Fea provides additional historical context for thinking about how we got here.

When I say that evangelicalism is splintering it’s not to say that evangelicalism ever was unified. But the Trump presidency is intensifying longstanding fault lines.  A huge swath of evangelicalism is increasingly acting as if it’s a state-established church here to give divine sanction to state policy (that is, when Republicans lead the state). The false gods of nation, prosperity, and safety are held up as proper objects of worship alongside Jesus Christ. Evangelicals who seek to turn their backs on these false gods are often accused of being less mature believers, or perhaps not even true Christians at all.

There is a divide between evangelicals who see “God and country” as comfortable bedfellows and those who see the same phrase as shorthand for heresy. In the age of Trump, as we see just how far God and country evangelicals are willing to go, the divide has become a chasm.

The deadly embrace of nationalist evangelicals and their president is likely to intensify a curious phenomenon:  there are growing numbers of people of color in historically evangelical denominations, but they do not claim the label and feel no affinity for its heritage. Then there are white evangelicals who do not embrace the cultural trappings of the movement and are tired of being treated as less-than because of it. They may seek a home elsewhere.

What all this means for the future of evangelicalism is not yet clear. These are fascinating and troubled times.

On Keeping Faith in God While Studying Human Beings

oregon 1922

Oregon Klan Meeting, 1920s. Oregon Historical Society

A fellow Christian recently asked me what my dissertation is about. After giving a brief account of my research on white evangelicals she responded, “That must be hard on your faith.” This was an unusual and perceptive response. It is hard.

The difficulty is layered. The outer layer is common to many people of faith in a variety of academic disciplines. The habits of mind that we learn in our work—the questioning, the skepticism of easy answers, the careful construction and deconstruction of meaning—are extremely productive. They help advance the boundaries of human knowledge and can even make us more humble. But if not embedded in a broader theology, ethic of service, and system of social support, they can breed cynicism that is corrosive to Christian eschatological hope. It’s hard.

The inner layer of difficulty is more specific to my particular subject and biography. I am a white evangelical studying white evangelicals. Even more pointedly, I’m studying the whiteness of my theological tradition. That means I spend a lot of time learning and thinking about exclusion and dehumanization practiced in the name of Christ, my savior. It’s hard.

Many people have traveled this path and have put up some road signs to help us along. But it’s a bit of a solitary path for each of us. I’m not here to offer proven strategies to a successful destination. I’m simply saying there’s a real spiritual and emotional challenge at the core of this academic project, and working that out will in some ways determine whether the project succeeds on the academic side.

You might think this shouldn’t be such a challenge. It’s not as if I’m studying the Holocaust or something. (I think doing so has left Timothy Snyder a bit overwrought. For that I don’t blame him.) And it’s not as if Christian theology doesn’t have something to say about the evil found in history. But it’s another thing to encounter the specificity of evil in the archives in the form of people claiming to follow Jesus.

I’m left wondering how and why it could be that so many people in so many times and places could claim Christ’s name to such little effect. Or, indeed, to use him to sanction their pathetic fears and hatreds. And then I see myself standing in that same tradition, with the same selfish bent, so that finally “Jesus Saves” reads as an indulgence of hatred instead of a claim of liberation.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all bleak. I enjoy my job. I have a fun love/hate relationship with writing (some of us don’t like to write but like to have written). It’s fascinating to encounter complex human beings in the past and get to know them. I love to teach. But make no mistake: it’s all hard!

Failed Marketing Campaigns

For some reason, a white evangelical college in the 1990s thought this photo made good sense in their recruitment brochure:

college ad

If you come to our school, you too can be surrounded by flowers and adorable black children. You will feel so good about yourself.

For those of us who are slow on the uptake, let me just spell out one way this is weird. This is an ad for college. Maybe there would be, you know, black college students there? Who is this little girl, and why is she in a field of flowers with this woman?

In all seriousness, white evangelicals have often found it easier to direct their ministries toward black children than to work collaboratively with black adults. The former allows paternalism to go unchecked, while the latter requires white evangelicals to be open to change.

