A Review of Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise

In a note to the reader at the beginning of his monumental study of Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois announced, “I am going to tell this story as though Negroes were ordinary human beings, realizing that this attitude will from the first seriously curtail my audience.” Du Bois frankly announced that he was “not trying to convince” the white supremacist majority. He understood that he had to assume certain truths so he could get on with the business of useful scholarship. Americans who didn’t already know the self-evident truth of black equality needed more help than Du Bois could give them.

There is an echo of this sensibility in the beginning of Jemar Tisby’s new book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. As a prominent black voice in the small world of evangelical racial justice discussions, Tisby has become well-acquainted with a committed cadre of racist evangelicals who loudly attack Christians who dare to oppose racism. So in his introduction he anticipates the critics who will dismiss him as “liberal” or “Marxist,” or accuse him of “abandoning the Gospel.” After naming these criticisms, Tisby turns to his real audience, the people who are willing to be persuaded, and says, “After reading just a few chapters, these arguments will sound familiar. These arguments have been used throughout the American church’s history to deny or defend racism.”

Tisby is not DuBois, and it’s not 1935, but it still takes a certain fortitude to put this book out with the knowledge that it will be systematically misrepresented, its author slandered and maligned. So Tisby knows his audience. And he wants to try to reach people who are open to learning. Those acting in bad faith, he implies, are just another sad example of the centuries-long history he’s tracing.

Now, what of the book itself? It is a 400-year survey of American Christianity’s complicity in racism. Along the way, Tisby tries to keep several key themes in view: the worst abuses of American racial systems have been enabled by Christian complicity; it didn’t have to be this way (history is contingent); and racism adapts over time.

Tisby understands something that many academic scholars struggle to practice: the public is actually eager to engage history, but people want to learn from the past more than they want to learn about the past. This can make us uncomfortable because it is a presentist and morally-charged posture toward history. Still, we need to try to engage the public on precisely this level.

That’s what Tisby does. In the chapter on “Making Race in Colonial America,” Tisby writes, “Through a series of immoral choices, the foundations were laid for race-based stratification. Yet if people made deliberate decisions to enact inequality, it is possible that a series of better decisions could begin to change this reality.” As historical analysis, historians might shrug at this (or even wince!). But as popular history told with moral urgency, this is pitch perfect.

A 400-year survey in a slim volume like this is an ambitious task—probably too ambitious. Tisby seems most at home in the civil rights era, where the argument is clear, the anecdotes well-chosen, and the complicity of the church horrifyingly apparent.

At other points, the link between the historical events being traced and the complicity of the church in racism becomes tenuous. At times, such complicity is asserted more than it is shown. In some cases, Tisby makes powerful use of the testimony of black Christians to drive home his points (Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography is quoted to good effect), but other anecdotes feel like a lost opportunity. We learn, for example, what Ida B. Wells thought of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but not of her scorching criticisms of D.L. Moody’s compromises with white supremacy.

In parts of the narrative I wished for less historical survey and more complicity. It is doubtful that any reader approached the book expecting to learn that dysentery was the leading disease killer of civil war soldiers, or that the New Deal created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. These digressions did not shed light on Christian complicity.

None of these critiques should overshadow the broader achievement: the ordinary Christians to whom Tisby is writing are likely to find much in this book that they’ve never heard before. More importantly, they are likely to be disturbed and inspired.

Tisby concludes the book with a series of recommendations to take action against racism now. It’s a helpful set of suggestions running the spectrum from mundane actions that ordinary people can take to mass movements that, right now, seem impossible. But the urgency of the moment and the scale of the problem require us to imagine beyond what seems possible.

I was most struck by Tisby’s call for “ecclesiastical reparations.” This is not a reprise of the 1969 Black Manifesto. He intends to enlighten rather than shame, and he comes across as an activist-thinker with earnest suggestions rather than all-or-nothing demands. He writes, “Churches could lead society by independently declaring a literal or figurative ‘year of Jubilee’ for black people. They could pool resources to fund a massive debt forgiveness plan for black families. Or they could invest large amounts into trust funds for black youth…”

The simple logic and justice of proposals like these can at once inspire action and serve as an indictment of the church. Why indictment? Because most white Christians would probably leave their churches before they give their money to such a productive and just cause. And so the work of undoing the church’s complicity in racism continues.

