Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Revisiting the Gospel and White Evangelicalism

I'd like to revisit my last post. In particular, I received some helpful pushback from a current professor at Moody Bible Institute for what he saw as my unfairness toward Dwight L. Moody. He had some good points to make. And, it must be said, he knows much more about Moody than I do. He noted that Moody associated himself with a variety of progressive causes, founded an integrated school in Massachusetts, privately expressed displeasure with segregation, and was supported by some Black southerners. Including all of this in my last post, I think, would have strengthened the argument I was trying to make.

If people read what I wrote about Moody and Edwards and Whitefield and concluded, "Wow, I didn't realize these guys were so monstrous; let's disown them," my post had the opposite of its intended effect. Rather, for White evangelical readers in particular, there is an urgent need to embrace the totality of our history and inheritance. The point is not that Moody was horrible. The takeaway ought to be that I have little reason to assume I'm any less blind than he was. It's probably just blindness about different things.

When we pay attention to what Black Christians were saying in Moody's time and others, we can begin to see that our inheritance is a distinct brand of White Christianity, with its own foibles, idioms, and blind spots. This is less a shocking indictment than an obvious reality of any human community of faith. We are culturally located. We are not the normative group by which other Christians can be measured. There is no fault in having never heard the sordid details I shared in my last post. But we can know the outlines of our own tradition. We can become students of our own community, knowing some of its errors and biases, including, especially, its idolization of Whiteness and American nationalism.

Some Christians seem to be concerned that we might focus on the negative side of past heroes to the exclusion of the good they did. I understand this concern. But the much greater danger is that in ignoring their sins, we will repeat them. When we build up people of the past to mythical status, we encourage a culture of arrogance and unwarranted self-satisfaction. Scripture doesn't do this. The so-called heroes of the faith in the biblical narrative are usually presented as scoundrels and cowards, the better to emphasize the grace of God.

Ida B. Wells, 1862-1931
Let's return to Moody. How are we to interpret his disapproval of segregation? Does that make his segregated meetings better? Or, indeed, does it make them worse? That Moody did what he did in service of the Gospel, as he understood it, is precisely the point. His belief that individual conversion would ultimately undermine segregation was not just naive; it was a view his privileged position made easy, and a luxury that many Black Christians facing questions of life and death felt they couldn't afford. Moody's understanding of the gospel was narrow, culturally specific, and White. In refusing to speak and act publicly against the anti-Christian society of the American South and the greatest social evil of his time, Moody compromised the Gospel.

Consider the contrasting fortunes of Moody and Ida B. Wells. Moody toured the South to widespread acclaim, preaching to many thousands of White southerners. Just a few years later, Wells had to flee the South for her life because she had spoken out against lynching. Moody's public silence won him praise, but what did it cost him? What was the cost to the integrity of the Gospel and the church? What are we to make of a message that was more readily accepted by the oppressors than by the oppressed? How can such a message be anything other than a perversion of the teachings of Christ?

While Moody's Gospel allowed White southerners to believe they could love Christ while remaining indifferent to their brother, Wells did the much harder work of clinging to faith while grappling with the world as it actually was. "The heart almost loses faith in Christianity," she wrote, "when one thinks of...the countless massacres of defenseless Negroes...O God, when will these massacres stop?"

Was this a cry of despair? Perhaps, yes. It was also a cry of faith in which the key word was "almost." We would do well to come closer to Ida B. Wells, to meditate on evil committed in the name of Christ, to question and struggle to the point of "almost." If this means lost certainty and self-assurance, it may also lead to unexpected compensations. Not least, the discovery that "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble."

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