A preacher friend posited the statement recently that “if America is ever going to heal from her great racial divide, she must then be honest about how the white supremacy and nationalism displayed on January 6th, 2021 no longer represents the ‘fringe’ of the political landscape, but the mainstream.”
And while I completely agree with both the “if” and the “then,” I don’t think that the wish for racial healing is going to come to pass unless there is a desire to be healed. Because until there is the wanting, there will never come the healing.
There isn’t a desire to heal from the racial divide because that racial divide enormously benefits white people and their current advantages. The desire to keep the racial divide intact, and to exacerbate it when it appears to be healing, is such a built-in behavior for white people that the behaviors are displayed prominently in the white Evangelical church to such a degree that white supremacy and white Evangelicalism are often coterminous to a very great degree.
Which is weird to me. I’ve been in the Christian faith since the late 60s (or earlier, if you would grant my understanding of the grace of God while not yet in grade school was true understanding). In that faith I’ve come to believe some things about the faith that are “true,” sometimes right away, sometimes in the very long term, and sometimes not until after we depart this earth where we will find out — I’m told — whether our dreams were true or not.
Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.
One of the primary things about the faith that I’ve learned is that it is supposed to not only be an intelligent faith that has principles and dogmas that can be explained with reasoned words, but also it is a transformative faith that will take a human where they are and bring about an evolving change in their speech and behaviors and language and even, perhaps, their underlying character. I’ve seen it in others, and maybe it’s true in me. At least I hope it is.
But key here is the idea that becoming a Christian is more than signing a contract. It is not taking on a burden of obedience just because we have to be “good.” (Well, in a sense, we are all under that obligation, whether we like it or not. But that’s not the primary purpose of Christianity.) It is not giving mental assent or even emotional commitment.
Christianity is about so taking in the work and words of Jesus of Nazareth, who called us to follow him, to learn his ways, and to repeat his works to the world so that more people can be gathered in for healing and community, to the point that those words and those works dig deeply into the most central part of our being to bring about change in us. Slowly, it seems, for most people. Quickly for a very few. Almost non-existent for some, sadly.
But still, a central promise of Christianity isn’t so much the judicial act of forgiveness and the response of repentance as the underlying change in our very person so that we want to give up our brokenness and live in healing. And given the experience of most Christians, we are not promised this as something that comes right away but instead something comes slowly, over time, as we gradually learn the Deep Obedience of faith and repentance.
As C.S. Lewis once said, it is not success that Our Father Above is looking for so much as the willingness to try again because we believe in what’s promised. Or as Dr. King said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” You put your foot out, and then bear down your entire body weight in trust that the step is there.
Then you do it again, and again, and again.
And yet . . .
I look around my country and my white American church, and people, we’ve lost our minds. The idea that “church” is to gather people together for mutual help and strength and correction and hope has, in the main for the white Evangelicals, become a place of political agitation and allegiance to right-wing causes and candidates and policies that are distinctly at odds with the words and works of Jesus.
I won’t go into all that is being done that is in contradiction to the Gospel in white Evangelical churches. I’m not concerned with the praxis of worship or confessions or communion styles. I know that for some these are core issues. They aren’t for me. They are containers and lavers and basins and candles and altar cloths — useful for the ceremony, but not at all the meaning behind the ceremony.
My concern is that I cannot imagine Jesus with an AR-15 cheering on the caging of children, the forced sterilization of migrant mothers, the starvation of the poor, the marginalization of veterans, the dismissal of the sick, the mocking of the unhoused, the abuse directed at anyone who is not white and straight and “Christian.” I can’t see Jesus doing this or being this, and yet the people who claim to follow this Jesus of the Not-Abuse are themselves lustily joining in with grossly immoral and immodest actions to “keep America white and Christian.”
But look at Evangelicalism today, and where is the change? Where is the repentance? Where is the willingness to follow Jesus and do what Jesus told us to do?
How can this be, when the Evangelical church has preached “the Gospel” for its entire existence? How can this be when “the Gospel” is a central feature of Evangelicalism itself.
In Bebbington’s Quadrilateral, the four features of Evangelicalism are:
- Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life-long process of following Jesus
- Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
- Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
- Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity
Bebbington is a historian, not a theologian, but he speaks from the study of Christianity, especially Evangelicalism. And note that “Conversion” is the first thing on his list.
