If You See Something, Say Something

Confederate Flag Future

This weekend at a community celebration in white, small-town America, terrorist flags waved in the air. As children laughed and scampered about and people bought their glow sticks and funnel cakes, no one seemed to pay much attention to the symbols of evil the cart vendors pushed threw the crowd.

Of course I’m being deliberately provocative, but provocation can be a useful tool to awaken our deadened moral imaginations. Confederate flags at a community fair are evidence of cultural pathology. As far as I could discern, their presence stirred no resistance from the community.

I talked to one of the vendors pushing his little cart through the crowd. As best I can recall, the conversation went like this:

Me: “Hi, are these flags for sale?”

Vendor: “Yeah buddy, they’re $15 bucks, which one do you want?

Me: “No, I’m not going to buy one. I know you’re just doing your job, but this flag is wildly offensive.”

Vendor: “No it ain’t; I just sold one to a black woman down the street.”

Me: “Oh, really?” (It seemed a transparent lie, not least because there were almost no black people there)

Vendor: “It’s history. If you don’t know your history it might offend you.”

At that he rushed on, seeking to avoid engaging, and I declined to harass him further. (For the record, I’m a historian.)

About 15 minutes later he came through our section of the crowd again and the Confederate flag was gone. I assume someone bought it. But maybe, just maybe, he took it down.

If people in your community were waving ISIS flags you would notice. We need to reframe our understanding of how despicable confederate nostalgia is. There must be no tolerance for it in your community. Confront people lovingly and politely, but don’t remain silent and become complicit in their sin. If you see something, say something.

White Evangelicals’ Faulty Theology of the City

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A North Philadelphia scene. The Swinging Bridge, March 10, 2000, 8.

On the side of the building next to the abandoned lot are scrawled the words, “God is good.” The white evangelical student newspaper in which this photo appeared described the scene this way: “The goodness of God attempts to infiltrate Philadelphia.”

This simple sentence is an apt characterization of how white evangelicals have often imagined the modern city. The city is the space where God isn’t. White evangelicals might bring God into the city, especially in temporary forays—“invasion” as another white evangelical student newspaper put it—but God is not indigenous to the city. And the people resident there—especially in the “inner” city—are benighted and needy.

In this theological imagination, the city is a fount of wickedness and disorder, a threat to physical safety and good morals. It must be “infiltrated” by the forces of light. And the forces of light are usually white.

Imagined in this way, the indigenous work of God and his people in the city are discounted.

It may seem that I’m making too much of a single photograph. But there is more evidence where this came from, believe me! What’s at issue here is not the good intentions of these white evangelical students, but the entrenched theological and cultural associations that hinder productive action in urban contexts.

Bad theology has political consequences. I personally know of white evangelicals who sincerely believed during the campaign that Donald Trump had productive plans to help the so-called “inner city.” They took such a dim view of the city and its people that they couldn’t see Trump’s insults for what they were. Their detachment from the work of God in the city was so complete that they believed the rhetoric of racist paternalism showed Christian concern.

I am grateful to know many evangelicals of all backgrounds who have a very different theology of the city. They give me hope.

On a more academic note, I need to read more about the history of the city in the evangelical imagination. This is an embarrassing gap in my knowledge. Are the roots of these negative associations to be found in 19th century industrialization and mass immigration? Or even farther back? I see the pervasive negative connotations in the sources from my time frame (1960s-1990s) but the backstory is not clear to me. This is especially confusing because the early twentieth century fundamentalist movement seems to have thrived in urban centers. What’s the story here?

What’s in a Name? When It Comes to the History of American Slavery, the Stakes Are High

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Enslaved people in Georgia, 1850s.

Last week in my lectures on evangelicalism in the nineteenth century, I never used the word “plantation.” Inspired by Edward Baptist and this recent article from the Smithsonian Magazine, I relentlessly referred to “slave labor camps.” For example: “Many enslavers built churches at their slave labor camps to promote a theology of submission to authority.”

