This logo appeared in the 1960s on the magazine Together, a joint publication of National and Southern Baptists in Missouri (in other words, black and white Baptists).
It’s a great example of the ambiguity of Christian colorblindness as segregationist theology was in eclipse but the precise shape of the new theology remained unclear. The logo and tagline make an argument for spiritual equality: when we come to the cross of Christ we all stand in equal need, regardless of color.
But what are the social implications of that spiritual equality? Does it mean that segregation is wrong? Does it mean that civil rights laws should be passed? That’s not at all clear. In fact, the cross standing between the two figures, one white and one black, could be read as a picture of “separate but equal” theology.
As often as claims of spiritual equality were used to attack the logic underlying Jim Crow, such claims also ran alongside it. God might love everyone equally and be a segregationist.
Images and rhetoric like this one worked in the 1960s because they were open to so many various and contradictory interpretations. Most people could find an angle on it that they liked.
I’m also interested in where this quote (“the ground is exceedingly level…”) came from and where the publishers of this magazine thought it came from. Billy Graham seems to have used a similar phrase in some of his crusades. There is an apocryphal story floating around the internet that Robert E. Lee said it (the myth of Lee as a magnanimous Christian just won’t die), but I can’t find out who actually said it originally. It would be ironic if the quote originated in a Lost Cause Lee-rehabilitation narrative. But I’m guessing its roots go further back.
In his last Sunday sermon before he died, Dr. King said this:
It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism.
In the final months of his life, Dr. King wasn’t beating around the bush. White Americans, he said, embraced racism as a way of life. One way to honor him half a century after his death is to speak in similarly blunt terms. Racism is not just acceptable among white Americans in 2018, it is often honored. Racism is honored every time someone proudly tells you they support the President.
This reversal of norms against public racism is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy when the President of the United States speaks in proto-genocidal language and the American people don’t even realize it. It’s a double-tragedy because it is harmful all by itself while also inflicting wounds by distraction. Many of us (myself very much included) have withdrawn our attention from the ongoing crises of poverty, segregation, incarceration and police brutality. Instead, we focus on the lowest of low-hanging fruit: critiquing the racism of Donald Trump and his supporters.
It’s as if Martin Luther King had spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to convince white people that, actually, George Wallace really was racist. You almost laugh out loud at the thought of it. Of course he didn’t bother with that. King kept his focus on the bigger picture.
50 years after his death, we’re reluctant to face the man who appeared in the Spring of 1968 as a despised and declining figure. Heckled by black power advocates and hated by white conservatives, King struggled to stay relevant in a society that seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The left increasingly saw his program of militant nonviolent activism as irrelevant, while the right looked on it as a profoundly cynical method of extortion.
We honor him now, but 50 years ago most Americans just wanted him to admit defeat and go away. When he died, some white evangelical leaders implied he had only reaped what he sowed.
In our time, American across the political spectrum find their way toward admiration of Dr. King by erasing key parts of his theology and agenda. Much of the left doesn’t want to learn from King about the moral and strategic imperative of nonviolence. To them, King’s Christian activism reeks of respectability politics. The right doesn’t want to learn from King’s radical challenge to the American economy and way of life.
Plenty of people are happy to think of King as a Christian or as a radical. It is harder for us to grasp that there was no or for Dr. King. He was both. Switch the order of the words and you get slightly different connotations—radical Christian, Christian radical—but both connotations work for King.
King’s Christian activism has much to teach us. Among the lessons are these:
The ends don’t justify the means. Your goals don’t make you righteous. Your actions do.
Love is not a sentimental abstraction. It is what enables oppressed people to pursue justice without the struggle devolving into zero-sum score settling.
Formal equality is hollow without economic empowerment.
The purpose of economic empowerment of the poor is not to expand the debt-addled money-worshiping middle class. It is to promote the dignity and worth of every human being. Economic justice for the poor is not possible without a spiritual assault on the lies of materialism. People are more important than things. And people will not have their deepest needs satisfied by things. A materialistic society can try to buy off the poor with charity, but it cannot do justice to the poor because materialism causes us to treat human beings as disposable.
Nonviolence is not merely a tactic. It is a way of life that rebukes everything from the violence of American policing to our obsession with guns to our militaristic foreign policy around the world.
