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.

Back to the Archives

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I’m at the Southern Baptist Convention headquarters in Nashville this week to explore the Southern Baptist archives. I’m especially interested in how Southern Baptists engaged with Church Growth Movement ideas. In a roundabout way, this has much to do with the civil rights movement.

To explore how white evangelicals grappled with race, you can’t just explore it as a political question. A denominational statement on Brown v. Board or the Civil Rights Act is interesting, but it doesn’t capture the more important activity occurring on the ground. Historians need to be more aware of the ways white evangelicals turn political questions into ecclesial ones. So if we want to know how they responded to the civil rights movement, their church planting strategies may have more to tell us than their explicit political or racial statements.

Anyway, I’m finding lots of good stuff today, but I’m way too fried to talk about it!

Rediscovering the History of African American Evangelicals

doctrine and race

For too long, the historiography of evangelicalism has reproduced the racial assumptions of its white subjects rather than challenging them. Black evangelicals have been written out of the story and whiteness has been treated as incidental rather than formative to fundamentalism and evangelicalism. That’s why Mary Beth Swetnam Matthews’ new book is so important.

Matthews shows that while white fundamentalists largely ignored African Americans, black Christians did not ignore white fundamentalists. Though they shared many of the social mores and theological claims of white fundamentalists, African Americans were unwilling (and unable) to join the racially exclusive white fundamentalist movement. So they created an evangelicalism of their own in the 1920s and 1930s.

Black evangelicals were keen observers of the fundamentalist-modernist debate. According to Matthews, they saw both modernism and fundamentalism as white phenomenons from which they stood apart. White fundamentalism presented American Protestants with a stark choice: “Are you with us or against us?” Black evangelicals heard the question and replied, “neither.” They deplored fundamentalism’s embrace of injustice, but they also decried the higher biblical criticism of the modernists. They forged a faith that was generally theologically and socially conservative, but progressive in its concern for social justice.

By simply shining a light on the voices of black evangelicals, Matthews has complicated the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. The racial and racist character of the white fundamentalist movement becomes immediately obvious when we turn our attention to the people excluded from it. Yet generations of historians treated this as a minor feature of the movement. Take one example: how many historians have written that copies of The Fundamentals were mailed to every Protestant minister in the country? As Matthews shows, there is no good evidence that they were ever mailed to black pastors.

White fundamentalists usually ignored black Christians, except when they wanted to hear them sing, or when they wanted to portray themselves as guardians and spiritual superiors to childlike believers. Had white fundamentalists bothered to listen, they could have learned some valuable lessons. For instance: black evangelicals generally didn’t buy into a full-fledged dispensational premillenialism. Instead, they used eschatological language to dramatize the suffering of African Americans. In other words, black Christians were living through present catastrophe from which Christ would deliver them. Speculating about an end-of-the-world apocalypse was less urgent to people who were living an end of world experience already.

Matthews also draws attention to a fascinating feature of black evangelical rhetoric that  I need to think much more about. While white fundamentalists embraced white supremacy, black evangelicals sometimes used colorblind language to imagine the millennium and to attack segregationist theology. In their context, such language was a threat to the social order. But by the time the descendants of the white fundamentalists took up similar language decades later, it had become the language of the status quo. In the space of a few decades, colorblind Christianity shifted from a spur for reform to a tool of reaction. At least, that’s my early read on it. But I need to think more about this.

Doctrine and Race is flawed but important. One could wish for more context and analysis around the black evangelical voices Matthews has unearthed. Yet simply bringing them to the surface is a significant achievement. Historians of evangelicalism can no longer ignore this important part of the story.

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.

The Joys of Research

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The Billy Graham Center, Wheaton, Illinois.

I’ve been at the Billy Graham Center Archives this week. It’s the first stop in what I am calling my midwestern tour. We’re in peak corporate suburbia. Alicia’s reaction when we arrived was priceless. She was genuinely disoriented by this world where “town center” is apparently a synonym for parking lots, and elaborate gardenscapes are not actually public spaces but are merely to be looked at from passing cars. Of course this wasn’t new to her, but we become accustomed to our normal lives and quickly lose touch with other worlds.