In my lectures, “masters” did not “own slaves” who worked on “plantations.” Instead, they enslaved people and compelled them to work in brutal conditions.

Now here’s the interesting thing: I made this interpretive move unannounced and did not draw attention to it. None of my students commented on it or asked any questions about it. Indeed, it’s not even clear to me that they understood I was talking about plantations.

Now, it seems to me we need to have a debrief about last week’s lectures. We need a conversation about how language shapes historical interpretation and our remembrance of the past. I think I need to ask my students directly what words I might have used instead of “slave labor camp,” and ask them why they think I used the words I did. Perhaps I could ask them what words or images or associations the word “plantation” brings to their minds, and then ask the same of the phrase “slave labor camp.”

Depending on how they answer those questions, I may ask them to think about whose perspective is foregrounded depending on which phrase we use. Neither phrase is neutral.

I don’t know how this little debrief will go, but one possible point of conclusion is to take this in the direction of memory and culture through the lens of something like Gone with the Wind. My concluding point of emphasis is that only in a white supremacist society could something as awful and barbaric as the 19th century southern plantation become encrusted in layers of nostalgia and romance.

Because of white supremacist memory, “plantation” no longer actually signifies that to which it refers. A place of inhumanity has become a symbol of a lost world of southern gentility. I intend to keep using “slave labor camp” instead, but I’m very curious to hear my students’ thoughts about it tomorrow.

Was Las Vegas the Deadliest Mass Shooting in Modern American History?

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Greenwood burns as white Tulsans attack, June 1, 1921.

All over the media today it’s being reported that last night’s horrific shooting in Las Vegas is the deadliest in modern American history. Is this true? It depends on your criteria. If we’re speaking specifically of a lone actor using guns to attack civilians, it does indeed appear to be so. If we’re speaking more broadly of groups of people using guns to attack other Americans, it definitely is not.

There have been several incidents of non-military civilian attacks on fellow American citizens that have produced higher death tolls. I’m not sure how many. Among them are:

The attacks in Elaine, Arkansas in 1919.

The Colfax Massacre during Reconstruction.

The invasion of Greenwood in 1921.

In all of these cases, white citizens used mass firepower to attack black citizens and murder dozens or hundreds.

Why does this matter? The place of yesterday’s awful violence in the sweep of American history is not merely a matter of historical trivia. There are substantive questions involved in how we label it. While it seems to be the deadliest single-shooter event, it is important that we speak and think about it in ways that do not erase our longer inheritance of mass violence.

This is so not only because it is important to remember what we have overcome, but so that we might think historically and morally about the violence of our own time. The massacres in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Arkansas—together with the broader ritualized murder and terrorist violence of which they were a part—often seemed to contemporaries to be forces of nature.  Defenders of white murderers could imagine them as mere cogs in the inevitable and eternal struggle between the races. Instead of personal and social responsibility, there was only natural enmity between black and white. Massacres might be unfortunate, but weren’t they bound to happen?

Even those who wanted to eradicate the scourge of white supremacist violence found it difficult to imagine how it could come to an end. I’m reminded of the great anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells’ agonized cry: “Oh God, when will these massacres stop?”

But they did stop. The kind of mass violence that was a routine feature of American life from the 1870s to the 1920s doesn’t really happen anymore. The bloodletting was not, after all, inexorable. It wasn’t a force of nature. It reflected power relations. And its solutions were political. Black people moved to the North and gained some political leverage. They organized across the country and raised the economic costs of white supremacy. They formed coalitions and eventually broke the back of the white supremacist caucus in Congress. The violence receded.

In our time, mass shootings by lone actors are not forces of nature. They reflect contemporary power relations—most obviously the obscene influence of the gun lobby in Republican politics. The solutions are not beyond us. They only require political courage.

Ben Tillman’s Heart Was in the Right Place

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A great American whose heart was in the right place.