Nonviolence does not mean acceptance of double-standards or treating all violence as equal. King rejected violence, but refused to put all violence in the same category. With black neighborhoods engaged in a series of deadly uprisings in the 1960s, King refused to provide the condemnation the white media craved. The violent selfishness of the oppressor is of a different kind and magnitude than the violent groans of the oppressed. King kept the focus where it belonged and rebuked the real purveyors of violence.
Nonviolence does not mean passivity or accepting the premises of your opponent. King bluntly called most white Americans “racist” and “sick.” They saw this as deeply unfair and mean-spirited. But if you limit yourself to discourse within the boundaries of the oppressor’s epistemology you can’t be truthful.
With these lessons in mind we can begin to see why at the end of his life King was talking about the need to fight the interrelated problems of racism, materialism, and militarism. All three are dehumanizing forces. All three are alive and well today. 50 years after Dr. King’s death, we have so much work to do.
The New York Times has an interesting read today on the “quiet exodus” of African Americans out of predominantly white evangelical churches. It’s an anecdotal piece, but it comes with this dynamite quote from Michael Emerson:
“Everything we tried is not working,” said Michael Emerson, the author of “Divided by Faith,” a seminal work on race relations within the evangelical church. “The election itself was the single most harmful event to the whole movement of reconciliation in at least the past 30 years,” he said. “It’s about to completely break apart.”
Anyone who’s interested in the intersection of evangelicalism and race has at least heard of Divided by Faith. It’s a great book. Emerson’s opinion carries real weight. Let’s assume for a moment that he’s right. It raises some questions.
On what were the movements for reconciliation and integrated churches really based? A movement that can be shattered by an election clearly wasn’t as robust as people thought.
What did leaders of these movements think they were doing?
What did laypeople in the pews think they were doing?
What did white Christians think was happening? What did black Christians think was happening?
How do these nominally integrated churches continue to make white racists feel comfortable?
Are there consistent differences between the sorts of black Christians who join predominantly white churches and those who do not?
How did white evangelicals cover up their past, and how conscious were they about the coverup? The links between the white supremacist Christians of prior generations and the leading pastors of today are not just ideological or theological; they’re tangible and personal!
Just as surely as southern white evangelicals now know that God is colorblind, they knew 60 years ago that he had established the races and did not want them to mix. How exactly did one unchristian folk theology replace the other?
How much of the “reconciliation” movement has been cynical? In the post-civil rights movement era, diversity is a consumable experience. People like a little color in their religion. Even white evangelicals can see that.
White evangelicals’ vote for Trump revealed that the racial reconciliation movement was a) really small, and/or b) not actually anti-racist. I’d say both. The article tells us about how Robert Morris, pastor of a megachurch in Texas, dealt with racism after the 2016 election. It perfectly captures the selfishness and arrogance of the white evangelical mainstream:
As a tumultuous 2017 unfolded, Pastor Morris understood that some wanted him to address race directly.
“As I prayed about it as I talked with black pastor friends of mine, I realized I don’t really understand the depth of the pain they feel,” he said. “This is personal to them — it was history to me. I would talk to my friend and it was personal to him because it was his great-grandfather.”
In October 2017, he preached a message entitled “A Lack of Understanding.” Addressing “all the ignorant white people,” and acknowledging his own past grappling with prejudice, the pastor listed reasons that racism was evil — among them that it was an affront to God’s creation, given that Adam and Eve were probably brown-skinned. A video played of a black pastor talking of the racism he experienced as a child in East St. Louis in the 1960s. Pastor Morris concluded by urging people of color in the congregation to spread out and pray with whites in small groups.
The response, Pastor Morris said, was “overwhelmingly positive,” and indeed the reaction on Facebook suggests as much. Pastor Lewis remembers a black woman weeping in her seat, and was thankful that he finally had an answer for black worshipers questioning how their church truly felt about racism…
The message was not better received among the black worshipers who had already left the church. It did not, several said, address the enduring structural legacy of racism, instead adhering to the usual evangelical focus on individual prejudice. Most significantly, they said, it gave no sense that Pastor Morris had ever wrestled with his support of Donald Trump.
“I wasn’t wrestling,” Pastor Morris said of his feelings in 2016, going on to explain that he was not wrestling now, either. “We were electing what we felt was the person who held the values that the church loves dearly the most. That doesn’t mean that he’s perfect. But I do believe after spending time with him that he really wants to learn, that he really wants to do a good job for all Americans. I really do.”