On Taking Action for Black Lives

anthony soufle star tribune

Protestors react after the killer of Philando Castile is found not guilty. Startribune.com

david joles

Protestors block I-94. startribune.com

This post is not for people who wish to argue about Philando Castile’s death. It’s not for people who are scandalized by the radical notion that black people matter. It’s not for people who consistently impugn and insult black Christians so they can stay on the good side of white conservatives. This post is for white people who want to do the right thing, who want to be useful in the struggle for racial justice and human rights.

After the verdict, a black Christian woman challenged nonblack Christians with this question:

What are you doing (simply talking about it and having the conversation doesn’t count in the context of this question) to correct the systemic injustice and racism/white supremacy that allowed Philando Castile to be murdered in broad daylight and his murderer to be acquitted and freed?

I am challenged and convicted by this question.

In a way, Alicia and I have built our lives around providing an answer to a question similar to this. And yet…In all that we do there is a nagging sense that it is really more useful for us than for oppressed people. You don’t get points for living in a black neighborhood. You don’t get points for good intentions. Our usefulness is measured not by our self-image, but by oppressed people themselves. And by that measure, I wonder if I am failing. In itself, that’s a matter of little public interest. But it matters a great deal if we—the collective us, white people who want to be useful—are failing.

The scale, depth, and intractability of racial injustice in this country call for action on all fronts. White Christians of the left, we dare not call for redistribution in public policy without practicing redistribution in our personal lives. White Christians of the right, we dare not call for redistribution in our personal lives without demanding it of our public policies. If we are one-dimensional we are part of the problem.

If you’re not financially supporting organizations run by people of color, why not?

If you’re not a member of a black activist organization, why not?

If you don’t support reparations, why not?

If you’re not an advocate of life-giving policing policies, why not?

If you aren’t making a ruckus in your church, or starting a reading group, why not?

If you’re not deliberately supporting black businesses, why not?

If you live in a community zoned to keep out the poor, are you working to change the zoning laws? If not, why not?

I need to make this absolutely clear: some of these questions hit me in the gut. I am a convicted fellow traveler.

Are all your relationships with white people comfortable? I don’t believe that is possible if you resist white supremacy. Challenging white supremacy challenges white self-interest. People will protect their interests—including, above all, their self-image—at all costs. If all the white people in your life are comfortable with your views, you need to go back to the drawing board. You’re swimming in sewage and thinking it’s fresh water. Tune in to people of color. Listen, learn, and repent.

If your church, your neighborhood, your kids’ school—or all three—are white, stop pretending you haven’t used the wages whiteness gives you. Take responsibility for your racial decisions. It may be that you should stay in all those white places! Ignorant white people need you. But they certainly don’t need semi-woke white people more preoccupied with claiming innocence than taking responsibility.

And nobody needs guilty white people. Nobody needs White Christians who are suddenly anti-gospel when racism enters the conversation: “I don’t have a racist bone in my body!” It’s hard to top that as a statement of anti-Christian pride. Scripture tells us different:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

We don’t need guilty white Christians. We need committed white Christians who have enough confidence in the gospel to take responsibility for the sin in and around them.

SBC Passes Revised Resolution Against White Supremacy

DUKE-MCKISSIC

Barrett Duke and Dwight McKissic

Yesterday afternoon the Southern Baptist Convention passed a revised resolution denouncing white supremacy. Here’s the full text of the version that passed:

WHEREAS, Scripture teaches, “From one man [God] has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live” (Acts 17:26); and

WHEREAS, The Psalmist proclaimed, “The earth and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, belong to the Lord” (Psalm 24:1); and

WHEREAS, The Apostle Peter said, “God doesn’t show favoritism, but in every nation the person who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:34–35); and

WHEREAS, Our justification before God is based on faith in Christ Jesus alone and not in our ethnicity (Galatians 3:27–28); and

WHEREAS, Scripture proclaims that Jesus is purchasing by His blood believers “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9); and

WHEREAS, Throughout eternity we will gather with a “multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language” in worship of our risen Savior (Revelation 7:9); and

WHEREAS, The Baptist Faith and Message conveys that all Christians are obligated to make the will of Christ supreme in their own lives and in human society, opposing all forms of racism, selfishness, and vice, and bringing government and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love; and