It took many decades for Du Bois’s achievements to be truly recognized. Let’s hope evangelicals don’t wait so long to admit that Tisby was right.

Are Southern Baptists Ready To Face Their Past?

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Some Southern Baptists are trying to reckon with their tradition’s shameful past. The Washington Post reports:

More than two decades after the Southern Baptist Convention — the country’s second-largest faith group — apologized to African Americans for its active defense of slavery in the 1800s, its flagship seminary on Wednesday released a stark report further delineating its ties to institutionalized racism.

The year-long study by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary found that all four founding faculty members owned slaves and “were deeply complicit in the defense of slavery,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the seminary, wrote in his introduction to the 72-page report he commissioned.

The report also noted that the seminary’s most important donor and chairman of its Board of Trustees in the late 1800s, Joseph E. Brown, “earned much of his fortune by the exploitation of mostly black convict lease laborers,” employing in his coal mines and iron furnaces “the same brutal punishments and tortures formerly employed by slave drivers.”

The report provided largely harsh assessments of the seminary’s past actions, even as it at times lauded the institution for racial strides.

Many of the founding faculty members’ “throughout the period of Reconstruction and well into the twentieth century, advocated segregation, the inferiority of African-Americans, and openly embraced the ideology of the Lost Cause of southern slavery,” that recast the South as an idyllic place for both slaves and masters and the Civil War as a battle fought over Southern honor, not slavery, Mohler wrote in his introduction.

The faculty opposed racial equality after Emancipation and advocated for the maintenance of white political control and against extending suffrage to African Americans, the report said. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the seminary faculty relied on pseudoscience to justify its white supremacist positions, concluding that “supposed black moral inferiority was connected to biological inferiority,” according to the report. And decades later, the seminary was slow to offer full support for the civil rights movement, advocating a “moderate approach.”

The seminary’s public reckoning comes as universities grapple with the darker corners of their pasts amid passionate challenges from students and faculty. At colleges across the country, protesters have toppled some Confederate monuments, while other statues remain the subjects of fierce debate.

“It is past time that The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — the first and oldest institution of the Southern Baptist Convention, must face a reckoning of our own,” Mohler wrote.

I have not read the report, but the outline presented here is a positive step. White evangelicals desperately need to retell our histories. We should praise institutions that begin to do so, however imperfectly. In the Southern Baptist archives one finds historical surveys defending the SBC’s racial record from its inception. Some articles describe how concerned Southern Baptists have always been for the spiritual welfare of black people. These are post-civil rights era rationalizations, offered at a time when people should have known better. Explaining how Southern Baptists really did want the people they were torturing to go to heaven is not a good look, especially when written in the 1980s.

This report seems to be a step beyond those earlier rationalizations. That’s a good thing. It is vital for the SBC’s future, as for evangelicalism’s, to be able to understand the past in a more humble way. Rather than seeing the evangelical tradition as the protector of orthodoxy, white evangelicals must come to see that they are inheritors of a tradition that was often hateful and heretical. Without this self-understanding, white evangelicals can’t possibly engage responsibly with those the movement has harmed.

It will be interesting to see:

a) how Southern Baptists on the ground react to this report.

b) whether it will be paired with any meaningful action.

c) whether other Southern Baptist and white evangelical institutions will follow the lead of SBTS and examine their own racial histories.

In White Evangelical Attitudes Toward Politics, Echoes of the Civil Rights Era

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Earl Stallings, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Birmingham, shakes hands with black worshipers on Easter Sunday, 1963. Stallings was one of the “white moderates” who called for an end to civil rights protests and whom King wrote against in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. After this picture was published nationwide, Stallings received many appreciative letters from white Christians praising him for his courage in welcoming black activists to his church.

During the 1950s some Southern Baptist leaders worried that the “race problem” had the potential to split the Southern Baptist Convention. They worked very hard to make sure that didn’t happen. The way they thought about the problem and their responsibility for it is instructive in our own era of political controversy.

