White evangelicals who are serious about a new way forward on racial justice could start by telling a new story about our* past. I’m not talking about a blue ribbon commission to evade practical action. I’m not talking about the false hope that we can somehow think our way into righteousness. I’m talking about the stories by which we live. We need an imagination and identity that can serve as solid bedrock for anti-racist action.
And right now, the basic story we tell ourselves about who we are and who we have been is rotten to the core.
White evangelicals like to think that we are the ones who take the Bible seriously, in contrast to those liberals who play fast and loose with the scriptures. We like to imagine that when modernism came for the church, it was evangelicals who stood firm on the authority of the word of God. And over and over again, when the tides of social decay threatened to wash over America, it was evangelicals who held fast. Where would America be if not for us?
White evangelicals see ourselves and our nation in God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament. 2 Chronicles 7:14 belongs to us! And white evangelicals see ourselves, a righteous remnant, in the New Testament’s words of comfort and assurance to believers facing persecution and suffering.
All of this is self-serving nonsense. We need a new story.
The dominant expressions of white evangelicalism in American history have been tied to heresies of race and nation. Ours isn’t the tradition that took the Bible seriously. We’re the tradition that often rejected orthodox Christianity and were so self-deluded about it we thought we were preserving the faith!
We’re the tradition that read about the Exodus and the children of Israel and the slave-masters of Egypt and didn’t even realize that we were the bad guys in the Biblical narrative. Those grand promises weren’t for us; they were for the poor and needy, for those despised and rejected. We were American royalty. Our citizenship and belonging was never in question. We built a faith suited for this proud and hard of heart condition.
“How could any theologian explain the meaning of Christian identity in America,” James Cone asked, “and fail to engage white supremacy, its primary negation?”1 Well brothers and sisters, we tried. Oh did we try. And so we created a symbolic Christianity. If you believed certain doctrines you were inside the camp. You must believe in the Virgin Birth and substitutionary atonement, but lynching is a complicated social question.
Oh how we loved pious words and the appearance of good. We became experts at crafting “a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”2 Our devotion to spiritual rebirth was so zealous, so pure, that we took great pains to let black people know that we couldn’t help them too much in their quest for the rights and privileges we already enjoyed. After all, as one white evangelical put it, “What shall it profit the Negro if he gain all the civil rights guaranteed him but lose his own soul?”3
This separation of body and soul was theologically indefensible and socially catastrophic. It was a power play. “We just want Jesus,” we said, while we moved up the ladders of opportunity and closed the doors behind us. We showed contempt for the common good and dared call our selfishness godliness.
The respectably self-aware white evangelical narrative is that many of our ancestors were regrettably deficient in their understanding of racial matters, but we can appreciate their firm grasp of doctrine and the gospel. This is incoherent. It is self-serving nonsense to suppose that people who equivocated in the face of racial hatred had a firm grasp of Christianity. It is folly to suppose that love can be love without being earthy and tangible.
A common white evangelical response at this point might be something along the lines of, “Who then can be saved?” But the point here is not to condemn every last one of our spiritual ancestors in the harsh glare of our modern sensibilities. It is to reform our collective understanding of the broad contours of our tradition in light of Christian history. Racial hatred is an egregious heresy. People who fell prey to it ought not be normalized as Christian heroes.
So find new heroes. They’ve been in our midst all along. Why do we insist on lionizing Whitefield when Equiano is there to be claimed? As Howard Thurman put it, “By some amazing but vastly creative spiritual insight, the slave undertook the redemption of the religion that the master had profaned in his midst.” Look to this redemptive tradition.
White evangelicals can still be confident that there is a “there” there when we talk about an evangelical tradition. Embrace that sensibility that says we need a warm-hearted faith, an experience of conversion and closeness to Jesus Christ. But reject the hubris that says the gospel lives here and we deign to offer it to others.
What then, would it mean to be a conscious white evangelical? It might mean being gospel-focused in a new way. Instead of possessing it, ours would be the tradition that humbly and restlessly looks for it in all sorts of unexpected people and places. After all, that’s where it’s been all along.
*I don’t know that I really count as an evangelical anymore, but it seems so much better to write in the inclusive “we” than in the accusatory “they.” In any case, evangelicalism has done much to form the person I am today.
1 This is found in The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
2 Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
3 Letter to the editor in Christianity Today, May 8, 1964.