On Face the Nation this morning Paul Ryan said that President Trump’s “heart is in the right place” when it comes to dealing with racism and bringing the country together. This is very interesting information. Using Paul Ryan’s new standard, it’s useful to think about all the other great Americans of the past whose hearts were in the right place.

I’m pretty sure John C. Calhoun’s heart was in the right place.

Definitely Ben Tillman.

Albert Johnson really meant well.

So did Theodore Bilbo. What a swell guy.

George Wallace clearly tried very hard to unite the country. He wasn’t ultimately successful, but gosh, his heart was as pure as the wind-driven snow.

I think it’s unfortunate that these great Americans who had really wonderful hearts too often get attention for their actions instead. One of the major signs of how politically correct revisionist history has become is that great men are often judged for how they treated human beings. We’re a snowflake generation! It’s a sign of how divided our country is that some people believe that what a person does matters.

A big thank you to Speaker Ryan for his bold truth-telling. It’s important to remember that nothing matters.

A Tale of Two Wikipedia Entries

While doing some lecture prep tonight, I stumbled across some information about the nineteenth century white supremacist southern evangelist Sam Jones. I did a google search naively expecting to get more details, and instead I turned up half a dozen hagiographical stories about this awful man. Here’s the introduction to the wikipedia entry before I edited it:

jones 1

And here it is after my edit:

jones 2

Seems like an important detail to mention, no? I’ve never really edited Wikipedia before. Hopefully this new information sticks.

By the way, can we talk about what it means that contemporary white evangelicals apparently think it’s ok to honor the memory of this man?

Song of the Day

In his new album out this week, Christian rapper Lecrae says a definitive goodbye to all the colorblind Christians who wanted him to be their puppet:

There is so much to be said about this song, but for now, I think I may have found a header lyric for my entire book:

Hey, you want unity? Then read a eulogy
Kill the power that exists up under you and over me
I said, you want unity? Then read a eulogy
Kill the power that exists up under you and over me.

What do you think that means?

And I have some colleagues who will appreciate this:

You grew up thinkin’ that the Panthers was some terrorists
I grew up hearin’ how they fed my momma eggs and grits.

The Racist History of My Alma Mater

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Jet Magazine, March 19, 1970, 30.

Founders Week has always been the most important date on Moody Bible Institute’s calendar. It’s a celebration of the institution and its history and a time for alumni reunions. Normal classes are canceled and big-name guest speakers from the fundamentalist-evangelical world speak to large crowds at Moody Church. If you wanted to protest something, doing it during Founders Week would have maximum symbolic value.

During Founders Week 1970, black graduates Melvin Warren and Leona Jenkins staged a protest on the doorstep of the campus. Jenkins held a sign reading, “Woe unto you, hypocrites — Luke 11:44.” As any good MBI student knew, this was a reference to Jesus’s scathing rebuke of the Pharisees.

With a small crowd gathered on LaSalle street, the graduates tore up their Moody diplomas and tossed them in the trashcan. Warren said the protest was designed to draw attention to the “institutional white racism” of Moody Bible Institute.

Warren had specific allegations. He claimed that MBI segregated its dorms, prohibited interracial dating, and refused to let the neighborhood kids use the school’s gym facilities. National media picked up the story and added to the charges. Years earlier black members of Moody’s traveling choral groups had not been allowed to come when the group toured the South.

The administration responded with what it thought was exculpatory information. The local black kids couldn’t use the gym because of insurance issues, they explained. And yes, MBI used to code students’ profiles by race to make sure that students of different races weren’t assigned to the same dorm room, but they had stopped doing that over two years ago. And yes, MBI used to prohibit interracial dating but had dropped the ban four years ago (that apparently wasn’t true; the actual change seemed to have occurred in 1968). And it was true that black choral members had once been “asked” to stay behind because of the tensions in the South during the civil rights movement.

In other words, all the charges Melvin Warren made against the Institute were accurate. He described policies in place while he was a student there (he had graduate in 1969). Rather than indicating repentance for past wrongs or even rhetorical commitment to reform, the administration was defensive and self-righteous. The President released a statement acting as though Moody had always been a welcoming place for students of color.