The “race problem” was a problem because it created heightened social tensions and threatened Christian unity. Most Southern Baptist leaders seemed to think of their responsibilities in this order:

1. Maintain unity with fellow Southern Baptists

2. Calm tensions

3. Gradually improve the situation for “Negroes”

To implement this agenda, Southern Baptist leaders invoked the principles of Christian love and spiritual equality. They reminded Southern Baptists that each individual was created in the image of God and that Christ died for all. They also urged respect for the law of the land and the Supreme Court, however distasteful its decisions might be. While denying support for “forced” integration, they positioned themselves squarely in the moderate middle and denounced the “extremists” on both sides.

This rhetoric positioned these Southern Baptist leaders ahead of their constituents, nudging them toward gradual change. If the non-negotiable goal was to maintain the unity of the Southern Baptist Convention, these moderate leaders pursued a smart strategy.

But there are other ways of looking at it. It seems clear that it was more important to Southern Baptist leaders to stay unified with white racists than to act in solidarity with black Christians. In a moment in which unity and justice seemed incompatible, unity was more highly prized. I am not aware of a single case in which a Southern Baptist church openly preaching white supremacy during the civil rights era was disfellowshipped.* What I’ve seen, instead, are polite letters exchanged between Southern Baptist leaders and brazenly heretical pastors.

And when Southern Baptist leaders denounced extremists, they were talking about the NAACP on the one hand, and the Klan and Citizens’ Councils on the other. In this world of white Christian moderation, those advocating equal treatment immediately and those advocating white supremacy forever (backed up by violence and economic reprisal) were dismissed alike as extreme. There are lots of words we could use to describe this posture, but I don’t want Christian to be one of them.

It is difficult for us to step into the shoes of those leaders, to be able to feel how murky it all seemed, how hard it was for them to imagine black freedom, how much courage even pitifully inadequate statements required. Pastors who spoke boldly tended to lose their jobs. Churches that integrated often lost key members, or split entirely in an angry divorce. When Southern Baptist leaders worried that unity was at stake, they weren’t wrong.

But I submit that they were wrong to think that unity was the highest value. They were wrong to think that heightened tensions were the problem rather than a symptom. They were wrong to tell black people to wait for their freedom. They were wrong to try to stay unified with Christians who hated the commands of Christ.

Now in our own time of heightened political and social tensions, with an election just days away, many Christians want to prioritize unity. We don’t want politics to divide us. This sentiment isn’t wrong, but it does need to be contextualized. What is political does not come down to us from on high; it is negotiated and imagined. It is made up. And that ought to give us pause.

We are familiar with the partisan Christian who has made an idol out of politics. This is the person who will always find a way to toe the party line and make the scriptures line up to it. We are less familiar with the idea that Christians who espouse unity and political toleration can also make an idol out of politics. This is the person who defines “the political” so capaciously that vast areas of the Christian life are reduced to “let’s agree to disagree.” This person finds a way to stay in the moderate middle by framing important questions of Christian discipleship as merely political.

It is sobering to understand that millions of sincere Christians imagined the life and death struggles of African Americans as “politics.” They were wrong to think that way. Now, as the President and his party promote racism and hatred in the vilest terms, Christians who thrill to that message are turning away from Jesus. And Christians who insist that these “political” opinions should not affect Christian unity are profoundly mistaken. Christian ethics must guide us in all aspects of our lives. When we make an exception for politics, we only reveal what our god really is.


* Earlier this year a church was disfellowshipped for its racism. I want to research this more. Please let me know if you are aware of cases of disfellowshipping over racism during the 1950s-1970s.

In General, White Evangelicals Like Racism

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

White evangelicals tend to support racism. They usually like it when they see it. And in general, they think anti-racism is unchristian.

You won’t find any of this out by asking abstract questions about racism. White evangelicals, like everyone else, know how to give the correct answers to abstract questions. But ask them about specific people and movements, and they’ll quickly tell you the real story.

And this makes sense. It is easy to claim support for abstractions. But in real life, it turns out people are complicated and flawed and everything is messy. So those anti-racists are going to say some things you don’t like. That racist President might have other policies that appeal to you. But do you know the score? Can you see the big picture enough to know that flawed anti-racist movements are better than pro-racist ones?

