White evangelicals’ ‘new chapter’ on race (cont’d.)

White evangelicals’ ‘new chapter’ on race (cont’d.) September 1, 2016

Yesterday, we took a first look at Christianity Today editor Mark Galli’s recent essay, “[White] Evangelicals and Race — A New Chapter,” which is subtitled, “Why racial justice and reconciliation are now core for the movement.”

As I wrote yesterday, our first response should be to applaud this effort. Despite everything else going on in this fabulous pratfall of an editorial, what we have here is an earnest attempt by a bona fide white evangelical gatekeeper to assert that “racial justice and reconciliation are now core” principles, values and agenda items for the white evangelical tribe.

This granting of permission is welcome, even if it is at the same time deeply troubling. The very form and fact of the essay does as much to reinforce the dynamics of such permission-granting as it does to deal with any of the substance of the thing being permitted. That assertion of control and entitled legitimacy is as much the theme of the essay as anything it has to say about the secondary matter of what such control is now being expanded to include, and that can make the whole thing a bit hard to swallow. It echoes the self-important religious leaders who felt their authority as arbiters of legitimacy was being undermined by John’s baptisms and Jesus’ preaching of good news to the poor. It echoes the self-important white evangelical leaders a generation ago who witnessed the Civil Rights Movement from the sidelines, asking “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Who is it who gave you this authority?”

And it makes the entire thing read like exactly the sort of clueless arrogance that the phrase “Mighty white of you” exists to deflate.

“Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Who is it who gave you this authority?”

This also illustrates why the gatekeeper ecclesiology of the white evangelical tribe can’t be comfortably reconciled with evangelical Christianity’s biblicism. If you are a member of that tribe, then you now have permission — permission previously withheld and denied — to seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice. You have such permission not because of Matthew 6:33, but because it was granted to you by the gatekeepers, tribal authorities and defenders of the boundaries.

That’s a problem because it elevates the authority of the self-appointed “defenders of the authority of scripture” above the authority of scripture. And it’s a problem because if such permission exists primarily because it has been granted by gatekeepers, then that same permission can be withdrawn, at any time, by those same gatekeepers.

One subtle way Galli’s essay reinforces all of this is by attributing white evangelicals’ change of heart on “racial justice and reconciliation” to white evangelicals themselves, acting mostly on their own. Galli calls this a “God moment” — an epiphany that arrives “when circumstances fall together in a way that suggests God is at work in our lives in a fresh way.” He attributes this epiphany to divine grace and divine revelation — a bestowal of divine favor on people favored by God.

It’s understandable, of course, that a white Christian writing for an audience of white Christians, would make those white Christians and their white Christianity his central focus. But the way Galli’s essay centers white Christians diminishes and sidelines everyone else. Their role and function here is tangential — significant only to the extent that they influence the important people, the white Christians at the center of this story and, presumably, at the center of God’s story:

We are currently experiencing a new “God moment,” when God is shining his burning light on how our nation and our churches are fractured by racial division and injustice. In the past two years, we’ve seen image after image of injustice perpetrated against black Americans. We’ve studied the statistics. And most important, we’ve heard the anguished cry of a suffering community that is understandably hurting, angry, and demanding progress.

Moderate white evangelicals, who make up the bulk of our movement, see more clearly than ever how racism is embedded in many aspects of our society, from business to law enforcement to education to church life. We have been slow to hear what the black church has been telling us for a while.

I choose to laugh, rather than cry, at the staggering understatement of that final sentence — the only reference in this essay to the black church, to black voices, black witness or black lives. “We have been slow to hear what the black church has been telling us” for centuries.

But we no longer need to hear, or to listen, because we have had a “God moment” on our own and now we know what to do, and how to do it, and all that this will entail. And now it’s legitimate because it’s us doing the talking.

But all of the above tends to be true of any Christianity Today editorial granting official permission for pretty much anything, regardless of the substance of the thing being newly permitted. What separates this essay from those — what has the potential to make it a baby step in the direction of a truly “new chapter” — is that substance, the idea that “racial justice and reconciliation are now core” values, goals and principles for white evangelicalism.

And that, again, is worth celebrating, commending and encouraging. For all that needs to be questioned and corrected in this piece — and we’re still a long way from done with that — it’s major intent is to urge white evangelicals to see racial justice as integral to their faith. That’s a Good Thing.

I don’t want to take away from the goodness of that Good Thing by dismissing it to focus exclusively on this essays many problems. There’s a sense in which what Galli has given us is a hortatory pep-rally, an aspirational message intended to challenge and inspire white evangelicals to take up this long-neglected mission. Criticizing that, then, might seem a bit churlish — like sitting in the back of the locker room on Friday Night Lights and saying, “Actually, coach, clear eyes and full hearts are no guarantee of victory. …”

But this criticism is necessary because, while Galli and CT now want to pursue racial justice and reconciliation very badly, that seems to be exactly what they are doing here — pursuing justice very badly. The aspects of this that are counter-productive and potentially harmful are quite likely to outweigh and overwhelm the aspects of it that are positive.

“We must do something!” is a worthy sentiment, but it needs to be directed toward doing the right something. “Here am I, send me,” is a noble statement, but it doesn’t mean you should assume that you already know the way, or the destination, or how to prepare for the journey.

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