A few weeks ago we addressed the state of evangelicalism in America. One topic we didn’t discuss in that volume, which is nonetheless being reckoned with by that movement, is race.
In recent decades, race wasn’t often a topic of public conversation among white American evangelicals: it wasn’t often engaged in an extended manner from the pulpit, and didn’t tend to headline major evangelical conferences. A common explanation for this from white evangelical leaders was that talking about race was “too political”; it too easily detracted from the personal Gospel that forms the heart and soul of the evangelical message.
Things have changed. Or, at least, are changing.
Perhaps it’s the 45th president. Perhaps it’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis rallying in Charlottesville. Or perhaps it’s Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Renisha McBride, Sam Dubose, Terence Crutcher, Alton Sterling, William Chapman II, Walter Scott, Eric Harris, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, or the Charleston Nine. Whatever the reason, evangelicals are now talking about race—publicly.
Much of this talk is not primarily politicized, either. Instead it’s richly theological, framed as a re-evaluation of evangelicalism’s first principles. Take, for instance, Russell Moore’s recent message at The Gospel Coalition conference, “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop.” Speaking on the “American prophet” Martin Luther King, Jr., Moore—president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission—takes direct aim at a common evangelical objection to discussing race in the church: “Why don’t you stick to preaching the Gospel?” Preaching from Matthew’s gospel, chapter 23, Moore deftly makes the case that preaching the good news of Jesus Christ in our moment requires talking about race. He speaks in terms of the image of God, sin, repentance, lament, faith, discipleship, the cross—and, referencing Dietrich Bonhoeffer, even argues against “cheap reconciliation.” Then, in a prophetic and easy-to-miss remark, Moore says, “The American evangelical movement needs to be more evangelized.”
But evangelized by whom? By King himself, Moore suggests. He confesses that evangelicals often don’t truly listen to King anymore because King is no longer physically speaking to them. The “American prophet” is now honored because he’s no longer actively disrupting evangelical “systems” and “institutions of power.” Fifty years ago King’s approval ratings among white Americans were lower than Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s, but now the prophet’s words can be co-opted for just about any purpose—including selling a bottle of Pepsi.
Moore also believes that evangelicals need to “listen to what is happening” around them right now. That would seem to include listening to the prophets of our own age—voices like Bryan Stevenson, Willie Jennings, Lisa Sharon Harper, Michelle Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, Jennifer Harvey, among others. Each of these voices is rich and distinctive in their own right, and together they constitute a kind of unmasking: whether they push us to consider the nature of whiteness and white supremacy, the enduring legacy of colonialism, or the multiple instantiations of institutional racism, they challenge white Americans to see and struggle with their complicity in racial injustice.
Voices like these have exposed a fissure within white evangelicalism. This fissure is evident in evangelical responses to Black Lives Matter; it is evident in a wave of black (and some white) worshippers leaving white evangelical churches; and it is evident in evangelical assessments of Billy Graham’s legacy. Most recently, though, the fissure manifested itself at a gathering of evangelical leaders at Wheaton College, at least as described by Katelyn Beaty in the New Yorker:
With a few exceptions, the older, white cohort stressed civility and unity. What the movement needed, they said, was a gentler evangelicalism that reached across partisan aisles for the common good. Others, especially the leaders of color, stressed repentance; there could be no real unity without white evangelicals explicitly confronting the ways in which they had participated in the degradation of persons of color and women.
One white evangelical leader who did seem ready to move in the latter direction was Fuller Theological Seminary president Mark Labberton. In his impassioned remarks at the Wheaton gathering, Labberton confessed, “Those of us who are white evangelicals must acknowledge that our story is intertwined with, and often responsible for, much of the violence and oppression around racial injustice in our American story…This unreckoned-with reality of white evangelical racism permeates American life.” Labberton pushed evangelicals toward repentance, toward a reckoning with both past and present.
Still, the question that remains is how evangelicals can live in the repentant direction Labberton signals. A lived repentance, contends MLK scholar (and former Executive Director of New City Commons) Greg Thompson, will require evangelicals to “embrace the sufferings of love.” Thompson believes the repentant “sufferings of love” will require a form of institutional dying. Evangelicals, if they are indeed serious about the Christian vocation of love, will need to re-imagine and re-inhabit the very structures in which they live, work, play, learn, shop, raise children, and yes, even worship. And in many cases, this will require giving up some of the benefits of inheritance. A lived repentance may also mean dying to the fear of jeopardizing beloved theological principles (as even theology can be an idol), or dying to the fear of the Gospel becoming nothing more and nothing other than social justice. Not only are these fears misplaced, but even more importantly, as the epistle of 1 John tells us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”
Thompson is clear to say that lived repentance unto suffering love will not come easily. Why would we expect it to be otherwise? As Thompson puts it, ours is “an age whose chief end is, arguably, the avoidance of pain.” King knew white evangelicalism’s institutional avoidance of pain all too well. In fact, he admitted just before his death that his “dream” had often begun to feel like a “nightmare.” “I think the vast majority of white Americans will go but so far [in racial justice],” King lamented. “It’s a kind of installment plan for equality. They [white Americans] are always looking for an excuse to go but so far.”
At this moment, it’s unclear how far evangelicals will go. Will they reckon with the past, repenting of the racial injustice that lives on in the daily norms and practices of American institutions? Drawing on Beyoncé’s defiant “Lemonade” and Jay-Z’s confessional “4:44” as a metaphor, New Testament scholar Esau McCaulley notes that such a movement is already happening in small pockets of American evangelicalism: “The kind of Christianity that we are looking for is already here. It is comprised of diverse Christians who are committed to biblical orthodoxy on the one hand and biblical justice on the other.” Only time will tell if a “4:44” confession will permeate more of American evangelicalism. Even atheist Ta-Nehisi Coates agrees that any such “reckoning would lead to spiritual renewal.” Which is precisely what evangelicals say they have always wanted most.