There are larger racial injustices in the country, he said, and those injustices need to be fixed — though not in ways that would enable dependence, he clarified, but rather to “give people a hand up, not a handout.” He noted the low black unemployment rate under Mr. Trump. The answer to racism lies primarily in the church, not the government, he said, and now that white pastors are waking up to the pain that black people have felt, it is in many ways a hopeful time.
“I think that there’s an anger and a hurt right now, and a fear,” he said, “and I think that people are going to get past that.”
A few thoughts:
–No real plans. No restitution. No redistribution. No change in power. No theological change. People are somehow “going to get past” the “anger” and “hurt” and that’s all that matters. Once the black people calm down the white people can be comfortable again.
–Yes, it’s personal to your “black pastor friends.” Why isn’t it personal to you? You’ve got all sorts of advantages because you’re white, you’re seeing people around you being dehumanized and you’re a Christian pastor, and somehow it’s “history” to you.
–That sermon put an awful burden on people of color in the congregation. Many no doubt handled it with grace. Some probably enjoyed it. But the method seems burdensome, and misses the point.
–He titled the sermon “A Lack of Understanding,” and now turns around and wants to clarify that he doesn’t regret voting for Trump or encouraging his congregation to vote for Trump. They were merely “electing what we felt was the person who held the values that the church loves dearly the most.” He condemns himself. I bet Mr. Morris imagines that he has a “pro-life” outlook on things.
–He reveals himself as either a liar or a fool. He says, “I do believe after spending time with [Trump] that he really wants to learn, that he really wants to do a good job for all Americans. I really do.” In other words, my sermon was about trying to understand how black people feel, but I did not mean that my thinking should change. My opinion is the only one that really matters.
–Then he lays out a politics of church supremacy. The church will somehow solve racism. It’s not the government’s job. (I will respect that position as soon as you hold to it on more than one issue).
I’ve continued to hope against hope that the church will move against racism. It certainly won’t do so under the leadership of people like Pastor Morris. All of this would look different if there was a legitimate debate to be had about Trump’s racism. Since it is a known quantity, those who deny it, like Pastor Morris, are twisting a knife into their fellow Christians. Megachurch pastors don’t get to plead ignorance. People like this should not be in any position of church leadership.
I’m thankful for 8th Street Community Church, where we are reading portions of the Letter from Birmingham Jail every Sunday morning during the month of February. We will not be skipping the inconvenient parts.
Is there space in your church to think about and be influenced by prophetic black Christianity? Would it be too controversial?
It is normal for Christians to admire Dr. King from afar as a vaguely Christian figure who preached love and tolerance. It is harder and more necessary to grapple with King as a serious Christian thinker who speaks to our time and critiques our theology.
The Letter from Birmingham Jail is far from a complete record of King’s thought, but it’s a great introduction to it, especially for Christian audiences. One of my dreams is for more white evangelical churches to make space for these ideas. If your church would like to have an event in the Philadelphia area, I am available to facilitate reading and discussion of the letter. I’ve got lots of practice!
Shout out to Alicia for drawing my attention this morning to the following juxtaposition. In the first video, we have President Trump speaking this week to the Values Voters Summit:
In the second video, we have President Obama delivering a eulogy after the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina:
In the first video, you see a President with no understanding of Christianity. He has no internal knowledge of faith to draw upon that might render his religious words credible. And so he speaks in the only language he knows: that of transaction and identitarian symbols. He speaks to an interest group, muttering tinny phrases remarkable only for their shimmering hollowness.
The words he uses are only those he has figured out his audience wants to hear. This base kind of cunning is perhaps his only distinguishing feature of intelligence. It’s a calculation not unlike that of a puppy which has learned how to get a treat.
Trump would find it impossible to explain why Christmas might be theologically important. But he’s damn sure going to say the word!
President Trump has not tried to hide his distaste for Christianity and what it stands for. While Christians look out on a world governed by grace and seek to be agents of reconciliation and forgiveness, Trump boasts that might is right, that power and power alone counts in life. And he promises to deploy his power on behalf of scared Christians. They love him for that.
The “Christian” Right’s affection for a Godless president is not so surprising. For among the many things and people the Christian Right has always seemed to dislike is Christianity itself. They’re too busy trying to take over the country to bother with someone as naive as Jesus.