WHEREAS, We know from our Southern Baptist history the effects of the horrific sins of racism and hatred; and

WHEREAS, In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention repudiated “historic acts of evil, such as slavery,” committed “to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry,” and “genuinely repent[ed] of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously or unconsciously”; and

WHEREAS, In recent years the Convention has nominated and elected individuals from a variety of ethnicities, including electing our first African-American president in 2012; and

WHEREAS, In recent resolutions the Southern Baptist Convention called on “all Christian men and women to pray and labor for the day when our Lord will set all things right and racial prejudice and injustice will be no more” (2014); expressed continued grief “over the presence of racism and the recent escalation of racial tension in our nation” (2015); and urged fellow Christians to discontinue using the Confederate battle flag, acknowledging that it is “used by some and perceived by many as a symbol of hatred, bigotry, and racism, offending millions of people” (2016); and

WHEREAS, More than 20 percent (nearly eleven thousand) of our cooperating Southern Baptist congregations identify as predominately non-Anglo and for the last three years more than 50 percent of Southern Baptist new church plants have been predominately non-Anglo; and

WHEREAS, B&H Academic recently published Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention, highlighting our continuing need to root out vestiges of racism from our own hearts as Southern Baptists; and

WHEREAS, Racism and white supremacy are, sadly, not extinct but present all over the world in various white supremacist movements, sometimes known as “white nationalism” or “alt-right”; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, June 13–14, 2017, decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we denounce and repudiate white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as a scheme of the devil intended to bring suffering and division to our society; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we acknowledge that we still must make progress in rooting out any remaining forms of intentional or unintentional racism in our midst; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we earnestly pray, both for those who advocate racist ideologies and those who are thereby deceived, that they may see their error through the light of the Gospel, repent of these hatreds, and come to know the peace and love of Christ through redeemed fellowship in the Kingdom of God, which is established from every nation, tribe, people, and language.

You can compare it to the original resolution. Some are saying the revised text is stronger because it uses the phrase “white supremacy.” I read it differently. Both versions condemn the rebranded racism that has entered our politics in recent years, but the revised text reads more as a defense of Southern Baptist racial progress. Appearing defensive in this moment is not a good look for the SBC.

In the past 24 hours there has been a lot of good reporting about why and how the original resolution failed. See Nicola Menzie’s piece. And CNN has an excellent blow by blow account. The short version: not only did the Resolutions Committee decline to send the resolution to the floor, the full convention voted twice against reconsidering the decision. Why?

This is a telling detail:

Among the opponents, some were frustrated at the methods used to reintroduce the topic late last night; others balked at the idea of the SBC calling out a right-wing ideology in particular, knowing the alt-right’s affiliation with Trump. They argued the denomination had already made its stance clear against racism (a 1995 resolution apologized for its racist past; one last year repudiated the Confederate flag), and suggested liberal politics were behind the recent move.

One attendee tweeted the resolution committee did the right thing when they declined to bring the alt-right resolution before the group in the first place: “The res committee and their response is exactly right. It will only be criticized by race baiters and ppl pushing left-wing social issues.” …

“It is, in part, a concern that alt-right will be a label applied to non-racist conservatives who, for example, simply voted for Donald Trump,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, who blogged on the resolution for CT. “However, I think that concern is past its time—the alt-right is the klan without the robes, and Southern Baptists need to speak up on it.”

If people read the original resolution as an implicit critique against their team that tells you a lot about how politicized and white their “Christianity” is. More along this line:

Resolutions Committee chairman Barrett Duke said Tuesday the original proposal was “too open-ended” and could be misinterpreted.

A day later, he apologized.

“We regret and apologize for the pain and the confusion that we created for you and the watching world when we decided not to report out a resolution on ‘alt-right’ racism,” he told messengers, or delegates, adding that he shares their abhorrence of the “particularly vicious form of racism that has manifested itself in the ‘alt-right’ movement.”

He said the new version of the resolution speaks with “conviction but also with compassion” and repudiates racism “in a tone that honors all people, even those with whom we disagree.”