Most white evangelicals can’t see that. The latest data comes from the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual American Values Survey. Here are a couple highlights:

While most Americans, including 75% of black Protestants, believe Trump has encouraged white supremacist groups (hint: this is the correct answer) only 26% of white evangelicals believe this.

While most Americans, including 84% of black Protestants, believe that police killings of black men are part of a larger pattern of how police treat African Americans, 71% of white evangelicals believe the killings are isolated incidents.

While 64% of Americans and majorities of all other major religious groups believe the growing racial and ethnic diversity of the United States will be mostly positive, a majority of white evangelicals say this will be mostly negative.

There could be more interesting nuggets in the data but it appears PRRI hasn’t provided the crosstabs. This comes on the heels of a big survey of evangelicals by Lifeway Research and the Billy Graham Center Institute. Rather than defining evangelicals by self-identification, that survey used a set of theological affirmations. In theory, that might produce a more truly evangelical sample. And while the Billy Graham Center Institute sought to use the data to rehabilitate the reputation of evangelicals, it too produced some damning results.

When asked if they agreed with the statement: “I am disturbed by comments President Trump has made about minorities,” 42% of white evangelicals said yes. Most white evangelicals are not disturbed by racial hatred.

Such data only reaffirms what should already be abundantly clear. Evangelicals of color have shared their experiences repeatedly and have exposed the rampant racism of the white evangelical church. But, as many can attest, such exposure does not cause most white evangelicals to question their racism. It causes them instead to question the sincerity of the anti-racists’ faith.

As most white evangelicals militantly refuse to align their lives with the Gospel, those who seek to follow Jesus must continue to pray that the evil complacency of this religious community would be shattered. At the same time, it is not enough to point out the flaws. We must point positively to Jesus Christ, who really is the savior of the world, who is good news to the poor and oppressed, who offers forgiveness to all and terror to those who excuse hatred of human beings made in his image.

Sex Was The Last Defense of Segregationist Theology

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Eternity Magazine, July, 1972.

As growing numbers of white evangelicals adopted colorblind theologies in the 1960s and 1970s, many of them continued to draw a sharp line at the question of interracial marriage. Even as they came to believe that we’re all the same in God’s eyes, when it came to sex, it turned out that race still mattered a lot.

White evangelical elites tended to be of the opinion that there was nothing in the scriptures that forbade interracial marriage. They thought it was unwise, but not sinful. When they said as much in magazines like Christianity Today and Eternity, they had to tread carefully. Many white evangelical laypeople were quite certain that interracial marriage was an affront to God. So even moderate views usually generated some irate reader responses.

An example of this comes from Eternity in the summer of 1972. After publishing an article concluding that “Biologically, biblically, socially and statistically there is not cause for alarm” about interracial marriage, the magazine heard from some angry readers. Like the Michigan man who wrote,

I am a Christian and love every child of God regardless of race or color. I have a niece and nephew in Africa who are missionaries.

But when it comes to interracial marriage I am very much against it. We should notice that it is very seldom that a white man marries a black woman. Usually a black man marries a white woman; it’s nothing but lust and sensual desires.

Of course your modern churches, liberals, communists and civil rights forces are in favor of it. Take my name off your mailing list.

A Kentucky woman put it more succinctly:

I did not like the article…I do not and never will believe in mixed marriages. If this trend continues, there will eventually be no white or black people…Discontinue my subscription.

You might chuckle at the “there will eventually be no white or black people.” But it’s a line revealing of this woman’s rejection of the emerging colorblind theology. Why was it self-evident to her that it would be bad if there were no black and white people? Because racial difference, she was quite sure, was part of God’s design. There were very important differences between groups, and though God offered spiritual salvation to all, he did not intend for them to merge together socially, much less biologically. This was her common sense.

Another woman from Albany, Georgia wrote that the article obviously wasn’t true,

judging by the nations that have fallen because of interracial marriage. Therefore, please cancel my subscription.

This is a fascinating window into a different world. Apparently there was a belief that interracial marriage had led to the downfall of nations in the past. From where did this idea come? How widespread was it? I hadn’t heard that one before!