The institute didn’t seem to realize that it had played footsie with heretical churches and had worked very hard to accommodate the greatest social evil of the age. The abject refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing was particularly striking from an institution professing to be based on the Word of God. Apparently repentance wasn’t so important to the biblical story after all.

The student body response was equally clueless. In an editorial calling for self-examination “to lay the foundation for a positive relationship of Christian fellowship and love,” the student newspaper reflected the ignorance of white students:

MBI has been accused of racism, and some here probably feel that those accusing the school are guilty of the same. By implication, the protestors condemned the whites at MBI for not loving their black Christian brothers and not treating them as equals. The natural rebuttal would be that those who demonstrated were not exhibiting love or feelings of equality either.

The people protesting racism are the real racists.

When I was a student at Moody this sordid past was not openly acknowledged. It was whispered in the dorm rooms. The story of the diploma-ripping seemed to me to rest in a space between truth and fiction; I wasn’t sure what was myth and reality, or what it meant. To be honest, I was too ignorant and racist to care. I guess I fit right in.

There’s nothing unusual about institutional self-protection. My current institution, Temple University, definitely doesn’t want you to know about the racism of its founder. But it’s far worse for a Christian institution to hide its past because doing so represents an institutional denial of the gospel. Christians do not glory in our perfect record; we boast in the power of Jesus to rescue and renew and remake the undeserving.

Past doesn’t have to be prologue. But if you don’t reckon with it, the past will haunt your present.

Evangelical Leaders Support DACA. Does It Matter?

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When you study evangelicalism in the civil rights era, you quickly begin to realize that there was a dramatic divide between elites and ordinary people. Denominational bodies–even white evangelical ones–tended to publish moderate or supportive statements on civil rights. At the same time, the opinions of laypeople in the churches were much more hostile to the civil rights movement. Ordinary people often felt that their denominational leaders did not speak for them.

In the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the DACA program, evangelical leaders of all stripes have spoken out in support of the Dreamers. For example:

The President of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities

My denomination

The National Association of Evangelicals

Lots of other groups. Including the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, National Latino Evangelical Coalition, and World Relief. This is just a sampling. These are not minor organizations.

But the history of evangelicalism in the twentieth century makes me skeptical that these evangelical elites have much power to shape opinion, much less action, among their constituents.

I’m still quite uncertain about how these networks of influence and resistance to change work in evangelicalism. If evangelical leaders are so impotent, what and who are more formative influences on evangelical opinion?

Specifically, I’m thinking of evangelical talk radio. While evangelical leaders spoke supportively of DACA this week, evangelical talk radio hosts were busy explaining why the Trump administration had actually made a reasonable and compassionate decision. Do we have any reliable metrics of the listening audience of these shows? Has anyone tried to quantify their influence? Are these under-the-radar media companies actually more influential than the leaders of major evangelical organizations?

I’m thinking of shows like Point of View, Focal Point, The Line of Fire, In the Market, and so on. There are important differences between these shows—for example, Bryan Fischer is often overtly hateful, while Janet Parshall is more winsome and sincere in her brand of patriotic conservative Christianity—but they share a common conflation of the gospel and Republican politics. I wonder if they have more influence in many congregations than the pastor.

Evangelicalism is diffuse. Leaders speak for themselves. There is no army marching in lockstep behind them. It is nice that so many evangelical leaders made supportive public statements about DACA. But when it comes to the hard stuff of politics—money, votes, civil disobedience—will they show up, and do they have a real constituency? I’m not hopeful. My gut says most white evangelicals are content with the hateful public witness that has become the norm for our faith.

Jonny Rashid, pastor of a Brethren in Christ church here in Philadelphia, gets it right:

You might read this and just think I’m being political. You have to know that this is a deeply personal issue because of the meaning assigned to my skin color by the dominators. Thank Jesus, I’m freed from their judgment and condemnation. I am one-in-Christ, not because of their whitewashing, but because my Lord conquers racism. I gladly relinquish my assigned racial identity for the cross, but it goes both ways, the dominators must reject theirs which offers the initial assignment.