In the second video, you see a President immersed in theological reflection, attuned to Christian idioms, inviting his audience explore the possibilities of Christian hope. President Obama’s extended meditation on grace shows a thorough understanding of orthodox Christian theology. It is moving and profound. It comes from a place of understanding. It is impossible to imagine President Trump delivering such a message.
There are reasons to be cautious about President Obama’s religious language. He often deployed it for nationalist purposes, using Scripture meant for the church and applying it to America. That’s dangerous. But if white evangelicals believed their own claims—that this is a Christian nation—they ought to have loved Obama’s rhetoric.
Why were most white evangelicals unable to appreciate the faith of President Obama? As Alicia pointed out this morning, the problem was not only that Obama often spoke in the tradition of the social gospel. The problem was that—as you see in the Charleston eulogy—his faith was black. In the white evangelical mainstream, true Christianity—that which is mature, biblically correct, normative—is implicitly white.
You might argue it’s not fair to compare speeches given in such different contexts. But that’s actually part of the point: President Trump is incapable of giving the kind of speech President Obama gave. And the reason for that is not only because President Trump is an inferior public speaker. It’s because he’s so hostile to Christianity.
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.
Yesterday afternoon the Southern Baptist Convention passed a revised resolution denouncing white supremacy. Here’s the full text of the version that passed:
WHEREAS, Scripture teaches, “From one man [God] has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live” (Acts 17:26); and
WHEREAS, The Psalmist proclaimed, “The earth and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, belong to the Lord” (Psalm 24:1); and
WHEREAS, The Apostle Peter said, “God doesn’t show favoritism, but in every nation the person who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:34–35); and
WHEREAS, Our justification before God is based on faith in Christ Jesus alone and not in our ethnicity (Galatians 3:27–28); and
WHEREAS, Scripture proclaims that Jesus is purchasing by His blood believers “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9); and
WHEREAS, Throughout eternity we will gather with a “multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language” in worship of our risen Savior (Revelation 7:9); and
WHEREAS, The Baptist Faith and Message conveys that all Christians are obligated to make the will of Christ supreme in their own lives and in human society, opposing all forms of racism, selfishness, and vice, and bringing government and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love; and
WHEREAS, We know from our Southern Baptist history the effects of the horrific sins of racism and hatred; and
WHEREAS, In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention repudiated “historic acts of evil, such as slavery,” committed “to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry,” and “genuinely repent[ed] of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously or unconsciously”; and
WHEREAS, In recent years the Convention has nominated and elected individuals from a variety of ethnicities, including electing our first African-American president in 2012; and
WHEREAS, In recent resolutions the Southern Baptist Convention called on “all Christian men and women to pray and labor for the day when our Lord will set all things right and racial prejudice and injustice will be no more” (2014); expressed continued grief “over the presence of racism and the recent escalation of racial tension in our nation” (2015); and urged fellow Christians to discontinue using the Confederate battle flag, acknowledging that it is “used by some and perceived by many as a symbol of hatred, bigotry, and racism, offending millions of people” (2016); and
WHEREAS, More than 20 percent (nearly eleven thousand) of our cooperating Southern Baptist congregations identify as predominately non-Anglo and for the last three years more than 50 percent of Southern Baptist new church plants have been predominately non-Anglo; and
WHEREAS, B&H Academic recently published Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention, highlighting our continuing need to root out vestiges of racism from our own hearts as Southern Baptists; and
WHEREAS, Racism and white supremacy are, sadly, not extinct but present all over the world in various white supremacist movements, sometimes known as “white nationalism” or “alt-right”; now, therefore, be it
RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, June 13–14, 2017, decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we denounce and repudiate white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as a scheme of the devil intended to bring suffering and division to our society; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we acknowledge that we still must make progress in rooting out any remaining forms of intentional or unintentional racism in our midst; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we earnestly pray, both for those who advocate racist ideologies and those who are thereby deceived, that they may see their error through the light of the Gospel, repent of these hatreds, and come to know the peace and love of Christ through redeemed fellowship in the Kingdom of God, which is established from every nation, tribe, people, and language.
You can compare it to the original resolution. Some are saying the revised text is stronger because it uses the phrase “white supremacy.” I read it differently. Both versions condemn the rebranded racism that has entered our politics in recent years, but the revised text reads more as a defense of Southern Baptist racial progress. Appearing defensive in this moment is not a good look for the SBC.
