The Racist History of My Alma Mater

Jet March 19 1970 p30

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?

daca

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

ha.jpg

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.

Have You Ever Feared the State Will Take Your Children?

carlisle indian industrial school

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, circa 1900.

Are you a parent? Have you ever feared that the state will take your children from you? How often do you have this fear? The answer might depend on your racial identity and how much money you make, not your parenting skills.

In the New York Times, Emma Ketteringham draws attention to the under-discussed class and race dynamics of child removal:

There is a misconception that the child-protection system is broken because child services fails to protect children from dangerous homes. That’s because the media exhaustively covers child deaths, but not the everyday tragedy of unnecessary child removals.

The problem is not that child services fails to remove enough children. It’s that the agency has not been equipped to address the daily manifestations of economic and racial inequality. Instead, it is designed to treat structural failings as the personal flaws of low-income parents.

In that framework, the answer is not affordable housing or transportation, meaningful employment, health care or access to healthy foods, as it should be. Why is the focus always on removing children to foster care and imposing parenting classes? This never-ending cycle traps generations of low-income families in a punitive system of state surveillance and foster care. Worse, it makes parents fear contacting child services when they need help caring for their children.

“Neglect” cases are often not what they look like on paper. Our clients are trying to raise their kids under tremendous economic and psychological pressures. Often they have faced significant challenges, like homelessness or incarceration. They love their children and cherish their identity as parents. But in court, they face the loss of what is most precious to them: their children.

Ketteringham is writing specifically about New York City’s system but I’m guessing her critique is more broadly applicable. I don’t know much about the foster care system but I hope you’ll indulge a few anecdotal thoughts from my own experiences in church, community, and foster care in recent years.

Alicia and I have known Christians who are fostering, Christians who are trying to get their kids back from the foster care system, and Christians who lost their kids, got them back, and are now on the other side of that awful ordeal. We also know parents who have never had their kids taken from them, but for whom the threat of it is daily background noise.

It came as a great shock to me when I realized that parents I respect live in fear of their kids being taken from them. What made it more surreal was the realization that this is normal for them. “Be careful, the state might take your kids,” is not an unimaginable foreboding; it’s a present possibility. I have lived my life as a parent without this possibility on my horizon. And it’s not because I’m a great parent.

Beyond anecdote, something I do know a little more about is the long history of child removal among Native American children as part of the United States’ settler colonial policies of cultural genocide. See Margaret Jacobs’ great book.

Most of us want to live in a society that seeks to protect children, even to the point of involuntary removal. Yet we must be aware of the dreadful history—and present—of unjust removal. When Alicia and I became foster parents, it didn’t feel heroic. It felt more like we were implicating ourselves in something messy and morally gray. We would do our best to care for a child, but we wouldn’t know—couldn’t know—whether that child should even be with us.

Defenders of Confederate Monuments Don’t Want To Think Historically

stone mountain

The granddaddy of them all. Stone Mountain, Georgia.

On the first day of class this semester, I’ll be introducing my students to the 5 C’s of Historical Thinking. Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke developed this framework as a simple way to introduce students to some of what it means to think historically. One of the C’s is context.

Historians spend much of our energy trying to figure out context. We must understand past people and events in light of the totality of the circumstances around them: their culture, beliefs, economy, language, and more.

When we try to understand a specific source, a sentence needs to be read in light of the whole document, the document in light of other documents, those documents read in light of other factors, and so on.

It gets harder. The past is a foreign country. That means you can’t assume that words mean what you think they mean, that people thought the way you think, or even that the historical document you have sitting right in front of you isn’t giving you a misleading picture of the past.

It gets harder still. Think about all the things in your life, the subtle social cues, the idioms, the inside jokes, the norms, the kinds of clothes that will make you stand out and those that will make you blend in. Think about what is ingrained and intuitive. These things are so obvious to you that they don’t need to be said. Centuries from now, if historians want to understand our world, they will have to try to recover what is unsaid. And so do we as we look at the past.

But sometimes, a public controversy rages even when it’s relatively easy to understand the historical context. So it is with the debate over Confederate monuments. Though defenders of the monuments style themselves as protectors of history, they actually tend to be hostile toward historical inquiry.

If we actually want to explore historical context—that is, think historically—here are some questions we might ask:

Who built the monuments?

When?

Why?

Was the building of them part of any broader social or intellectual movement?

