Christian media has been abuzz in recent days over a three-way “conversation on race” including Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy, megachurch pastor Louie Giglio, and rapper Lecrae. If this seems like an… odd choice of panelists to throw together for this sort of conversation, you’re not alone in thinking this. But it certainly provided no shortage of fodder for hot takes, so much that it’s taken a couple of waves of reactions to dissect the whole hot mess.
The first wave focused on a clip of Giglio discussing strategies to prompt Christian reflection on white privilege. He suggested that if “white privilege” is a rhetorical barrier, perhaps the phrase “white blessing” could get white Christians in particular over the hump and further the conversation. This “blessing,” Giglio stressed in context, flowed out from the “curse” that was America’s racist past.
Giglio’s point was obvious: However you phrase it, white people need to acknowledge and discuss honestly the undeserved gifts that have come to them, and the terrible price that was historically paid to pave the way for that white way of life. It was not even an assertion that I would affirm myself. I find it to be a low-resolution, simplistic reduction of history that sweeps aside many complicating factors and binds an undue burden on the backs of white Christians today. Yet, regardless, nobody could question Giglio’s sincerity.
But, as everyone should have learned by now, no amount of sincerity is enough to cover the damned spot of a bit of wrong-speak. Giglio’s phrase “white blessing” provoked a swift backlash across social media as people signaled their virtue and clutched their collective pearls. One Grand Inquisitress offered up a particularly lovely example in a Twitter thread “rebuking” Giglio for his “sin.” It wants only the sound effect of turning thumb-screws in the background:
Dear .@louiegiglio, with this thread I follow the example of Paul, who publicly rebuked Peter in book of Galatians when Peter tried to placate the faction called judaizers by practicing segregation. Your championing of the term #whiteblessing in reference to #slavery is SIN. 1/ https://t.co/FfUYP3yoNV
— Lisa Sharon Harper (@lisasharper) June 16, 2020
No honest observer believes that Giglio believes that American chattel slavery was a good thing. You’d have to be willfully stupid or disingenuous to think this. But of course, willful disingenuousness is the new norm.
Giglio’s inevitable tearful apology was turned around within a couple days of the dialogue’s release. In the short video, Giglio begs forgiveness for his wrong-speak, meekly tells the camera that he thinks slavery was bad, and re-affirms that white Christians need to talk about their privilege.
Meanwhile, Dan Cathy avoided Giglio’s fate by not making any slips of the tongue while groveling. His reflections all but excused the burning down of the Wendy’s at the site where Rayshard Brooks was recently killed, saying we need to “understand” the “frustration” and “pain” that would lead to such a violent backlash. A bit later in the dialogue, he picked up a shoe-brush, knelt at Lecrae’s feet and passed it over his tennies as a symbol of “putting words to action,” to express “a sense of shame, a sense of embarrassment.” The cringe was palpable.
Current events are bringing a surge in conditioned self-shaming displays like this, but they’ve been ongoing among white Christians for years. I’m reminded of an incident some years ago when Christian singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson came under fire for a music video of his hit worship song “Is He Worthy?” His crime was that all the extras who responded to the casting call happened to be white, and he shot the video anyway. Retaliation was similarly swift, and the subsequent breast-beating similarly abject.
This sort of thing should be manifestly disturbing to the objective observer. Unfortunately, too many Christian ministers see it as part of a good, healthy and right “learning process” for “the white church.” Consider this blog post and linked sermons from Thomas McKenzie, an Anglican priest and friend of Peterson. McKenzie writes:
Christians will tell you that we are all sinners. Each one of us is broken by sin. We don’t just do bad things, we are infested with a disease. This disease permeates every aspect of us. As St. Paul puts it, “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:22-23, ESV)
On this, all Christians should agree. So why is it that if I say that “we need to ask the Holy Spirit to identify the bigotry in our hearts,” some people recoil? It’s as if they say “I’m a sinner, but I’m not THAT kind of sinner!”
This is the sin of pride, the first and most powerful of the Seven Deadly. In my pride, I compare myself to my own assessment of those around me—and by that standard I am self-vindicated. Pride refuses to acknowledge the reality of my own failure to live up to the standards set by the God of the Bible. If I refuse to ask the Holy Spirit to enter my heart, if I refuse to compare my life to the teachings of Christ, if I refuse to take an honest assessment of myself, then of course I will come out looking pretty good! If I compare myself to other people, I’m OK. But when I compare myself to the perfection of Christ, I’m lost. Let me be clear: you are more racist than Jesus.
Christians need to be willing to stand up and name this kind of rhetoric for what it is: gaslighting. As a thought experiment, consider if a Christian minister stood up and preached that all Christian adults need to ask the Holy Spirit to identify the pedophilia in our hearts. Consider if he responded to the congregational backlash by saying “Oh, I see, so you admit that you’re a sinner, just not THAT kind of sinner. This is the sin of pride. Let me be clear: you are more of a pedophile than Jesus.” Hopefully, anyone could see that such a sermon would be disturbingly manipulative. But the pattern is the same.
Unfortunately, too many Christians allow themselves to be thus manipulated when the topic of discussion is race. VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer has recently been creating content that analyzes his own life story through an anti-racist lens and takes on what he believes to be a just burden of guilt for the privileges he’s enjoyed as a middle-class white man. In this 17-minute video, he walks through the socio-economic history of the black underclass, concluding by saying that while he doesn’t claim to have the solution, the first step towards a solution is to “care.” Yet it is wholly possible to “care” while still respectfully disagreeing with the conclusions Vischer draws in his analysis. It is even possible to “care” while not only being unsure of the solutions, but believing there are no “solutions” to these endemic issues per se. This is where a little Thomas Sowell would go a long way.
None of this is to deny the reality of ongoing racial injustice in the black experience. I think about my friend T. K., a gifted entrepreneur whose success and social status have counted for nothing when he’s stopped and frisked and his car searched with no justification. His story is not unique. Racism also can and should be weighed as a possible contributing factor in white-on-black homicides. New evidence seems to indicate that the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery was a gruesome example thereof. Any thoughtful, nuanced conversation about race relations in America will acknowledge this, even if there is reason to reject the particular narratives of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Christians can also acknowledge and grieve the fact that some white church leaders in the past were silently complicit or even actively involved in racist violence. But they should no more be shamed for any of these crimes than people of any demographic should be shamed qua demographic for a crime they never committed. They should be shamed no more than German citizens should be shamed for the Holocaust, or citizens of the American West should be shamed for the Trail of Tears. To import this kind of shame culture into the church is to import a framework that is fundamentally incompatible with the Christian gospel. It erodes trust, breeds suspicion, and turns Christians into Pharisees.
No white Christian in good faith denies that the black underclass in this country is in pain. No white Christian in good faith does not earnestly hope for a mending of the rift between white and black Americans. But if you tell white Christians that the gaslighting will continue until morale improves, don’t be surprised to find that you have mended nothing. You have only created new rifts.