My advice to phd candidates with kids: if possible mix everything together and make memories while you’re researching. I thought this might be a disaster but so far we’ve had a great time, Alicia and I and the three boys. None of this is worth it anyway if it prevents you from enjoying your family.

Now, about the research.

Because my opportunities for travel are limited, I try to process as much material as I can as quickly as possible. Lots of jpegs. But you also have to take some time to enjoy it. I don’t want to give away the good stuff, but let’s just say there have been lots of “wow” moments this week in the archives. My dissertation is really going to put the “white” in “white evangelicalism.” Given the overwhelming importance of racial identity to the evangelical movement, it’s remarkable how little many historians of evangelicalism have paid attention to it.

Last night I woke up at 1am and couldn’t get back to sleep until 3am because my brain seemed determined to write the whole dissertation then and there. Information overload. But the multiplying questions, the dizzying expansion of understanding that the archives can bring, are a thrill. It’s especially fun when you come across those documents that you immediately know will be in the final product.

One example. I’ve been learning a lot more about Donald McGavran, the founder of the Church Growth Movement. My sense of who he was has continued to gather depth and nuance. But in the end, you need to deliver to readers some punchy descriptions. What was this person like? What was he all about? Then I came across a letter from a colleague of McGavran. He wanted McGavran to do a certain thing. But, as he wrote to a friend, “Actually, you and I both know we can’t control McGavran” (my paraphrase). Yes! That captured it perfectly. A man who was going to do what he wanted to do. With his church growth ideas he got the bit in his mouth in the 1930s and never let go for the better part of 60 years.

Tomorrow it’s on to my alma mater, and from there to Calvin College in Grand Rapids. It’s hard to believe we get paid to do this stuff.

Readings for Juneteenth

Today is Juneteenth. Here’s a roundup of good stuff to read. First, what is Juneteenth and why is it important? Jemar Tisby explains:

Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. It is recognized on June 19th every year. In Texas, where it is a state holiday, slaves learned of the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the initial announcement…

Juneteenth matters because in the United States freedom  has always come with an asterisk. While the founding documents of the nation declare “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” not all people were free and not all people enjoyed their unalienable rights. White supremacy asserted its power through the institution of race-based chattel slavery. The legacy of this heinous practice continues into the present. America has still not fully gripped the devastation slavery caused for both the enslaved and the free.

Celebrating Juneteenth gives citizens the opportunity to remember the ways freedom has always been circumscribed for people of color and it serves as motivation to press for continual emancipation from all forms of slavery.

One way to celebrate Juneteenth is to make sure it becomes a day that all Americans commemorate. Sign the Color of Change petition to make Juneteenth a national holiday.”

Celebrating Juneteenth can be one piece of a broader effort to bury the Lost Cause and reclaim a more accurate history and life-giving memory. Westenley Alcenat explains:

Leon Trotsky once noted that “what has been written with the sword cannot be wiped out by the pen.” And yet, that is precisely what took place; the accomplishments of Reconstruction were in fact rewritten and its memory overthrown by white nationalists. Academic historians derided abolitionists, praised the Confederacy, and adorned their books with admiration for Confederate generals and slaveholders. For generations thereafter, the country buried the achievements of the pioneering abolitionists who also helped usher the women’s movement. Meanwhile, the African-American chronicle of slavery to freedom and citizenship was seen by many as a misbegotten adventure.

In place of slavery and Reconstruction, the so-called “Lost Cause” took precedence throughout the former Confederacy. In fact, today Tennessee has more monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader and founder of the Klu Klux Klan, than to President Andrew Jackson, a native Tennessean…

To value African-American history is to validate a politics of knowledge and resistance. Black history, in particular, exposes the poverty of memory and the injustices of a past burdened by white identity politics — one that was predicated on epistemic violence. Like the architects of Confederate monuments, racist historians from the Dunning School used their pens as weapons for knowledge destruction. Hoping to redeem white supremacy, they deployed racial terrorism by omission. This violent erasure is a challenge for today’s historian: how to write the history of a paradox — American freedom as defined by slavery? How should historians reconcile the legacy of the American Revolution, which professed natural rights but overlooked women, and especially Black and Brown persons? For many decades before the Civil Rights Movement, many white academics as well as public historians refused to answer these questions.