The Rev. Dwight McKissic, who authored a proposed resolution about the Confederate flag at last year’s convention that was rewritten and passed, didn’t understand why the resolution wasn’t dealt with in a less confusing way.

“I’m very heartened by the statement,” he said in an interview about the new version of the resolution.

But he added, “I guess I’m disappointed because they could have done that all the time.”…

Matt Bowman, a white Tennessee pastor, believed it was important to pass a resolution whose meaning wouldn’t be twisted by others.

“Just because someone is conservative doesn’t make them alt-right,” he said. “Just because someone has right-wing politics doesn’t make them alt-right, white supremacists, so we need to be clear about what we’re condemning.”

Again, the original resolution didn’t mention right-wing or conservative politics. If people saw themselves or things they care about implicated in that resolution it might say something about their own sense of guilt.

And finally, some more revealing details from Emma Green:

“We were very aware that on this issue, feelings rightly run high regarding alt-right ideology,” said Barrett Duke, the head of the resolutions committee, in an interview on Wednesday morning. “We share those feelings … We just weren’t certain we could craft a resolution that would enable us to measure our strong convictions with the grace of love, which we’re also commended by Jesus to incorporate.” The resolutions committee did not reach out to McKissic ahead of the meeting to work on a revised version of the resolution, Duke said…

Jackie Hill Perry, a black artist and teacher who has frequently spoken at Southern Baptist events, tweeted that “the decision made at #SBC17 to not denounce white supremacy is hurtful.” Trillia Newbell, a black staffer at the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Commission in Washington, replied, “I’m seriously in tears. What’s going on?!”

“I certainly understand that hurt and anger, because to most people, this would be a no-brainer,” said McKissic in an interview on Wednesday. “Several of the resolutions they endorsed yesterday were just carte blanche things Southern Baptists believe. And so, it becomes a mystery how you can so easily affirm standard beliefs about other things, but we get to white supremacy … and all of a sudden, we’ve got a problem here.”…

The resolutions committee consulted with Russell Moore, the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, to draft new language, Duke told me, but they did not consult with McKissic, the original author. “This is the committee’s resolution,” he said. “This is not Brother McKissic’s resolution.”

On Wednesday, McKissic said he is okay not having been consulted “because I don’t think it’s customary. … Once that person has submitted, I don’t think you’re normally involved.” There is one African American member on the 10-person resolutions committee, Roland Slade.

After the revised resolution passed there was celebration and talk of the “bold” and “prophetic” stance of the SBC. Those aren’t the words I’d use.

The Pervasive Racism of White Evangelicalism

jesus of the people

Jesus Christ. White evangelicals should meet him.

After the Southern Baptist Convention’s refusal yesterday to denounce white nationalism and the alt-right caused a firestorm, a revised resolution is to be submitted today. Emma Green reports this morning that some SBC leaders are claiming the events of yesterday were really just a “procedural snafu.” This claim seems hard to square with the fact that the resolution didn’t even make it out of committee. The Resolutions Committee had the text in hand in advance. They considered it. They rejected it. I wasn’t there so maybe I’m missing something.

This is a developing story and what exactly happened will probably become clearer in the days ahead. But you can’t put that toothpaste back in the tube. The damage has been done. Many fair-minded observers will see the first vote in the Resolutions Committee as a reflection of what many white Southern Baptists really think, and the second vote today as a gesture of political expediency to avoid bad press. Some might think that interpretation ungenerous, but it’s certainly not unreasonable.

Words and symbolism are not fitting substitutes for action, and in the grand scheme of things passing this resolution won’t have large material consequences. But not passing it communicates an astonishing message. White Christians were unwilling to denounce the very negation of the God they claim to worship. They communicated their priorities with unyielding clarity. Now, they will ask us to believe that Christianity is more important to them than nationalism or whiteness, even though their actions tell us the opposite.

I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of what language in the resolution bothered the convention, but it can be surmised. It seems likely that the resolution’s broad language hit too close to home for Southern Baptists who had already embraced the racist candidacy of Donald Trump, and in doing so allied themselves with the small but vocal white supremacist movement. So the failure of the resolution points back to a bigger problem: the ongoing en masse refusal of white evangelicals to give account for their decision to aid and abet racism in the last election. That’s the vote they chose, and we don’t need to re-litigate it. But they owe it to their brothers and sisters of color to explain how they’re working now to take responsibility and stand against the racism of the political coalition they joined.