The Gospel of the Good News is that Jesus is come to bring us out of the kingdom of brokenness and into the kin-dom of the Beloved Community. And that Gospel, according to Evangelicalism, is a power to bring about conversion and change.
But look at Evangelicalism today, and where is the change? Where is the repentance? Where is the willingness to follow Jesus and do what Jesus told us to do? Somehow the Gospel of the Evangelical has become . . . nothing that matches the definition that even those speaking from outside the family of faith see it as: a close connection with the life and words and works of Jesus to such an extent that to see Christians today is to see Jesus. (The word “Christian” isn’t a definition of a faith but a description of behavior — “little Christs.”)
It’s fascinating and saddening to realize that the people who are outside the faith have a better understanding of Jesus and Christianity and the Gospel than many Evangelicals have.
Where is the Gospel today?
I am not here saying that the Gospel of Jesus for salvation is deficient. Even when it is preached and taught poorly, God’s Spirit manages to use the message to bring true saving, transformative faith. The very history of the Black church shows this — white Christians mutilated the Bible and the Gospel in order to keep the enslaved in their chains, but Holy Spirit still spoke a saving faith through those words and produced generations of genuine Christian brothers and sisters. God’s Word is powerful for salvation even when the literal words are manipulated and distorted and even removed.
And yet . . . I’m puzzled that the Gospel that is preached in white churches has not, for 400 years, managed to dent the built-in racial biases and white supremacy that appears to be the crippling formation of white character. I’m honestly stumped by this. I do give God the ownership of how he establishes his will, so maybe this is just a living example of how salvation is available for all, but often is received only by those who sense their need.
But were I come here from Mars and I listened to the Gospel as preached in Black churches and white churches, and then compared the words preached with the outputs, I would be unable to reconcile the extraordinarily different outcomes.
I don’t think that there is any sin that is safe from the power of Holy Spirit to bring conviction, repentance, redemption, and restoration. This sure seems to be a tough one, though.
Now, I’m reading for a class that I’m taking the book Knowing Christ Crucified, by M. Shawn Copeland. She opens with this great passage:
The Christianity preached to the enslaved peoples was a peculiar amalgam of texts and admonitions that sanctioned perpetual servitude and bent black bodies and souls to the profit of slaveholders. In response to the query about sermons common preached to enslaved people, Charlie Van Dyke remarked, ‘All the preacher talked about was for us slaves to obey our masters and not to lie and steal. Nothing about Jesus was ever said.’ If nothing, or little, was said about Jesus, how did the enslaved people come to hear of him? We know the story of Jesus of Nazareth — his life, ministry, crucifixion, death, and resurrection — held a significant place in the religious lives of the enslaved Africans. So, perhaps, the enslaved people were listening very carefully and very closely to learn more about Jesus. Why did he figure so prominently in their religious experience, songs, prayers, and stories? How did he come, as one emancipated person put it, to ‘hook [them] in the heart’? What wisdom did they gain from their relationship with Jesus?”
And that is something that is perplexing me. The spiritual life and allegiance of the enslaved African was more like what I hear the broad white Evangelical church today should “be” like.
Yet, it is not.
I would hazard that there are things about the experience of the enslaved and their expected Messiah/Deliverer that would be helpful for today’s Christians to understand and follow.
But it is as if there is an unbridgeable chasm between the white experience of Jesus and the Black experience. In some cases the terminology overlaps, but it seems the white experience has remained internal, mindful, isolated, and based upon what we think to be true about ourselves in our relationship with God, while the Black experience — well, I can’t dig into that from my position on the outside, but I can listen to people who talk about it from the inside, and it does seem to be simply more externally based, more community-minded, more physically salvific, more connected with the body and mind and soul together. The Jesus of the white church is a conqueror to put the church in charge. The Jesus of the Black church is the suffering Messiah with strong power to deliver his people from the oppressors.
And we live side by side here in America with these two nearly disconnected theologies.
Would that God would move upon us. Come, Lord Jesus.
I wish I had an answer. Heck I wish I understood the question better. There is something about white Evangelicalism that has created a Gospel that not only keeps white people “white,” but locks them into it to where it is a inescapable character formation that is in contradiction to the Gospel that Jesus taught about and demonstrated while he was here on earth.
We as white Christians in America have made some grievous mistakes and chained ourselves into a way of thinking and behaving that is opposed to the grace and example of Jesus. And until we want to change that — or at least, want to want to change that — nothing is going to make any difference.
Would that God would move upon us. Come, Lord Jesus.