But there were a number of countervailing Black voices that protested the silence. As historian Albert Raboteau explained, Black congregations “articulated a theology of history in which they lambasted American Christians for turning Christianity into a clan religion…[and] for worshipping Anglo-Saxonism.” That this criticism stems from the ranks of Black Christians is notable: no other people have been more abused by American history and yet insist more persistently on their rightful place in it…

At its core, the contribution of African-American history is to at once liberate and expand the national conscience, holding the nation to the litmus test of what it professes to value. The story of the strivings of Black souls ensures that America does not forget the nightmares that tormented Martin Luther King’s Dream. Indeed, this task is more urgent today as we are confronted by the Black Lives Matter movement and efforts of Native Americans for self-determination.”

Read the whole thing.

Many Americans still have no idea what Juneteenth is about. Ben Baxter takes a look at Alabama’s state calendar and sees a problem:

For many of us, we have lived through June 19 or Juneteenth year after year without any hint of its significance in American history.

At its essence, Juneteenth is a day set to commemorate the abolition of slavery. But that detail is not widely known despite Alabama being a former slave state.

If we want to know why we have maintained this oblivion, we should look no further than the State of Alabama’s official state holiday calendar.

A quick glance will show that Juneteenth is not listed as an official state holiday. That wouldn’t be so bad if three other holidays weren’t given top billing as paid off days for state employees in 2017–Robert E. Lee Day (January 16), Confederate Memorial Day (April 24), Jefferson Davis Day (June 5). See a predicament there?”

That’s grotesque. We don’t remember well without the aid of holidays, special events, and physical spaces. We need to change our calendars and our built environment. Ed Hooper reports on the challenges of preserving a special civil war fort in Nashville as redevelopment threatens the site:

This space contains the remnants of the largest inland stone fort built during the American Civil War. Mayor Barry’s administration has instead chosen to award a developer the right to build condominiums and office spaces on a 21-acre section of it – a move that’s stunned preservationists and park supporters. The Civil War fort is unlike any other. It was constructed by black hands, staffed with some of the nation’s first black soldiers, and evolved from a campsite into a historic African-American community in the city.

Following the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson in 1862, Confederate forces retreated south evacuating Nashville to Union troops. Because of the access to railroads and rivers, Nashville quickly became the second most fortified city outside of Washington, DC. Then military governor Andrew Johnson ordered the city be fortified to defend against a Confederate counter-attack.

More than 2,700 free black tradesmen, newly-freed slaves, both men and women, were pressed into service to assist. The 12th U.S. Colored Troops Regiment that later organized in Nashville contained many of the laborers who built the fort. Union Engineer Capt. James Morton chose a rise southeast of Nashville for the largest structure. A “contraband” camp was established at the construction site to house laborers. The result four months later was a star-shaped limestone fort. The four-acre structure was named after Nashville Post Commander General James Negley. It didn’t come without cost. Historians estimate that between 600-800 died building it and were buried nearby.”

Let us remember. Happy Juneteenth!

White Student Upset Black History Month Doesn’t Feature More White People

On white evangelical college campuses, Black History Month can produce the perennial complaint, “Well, why isn’t there a White History Month?” This argument is evergreen. I distinctly remember this discussion taking place one February during my years at Moody. But I don’t think I ever heard anyone quite as creative as the writer below. She didn’t seem to object to Black History Month as such. She just wanted Black History Month to be more, well…white:

black history month

After her singular letter to the editor appeared, the black student organization invited this student to dinner. She went to dinner, but stuck to her guns. Black History Month was ok in principle, but the version put on by the black students didn’t do enough to acknowledge the achievements of white people. Our desire to be at the center of attention will brook no exceptions!

William Pannell on White Evangelicalism

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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.