Leaving the White Church for What?

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

Last week I listened to a powerful episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Pass the Mic, hosted by Jemar Tisby and Tyler Burns. In it, Tisby describes his many years deep within some of white evangelicalism’s premier institutions. After experiencing countless instances of racist complicity and enabling, the 2016 presidential election became a breaking point and he began de-tangling himself from these institutions. Pointing to an influential article in The New York Times about the “quiet exodus” of people of color from evangelical churches, Tisby and Burns are narrating their own journeys publicly, choosing to not go quietly. “To #LeaveLOUD is to tell our stories, to name things for what they are, to take back the dignity we’ve lost while being in institutions that don’t value the fullness of the image of God within us, and to go where we are celebrated and not just tolerated. ” (In the most recent episode, Burns shares his own story. I’m about a third of the way through and it’s just as impactful as Tisby’s.)

The story of Black Christians leaving – or being forced to leave – white Christian spaces is as old as this country. The first African American denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was founded after Rev. Richard Allen and others were forcibly separated from the white members of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. By publicly sharing their stories, Burns and Tisby are joining a long list of Christian witnesses who have testified against the moral corruption and racist complicity that is entrenched in so many of our white Christian institutions.

In an article about this series of podcasts, Kristin Du Mez, scholar and author of the compelling book Jesus and John Wayne, notes the similarities between the exodus of Christians of color from evangelical institutions and others who have left these spaces. She writes, “This evangelical exodus is not new, and it is not only caused by a seemingly insurmountable racial divide. A growing “exvangelical” movement has sought to draw attention to their own departures in recent years.”

Interestingly, the examples of the evangelical exodus which Du Mez goes on to cite are all, as best I can tell, white. Tisby’s experience of the racism prevalent in these institutions and churches becomes a point of departure for a host of other reasons for leaving. Du Mez wants us to see a commonality shared by those who are leaving, whether people of color or white, which is that they tend to depart quietly without making much noise about why they felt they had to leave. This is what makes the #LeaveLOUD project important. By telling their stories, Tisby, Burns, and others are opening space for truth, a prerequisite for healing and justice.

But I’m interested in a significant difference between what The Witness is doing and the trends Du Mez observes. The white people leaving white evangelicalism often find themselves with no idea about where they are going. Theirs is an exodus into a void. Whiteness, including its Christian forms, acts as a totalizng lens through which the world is seen and, importantly, erased.

One way to observe how this crisis plays out is to watch the decisions left to the departing white Christian. Sometimes they walk away from their faith entirely, not even attempting to replace their previous experience. But other times they move to a different Christian tradition or find their home with others who are deconstructing where they’ve been. What remains the same with each of these choices is the pervasive frame of whiteness. Rarely, if ever, have I heard a white Christian on this exodus who chooses to worship with, for example, a nearby Black congregation. A problematic expression of Christianity has been upended for these white women and men but they’ve left the foundation of whiteness undisturbed.

Compare this with the exodus of people of color from white and multiracial churches. Obviously, not all of these people take the same journey or land in the same kinds of places. People are complicated and our journeys are unpredictable. However, unlike their disheartened white counterparts, many of these women and men can imagine an alternative to white Christianity. Some of them return to the churches of their youth. Others foster new expressions of the faith, drawing from the faithfulness and wisdom of generations of Christians who have stood against the racism and supremacy long fostered by white churches. This exodus, from what I can tell, is pushed by a sacred history and pulled by a vision purposefully devoid of whiteness.

I want #LeaveLOUD to be a lesson for the (white) exvangelical movement. And I’m sure there are enough similarities between their stories and the tender ones being shared by Tisby, Burns, and so many others. But to learn those lessons and to join that particular exodus, it’s not just a toxic form of Christianity that needs to be renounced. It’s whiteness too.

(Photo credit: Nikko Tan.)