The Southern Baptist Convention famously apologized—in 1995—for its support for slavery. The juxtaposition of that apology and yesterday’s cowardice is fitting. I know so many white Christians who are more than happy to denounce slavery and Jim Crow. They’re happy, in other words, to denounce forms of white supremacy that are no longer operative. But when you need allies in the fight against racism as it actually exists today they’re nowhere to be found. Ask them about police brutality, exclusionary zoning, segregated schools, white nationalism, Donald Trump. Suddenly they sing a different tune: “Wait a minute, I’m invested in those things!”

Jesus said we cannot serve God and mammon. That message speaks to white Americans in the form of a choice most of us have yet to honestly face: Jesus declares that we can invest in whiteness or follow him. We cannot do both. If you’re unwilling to denounce racism in its current forms—you know, the kind that actually helps you and enables your standard of living—stop calling yourself a Christian. Stop it.

This is a good moment to return to something I wrote a couple weeks ago:

I happened to be visiting at a white evangelical church on the Sunday after the riots in Ferguson in the fall of 2014. To his credit, the pastor asked his congregation to try to understand the pain of black Americans and to pray for peace. Unfortunately, his prayer did not name any of the injustices that make peace impossible. The pastor asked his congregation to listen to black Christians, but he did not call on them to do their part to remove the injustice. So while asking for understanding and sympathy, the pastor allowed his white congregation to imagine themselves as mature Christians patiently dealing with the apparently inexplicable emotions of weak black Christians.

It gets worse. The pastor’s prayer was resolutely vague about why all this conflict might have been happening. I don’t recall any mention of the justice system, police brutality, or economic oppression. While avoiding phrases like that, the pastor did manage to name one specific problem. He prayed against the problem of “black crime.” I wish I had a transcript of the prayer. I don’t recall all the details. But that phrase—“black crime”—amid a vague prayer that did not name white racism, is seared into my memory.

People no doubt left the church that day thinking they were enlightened and compassionate. A few mentioned to me how nice the prayer was, thinking I would be happy that such a prayer had been offered in a white evangelical church. On the contrary, I was struck by the yawning chasm between the pastor’s good intentions and the action that moment actually required. A bunch of white Christians—people who benefit from America’s racist society—had gathered to worship God in a moment of racial crisis and had not been moved out of their comfort zone at all. Indeed, their supposed spiritual maturity had been affirmed.

It’s hard to describe how racism is transmitted in white evangelical churches, but once you see it, it’s hard to unsee. This is the point where people interject and say I’m being unfair and that it’s complicated. Yes, it’s complicated! Racism takes all kinds of things in its maw; it is, as George Frederickson memorably put it, a scavenger ideology. What does this scavenger quality look like in white evangelical churches? It often looks like narratives of Christian nationalism.

For many white evangelicals, a story of national decline—from Christian foundations to secular liberal disintegration—is the basic framework through which they interpret events. It’s axiomatic. For this story to have any coherence, the totality of Native Americans’ and African Americans’ experiences must be written out of it. Some of the history curriculums popular among Christian homeschoolers and private Christian schools do exactly that.

If the experiences of people of color are true, this country isn’t what many white evangelicals thought it was. For many of us, that is too shattering to contemplate. So telling white evangelicals to stop being racist kind of misses the point. To actually see and believe the experiences of people of color involves a radical rupturing of their view of reality. C’mon, do you want your grip on reality shaken?

In ordinary white evangelical church services, there are more subtle clues. A prayer might be offered in thanks for the great freedoms we enjoy in this country. The subtext of many of these prayers is that these freedoms are a blessing from God that can be taken away if the nation doesn’t turn back to him. Not only do such prayers echo the Christian nation declension narrative, they don’t speak to the experiences of people who are oppressed in this country right now. Thankfulness is of course a good thing. But prayers of thanks for what we have—combined with a note of worry for what might be taken away—are often the satisfied prayers of the comfortable. While we’re over here worrying about losing our rights, other Americans are trying to get them in the first place.