I do not just care about this issue, though, because I am brown. As it turns out, both of my brown children are citizens, and so were my sister and I when my parents immigrated here. So we are “safe.” But the rhetoric that this spews into the air, and the violence that always follows, is not good for us or for others.

Furthermore, the Bible is littered with passages about welcoming the stranger. Jesus is explicit in Matthew 25, so is the Levitical law, and Paul, himself, in what is the greatest masterworks of the New Testament is enraged at the prospect that we would separate anyone as a result of their cultural or ethnic heritage. The Christian witness has consistently been to stand with the oppressed and the immigrant.

And now, with a small, but loud, segment of the Evangelical community making up the bulk of Trump’s base, Christians have a chance to reject and denounce the heartless end to the program and take a stand. I doubt they will, though.

The Trump Administration gives Christians, whose reputation is tattered in the media (need I mention the fundamentalist Nashville Statement or Joel Osteen’s reputation risk management last week?), a chance to redeem themselves almost every day. There is always something evil that the administration is doing that Christians should oppose. And I’m not talking about complex policy, these issues are simple: oppose white supremacy, support safety for children of immigrants, care for the environment, don’t start another war or escalate a nuclear one. No theology or political science degree required.

For Christians, we are not to submit to evil institutions that do not follow the way of Jesus. You can twist Romans 13 to justify any of that, I suppose, but as a Christian the law is not the final word or final answer. And that is my hope, despite the evil of the state, for all the children who might be affected by the end of DACA. Your safety, ultimately, is in Jesus, not in the state or the country—it is not exactly hospitable for you here. We serve a God of all nations who commands us to welcome the stranger. This is not just a question of peace and justice, it is a question of obedience to God.

Resisting evil is not just a matter of saving our witness, but follow God. Jesus made it clear. You are either with him or you are not. I am sure Trump will give us more chances to stand up for our witness, but I pray we stand against the evil of the government for the sake of the Gospel now. I want to do it before it becomes increasingly ridiculous to entertain the notion of following Jesus. There are cosmic consequences to Christian inaction if we really believe what we say we do. And Jesus might be preparing a millstone for inaction of his purported followers who lead people astray from him. Lord, have mercy.

If Evangelicalism Were Anti-Racist, Maybe Racists Wouldn’t Want To Claim They’re Evangelicals

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A perennial favorite. This photo will be in our great-grandkids’ e-textbooks.

When Fox comes out with a new poll every month it’s always a special treat because Fox tends to ask some off the wall questions and include self-identified white evangelicals in the crosstabs. The results are sometimes hilarious and almost always depressing. This month’s poll is a doozy.

Here are some of the questions that stood out to me, along with the results among self-described white evangelicals:

Do you think Donald Trump respects racial minorities?

Yes  72%

No 25%

Do you think Confederate monuments and statues should be taken down or stay up?

Be taken down  10%

Stay up  82%

In general, how do you think things work in the United States today?

Whites are favored over minorities  21%

Minorities are favored over whites  40%

No group is favored  27%

Don’t know  11%

Do you approve or disapprove of how President Trump responded to the events in Charlottesville?

Approve  65%

Disapprove  25%

Who do you think poses a greater threat to the United States — white supremacists or the news media?

White supremacists  23%

News media 63%

The usual caveats apply. It may not mean much for a person to self-identify as a white evangelical. But even if these poll results don’t reveal the true state of white evangelical opinion, they do tell us something else: the evangelical label is not toxic to racists. Put aside the question of whether most of these poll respondents are truly practicing Christians. Millions of people are associating their racism and ignorance with the evangelical label. Why would they want to do that if evangelicalism was known for its anti-racist commitment? People have an intuitive sense of where they belong, of who the in-group is, of where their affinities rest. So it’s telling that racists feel so at home under the evangelical banner.