And finally, a Texas man thought the whole idea of interracial marriage was a moral absurdity:

Now that you have so readily removed all barriers to the marriage of blacks and whites, perhaps you can give us another article in the near future proving to us that cohabitation of humans and beasts is also permissible?

These attitudes—expressed and printed openly in the 1970s—are a sobering reminder of just how anti-Christian much of our evangelical heritage is.

Why Are White Evangelicals So Selfish?

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Migrants and their children. Also known as: someone else’s problem. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

There is a lot of evidence that white evangelicals are in some ways more selfish and callous toward others than are Americans who do not claim to be Christians. Surveys indicate that white evangelicals are more likely than religiously unaffiliated people to:

support torture of human beings

believe the United States does not have a responsibility to accept refugees

oppose interracial marriage

blame the poor for their poverty

be bothered by immigrants who do not speak English

think that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks

support Donald Trump

believe African Americans do not face a lot of discrimination

In fact, white evangelicals are more likely to believe we face a lot of discrimination than to believe that African Americans do.

In the face of such data, white evangelicals of integrity have to ask themselves whether it would be better for everyone if the number of white evangelicals continues to decline.

Some people might be quick to point out that this data doesn’t tell us much about how white evangelicals behave in their personal lives. They might be very kind and generous to the people around them.

In a way, that’s precisely the point. What is it about white evangelicalism that has made its adherents support racism, hatred, and oppression in the public sphere while acting kindly in our private lives? (We appear to give more of our money away than religiously unaffiliated people, for example).

There is no excuse for this behavior, but it is possible to understand it. Why do you think white evangelicals are often so hateful and selfish?

I took a crack at this several months ago.

In my view there are four big temptations that fatally undermine white evangelicals’ posture toward our fellow human beings. In each temptation, an idea, institution, or thing is valued more highly than people. For Christians, such a devaluation of human beings is practically the very definition of sin. Here are the temptations:

1. Nation is more valuable than people

2. Whiteness is more valuable than people

3. Economic security is more valuable than people

4. Church is more valuable than people

That last one might be surprising but it’s important. I should write about all of these in the near future, but for now I’ll just say this: The through line in all of these temptations is an attenuated, unbiblical sense of public good and public responsibility. When white evangelicals call Jesus our “personal savior” it is more apt than we might realize. In much of white evangelical theology, Jesus has come to save us from private and personal sins—anger, lust, gossip, pride—while the world and its systems are passing away, going to hell in a handbasket.

The idea that he is making all things new gets lost in translation. The kingdom of God, if we even think about it at all, is an otherworldly place to which individuals will go in the future, rather than an expansive, growing force that reorders the here and now. This is exquisitely contradictory, as the black evangelical Bill Pannell has pointed out:

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.

The here and now is important enough to make sure we live in nice neighborhoods and send our kids to good schools, but not important enough to make public investments that might make all neighborhoods and schools better. But we’re not hoarding our resources. We’re merely enjoying God’s blessings, don’t you see? If white evangelicals were homeless itinerants calling people to repent, you could at least respect their radicalism. But when we invest in the status quo like we have no eternal hope it’s hard to take us seriously.

Another White Evangelical Self-Critique, And Its Limits

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The crushed body of Reverend Bruce Klunder lies in the mud, April 1964

It is common to make distinctions between northern and southern white evangelicals during the civil rights era. Northerners are cast as more moderate, while southerners are assumed to be more reactionary. Even if this interpretation captures a truth about the overall posture of these regional groupings, it definitely undersells the extent to which segregationist theology had made inroads among white evangelicals nationwide.

In June, 1964, an editorial in Eternity critiqued white evangelicals as a group with little regional distinctiveness:

Let’s face it. Most evangelicals, whether they are from the North, South, East or West, are supporters of the status quo, and consequently tend to be segregationists. They would rather not discuss the matter at all, but if you press them, they will spout almost the same defensive arguments as the most reactionary Southerner, whose white-dominated world really is threatened. They speak bitterly against the liberals who, they say, substitute social action for the gospel of redemption.”