The mixing of God and country takes place against a backdrop of material entitlement and individual self-absorption. Anecdotally, I can attest that white evangelicals routinely speak about the hard material realities of life—homes, schools, jobs—with the anti-Christian rhetoric of the general American public. Safety first, family first, comfort first. Take specific concrete actions in your own life against the American Dream and watch white evangelicals be the first to criticize you. It’s an amazing phenomenon.

To wrap this up, let’s return to the Trump phenomenon. When Trump says Make America Great Again many white evangelicals hear a religious message. And it’s so enthralling that they are often unable to see that outside their bubble their support for him appears hateful. Much of white evangelicalism has become a religion of incumbency. We have and we hoard and we lament what we’ve lost and we fear what we might yet lose. We so easily identify with the powers of this age—the police, the military, the American Empire—over the oppressed people to whom God has given the gift of faith. We’re a religious movement that loves Donald Trump and hates Black Lives Matter. Despite all the good white evangelicals do in their local communities, as a collective political force white evangelicalism is hateful and oppressive.

I don’t stand outside this religious movement. I am implicated in it, a contributor to it. I must account for all the ways in which I promote racism and injustice in my actions and inaction, including my political behavior. I continue to hope that white evangelicals will repent broadly and deeply. I hope we will realize that the principles we claim to believe apply to racism just as well as to any other human problem.

The truth is not to be feared; it sets free. Those who hide their sins do not prosper, but the repentant find mercy. In other words, Jesus is powerful enough and good enough to save even white evangelicals like me.

Southern Baptist Convention Refuses to Denounce White Nationalism

Today, at the SBC’s annual meeting, a resolution condemning the alt-right and white nationalism has been rejected. I’m putting the full text of the resolution below so you can see exactly what the SBC rejected:

WHEREAS, Scripture teaches that from one man God made every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation (Acts 17:26); and

WHEREAS, the prophet Isaiah foresaw the day when the Lord would judge between the nations and render decisions for many people (Isaiah 2:4); and

WHEREAS, the Psalmist proclaims the Kingdom is the Lord’s, and He rules over the nations; and

WHEREAS, the promise of heaven includes the eternal blessings of the Tree of Life for God’s people, which includes the healing of the nations that comes from the leaves of that tree; and

WHEREAS, the supreme need of the world is the acceptance of God’s teachings in all the affairs of men and nations, and the practical application of His law of love; and

WHEREAS, all Christians are under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in our own lives and in human society, opposing all forms of racism, selfishness, and vice, and bringing government and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love; and

WHEREAS, just societies will order themselves as free men and women and organize at various times and for various purposes to establish political order and give consent to legitimate government; and

WHEREAS, the liberty of all nations to authorize such governments will, at times, allow for the rise of political parties and factions whose principles and ends are in irreconcilable conflict with the principles of liberty and justice for all; and

WHEREAS, there has arisen in the United States a growing menace to political order and justice that seeks to reignite social animosities, reverse improvements in race relations, divide our people, and foment hatred, classism, and ethnic cleansing; and

WHEREAS, this toxic menace, self-identified among some of its chief proponents as “White Nationalism” and the “Alt-Right,” must be opposed for the totalitarian impulses, xenophobic biases, and bigoted ideologies that infect the minds and actions of its violent disciples; and

WHEREAS, the roots of White Supremacy within a “Christian context” is based on the so-called “curse of Ham” theory once prominently taught by the SBC in the early years—echoing the belief that God through Noah ordained descendants of Africa to be subservient to Anglos—which provided the theological justification for slavery and segregation. The SBC officially renounces the “curse of Ham” theory in this Resolution; now be it therefore

RESOLVED, that the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Phoenix, AZ, June 13-14, 2017, denounces every form of “nationalism” that violates the biblical teachings with respect to race, justice, and ordered liberty; and be it further

RESOLVED, that we reject the retrograde ideologies, xenophobic biases, and racial bigotries of the so-called “Alt-Right” that seek to subvert our government, destabilize society, and infect our political system; and be finally

RESOLVED, that we earnestly pray, both for those who lead and advocate this movement and those who are thereby deceived, that they may see their error through the light of the Gospel, repent of their perverse nationalism, and come to know the peace and love of Christ through redeemed fellowship in the Kingdom of God, which is established from every nation, tribe, people and tongue.