These are exactly the kinds of questions monument defenders don’t want to explore. Their reluctance to ask serious questions of the past tells us how much they really value history. If you’re interested in the answers to those questions there are lots of historians who have tried to inform the public debate.

Here are a few:

Jane Dailey

Adam Goodheart

Annette Gordon-Reed

Karen Cox

W. Fitzhugh Brundage

How Evangelical Nationalism Enables Racism

falwell

Jerry Falwell, Sr. leads a “I Love America” rally at the New Jersey State Capitol, 1980. William Sauro, NYT.

A lot of people are noting the juxtaposition of Trump’s imploding business advisory councils and his quiet-as-church-mice religious advisory council members. These court evangelicals (John Fea’s term) will claim they are staying on to try to provide Christian instruction to Trump, as if there has ever been any evidence that he would abide such a thing. The real reason they’re staying on is access. Trump provides them influence (or the illusion of it) at the commanding heights of the nation they believe they ought to lead. The President’s racism is a minor inconvenience in comparison to the gains they envision.

For these court evangelicals and their followers, the on-ramp to supporting racism is not necessarily direct. It is shaped by the distinct character of evangelical nationalism. Let me try to explain what I mean. This is kind of a think piece. Tell me where I’m getting it wrong.

White evangelicals are often described as anti-statist. Hostility to governing institutions runs deep in some evangelical circles. And it’s certainly true that many white evangelical leaders have turned rhetorical posturing against the federal government into an art form. But as Axel Shaffer has argued, white evangelicals have combined that rhetoric with efforts to make the state work for them. The goal is to capture the state, not tear it down.

Though the number of white evangelicals with such frightening ambitions is relatively small, they punch above their weight. The widespread populist evangelical nationalism among ordinary white evangelicals sustains the more radical state-capturing project of Christian Right leaders.

Many white evangelicals feel both hostility toward the state and an intense identification with the nation. They are at once alienated outsiders and the nation’s truest inheritors. The evangelical historian George Marsden identified this ambivalence decades ago in his classic study of fundamentalism and American culture. The nation is, rightfully, theirs. It was founded on their principles, blessed by their devotion. Yet the forces of liberalism and secularism, acting through the federal government, have taken the nation from them.

In this wing of evangelicalism, memory and national identity center on the concerns and interests of privileged white Christians. Slavery and genocide are glossed over or presented as exceptions that somehow do not alter the essentially Christian character of the new nation. The 1960s are remembered not primarily for the destruction of Jim Crow, but as the moment when the nation turned its back on God by taking prayer and Bible reading out of schools and embracing the sexual revolution.

Think I’m exaggerating? Consider the work of history that has had more influence among white evangelicals than any other in recent decades: Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s The Light and the Glory. Published in 1977 and still in print, it has sold almost 1 million copies. In his book, Why Study History?, the evangelical historian John Fea described Marshall and Manuel’s argument:

The United States, from the time of its first settlement, was founded to show the rest of the world how to love God and neighbor. God had made a special covenant with this country, not unlike the covenant he made with the children of Jacob. Throughout its short history, America has occasionally lived up to this covenant, but at other times it has not. The study of the past presents a constant reminder of this unique and ongoing relationship between God and the United States and the role that all Americans, but especially Christians, play in making sure that divine favor rests on this land.

Ironically, as Russell Moore has pointed out, this is a form of theological liberalism that denies the sufficiency of the new covenant in Jesus Christ. It recalls the efforts of liberal Protestants’ in pre-war Germany to meld Christianity and nationalism. There, the consequences for German minorities were disastrous. So too could it be here.

As white evangelicals seek to vindicate the supposedly Christian origins and, it is hoped, future of the nation, they write marginalized groups out of the story. Imagining a past without oppressed people opens up space to imagine a future without them. This is potentially deadly. Many white evangelicals’ self-identification with this Christian nation is so strong that listening and learning from people the nation has harmed is extremely difficult. Often, the reason white evangelicals can’t be honest about racism is because they’ve never been honest about the nation they love.

The roots of this are broad and deep. We’re not talking about a fringe movement. Consider two of the most outspoken white evangelical Trump supporters among his religious advisory council: Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Robert Jeffress. Both men supported Trump early and loudly. Both men are influential leaders. And both men trace their roots to a father (Falwell, Sr.) or father figure (W.A. Criswell) who once embraced racist nationalism. Let’s examine them in turn.