This is another remarkable critique of white evangelicals from white evangelicals. I find these sorts of documents fascinating in part because it helps us to see how the intra-evangelical debates of today are very old. We’ve seen this movie before. In the age of black lives matter and Donald Trump, the claims and counterclaims and misunderstanding among fellow evangelicals feels very, very familiar.

In that same 1964 editorial, the authors described themselves as “editors of an evangelical magazine that has suffered for taking a position on the racial issue.” Perhaps a dig at the wishy-washy cowardice of Christianity Today is implied there.

Yet even Eternity placed sharp limits on its support for black aspirations. The moment protestors turned to violence the editors were prepared to condemn their behavior with particular venom. After a civil rights protest in Cleveland left a white pastor dead and black protestors attacked the driver of the bulldozer who had inadvertently crushed the man, Eternity described the “animal-like fury” of their assault and condemned “demonic” efforts to “whip up the passions of the crowd.” These descriptions betray a visceral horror lacking in their criticisms of white violence of the same period.

White Evangelical Self-Criticism in the Civil Rights Era

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1963 was a pivotal year for the civil rights movement, and white evangelicals increasingly took notice. As Eternity magazine put it in August, “Let’s not kid ourselves…this is a revolution. And before it is over it will affect your family, your community and your church.” Amid a climate of protest all over the country, evangelical media commented on high-profile events such as the Birmingham Campaign in the spring, followed by the March on Washington at the end of the summer, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church weeks later. But while mainstream media debated the prospects of a civil rights bill in congress, white evangelicals debated the responsibilities of the church.

An August 1963 editorial appearing in Eternity magazine is revealing of the way evangelical self-criticism could be at once hard-hitting—brooking no excuses from white evangelicals who supported the status quo—and yet blind to its own theological paternalism.

The magazine criticized white evangelicals for being “ostrich-like with our heads in the sand” while a revolution swirled around them. “For too long we’ve contented ourselves with platitudes,” when decisive action was needed. What would it look like to move beyond platitudes? It would look like local, church-based activism. “[I]f there are Negroes living in your community, these Negroes are as much the spiritual responsibility of the church as the whites are.” And white evangelicals’ responsibility extended beyond the church walls. If a black family moved into a white neighborhood, white evangelicals must love them.

To those who did not want to upset the norms of a segregated church, the editorial pointed to 1 John 3:14: the Bible said that those who did not love their fellow human beings “abideth in death.”* This was an explosive context in which to raise this biblical interpretation, for it implied that white evangelicals who supported Jim Crow had not actually experienced a saving faith and were thus on the path to eternal damnation.

In an evangelical context, this was the equivalent of going nuclear. In the broader setting of American political debate, there was nothing quite like it. Perhaps the closest analogy would be calling an American citizen unpatriotic or traitorous, a claim that casts one’s opponent outside the community of belonging. For some white evangelicals, the stakes involved in their community’s response to the civil rights revolution were eternal.

For all the hard-hitting criticism the editorial contained, it interpreted white evangelical failure through the lens of theological paternalism. The main reason white evangelicals’ ambivalent posture toward African Americans was so sinful was because black people would be without the gospel if white evangelicals did not reach out to them. The editorial assumed that the gospel was somehow something that white evangelicals—despite their failures—had possession of, in contrast to the gospel void in the black community.

The editorial rhetorically asked its readers if they were trying to reach out to African Americans, or were they forcing them into “a Negro ghetto where they have neither the chance nor the inclination to hear the saving gospel of Jesus Christ?” Combining assumptions about the inadequacy of the black church and the evils of the city, the absence of Christian witness in the ghetto was so obvious to Eternity that it could be assumed. In conclusion, the editorial said the gospel was “hid to the ten per cent of the American citizenry who happen to have colored skins. And we are doing the hiding.” This only made sense if the gospel was the property of white Christians.


*The editorial quoted 1 John 3:14 in the King James Version. The entire verse and the one immediately following it reveal the intensity of Eternity’s criticism: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.”

 

A Must-Read White Evangelical Self-Critique

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If white evangelicalism is ever to become a force for good in the world (you may disagree with the premise but I take it as axiomatic that it is not that now) it must confront its history and tell it anew. It must realize that the story of an evangelicalism that held fast to the faith while the modernists betrayed it is a self-serving myth.

