I’d like to say a few things to those entrusted with leading evangelical Christian communities through this racially charged climate. I once considered myself one of those people but, as you can tell from the name of my blog, I changed my mind.
I would argue that leaving the fold does not disqualify me from this discussion. On the contrary, the fact that I myself was once a committed insider–a leader, even–but later exited the faith should make my input all the more interesting to you. I am also a teacher for an inner city school district in the poorest state in the country, which also happens to be both the most religious as well as the most famously racist, so I have seen firsthand how institutional racism works.
You know how companies conduct “exit interviews” with those who are leaving, presumably in order to learn something from their departure? What if churches did exit interviews…and actually listened to what their people told them on the way out? I know better than to hope for such a thing in reality, but it’s an interesting thought experiment, isn’t it?
In that spirit, I would like to offer some constructive criticism to any church leader who has ears to hear it:
It’s not your fault that your people cannot be made to care about those who aren’t like them. This limitation was baked into your theology long before your grandparents even caught each other’s eye. It took the shape that it did through centuries of social change and upheaval, and it ultimately came to benefit one kind of people—your people, as it turns out—more than anyone else.
That’s why it’s so hard to get your people to care about the kinds of people Jesus was always going on about. He never stopped talking about the many ways the popular theology of his day prevented them from caring about “the least among them.”
Stop and reread that last sentence, would you? It wasn’t sin that made them so indifferent toward those beneath them, it was their theology. They bought into a purity culture that had blinded them to the needs of those outside their own group. That’s why Jesus was always screaming at their theologians. It’s also why he caused such a chaotic disruption in the Temple courts right before he got arrested. At least in part because of their theology, the poor were being taken advantage of…again.
So what’s this got to do with you?
You have tried so many things in order to make your people care about those who don’t look like them, but nothing seems to produce any long term change. Only those who are naturally generous and selfless ever seem to internalize the message. You’ve tried to make caring for the marginalized and the outcasts a bigger priority, but it’s like the church won’t let you.
Why is that? Why doesn’t the power of the Holy Spirit actually make this happen for people who aren’t already naturally generous and self-giving? I cannot answer that question for you, but I can say that your theology isn’t helping. On the contrary, it is enabling the worst elements within the very culture you were taught that you were supposed to be redeeming.
It’s not your fault that things are the way they are, but it’s still your responsibility to deal with it. You signed up for this job, and anyone who wants to be good at their calling has to learn a new thing or two every once in a while, don’t you agree? Do you still talk about having “teachable moments?” Right now is probably one of those moments.
A Conspicuous Absence
This past Sunday one of my former heroes, Atlanta pastor Louie Giglio, put his foot in his mouth by suggesting that an alternate phrase to “white privilege” could be “white blessing.” He was attempting to find a lesson in the midst of the not-so-slow-motion-train-wreck that is America in the year 2020. I think I understand where he was trying to go with that, maybe, and he has since apologized for his choice of words.
But the thing is: Giglio is an incredibly articulate and winsome guy. Like most who rise to the top of the evangelical ministry food chain, he knows how to make the merciless torture and execution of Jesus seem like a beautiful, even elegant divine solution to the problem of evil in the world. Anyone who can make news this bad sound so good should be able to articulate what his faith has to say about the racial fault lines running beneath the social world in which he lives.
But what, in fact, does his faith have to say about this? What, if anything, does the evangelical Christian message have to offer the black teenager who worries that he will end up either shot or in jail for little more than being born into a situation out of which he sees is no viable path? Does Giglio’s faith offer a real-life, present-day solution for the fissures disrupting our diverse communities across the country?
I would argue it does not. It doesn’t even view social concerns as a part of its purview. The evangelical tradition that Giglio inherited–and has helped to shape ever since–can only speak to the individual life of a believer and to the life of the church as an entity quite separate from the rest of the world. Even the charitable work they champion sticks to individuals seeking to help other individuals, but it’s rarely enjoined upon the church as a whole.
Does your faith really have a vision for the larger world outside of the four walls of the church?
If you’re a Baptist like Giglio, any motion toward a collective social responsibility rooted in the teachings of Jesus got surgically removed by Southern white evangelicals in the days leading up to the Civil War. Anything still left in there after that era was then hollowed out once and for all during the Jim Crow years and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
I wrote about this concept a couple of years ago, and I’ll repeat here what I said back then in order to reiterate the point I am making about white evangelicals:
Why doesn’t [President Trump’s] obvious disdain for black and brown people bother them? In fact, why isn’t it as obvious to them as it is to the rest of us who didn’t vote for him?
The answer is that disregard for blacks, for immigrants, for women, and for the poor is woven into the fabric of white evangelicalism in ways they cannot see because it’s all about what their theology doesn’t say rather than what it does. It’s about what their theological tradition has eliminated from consideration over the course of their long and discordant history rather than what it actually speaks about explicitly.
Call it apophatic racism, if you will. Its shape doesn’t come from what is said, but from what is left unsaid.
Somewhere around the time of the Civil War, white evangelicals began changing their minds about whether or not the church was supposed to impact the world at all—aside from helping people escape from it, that is. Whatever previous vision they had for their shining “City on a Hill,” it was discarded when the Confederacy died.
During those tumultuous years, evangelical communities found new theological frameworks which conveniently eliminated the social message of Jesus in favor of an eager expectation for imminent, triumphal return of Jesus. Rather than seeking to change the world for the better, this more pessimistic eschatology insisted that “you shouldn’t polish brass on a sinking ship.”
If Jesus is coming back soon to put the world back in order, what motivation is there to fix anything before he gets here? What would be the point?
What About Life Before Death?
I’ve been listening intently to my evangelical friends and family in order to discern how they are processing these contentious times, and their reactions seem to break down into two basic camps.
