Originally published 6/8/2016 on The Salt Collective
Over the past two years of racial tension and trauma in the wake of Black Lives Matter, there have been daily opportunities to choose into learning about, dignifying, and valuing the lives of people of color but evangelicals at large have missed it. They have been elusive and absent at this critical moment in history and it is not neutral. When a group of people is being disproportionately targeted and killed by unjust systems, we need to talk about it.
As a result of this lack of engagement with the racial landscape of the U.S. the Church is on trial for its compliance with and perpetuation of White supremacy. Since the killing of Michael Brown Jr. on the streets of Ferguson, MO, the voices of Black Millennials have risen up to make their voices heard, while the Church has largely stood on the fringes offering only a veiled racial alibi to express the many reasons why, for one of the first times in U.S. history, the church is choosing out of pursuing civil rights.
An evangelical racial alibi is a defense or excuse for why Christians have not been involved in this modern civil rights movement. It is the moral and spiritual reasons that have been devised to continue to uphold the Church’s institutional white supremacy when given an opportunity to change.
The scary thing about an alibi in a court setting is that even if the alibi isn’t true, if a defendant tells the story enough times, it embeds itself in their consciousness until they believe it. Evangelical America at large is experiencing this variety of self-deception through spiritualizing its distance from the marginalized. Unfortunately, the burden of proof is not in their favor. Evangelicals are guilty of white supremacy and guilty of the ways that they deceive themselves into believing that Jesus is on the side of the powerful institution.
Believing this fallacy, they spend time crafting racial abilis to escape tension when forced to engage with the current racial landscape of the United States. They seek to maintain, even subconsciously, churches led entirely by White people and values, have White Jesus in their halls, and only center White theologians. They then discount the negative experiences of people of color in the church as being anomalies instead of as indicative of our how whiteness shapes their view of Jesus and each other.
While marginalized people fight to shut down systems of oppression, the church has created complex ideological mechanisms to shut themselves out of this critical moment in history. As I have engaged with and worked for evangelical institutions and organizations, there are four primary strategies used to craft racial alibis instead of owning and engaging with our white supremacy.
Spiritualizing Social Issues
When confronted about our lack of engagement with racism, the evangelical gut response is to be satisfied with the “love and pray” strategy, which allows us to feel as though we are engaging without having to pay the cost that justice requires, or to talk about it terms of principalities and powers instead of tangible systems and structures. Now, I am not about to knock the “we do not fight against flesh and blood…” sentiment; however, proof texting scripture is not the Jesus way to encounter oppression- flipping tables, making noise, and inviting the marginalized to the center is. Sometimes our spiritualizing sounds sophisticated and is fluffed with verses, but usually it sounds more like:
“I’m just not called to do “race stuff””
“God hasn’t put that passion in my heart”
“The gospel isn’t political so I am not either”
“We just don’t have all the facts to me to judge”
Single Issue Scapegoating
The last two years have proved that instead of choosing to hold the complexity of the world in its entirety by recognizing that we are responsible for creation in all of its life and death, we choose to pick what we care about most and frame it as being a more holy cause. The evangelical backlash to Planned Parenthood, marriage equality, and even Michelle Higgins iconic talk at Urbana 15, has proven that we have mastered the art of single issue politics. Instead of holding multiple justice issues in tension, we instead impose a moral hierarchy on whose oppression is considered holy enough to engage. The deeply embedded anti-blackness in evangelical history should serve as a cautionary tale for us.
We have not arrived at racial righteousness and we will not if we continue to use our involvement with pro-life politics, a commitment to “orthodoxy,” or speaking out against trans bathroom rights as an excuse to not care about holistic personhood. Woe to us for believing that Jesus would be impressed with our selective love for humanity; woe to us for believing that a single passion project excuses us from dealing with our white supremacy.
Charity over Justice
Realistically, there are indeed many evangelicals who genuinely desire to ascribe value to black lives, the questions is whether their desire to value black lives is strong enough to motivate the dismantling of white supremacy. White supremacy culture exists to maintain church homogeneity both in our theology/ideology and in the ways that we choose to use our resources and platforms. Charity without justice is the primary way that this plays out. Often times well-intentioned communities will put resources toward bettering the experiences of people of color among them.
This is a good first step; however, if not accompanied by the decolonizing of members of the community, liturgy, hermeneutics, and institutional structures, then we are simply patting ourselves on the back for doing something while maintaining the very structures that require charity to be necessary. Giving money to people of color in our organizations is great, but we also must decolonize our members, staff, and power structures. Charity additionally serves the cause of white supremacy by creating a guise of holiness, spirituality, or social progress while we maintain hierarchies of power and privilege that devalue non-white epistemologies.
Calling on the Past
Along with choosing to create charity opportunities that do not deconstruct white supremacy, evangelicals have bolstered our alibi by excusing our inactivity in the present by calling on our participation in the past. I call this the “Bernie Sanders” effect. When Seattle BLM shut down the stomp rally, people kept saying “Bernie is the only candidate for you, he was arrested and paid the cost in the Civil Rights Movement.” That is great. I am glad he was there, but where is the evidence in the last 50 years to back up that claim? I am not saying that Bernie Sanders doesn’t care about black people (Kanye cleared up which president that was) but the obsession with his legacy was used to negate his activity in the present.
Evangelicals are masters of this strategy; we will ignore present suffering by calling on the stories of heroism and choosing to be on the “right side of history.” Unfortunately for that ideology, justice isn’t a one time event you attend, nor is it one historical decision that is made to stand against oppression. Justice is the continued work to decolonize our organizations and to ascribe greater dignity and humanity to the marginalized around us.
These excuses and justifications are not enough to negate the dark impact of white supremacy in evangelical communities. The eloquent or not-so eloquent alibis we devise to excuse distancing ourselves from the marginalized are not neutral. If we are not engaging both honestly and proactively with the issues of injustice in our world that are happening right now, then we will inevitably be found guilty of missing a moment where Jesus himself would be present.