This is what the Southern Baptist Convention rejected today. Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile responded on Twitter this evening. I’ve storified it but can’t get the embed code to work. Check it out.

William Pannell on White Evangelicalism

pannell

William E. Pannell

I just came across an old 1985 interview with William Pannell, a black evangelical who was a longtime professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. Here he is not mincing words about the ideology of most white evangelicals:

The curious thing in American culture, that [George] Marsden points out in his book, Fundamentalism and American Culture, is that white, North American, conservative, evangelical types have this conflict working: On one hand they want to say that this world is a sinking ship and want to do evangelism to get people off this “sinking ship” before it goes under, and on the other hand they are always voting conservative to maintain their property rights and the status quo. That’s the problem, that’s the contradiction. It is difficult to deal with but it is very real. I think it is a real challenge to the so-called Christian institutions.”

It’s still true. Funny how we manage to be so otherworldly about other peoples’ suffering and so pragmatic about our own interests.

On The Origins of a Dumb Meme

warren

Have you ever heard a Christian say that racism is a sin problem not a skin problem? Cute, right? This phrase has some nifty alliteration going for it, but that’s about all. I still can’t figure out what it’s supposed to mean. As soon as you generalize the idea to other topics its emptiness seems apparent. “Greed is a sin problem not a money problem.” Yeah ok, but the money thing seems kind of important.

(My best theory for what the “sin not skin” statement actually does comes from my wife Alicia. Her idea is that the phrase removes the power dynamic of white supremacy by labeling it generic sin. It makes us all sinners in the same colorblind boat. The phrase allows us to speak against racism while absolving white people of any particular responsibility.)

Yesterday it occurred to me that I had seen this phrase before. Like way before. So I went back to try to find it, and here it is in a letter from 1968:

1968 sin not skin

Wheaton College Archives

The context: it was the Spring of 1968. After Dr. King’s death Wheaton College hosted a memorial service. When word got out, a lot of alumni and friends of the college were upset, including this particular woman in Landsdale, Pennsylvania. She had sent two of her children to Wheaton, and her pastor was also a graduate. She loved the school and did not want to see it leave the straight and narrow. She wrote to Wheaton’s President to see if the rumor about the King memorial service was true. She also wanted to emphasize that she knew black Christians who didn’t support all the marching and agitating and rabble-rousing of people like King. Here’s the larger quote in which the sin not skin phrase appears:

As a church we have been working with an inter racial organization known as CURE — Christians United Reaching Everyone. I had the opportunity to ask one of the Colored brothers Rev Andrew Bluford what he thought of Dr King and he said, “humanly Dr. King was doing a job.” He went on to say that Dr King never tried to reach his people thru a Crusade or mentioned Sin. And he said you leave Christ and Sin out of your program and you have nothing but a social organization. Rev King was not held in esteem by this group of Colored brethren. Rev Bluford said the problem is not skin but sin and Christ is the Cure.”

I have little reason to doubt the basic veracity of this woman’s testimony. There certainly were black Christians who did not approve of the civil rights movement, or at least its tactics. And CURE really was an interracial Christian organization that existed in Philadelphia at that time, and its public statements tended to fit with the sensibility we see in this letter: that racial progress will come through spiritual regeneration more than through social reform.

So I suspect that Reverend Bluford, in about 1967 or 68, really did tell this woman that racism was a sin problem not a skin problem.

Then I got to thinking. If a black pastor in Philly was using this phrase in the 1960s, where did it come from and how long has it been around? I did some more searching and couldn’t come up with anything else. I can’t find the phrase or even a derivative of it anywhere before 1968. But I bet it’s out there. There are lot of old fundamentalist magazines and denominational publications I’ve never looked at.

Can anyone find an earlier usage of this phrase? I can’t offer you a large cash prize but you can buy yourself a cookie or something, ok? Besides, the joy of historical exploration is its own reward.