In reality, the white evangelical mainstream in the 20th century was generally a heresy. Instead of carrying the undiluted good news faithfully through the choppy waters of modernity, it bowed down to the most insidious gods of the age—race, nationalism, materialism. White evangelicalism was often the opposite of good news. It was not, to put it in evangelical lingo, a saving faith. It was not news worth sharing.

As both a historian and an evangelical, I reject the idea that the bleak picture sketched above is the whole picture. There were moments of redemption, places of good news, people of noble faith. But when white evangelicals turn this happy story into the whole story they don’t just obscure the darker side, they actively reinforce the hubris of a religious community seeking to avoid repentance.

We won’t act righteously in the present without rebuilding our story from the ground up. The task at hand is not to hold true to the faith of our ancestors as much as to recognize and repent of the sins—their and ours—that have formed us.

At a recent meeting of evangelical leaders at Wheaton College, Dr. Mark Labberton, the President of Fuller Seminary, gave a speech showing what this can look like. The speech is remarkable for its honesty, moral clarity, and historical consciousness. There’s very little excuse-making here. Instead, in a spirit of humility, he reckons not only with what white evangelicalism has become, but with what it has long been:

This is not a recent crisis but a historic one.  We face a haunting specter with a shadow that reaches back further than the 2016 election—a history that helps define the depth of the sorrow, fear, anger, anxiety, and injustice around us. Today’s egregious collusion between evangelicals and worldly power is problematic enough: more painful and revealing is that such collusion has been our historic habit. Today’s collusion bears astonishing—and tragic—continuity with the past.

Right alongside the rich history of gospel faithfulness that evangelicalism has affirmed, there lies a destructive complicity with dominant cultural and racial power. Despite deep gospel confidence and rhetoric, evangelicalism has been long-wedded to a devastating social self-interest that defends the dominant culture over and against that of the gospel’s command to love the “other” as ourselves.  We are not naïve in our doctrine of sin that prefers self over all, but we have failed to recognize our own guilt in it.

Our professed trust in Jesus has not led evangelicals to die to ourselves, but often to justify our own self-assertion—even when that means complicity in the suffering and death of others. The scandal associated today with the evangelical gospel is not the scandal of the Cross of Christ, crucified for the salvation of the world.  Rather it is the scandal of our own arrogance, unconfessed before the Cross, revealing a hypocritical superiority that we dare to associate with the God who died to save the weak and the lost.

Labberton goes on to identify “the top four arenas in which this violation of spiritual and moral character has shown itself.” He names power, race, nationalism, and economics. Here he is on the question of race:

The Bible knows all people to be fully human, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image, knit together in our mother’s womb. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, not just those who arrive as poor, hard-working immigrants fleeing violence or those wasting away in private prisons.  All are dead and in Christ made alive, and the evidence of the resurrection is that the peculiar body of God’s people, a new humanity of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are to be the evidence of a resurrected God. This is the glory of creation and new creation.

Those of us who are white evangelicals must acknowledge that our story is intertwined with, and often responsible for, much of the violence and oppression around racial injustice in our American story.  The stories of Native American, African American, Latino/a, or Asian peoples in the history of the United States cannot be told truthfully without naming the role of white evangelicals who testified to a God of redemption but whose theological, political, social, and economic choices contributed to suffering and injustice.  Stories of devastation are often absent from a happier white evangelical narrative of promised-land life, or buried in a sanitized story that claims that past injustice is not relevant for people of color today—despite the fact that nearly all people of color experience racism and its implications every day around the nation, including those in this room today.

This unreckoned-with reality of white evangelical racism permeates American life, and its tinderbox was lit on fire by the rhetoric of our national life in recent years—whether in reference to Ferguson, or Charlottesville, or “shithole countries” deemed without value. White history narrates the story of America’s heroes, and white evangelical history views those “good guys” as the providence of a good and faithful God.  When some white evangelicals triumphantly pronounce that we now have “the best president the religious right ever had,” the crisis it underscores to millions of people of color is not an indictment of our President as much as it is an indictment of white evangelicalism and a racist gospel.

