One thing that I regularly observe in certain evangelical spaces is that evangelicals tend to be ethnically dysfunctional. This ethnic dysfunction is present in certain black and brown and white spaces. The racial gap has been closed to a great degree in business, schools, and entertainment, while certain evangelical churches continue to be some of the most racially segregated and most racially dysfunctional places to be on Sunday morning.
Racial tensions were high in 2015. From Ferguson to Chicago, and numerous cities in between, the U.S. has seen once again in its history that race matters. With the rise of racial tensions, some evangelicals attempted to engage issues related to race, while others continued to remain silent. Both groups of evangelicals have taught me much about race in 2015. The following lists 10 things evangelicals taught me about race in 2015.
- Black and Brown People Have Some White Evangelical Allies
Some white evangelical pastors and scholars with privilege and power chose to risk their own ministries and reputations to suffer with fellow black and brown Christians in the fight for racial justice and reconciliation. Their efforts appeared in the form of sermons, lectures, articles, protests, podcasts, books, and conferences.
Their efforts came with much push back from those within the white and privileged evangelical group. Although certain evangelicals (white and black) simply do not understand matters related to race, the sacrifices of other white evangelical allies who get it taught me that black and brown people do not labor alone in the work of gospel reconciliation.
- Conversations about Race Too Difficult for Certain Evangelicals
Conversations about race are too difficult for certain evangelicals. The category of race in the U.S. assumes a social construct that exists for the sole purpose of racial hierarchy and exploitation. In the U.S., I think it’s fair to say that historically white people in general have benefited the most from the construct of racial hierarchy, even though not every individual white person has benefited in the same way nor has directly contributed to racial hierarchy.
Nevertheless, the construct of race in the U.S. has historically privileged whiteness over blackness or brownness from this country’s beginning. This gave many within whites certain cultural and economic advantages over black and brown people before the first black body stepped foot off the slave ship onto American soil.
This white privileged status as a result of racial hierarchy is even evident within the evangelical movement. The American evangelical movement was born, in many respects, as a result of and within the framework of white supremacy (read, for example, Divided By Faith). Thus, conversations about race force some white evangelicals to consider their privileged status within both the American dream and evangelical movement historically came at the expense of the exploitation of black and brown bodies. This consideration might require privileged white evangelicals to sacrifice privilege for the sake of improving race relations within the church—something that neither certain white nor black or brown evangelicals are willing to do.
- Racial Dysfunction
As a scholar and churchman, I teach and preach in many different contexts within and beyond an evangelical context. One thing that I regularly observe in certain evangelical spaces is that evangelicals tend to be ethnically dysfunctional. This ethnic dysfunction is present in certain black and brown and white spaces. The racial gap has been closed to a great degree in business, schools, and entertainment, while certain evangelical churches continue to be some of the most racially segregated and most racially dysfunctional places to be on Sunday morning. Even when these churches have some diversity, it is virtually absent from the leadership of the church. And some of these churches quite simply do not know how to interact or even to function when they share space with those from different ethnic postures.
- Certain White Faces Absent from Certain Black and Brown Spaces
Certain white evangelicals taught me they might be willing to share privilege with black and brown people by inviting them to share in their privilege on their terms. But I’ve likewise noticed there are occasions in the evangelical movement that certain white evangelical faces will refuse to assume the posture of student and learn from black and brown evangelicals on their terms or in their spaces. But often, unless a white evangelical (or two or three) is added to the speaker platform, certain white evangelical and (believe or not) black and brown evangelical faces will be unwilling to learn in this shared space.
- Black and Brown Evangelicals Can “Only” Talk about Race
Certain evangelicals are willing, and even eager, to share privilege and power with black and brown evangelicals on matters of race relations. However, I’m afraid there are too many white evangelical brothers and sisters who think race is the only thing that black and brown people can discuss. I tell folks all of the time that I can teach them much about Second Temple Judaism, Galatians, Romans, soteriology, or atonement (topics on which I’ve published academic books and essays). Race is only one of those topics.
- Privileged White Evangelicals Love Affirming Privileged Black and Brown Evangelicals
Certain evangelicals are guilty of the sin of idolatry, because they worship celebrities. I’ve noticed certain white evangelicals love to share privilege and power with privileged black and brown evangelicals with celebrity status. Perhaps there are many reasons for this, but I think that one is that celebrity black and brown evangelicals allow privileged white evangelicals to maintain their privileged status within the evangelical movement without having to sacrifice their privilege.
How many unknown black or brown evangelicals without privilege and without some form of status within the evangelical movement have you seen invited to speak at the big conferences or speaking in popular white spaces or celebrated in the mainline white evangelical media outlets? My guess is very few, unless they already share some form of power, privilege, or celebrity status within the evangelical movement or unless they have access to those with privilege within the evangelical movement.
- Certain Evangelicals Simply Don’t Read Black and Brown Authors
Black and brown minorities have no choice, but to learn from the white majority. Unless one studies at a historic, or predominantly, black college or university, most of the professors in the U.S. are white. And most of the books published by white mainline evangelical publishers are written by white authors and address issues from a white evangelical perspective.
Unless black, brown, or white folks take the initiative and intentionally search for black and brown authors, the chances are they simply will not find them. As a NT scholar and professor at one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the world, I’m shocked by how few of my students read black or brown authors, and by how few of them even think about the importance of reading non-white authors until they encounter a lecture from me about the importance of doing this.
- Abortion and Gay Marriage are Gospel Issues, But Race A Gospel Implication
In 2015, troubling videos exposed the actions of Planned Parenthood in the selling of baby parts and added fuel to the fire of the abortion debate. And the Supreme Court’s historic decision rocked the world of those who affirm a traditional understanding of marriage in the U.S. between one man and one woman.
Many evangelicals spoke forcefully about these issues as though they were issues touching the gospel. But surprisingly, matters pertaining to race were described by some evangelicals as an implication of the gospel. Some evangelicals have even argued against churches getting involved in matters related to race and social justice.
- Multi-Ethnic Churches without the Labor of Understanding the Struggle
The multi-ethnic church movement is currently one of the flavors of the month amongst evangelicals. In the Southern Baptist Convention, my denomination, we’re even beginning to see African-Americans become pastors of historically predominate white churches—a significant move for a denomination that was founded in 1845 because of its pro-slavery stance.
Yet, some of the churches in the evangelical movement want the sweet and delicious fruit of a multi-ethnic church without the hard labor of understanding the racial struggle within the evangelical movement.
I cannot count the number of disappointing conversations that I’ve had with evangelicals who want ethnic diversity in their churches, but they want nothing to do with the hard, painful, awkward, frustrating, and disappointing labor that it takes to understand the different and (maybe) marginalized races that they’re interested in reaching.
- Some Evangelicals Will Never Get It
With much agony in my soul and with God’s help, I’ve learned to accept that there will be many evangelicals who will simply never get it, and they could care less whether they do. Just say the words, for example, white supremacy, systemic injustice, institutional racism, mass incarceration, or racialization in certain evangelical contexts and notice the deer in the head lights look on the faces of the Jesus-loving people to whom you speak those words. Their response of ignorance, apathy, or frustration will symbolically represent the fact that some Jesus-loving, bible-saturated Christians will simply never get the race issue. But we’re still called to love them in Christ.
May God help evangelicals continue to make much progress on matters related to the gospel and race in our churches in 2016.
Dr. Jarvis J. Williams (PhD) is an associate professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. This article appeared on the Reformed African American Network (RAAN) site and is used with permission.