Manifest Destiny and Black Faith

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

Not long ago I noticed how often over the past few years I’ve been returning to the biblical themes of wilderness and exile. There’s a lot to say about these themes and I hope to explore some of them in this newsletter, but for now I’ll just say how much more sense our circumstances make when interpreted through the lenses of wilderness and exile.

It seems to me that the only reason this way of seeing isn’t intuitive to some of us has to do with how we’ve imagined ourselves in – or on our way to – the promised land.

In Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Kelly Brown Douglas makes the case that this country’s sense of manifest destiny has its origins in the mythology of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, an exceptionalism that came to be imagined as racial whiteness tied to Christian belief. To access America’s promises, one had to acquiesce to the myth and, if possible, become white.

To be white, then, is to be the object of God’s delight, in no small part because whiteness expresses the will of God. Douglas mentions Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton who, in a speech in 1864, claimed, “It would seem that the White race alone received the divine command, to subdue and replenish the earth! For it is the only one that hunts out new and distant lands, and even a New World, to subdue and replenish.”

To summarize, racial whiteness came to symbolize God’s divine sanction to subdue the earth. Manifest destiny was evidence that this people – white people – were God’s people and that this land was the land of his promise.

Few of us today hold to this warped theology but I’m not sure we’ve adequately reckoned with how significantly our imaginations have been shaped by it. That is, many of us, on a level we’re mostly unaware of, assume something of the promised land in how we interpret our daily frustrations and longings. So we overlook the injustices and inconsistencies that might betray our actual location, something more akin to wilderness or exile. We satisfy ourselves with a narrative which legitimizes unearned privileges and rationalizes someone else’s suffering. We act as though a bit more work and/or prayer will finally pry open the door to the promises of the American Dream.

Well, some of us are prone to this sort of misinterpretation. Douglas writes about an alternative.

Black faith was forged in the midst of the perverse and tragic paradoxes of black life. It is a faith, therefore, that does not ignore the unthinkable and irrational terror of black living. It takes it seriously. It does not belittle or romanticize the pains and sufferings of black bodies. It does not revel in illusions and false hope. Neither does it allow black bodies to give into the hardship and to be overcome with despair. Indeed, the faith born in slavery provided a weapon to resit and to fight against the religiously legitimated tyranny of America’s Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism.

I don’t think it’s hard to agree that the Christian life, in general, is less like the promised land than it is wilderness and exile. It’s something else entirely though, for those steeped in racialized, divinely articulated exceptionalism, to imagine our way to the sort of resiliency and hope Douglas describes. For this, we need the example and tutelage of those who never believed the myth, who’ve always been clear about the true nature of our collective circumstances.

Terror, Trauma, and Better Questions

Last week Ed Stetzer, director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, was interviewed by NPR about the white evangelical presence at the U.S. Capitol insurrection. It’s obvious that, for Stetzer, this is a catastrophic moment which requires serious reflection and blunt questions. He asks, “How did we get here? How were we so easily fooled by conspiracy theories?” Later in the interview he wonders, “What happened? Why were so many people drawn to somebody who was obviously so not connected to what evangelicals believe by his life or his practices or more.”

It’s right that white Christians would ask questions about ourselves after seeing so many of us represented amidst symbols of violence, conspiracy, and racial supremacy. I wonder, though about the timing and direction of our reflection.

In early 2017 the Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church wrote an open letter warning of the un-Christian and destructive aims of the Trump administration. Here are the first two sentences. Note the explicit call to action.

The Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church had hoped that the Trump Administration would alter the views and policies espoused during the presidential campaign, but is disappointed and troubled by the decisions and actions taken during the early days of this administration, and vow to do all that we can to see that these decisions and actions do not last. We ask that every member of this denomination, and people who are committed to justice and righteousness, equality and truth, will join with us to thwart what are clearly demonic acts.

It took far less than a deadly insurrection to compel the bishops of the AME church to warn of the coming danger. It’s probably inevitable and necessary that white Christians are asking the sorts of questions suggested by Stetzer right now. But shouldn’t we have been doing this a long time ago?