As buffoonish as Falwell Jr. often appears, it is wishful thinking to believe the President of the largest evangelical university in the world doesn’t have real influence. He does. And he is using that influence to walk in the footsteps of his father. The outlines of Falwell Sr.’s career are well-known: from small-town segregationist preacher who shunned politics, to founder of the Moral Majority to take back the nation for God.

In this apparent change from political outsider to insider there is an underlying consistency: Falwell’s intense identification with the culture around him as something that must be protected from liberal forces. The shift from a southern-inflected nationalism in the 1950s to American nationalism in the 1980s is hardly the point. Falwell moved on from defending segregation to defending “morality” without ever really grappling with why he had been wrong in the first place.

Now his son supports racism because doing so gives him access to the state and the chance to protect the nation from liberal forces. The apple didn’t fall far.

The case of Robert Jeffress is a bit different. As with Falwell, some of us may like to pretend he’s a fringe figure, but he’s not. He’s pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas. This isn’t just any church. This is where W.A. Criswell preached for over half a century. Rick Warren, in his best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Church, called Criswell “the greatest American pastor of the twentieth century.” When the most influential American pastor of this century says that, you ought to pay attention.

In an interview this week, Jeffress described Criswell as a spiritual father figure:

Jeffress grew up in the historic Dallas congregation, which formed in 1868 and will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year. As a boy, he gained spiritual insight from the late Rev. W.A. Criswell, First Baptist’s preacher for half a century.

“When I was 5, I started to become interested in becoming a Christian,” said Jeffress, who has served as senior pastor for 10 years. “My dad brought me down to Dr. Criswell’s office, and he presented the gospel, and I accepted Christ as my savior here.”

It should come as no surprise that Criswell spoke forcefully in defense of segregation during the 1950s. Indeed, this understates what he did. Over a period of years, Criswell—“the greatest American pastor of the twentieth century”—preached overt heresy from the pulpit. Criswell later publicly recanted these views and said he had been wrong. There is evidence of sincere wrestling with his sin. There are also questions to be asked about how total his repentance was, not least because of Criswell’s own words: “My soul and attitude may not have changed, but my public statements did.” Curtis Freeman has a balanced account of all this in the Journal of Southern Religion.

What is most striking about Criswell’s segregationist statements is not so much that they were demagogic and hateful—though they were—but that they expressed a comprehensive view of the world, a total attachment to nation and culture rather than Christianity. In 1956 he criticized integrationists for “trying to upset all the things that we love as good old Southern people and as good old Southern Baptists.” In an often-quoted conclusion to that sermon Criswell said:

Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision…to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. Let me build my life. Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends. Let me have my home. Let me have my family. And what you give to me, give to every man in America and keep it like our glorious forefathers made it—a land of the free and the home of the brave.

Again, read Freeman’s account. There is American myth and individual selfishness here aplenty. I defy you to find a hint of Jesus in it.

Now, Robert Jeffress pastors Criswell’s old church, and he too is sacralizing American nationalism. The forms of racism they enable are different—for Criswell it was segregation and southern extremists, for Jeffress it’s colorblindness and a racist President. But in both cases, their conflation of faith and nation fatally compromises the supremacy of Jesus and the worth of human beings.

The court evangelicals seek to bring America back to God. Christians of conscience must firmly stand against that project. Under the banner of restoring the Christian nation, these men and women would oppress human beings. God has set his love on people. No nation can compare to the inestimable worth of a person made in the image of God.

 


Update: While some news outlets have been reporting on the evangelical advisory council as a currently functioning board, Fea says he learned today it was disbanded after the election. Whether Trump’s circle of evangelical advisors is an official board or not is hardly the point, but I would like to know more about why it disbanded.