Read the whole thing. Note the lack of defensiveness and simple honesty. Insofar as his views represent the kind of training seminary students are receiving at Fuller, will these future pastors be able to get jobs in the white evangelical mainstream? I don’t know, but it’s encouraging to see such careful Christian thinking from a white evangelical leader. If only the average white evangelical cared even a little bit about Christian thinking.

Evangelical Theology Can Be Anti-Racist

This is a follow-up to the last post. The Times mentioned a sermon Pastor Robert Morris preached last October. Here is that sermon:

You probably don’t have the time or inclination to watch it so I’ll try to make my comments intelligible whether you’ve watched it or not. Then I’ll compare it to a talk from another white evangelical figure, Timothy Keller.

Morris’s sermon is a fascinating mixture of provocation (he says he’s talking to “ignorant white people”), folk beliefs (races come from Noah’s sons), and inspiring one-liners (you have to take the time to see things from others’ perspectives). He wraps it all up in familiar evangelical tropes about the need for revival.

Morris seems to have given little thought to what race is. As best I can tell, in Morris’s schema race = skin color. And those skin colors/races came from Noah’s sons. One was black, one was white, and one was brown. We know this, Morris says, because of the meanings of their names. Ham, he says, “means hot and black.” No, it doesn’t.

From there he turns to a bizarre discussion about how “a dark skinned person does better in a hotter climate.” This was one of the major points apologists for African slavery made. In all of this, he appears to be completely unaware that he is brushing up against centuries of white supremacist and pro-slavery thought. He is not advocating the so-called “curse of Ham” defense of slavery here, but he’s coming far closer to it than he probably realizes. His adoption of erroneous centuries-old etymological assumptions about the meaning of “Ham” combined with a literal interpretation of Noah’s descendants as the origin of race seems to lead unavoidably to the conclusion that black people were in fact cursed. I’d like to hear him talk about this more. I doubt he’s aware of the implications of his words.

Morris goes on to try to shock his audience with the idea that Adam and Eve were brown and there are black people in the Bible. This is the Christian parallel for the worst sort of Black History Month celebrations, where we locate random “contributions” from black people without dealing with the bigger picture.

One might have hoped that Morris would bring real theological reflection to his task and explain how an evangelical interpretation of scripture is brought to bear on racism in our time and place. Instead, specificity of any kind is Morris’s greatest enemy. He wants to speak as broadly as possible, so as to appear to say a lot while saying very little. So of his seven points we get things like, “racism is evil.”

And you can forget application. We need things like “healing” and “understanding” and “revival.” Everything was interpersonal. You won’t hear anything about power. If anyone in that church walked out knowing what they were actually supposed to do they’re much better mind-readers than I.

I believe Morris was well-meaning. Does that make it better or worse?

Now, in contrast, here’s Tim Keller giving a talk on “Racism and Corporate Evil.”

I won’t dwell on this at any length. But the contrasts are huge, and it’s not just because Keller is actually engaging with serious people who have thought about these issues (he discusses Michelle Alexander and William Stuntz). The bigger contrast is that Keller is being more evangelical than Morris. It’s very hard to find in Morris’s sermon a robust sense of the gospel and how it shapes Christian understanding of race. For Keller, that’s the whole point.

In Keller’s talk, whether you agree with it or not, you have to reckon with it as a serious attempt to think about racism in the context of an evangelical reformed view of the gospel. As Keller builds his case, he shows how it is precisely his evangelical view of sin and grace that compels him to think in terms of corporate responsibility. Thus the Christian who claims to believe that “in Adam all died” but then turns around and says “I never owned slaves, why do I have any responsibility?” is not connecting the gospel to American life.

From a cultural and political point of view, Morris is the true evangelical figure in this comparison. But from a theological perspective, Keller’s more sophisticated argument is also the more evangelical one. Where Morris offers vague tropes infused with lingering assumptions of southern white culture, Keller shows that taking responsibility for systemic injustice is a logical consequence of his evangelical theology.

We don’t need to try to convert congregations like Pastor Morris’s to political liberalism. That’s not the point. But maybe we can try to persuade them to take Christianity more seriously.