Backwards and forwards

Backwards and forwards April 22, 2021

The Left Should Embrace — Not Mock — Evangelicals,” Skylar Baker-Jordan writes for what used to be Newsweek.

The false binary there is annoying — particularly in service of a Michael-Wear-ish argument for good-faith outreach in response to bad-faith hostility. It’s also not helpful to latch onto one of Pat Robertson’s occasional spasms of lucidity as evidence that Robertson and those he’s indoctrinated for years are therefore ripe for or open to persuasion.

But let’s set that aside for now and stipulate that, yes, dismissive mockery of white evangelicals — the kind that lumps all of them together, punching down — is not just unkind but counter-productive. (Not all — perhaps not even most — mockery is dismissive, of course, and sanctimoniously pious smarm is smarmier than most, so responding to it with snark is a moral and ethical duty — something owed to the perpetrators of that smarm that it would be a sin and an unkindness for us to withhold. But that’s tangential to my more specific point here.)

The Worth Our Time portion of Baker-Jordan’s piece comes from his assertion that it’s off-putting and unfair to examine white evangelical racism:

This does not mean they [white evangelicals] are inherently racist, though. As Professor Nancy D. Wadsworth wrote last year in the Washington Post, some evangelicals have “difficulty acknowledging the power of structural and systemic racism because of their focus on free-will individualism; their belief that ‘racism’ primarily means personal prejudice; and their notion that social justice Christianity violates the gospel.”

I don’t know Wadsworth’s work overall, but the quote from her here is not doing or saying what Baker-Jordan seems to think it is. She’s sketching the whiteness of white evangelical theology — the ways in which it functions to accommodate, distract from, overlook, and defend injustice. Whether or not, as individuals, “they are inherently racist,” their theology is.

Baker-Jordan seems to think this is exculpatory: That Wadsworth’s theological explanation for it offers a theological excuse for white evangelical support for (or, at best, apathy toward) “structural and systemic racism.” He’s arguing that we can’t hold white evangelicals to account for their support for/apathy toward racism because, after all, they’re heirs of a theology designed to make them like that.

But these theological mechanisms for embodying and rationalizing endemic racism cannot be cited as excuses for that same racism. “I am complacent toward injustice because I am immersed in a theological system that has trained me to be complacent toward injustice” describes my complacency and complicity. It does not excuse it or erase it or otherwise alter the fact that it puts me on the wrong side of every diatribe in the book of Isaiah.

Consider one odd detail of the whiteness of white evangelicalism: the way that justice was literally translated out of our English-language Bibles.

In Justice: Rights and Wrongs, Nicholas Wolterstorff describes this problem for the heirs of our white-theology-shaped translations:

Those who approach the New Testament solely through the English translations face a serious linguistic obstacle to apprehending what these writings say about justice. In most English translations, the word “justice” occurs relatively infrequently. It is no surprise, then, that most English-speaking people think the New Testament does not say much about justice; the Bibles they read do not say much about justice. …

But this is because, as Wolterstorff goes on to say, the more than 300 references to “just” or “justice” in the Greek texts are translated to read, instead, “righteous” or “righteousness” — a word that white theology has, for centuries, worked hard to invest with an entirely different set of implications and connotations. And so we English-speaking white Christians open a text filled with relentless affirmations of justice and find there, instead, a repeated call to shallow, individualistic piety.

Given that theological inheritance — Bibles from which all references to justice have been systematically removed — it is, as Wolterstorff says, “no surprise” that those reading only such Bibles would find they have little to say about justice. Or that they would find in those Bibles nothing to challenge or unsettle white theologies that, likewise, de-emphasize and dismiss concerns with justice.

But, again, that describes our predicament. It does not excuse it. And it does not mean that it is not a predicament — that we’re not in trouble, in error, in sin, due to this theological inheritance.

As the heirs of a theology designed and developed to accommodate injustice, we are prone to continue to accommodate injustice — to participate in it. And as participants in injustice, we are prone to seek out theologies that will accommodate it. And so we will continue the theological work of our ancestors, refining and reinforcing the aspects of those theologies that serve to keep us complacent and complicit. We didn’t start the fire, but we’re keeping it burning. We are participants, not wholly passive heirs, actively playing a role in the creating and sustaining of justice-dismissing, justice-preventing, justice-averse theologies.

Descriptions of those theologies, like the one Wadsworth provides, are descriptions of a deliberate construct that is perpetually being constructed. We can’t fall into the trap of pretending that the existence of such constructs excuses their function. White evangelical theology is not some accidental impediment that just so happens to prevent white evangelicals from “acknowledging the power of structural and systemic racism.” It is, rather, a construct designed specifically in order to prevent that.

White evangelicals do not have a hard time recognizing the meaning and power of racism because their theology emphasizes individual sin and de-emphasizes the gospel’s mandate for justice; white evangelicals have created and adopted a theology that emphasizes individual sin and sidelines the gospel’s mandate for justice in order to justify racism.

It’s slave-trader theology — slave-trader soteriology shaped by slave-trader hermeneutics. It’s a construct that only exists because white Christians required such a thing to make it possible for them to imagine themselves to be good Christian people while participating in kidnapping, theft, abuse, rape, torture, and human trafficking on a massive scale.

White evangelical theology is not why white evangelicals support racial injustice and inequality. Support for racial injustice and inequality is why white evangelical theology is what it is.

We can acknowledge that there are generational aspects of this — varying levels of awareness and therefore of culpability. The “august divines” of the white American church, as Douglass mockingly called them, were deliberate, intentional, and fully aware of the ways in which they were constructing theologies and hermeneutics in defense of slavery, while the heirs of those theologies and hermeneutics were baptized into them, indoctrinated and confirmed into them, without quite that same full awareness and intention. This indoctrination has been conducted in a way that discourages, or even forbids, any suspicion or curiosity or interrogation of the reasons these theologies were created. And so it is understandable that these unwitting heirs of white theologies would, because of that inheritance, be poorly equipped for “acknowledging the power of structural and systemic racism.” They’re a bit like the fish in the old joke asking “What’s water?” — so fully immersed in that which they were born into that they struggle to recognize its existence.

But they’re still swimming in it. And these white theologies, like all forms of self-deception or self-distraction, require some degree of conscious agency — some measure of “self” that is the active subject and not merely the passive object of that deceiving. The inheritors of white theologies may have inherited all those discouragements and prohibitions against questioning them, but the possibility of questioning them has not been completely erased — particularly not in the context of a larger American society in which, oh, roughly everything else one witnesses invites and demands that one ask those questions.

At the very least, the heirs of white evangelical theology have to be haunted by some sneaking suspicion involving the dismal track record of their spiritual inheritance. This theological tradition into which they’ve been born and born again was Very Wrong on the most fundamental moral and theological questions confronting it, and it was Very Wrong on the weightiest matters over and over and over again. It’s not credible to say, “This is my theological inheritance so it is all I know and I cannot know any better” when, surely, I also know that.



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