Who Will Rebuke Franklin Graham’s Support for Racism?

graham

Franklin Graham has offered a master class in what it looks like when white evangelicals have a self-image as anti-racists but actually support racism. Here are his August 13 remarks on Charlottesville in their entirety:

Shame on the politicians who are trying to push blame on President Trump for what happened in #Charlottesville, VA. That’s absurd. What about the politicians such as the city council who voted to remove a memorial that had been in place since 1924, regardless of the possible repercussions? How about the city politicians who issued the permit for the lawful demonstration to defend the statue? And why didn’t the mayor or the governor see that a powder keg was about to explode and stop it before it got started? Instead they want to blame President Donald J. Trump for everything. Really, this boils down to evil in people’s hearts. Satan is behind it all. He wants division, he wants unrest, he wants violence and hatred. He’s the enemy of peace and unity. I denounce bigotry and racism of every form, be it black, white or any other. My prayer is that our nation will come together. We are stronger together, and our answers lie in turning to God. It was good to hear that several Virginia and Charlottesville leaders attended church today at Mt. Zion. CNN said, “The racial divides that fueled Saturday’s violence were replaced by unity Sunday…” Continue to pray for peace and for all those impacted by Saturday’s tragedies.

Can I translate for a minute? A terrorist attack has occurred and Graham says city leaders are partly to blame for it because they recklessly decided to remove a white supremacist statue. Removing that monument to evil emboldened the terrorists. City leaders obviously should have known better.

And yes, even though white supremacists were some of Trump’s earliest and most vocal supporters back in 2015, and even though he retweeted them, and even though he became a political figure by spreading racist conspiracy theories, and even though he spent the campaign libeling black communities, and even though he called for more police brutality, it’s clear that anyone who would dare fault our President in all of this ought to be ashamed.

Now let’s get down to the theology. “Really, this boils down to evil in people’s hearts. Satan is behind it all.” In other words, let’s cover our individualism and denial of white responsibility in the cloak of pseudo-Christian language.

“I denounce bigotry and racism of every form, be it black, white or any other.” I denounce racism in theory but not in fact. Blacks can be racist too. Reverse discrimination. If there was racism going on that didn’t implicate the people and causes I care about, I would definitely denounce it.

“My prayer is that our nation will come together,” and that’s why I support our racist President who has consistently promoted hatred.

Franklin Graham, your words are an affront to the gospel.

This man has 6 million Facebook followers and this post has 71,000 shares. This is the white evangelical mainstream, where people denounce racism as an exercise in passing the buck and making excuses for their own racist actions. If white evangelicals are ever going to be a positive force for racial justice, we have to get past the point of confusing pro forma denunciations of racism with actual Christian thinking and practice.

What would it look like for a white evangelical to speak in truly Christian ways about racism? My friend, theologian Shawn Bawulski, shows us. Go to his space to read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

I speak to Christians in particular for a moment, and especially to my white Christian brothers and sisters. I say this: the Christian gospel repudiates racism. Give a full-throated, unambiguous condemnation. Anything less is less than the gospel.

Jim Wallis writes, “If white Christians acted more Christian than white, black parents would have less to fear for their children.” He’s not wrong. If white Christians acted more Christian than white, racist rallies would not be tolerated. If white Christians acted more Christian than white, domestic terrorism like we’ve seen recently would be called out for what it is. If white Christians acted more Christian than white, the idol of white supremacy would not be perpetuated under the banner of “I condemn all hate” or “all lives matter”.

Finally, I turn to the words of Jesus. Warning the powerful religious leaders of his day, he says… “But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness…” He’d say the same thing today. Dr. King captures this idea when he says that the white moderate is almost more dangerous than the klansman. King writes, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Please read all of it. If you want to take a measure of white evangelicalism’s spiritual sickness, here it is: the sub-christian words of men like Franklin Graham are honored, while the Christians words of Bawulski are controversial.

An Action Step for White Evangelicals

road

In the summer of 1956, Carlton Nash was looking for a job. He was a working-class white Alabaman, already 44 years old and with four kids to support, but he believed God was calling him to enter the ministry. So he wrote a letter to a Southern Baptist leader asking for help.

Carlton Nash may have been struggling for many reasons, but it seems the root of his problem was this: he had decided it was wrong to hate black people.

According to his own account, Nash had lived most of his life apart from God, engaging in “the usual Sins.” He “lived a life of hate.particularly for my black brother and most others who did not see my point of view” [sic].

But recently, something miraculous had occurred:

About two years ago, the LORD JESUS came into my life. At that time, it was not a matter of bearing to the right or left, but it was necessary for me to completely reverse my thinking and my course of action. It took much serious STUDY, it took much FERvent Prayer […] It took consultation with those active and humble in GOD’S service to give me an understanding. Today, I AM THANKFUL TO GOD THAT I HATE NO MAN [sic].