Was an attack on our nation’s symbols of power and democracy really necessary to force this introspection? Why was the attack on the Central Park Exonerated not enough? The slander of immigrants from Mexico and Central America? Separating children from their parents?

The collective disinterest in these previous dehumanizing offenses hints at my other question about this reckoning. For many of the white Christians who were appalled by the scenes from Washington D.C. last week, the foremost question seems to be, How? How did we get here? This is the framing question for Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s excellent new book, Jesus and John Wayne. Not surprisingly, the book begins and ends with our outgoing president and the rest is a compelling answer to that How? question.

But why is this the first question? Let’s review again that ugly scene last week. Whatever their specific aims, the mob successfully broadcast their racial/religious messages and symbols of supremacy. There’s nothing new about this. Listen to what James Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. “The claim that whites had the right to control the black population through lynching and other extralegal forms of mob violence was grounded in the religious belief that America was a white nation called by God to bear witness to the superiority of ‘white over black.’“

The white supremacist insurrectionists should be prosecuted. But any eventual convictions will do little to blunt the terror that was already brazenly unleashed. Every attempt to downplay the terror – as many Republican representatives have done – only exacerbates it.

Terror aims beyond its specific victims. It is the members of the community represented by the victims who are the real targets. Cone writes, “Whites often lynched blacks simply to remind the black community of their powerlessness.” Terror is meant to traumatize communities.

I hear a lot of non-Black people who are outraged at the desecration visited upon the country by that white mob. Our sense of dignity or respect or civility or patriotism or justice or whatever has been offended. This is when we start asking our preferred question, How?

But many of us don’t see the terror and the trauma. Why not? Cone writes, “Whites acted in a superior manner for so long that it was difficult for them to even recognize their cultural and spiritual arrogance, blatant as it was to African Americans.” Supremacy inoculates us against the truest experience of the insurrection. We see but don’t rightly interpret what has been wrought. We don’t feel the shattering impact on flesh and blood. And so, rather than beginning with the intended trauma of that terrorizing mob, we make ourselves the focus. Again. Rather than opening ourselves vulnerably to the experience of suffering, we retreat to our analyzing and theorizing. Again.

How did we get here? We have to ask this question. But when we make this our first question – and often our only question – we are revealing just how incapable we are of answering it truthfully.

(Photo: Brett Davis on flickr.)

Diplomacy Doesn’t Work

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

During our ministry staff devotions this week we ended up talking about what our Christian responsibility is to those in positions of power whose attitudes and beliefs about racial justice (among other areas) are damaging to people. These powerful individuals could be a parent, a boss, or someone whose own access to racial privilege grants them a measure of power.

It’s not a theoretical question. I’ve had lots of conversations in recent months with people who’ve been wrestling with exactly this. How do I respond when I see, overhear, or experience a racially damaging perspective or action? After this initial question comes the follow-ups: Who might be impacted if I don’t respond? How will my silence be interpreted? What will be the personal cost if I speak up?

One of the ways I think many of us respond to these sorts of scenarios is by being diplomatic. Our strategy is to determine which sort of response will be most effective in getting the powerful offender to change. So, when that racist thing is said or done, we start asking how questions: How can I get this person to see what they’ve done? How can I gain this person’s trust so that I can say the difficult thing? How can I bring up this racist encounter without alienating them?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a very good diplomat. I’m unable to keep anyone at the table and I certainly can’t know, on any given day, what is just the right way to point out that instance of racism.

In the end, much of our attempted diplomacy ends up being little more than negotiating around the edges of an inferno. Or some polite conversation amidst unmitigated theft and plunder.

I’ve come to believe that Christians oftentimes take the diplomatic approach in order to avoid telling the truth. By focusing on the how we overlook the what. What damage has been caused by this person’s words or actions? What lie has been advanced? What truth needs to be articulated? As followers of the embodiment of truth, our loyalties are to the Truth, even when it’s impossible to speak that truth diplomatically.