In the past 24 hours there has been a lot of good reporting about why and how the original resolution failed. See Nicola Menzie’s piece. And CNN has an excellent blow by blow account. The short version: not only did the Resolutions Committee decline to send the resolution to the floor, the full convention voted twice against reconsidering the decision. Why?
Among the opponents, some were frustrated at the methods used to reintroduce the topic late last night; others balked at the idea of the SBC calling out a right-wing ideology in particular, knowing the alt-right’s affiliation with Trump. They argued the denomination had already made its stance clear against racism (a 1995 resolution apologized for its racist past; one last year repudiated the Confederate flag), and suggested liberal politics were behind the recent move.
One attendee tweeted the resolution committee did the right thing when they declined to bring the alt-right resolution before the group in the first place: “The res committee and their response is exactly right. It will only be criticized by race baiters and ppl pushing left-wing social issues.” …
“It is, in part, a concern that alt-right will be a label applied to non-racist conservatives who, for example, simply voted for Donald Trump,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, who blogged on the resolution for CT. “However, I think that concern is past its time—the alt-right is the klan without the robes, and Southern Baptists need to speak up on it.”
If people read the original resolution as an implicit critique against their team that tells you a lot about how politicized and white their “Christianity” is. More along this line:
Resolutions Committee chairman Barrett Duke said Tuesday the original proposal was “too open-ended” and could be misinterpreted.
A day later, he apologized.
“We regret and apologize for the pain and the confusion that we created for you and the watching world when we decided not to report out a resolution on ‘alt-right’ racism,” he told messengers, or delegates, adding that he shares their abhorrence of the “particularly vicious form of racism that has manifested itself in the ‘alt-right’ movement.”
He said the new version of the resolution speaks with “conviction but also with compassion” and repudiates racism “in a tone that honors all people, even those with whom we disagree.”
The Rev. Dwight McKissic, who authored a proposed resolution about the Confederate flag at last year’s convention that was rewritten and passed, didn’t understand why the resolution wasn’t dealt with in a less confusing way.
“I’m very heartened by the statement,” he said in an interview about the new version of the resolution.
But he added, “I guess I’m disappointed because they could have done that all the time.”…
Matt Bowman, a white Tennessee pastor, believed it was important to pass a resolution whose meaning wouldn’t be twisted by others.
“Just because someone is conservative doesn’t make them alt-right,” he said. “Just because someone has right-wing politics doesn’t make them alt-right, white supremacists, so we need to be clear about what we’re condemning.”
Again, the original resolution didn’t mention right-wing or conservative politics. If people saw themselves or things they care about implicated in that resolution it might say something about their own sense of guilt.
And finally, some more revealing details from Emma Green:
“We were very aware that on this issue, feelings rightly run high regarding alt-right ideology,” said Barrett Duke, the head of the resolutions committee, in an interview on Wednesday morning. “We share those feelings … We just weren’t certain we could craft a resolution that would enable us to measure our strong convictions with the grace of love, which we’re also commended by Jesus to incorporate.” The resolutions committee did not reach out to McKissic ahead of the meeting to work on a revised version of the resolution, Duke said…
Jackie Hill Perry, a black artist and teacher who has frequently spoken at Southern Baptist events, tweeted that “the decision made at #SBC17 to not denounce white supremacy is hurtful.” Trillia Newbell, a black staffer at the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Commission in Washington, replied, “I’m seriously in tears. What’s going on?!”
“I certainly understand that hurt and anger, because to most people, this would be a no-brainer,” said McKissic in an interview on Wednesday. “Several of the resolutions they endorsed yesterday were just carte blanche things Southern Baptists believe. And so, it becomes a mystery how you can so easily affirm standard beliefs about other things, but we get to white supremacy … and all of a sudden, we’ve got a problem here.”…
The resolutions committee consulted with Russell Moore, the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, to draft new language, Duke told me, but they did not consult with McKissic, the original author. “This is the committee’s resolution,” he said. “This is not Brother McKissic’s resolution.”
On Wednesday, McKissic said he is okay not having been consulted “because I don’t think it’s customary. … Once that person has submitted, I don’t think you’re normally involved.” There is one African American member on the 10-person resolutions committee, Roland Slade.
After the revised resolution passed there was celebration and talk of the “bold” and “prophetic” stance of the SBC. Those aren’t the words I’d use.
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.
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:
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.