Nash found that his encounter with Jesus gave him a “burning desire” to promote “brotherhood” and end “exploitation.” But when he tried to act on his new convictions, the blowback was severe:

For persuing this course, I lost many, so called, friends. I was surprised to see my former Sunday School Teacher, one of the organizers of a white citizen’s council, along with other prominent respected citizens of the town. When I sought to organize an INTER Racial council in the same town, I was discredited. My future in that town was already doomed by the economic squeeze, and that was the final effort, that made it necessary for certain one’s in the town to advise me firmly–TO LEAVE. My pastor would not even discuss the issue with me [sic].¹

When we survey the southern scene of the 1950s, it is easy to ask why more white Christians didn’t do the right thing. That’s a fine question to ask as long as we realize the gravity of what we’re asking. What we’re really saying is this:

Why didn’t more white Christians choose to be ostracized?

Why didn’t more white Christians choose to lose their jobs?

Why didn’t more white Christians choose to put their families in danger?

Why didn’t more white Christians choose to ruin their lives?

The way is narrow. Few find it.

What follows is something of an in-house conversation among white evangelicals. Many readers may believe I’m beating around the bush, being too forgiving of wrong beliefs, or centering the wrong people at this deadly moment. But precisely because white evangelicalism is central to the problem of white supremacy, we white evangelicals must try to speak to fellow white evangelicals in ways that can be heard, understood, and acted upon, if possible.

To my white evangelical sisters and brothers, known and unknown, let me say this: It takes genuine courage for you to take a public and Christian stand against racism. You probably won’t face consequences as severe as Carlton Nash, but the consequences are real. Many of you are living and worshiping in social contexts where speaking against racism will make people you love think less of you. Some may even cut you out of their lives. That is extremely hard. Most of us are not willing to bear those costs.

Because of your social context, because of what you see around you, your silence seems like the best way to honor Christ. You want to make sure that you don’t squander your witness on divisive politics. You want to focus on loving people. You want everyone to get along, and you certainly don’t agree with those crazy white supremacists in Charlottesville.

I don’t know how to adequately communicate to you how your silence looks from over here. I wish I could let you know, in a way that you can really hear, how your silence looks to Christians of color. It looks like you’re ashamed of the gospel.

You see, you and I are close to these white supremacists. We intuitively understand them. They fear they are losing their country. So do white evangelicals. They resent the changes that have upended traditional hierarchies. So do white evangelicals. They want a restoration of a prior America. So do white evangelicals.

That’s not fair, you say. We don’t hate. We don’t want to kill people. We want very different things. And yet the white supremacists and the white evangelicals both voted for the same racist candidate. And as you did so, we implored you to reconsider your decision to make an alliance with these evil forces.

It’s so much bigger than an election. We benefit from white supremacy every day, yet we remain silent about it. White evangelicals’ alliance with a racist demagogue is only a symptom of our broader alliance with the forces that deliver our racial privileges every day. When we’re silent in the face of this anti-Christian social order, we take the opposite stance of the Apostle Paul, who wrote that he treated the advantages his social order gave him as crap so that he could gain Christ.

When we’re silent about these matters we often mistakenly assume it’s because we’re avoiding politics. Actually, we’re avoiding talking about a whole swath of Christian discipleship.

When we’re silent, it looks like we’re refusing to take responsibility for our actions.

When we’re silent, it looks like we’re ashamed of the teachings of Jesus.

When we’re silent, we look like idolaters.

But don’t speak up for any of those reasons. Speak up because, when we’re silent, people die. It’s usually not in a spectacular incident on live television. Usually it is the slow and grinding poverty, the segregated schools, the oppressive justice system. Don’t speak up to salvage your reputation. Speak up because it’s right, and failing to do so causes harm to other human beings.

What might it look like for you to speak up? It’s not enough to say general things like, “racism is wrong.” Almost everyone agrees with you. We must identify in more specific terms the people and forces that perpetuate racism. On social media, or in conversation with friends, you might start by saying things like this:

I don’t agree with lots of things black lives matter activists have said, but it is important to recognize that black life really is devalued in the United States and we need to work to change that.

Saying this would be courageous for many of you. Let the saying of it be a beginning, not an end. For others, it’s not something you can even agree with right now. Please be open to learning more and seeking repentance.

Or you might say something like this:

I voted for Trump and I agree with some of his policies, but I am grieved by his racism and we need to oppose it.