During our staff conversation I said something I’d not quite verbalized before: I think the Holy Spirit is the diplomat. We are called to speak the truth in love. It’s not our responsibility to determine whether the truth will be received or not; this is something that God alone can do.

So let’s not confuse our timidity with an effective diplomatic strategy. Let’s pray for courage and commit ourselves to speaking the truth all the time. (Try this, for example: The president is not investigating election fraud; he’s attempting to disenfranchise voters of color.) And then let’s trust that the Holy Spirit is more than capable to make even the most powerfully heard-hearted person tender to the truth.

(A postscript: None of this is easy, especially for those of you who will experience painful repercussions for speaking truthfully. Here we need two things. First, wisdom to know what to say and when to say it. Wisdom, unlike our attempts at diplomacy, never tells half-truths. And thankfully, the Spirit wants to give us wisdom. Second, for those with some racial privilege, the constant reminder that whatever blow-back we experience from telling the truth about racism pales when compared to, you know, experiencing it.)

Acknowledgment is better than ignorance. Confession is even better.

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

I’m sure some of you saw the new research about Christians and racial justice released by Barna this week. Here are a few relevant sections:

There is actually a significant increase in the percentage of practicing Christians who say race is “not at all” a problem in the U.S. (19%, up from 11% in 2019). Among self-identified Christians alone, a similar significant increase occurs (10% in 2019, 16% in 2020).

There is, however, a boost in Christians’ willingness to strongly agree that, historically, the U.S. has oppressed minorities—from 19 percent in the 2019 survey to 26 percent in the summer of 2020.

Meanwhile, the number of those who are “somewhat motivated” [to engage racial injustice] has shrunk and the number of those who are motivated has held fairly steady over the past year, indicating some of those who might have previously been on the fence about addressing racial injustice have become more firmly opposed to engaging.

Some minority groups are, naturally, highly motivated to address the racial injustices that may affect them. Among self-identified Christians, Black adults in particular (46% “very motivated”), followed by Hispanic adults (23% “very motivated”), are eager to be involved—something few white self-identified Christians express (10% “very motivated”).

In short, American Christians in general are less willing to pursue racial justice, with white Christians leading the way, even as we are more willing to acknowledge past instances of racial injustice.

It seems we are watching an entrenchment happening in real time. Despite the very public instances of racial injustice we’ve all witnessed in the past few months, many Christians have found reasons to keep justice at a distance. Why?

Maybe we get the hint of an answer in the data that suggests a greater willingness to admit to racial injustice throughout our nation’s history. To be clear, there are plenty of people who struggle even with this as was evident this week in the president’s speech unveiling his 1776 Commission.

Our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character. We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.

There are still those working to whitewash our history of racial terror and trauma. Willful ignorance remains an attractive option for many Americans. So, the fact that a few more people are willing to tell the historical truth is good, even if it’s a pretty low bar.

So what might keep a person who can see past injustices from seeing them today? I wonder if it has to do with a sort of cultural individualism that severs a person from the generations before him or her. An understanding of persons as completely autonomous beings allows for us to acknowledge the ugly stuff of yesteryear because, well, we weren’t around.

(There’s more to say about how this hyper-individualism and generational detachment hamstrings Christian attempts at racial justice, but that will have to wait for another time.)

But our tone changes when we move the timeline forward; now it’s us we’re talking about. Could it be that our unwillingness to see injustice today has very little to do with the awful facts as others experience them and a lot to do with an unwillingness to admit our entanglement with those facts?

There’s a big difference between acknowledgment and confession. The first requires a bit of information and sympathy; the second, a tolerance for uncomfortably close truth and a whole lot of humility. Which is what makes Christians’ unwillingness to see today’s injustices so disappointing. Shouldn’t we know something about confession? Doesn’t the gospel provide a platform strong enough for the truth?

I think we do and think it does. Who’s with me?