Thursday, November 10, 2016

What Now, White Evangelicals?

I admire my neighbors so much. The morning after the election, as I walked John to school, I saw people going about their business, many as if nothing had happened. They were headed to work, or taking their kids to school. Some smiled and laughed. Others talked in whispered tones about the disastrous events of the day before. Many were silent.

The quiet fortitude and love of people accustomed to oppression stood in marked contrast to the fear and selfishness that propelled white evangelicals toward their deathly embrace of a new king to rule over them. While my neighbors appeared unbowed by a man threatening violence and oppression against them, white evangelicals appeared to be scared of their own shadows. Behind every corner lurked another possible threat to their privileged position in American life. And so, on Tuesday, they were vigilant.
Let's talk about those white evangelicals.

One of the worst mistakes white evangelical Trump supporters could make is to assume that the blowback they're receiving right now from their fellow Christians is political. It's not; at least, not primarily. For decades, Christians of color have been urging white evangelicals to repent of racism. That repentance--a broad and thorough phenomenon if it is real--is still nowhere in sight. For decades, Christians of color have been demanding that White evangelicals enact systemic reforms in their colleges and churches. Those reforms have usually been too little and too late. For decades, Christians of color have been warning white evangelicals to stop perverting the gospel. The perversion continues apace.

In much of evangelicalism, whiteness has spiritual authority. In these spaces, whiteness connotes theological maturity and biblical literacy. Theology rooted in the specific cultural contexts of American white supremacy is rendered as the default and normative theology, its racial origins and implications made invisible. If a person of color toes the line, preaching the same individualistic theology with its attenuated understanding of sin, society, and redemption, he (and yes, it's usually a he) is eagerly celebrated:

"Look at our model minority."

"Look at our exceptional Negro."

If that person of color seeks to dismantle the social, economic, and spiritual authority of whiteness within the church or institution, all manner of stonewalling and obfuscation ensue:

"This was never the plan. We wanted you on display. We didn't want you to change us."

This broader context of theological error and systemic sin made this week's political events possible. White evangelicals turned out to be Trump's core constituency. Preliminary data indicate that 81% voted for Trump, a higher number than even George W. Bush received. We can debate until we're blue in the face just how much awareness they had of what they were doing. What is clear is that the general environment of racism and ignorance in the communities in which they live and worship prevented them from seeing their fellow Christians as equally valuable human beings. Even more, the humanity of immigrants and Muslims and many others appeared to be little more than collateral damage in white evangelicals' quest to protect themselves.

As my former pastor in Chicago wrote this week, "most ethnic and religious minority American citizens feel that a Trump election is a vote against their identity. It says to them that "America doesn't want you here". It feels like a vote to go back to the way things were (Make America Great Again), when they were treated even worse then they are today."

Some white evangelicals surely knew this and voted for Trump anyway. Others literally did not know. In either case, they have an enormous amount of listening, learning, and reflecting to do.

But what of the nearly 1 in 5 white evangelicals who opposed Trump? We have our own problems:

One of the worst mistakes white evangelical Trump opponents could make is to use this occasion to declare our divorce with evangelicalism. I've already seen people I respect take this route. But you know what? People of color don't need us to assert our innocence. When we look at white evangelicalism and say, "I'm not that!" I understand that we might mean it as a statement of solidarity with people of color, but I worry that we are really making this declaration for ourselves. We don't want to be associated with white nationalism. But if we huffily announce that we're not evangelicals, how does that help people of color? Seriously, what good does it do them? They don't need us to loudly signal to the world our virtue and enlightenment. They need us to be missionaries to our communities where white nationalist idolatry has overrun the church.

We, as white evangelicals who claim to oppose racism, are the people best positioned to bring our white evangelical brothers and sisters to repentance. It's not anybody else's job to do it. This is all on us. This is our inheritance. Shouldn't we stay and try to make it right? When we bail out, loudly declare that we're done with evangelicalism, we become yet another set of critics lobbing stones from the outside. What good are we then?

Look, I'll be the first to admit I don't know what this means for me or how exactly we should go about these things. When you fight racism as a white evangelical, you will be accused of being too harsh, of being too patient, of being too wishy-washy, of being too radical. You will be constantly misunderstood. The only certainty is that you won't have a comfortable home within white evangelicalism. But maybe we can stay within its fold anyway? I'm struggling through this.

There's another mistake to which a third group of white evangelicals are vulnerable. These evangelicals have tried to keep their head down and bring peace to warring factions, desperately wanting both pro- and anti-Trump evangelicals to get along for the larger good of the church. The worst mistake these moderates could make is to think that there are two morally equal sides suffering from a temporary political disagreement. When the white evangelical church in its predominant expression is living in open and unrepentant sin, bowing down to the gods of whiteness and nationalism, what does it really mean to be a peacemaker? It must not mean giving equal comfort to the oppressor and the oppressed.

This is an exciting time to be a follower of Jesus. More than ever before, I feel assured that the great work of God is proceeding far from the centers of white nationalist Christianity. As God has introduced himself to us as a defender of the needy and a warrior on behalf of the oppressed, let that also be our calling card.

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