I think I know something about how hard it could be for many of you to say things like this. But I don’t really know. Only you can count the cost. Following Jesus is worth it.


¹ Carlton Nash to A.C. Miller, June 27, 1956, Collection 138, Box 20, Folder 13. Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee.

White Evangelicals Have Not Repented

charlottesville

The aftermath of a terrorist attack in Charlottesville, VA, August 12, 2017.

Events in Charlottesville have me reflecting on the long and deadly reach of our unrepented pasts. The following two historical nuggets are worth thinking about now:

On March 7, 1965, Alabama troopers attacked civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama. Images of beaten and bloody protestors flashed across Americans’ TV screens and the voting rights campaign was suddenly at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness.

Two days later, a group of white supremacists attacked three white pastors who had come to support the campaign. Badly beaten and suffering from a massive skull fracture, the reverend James Reeb died on March 11.

On March 15 President Johnson gave an historic speech to a joint session of congress calling for a voting rights bill. These were some of the most pivotal days of the entire civil rights movement. Rarely would the battle between right and wrong appear more clear than in these grievous days.

A week later, Clyde W. Taylor, Secretary General of the National Association of Evangelicals, explained the NAE’s position on the civil rights movement:

The official stand of the NAE on the whole race issue, including Selma, is that we do not take a stand on it. We are neither for nor against.¹

In a contest between murderous idolaters and nonviolent Christians, the nation’s premier white evangelical organization wanted it to be known that it was studiously neutral.


George Leiby spent the summer of 1966 inspecting hospitals in Tennessee and Mississippi for compliance with the Civil Rights Act. As a federal employee, he worked for the Office of Equal Health Opportunity to ensure that the new Medicare program would be implemented fairly.

Leiby was a devout Christian, and he was white. His travels and responsibilities allowed him to visit many black southerners in their homes and attend their churches. “Many an evening was spent in a dimly lit, poorly furnished home across the tracks, with the shades pulled,” he wrote, “listening to the stories of lives filled with insults and limitations promulgated by the white community.”

On more than one occasion, black Christians asked Leiby a simple question: “How can the white man go to heaven? The Bible says if one has hate in his heart for any man he cannot love God.”

“I could not answer this question,” he confessed. And time did not bring the clarity he craved. The following year he wrote, “After these many months I still cannot answer that question. I have gradually become disillusioned with the church.”²


I’ve shared the Clyde Taylor quote before and am doing so again because it so aptly captures the spiritual blindness and moral cowardice that animated the white evangelical mainstream in the 1960s. It is the same blindness and cowardice that drives us still.

I shared the pointed question black Christians asked of George Leiby in 1966 because it is the same question that white evangelicals ought to sit with now. When you say you want reconciliation with your sisters and brothers while supporting our racist President, you can’t be taken seriously. Your words and actions are not aligned.

The President believes a white supremacist terrorist attack is an occasion to talk about the responsibilities of “both sides.” If white evangelicals follow him down that road, they willfully turn their back on Jesus Christ and embrace the spirit of evil that produced the Holocaust.

The uncomfortable truth is that the white evangelical mainstream is intimately familiar with the same grievances driving the white supremacists in Charlottesville. The white supremacists believe they are being replaced, discriminated against, disempowered. As it turns out, surveys show that many white evangelicals believe they face more discrimination than black Americans. These are not benign political opinions. This is racist nonsense that cowardly evangelical leaders have refused to call out in their churches.

Of course, it ought to be the easiest thing in the world to denounce white supremacists who are literally embracing Nazism. Many white evangelicals will probably do so. But will they find their voice to denounce the President who emboldened such evil? Will they find their voice to speak up for the kind of liberatory justice the scriptures describe, a justice that works against police brutality and economic oppression and educational inequity?

White evangelical friend, if you take a conservative line on questions of racial justice, I have a simple question for you: when was the inflection point at which white evangelicals went from being wrong to right? Evidently it wasn’t at Bloody Sunday. So when was it? When did the repentance occur? When was that broad and deep reckoning that turned thousands of white supremacist churches into Jesus-worshiping, justice-loving churches?

Trump-supporting evangelicals, when will you take responsibility for  empowering the forces of racism? When will you repent?


¹Clyde W. Taylor to Herbert S. Mekeel, March 22, 1965. Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College.

² George M. Leibby to H. Franklin Paschall, February 12, 1967, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee.

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.