Group One: This is all media-generated fake news. Racism died with the election of Obama and now black and brown people are just looking for handouts. They should get over themselves and get real jobs like the rest of us, or else go back to wherever they came from.
If you would like to see examples of this, I could simply let you scroll through my social media feed so you can see what people around me are saying, particularly my former classmates. But I’m sure you’ve already seen this stuff yourself. Interspersed among those folks, I am also seeing another perspective:
Group Two: We are devastated by the collective pain that we are seeing displayed by our fellow human beings and we believe that, as the people of God and the body of Christ on earth, we are to be doing something to alleviate their suffering and…well…to, um…to share the gospel with them, and…
…and then what? Get them saved again? Re-introduce them to Jesus so they can live in peace and harmony after they have died and gone to heaven? What does your faith have to say to those who have already been introduced to Jesus, and whose places in heaven are already secured?
The answer is that you have nothing more to offer them besides going out and getting more folks saved. And it’s not your fault—you didn’t create the tradition you inherited—but it’s still your responsibility to decide what to do about it. Once you’ve become aware of the situation, you can no longer plead ignorance.
I remember how difficult it was to critically analyze the faith I was raised to believe. I sympathize with the people I love who haven’t yet figured out how much is wrong with the religious tradition they inherited. I certainly harbor less judgment toward them than do my fellow skeptics who were never sincere people of faith to begin with. They rarely understand how hard it is to leave.
Related: “Why Smart People Believe Nonsense“
You can be forgiven for absorbing and internalizing the narratives we were taught as children. We all do that because that’s just how we learn—through imitation. But once you’ve reached your 30s or your 40s, you should have started learning how to critically evaluate the things you were taught from birth. By the age of 50, you have seen more than enough to know that a great deal of what you were taught to believe is absolute horse crap.
Why can’t you see it? Is the cost of being honest with yourself too high? Would you lose everything and everyone you love because they could not follow you out into the larger world? Man, let me tell you: I know exactly how that feels.
But there are other people who are hurting, too, and from problems quite different from your own. Your community of faith is supposed to have the Spirit of Love and Truth living inside of them. Does this presence actually make any concrete difference? Does it drive any real change in the world around them? Do those institutions even view these things as their problem?
What Good Is Your News?
Louie Giglio stumbled this week because his message ultimately boils down to individual salvation, and even that is limited primarily to things that aren’t supposed to happen until after you’re dead.
Until then, you’re supposed to sing and pray and proclaim how wonderful is life beyond the world in which we currently live. You are pilgrims in a foreign land awaiting the day when you will finally see things get knocked back into place, but you cannot expect too much of that to become real before you reach the end of your life.
As Billy Graham himself once said after hearing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech:
Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.
In the end it wasn’t white evangelicals who led the effort to desegregate our schools. They were the ones fighting the hardest to prevent it.
And yes, I know you were taught that the “good news” carries with it a tension between the already and the not yet. I read the same books you did, so you don’t have to remind me. Over the years, theologians have worked hard to reconcile the wildly competing visions of the various biblical writers, and we always celebrated those who did the best job of it for us. Their rationalizations alleviated so much cognitive dissonance that in time we came to mimic their precise vocabulary. It takes a great deal of brain power to make this stuff appear coherent, and we were so grateful that those people spoke up.
But I’d like you to consider another way to see this. I recommend that you seize the opportunity that a cultural moment like this provides in order for you to ask whether or not your message really has anything to say to those whom you were taught it should be helping.
What exactly are you saving people from? Themselves alone? Poor decision making on a purely individual level? Or maybe you believe you are saving them from “the bad place” so that when they die they can get to “the good place?” Until then, the best you can offer them is some moving music and stirring messages to tide them over until the real stuff gets started?
I would argue that over time, religions learn to make fewer and fewer claims about life in the real world that could be critically analyzed and/or proven to be false. Making the world a better place would clearly fall into that category, thus that idea did not survive the last two centuries.
Early Christians expected clear divine intervention through visible miracles, and those kinds of claims still sell very well among the most credulous of people in the world today. But among those with higher levels of education living in more developed communities, a different kind of Christianity has taken root which avoids these problems completely.
Even the culture warriors who led the pack just a few short years ago are beginning to sound the retreat, either calling for the Benedict Option or else for what I call the Amish method of evangelism—having lots and lots of babies and then shielding them entirely from the outside world for the duration of their insular lives. Yes, that’s exactly what the planet needs now—another religiously driven population explosion. Sometimes I wish there really were a God so that he or she could come down and slap these communities for being so shortsighted and self-centered.
If your message offers no real social change outside the walls of your community, you shouldn’t be surprised to see your numbers dwindling over time. And truth be told, maybe it really doesn’t have any such thing to contribute. Primitive Christians expected the world to end at any minute—in their lifetime—which would explain why it possesses no larger vision for the world we now live in.
Both Jesus and Paul seemed to think the end was nigh, and when they turned out to be wrong, theologians eventually came along who were skilled enough at hermeneutical gymnastics to make it appear as if they were somehow still right all along. People are relentless in their quest to believe that they are right, no matter how many times they have to change their minds.
So the remaining question for you is: What, if anything, does your faith tradition have to offer people who are suffering in the world today. Do you even see it? Or do you “not see color?” People who say that feel it’s a good thing, but really what they are saying is that they don’t see racism. But of course they don’t! They benefit from it far too much to ever be able to see it.
That’s the “white blessing” that Giglio was talking about. It’s definitely real, but my question is: What power does the Christian message possess to do anything about it, and I mean collectively? Has it started working yet? When should we expect this “not yet” to start becoming an “already,” anyway? Is a couple of thousand years long enough?
Could it be that maybe you were born into a religion that “works” for some but does very little for everyone else? Something to consider.
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