By Leziga Barikor
The past 7 years of political discourse within white churches in America reflect a certain trend that came to an obvious end this week. It would be one issue if conservative right wing extremists took over the country’s Capitol simply out of nationalism. Those type of extremists always existed in America. But these domestic terrorists wanted to make it clear they were not simply moved by a warped sense of nationalism, but by raising crosses and waving flags stating “Jesus 2020” their motivations were clear. Their “pure religion” was that of political power and privilege that they refuse to see curtailed in even the slightest way. And these people aren’t as extreme as you’d like to hope. They probably fill the pews of many of your local churches, and if not the white evangelical church has become the safest place for white supremacists to thrive.
Perhaps you are uncomfortable with considering the idea that predominantly white churches in America have a white supremacy problem. Fine then, let’s leave that idea on the shelf for the time being. Instead let’s consider how the white evangelical church and white Christians have actively and passively neglected the call in Micah to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the God of scriptures.
From the outset, white churches seem to be very passionate about justice. Quick to affirm and celebrate law enforcement and the military. White Christians have been consistently vocal about wanting justice for the unborn. And there were many Christians in the abolitionist movement. But when confronted with their history with Black Americans, white evangelicals quickly get both dismissive and forgetful.
Many an author and historian who’s done far more research than me, can explain the role Christians played in the South upholding slavery and then segregation. Although this is where white evangelicals like to pivot and say, remember the Northern Christians disagreed. Yes, but only to a point, still failing to embrace the full humanity of Black people as fellow image bearers. Slavery lasted the longest in the South, but segregation and the belief of white supremacy was upheld all throughout America. The sins of these ideas and colonialism to indigenous groups were never fully confronted as much as they were actively forgotten and erased from history.
The lasting and continuous error white evangelical Christians make today now when confronted with these topics or current racial injustices is perpetuating a theology of color blindness. Yes we are all image bearers of God. Yes we are all fearfully and wonderfully made. But from Genesis to Revelation, no where in God’s design is there a blank non descript monolith of peoples praising him. So as Christians repeat out of context Colossians 3:11 as confirmation of our sameness, they neglect the creation stories of Genesis where God creates the nations twice and the confirmation in Revelation 21 that those nations will be represented again at the consummations of all things. Surely it is only by our earthly weakness and sinful natures that we can look at what God made different and say it can only be good if it were all the same.
The reality of scriptures taken for its word also shows a God willing to step into human history at a certain time, place and within a certain tribe. It should be entirely non-controversial to affirm that Jesus of Nazareth on earth was not a white man. The discomfort race brings to white American Christians is shameful and entirely antithetical to how Jesus interacted with race in the gospels. Racial identities created by God do not exist to divide and as part of his creation are good. And thus wherever racial injustice is found, all Christians should be united in affirming it as such.
American racial injustice exists in the form of white supremacy. The white church has historically held up this hierarchy from excluding Black people from attending their congregations and from church leadership. Segregation in churches is still as pronounced today as it was 50 years ago and so on and so forth. Intentional exclusion does not go away without intentional outreach. Praying for the nations of Revelation 21 is good. But in the year 2021 with modern technology, we do not lack names nor knowledge of who and where those nations are. While the 2020 census is still delayed, your local church still has access to older data on the demographics in your local neighborhood. The day of Pentacost in Acts 2 was special in that the gospel reached many nations at once in one area as Jews around the world had gathered for that holiday. The early church was never a monolith and American churches are long overdue to follow suit.
It is frightening just how unsafe it is to be emotional vulnerable within white churches. If you make the mistake of sharing a slightly left of center opinion with white evangelicals it is paid back in full. Perhaps you don’t get into online or in person political debate. But as early as 2014-2015 as the Obama administration was coming to a close, conservative political discourse was slowing warming up to an uncouth reality TV show host. It seemed beyond hypercritical at the time to excuse a candidate who spoke so poorly of others, but white evangelicals maintained political expediency over moral judgement.
Jesus never came to become a part of a political structure and said so repeatedly, but syncretism of conservative politics and Christian identity happened anyway. Maybe it wouldn’t matter if American politicians became as crass as the British parliament if it wasn’t a matter of faith to be standing on one side. Still yes there are more people who simply haven’t yet come to acknowledge that their political ideologies outweigh their Christian convictions. But if the conservative party can count on anything, they count on white Christians to vote with them despite anything they may or may not bring to the ticket.
It was never the place of the church to demand seats of political power. And with your sympathetic party platform reading, you can’t deny that this idea Christians have of voting based on faith is always incomplete. White evangelicals have cherry picked bible verses and issues to make into major political sticking points. But we’ll never see a candidate running on promises to rid America of all other forms of religion, penalize all sex before marriage and make adulatory a capitol crime. This is not simply because the constitution grants more freedoms than that or because with the cross of Christ we have forgiveness. Those are simply many issues that Christians think to only apply to other Christians not everyone en masse including non believers.
And on the other end of the spectrum, conservative tradition treats programs made to aid the general population on the level of socialism which is decidedly bad despite James describing pure religion as caring for the widows and orphans. In that context, it’s not the government but private Christian charities who should hold that responsibility. However you want to craft your economic perspective is on you for the purpose of this post, but the issue is clear that political power is never going to bring shalom and white evangelicals toying with the idea that it might has been harmful.
White evangelicals who’ve thrown themselves into the pursuit of political power with Trumpism have sown the wind and are rightly reaping the whirlwind. People were criticized and mocked for not wanting to support a political candidate who made them feel uncomfortable. Popular conservative commentators Christian and otherwise religiously identifying have proudly touted that feelings don’t matter in this pursuit. And this isn’t limited to political, other social issues have been denigrated by white evangelical leaders because adherence to scripture mattered more than the fruit of their actions.
None so clear as the constant hand wringing around #BlackLivesMatter as white evangelicals nitpick 101 ways to not support protests. Buzz terms like Critical Race Theory and concerns about it’s pro LGBTQ plus allegiance are debated into fine dust when the question was simply will you affirm that no one should lose their life to racisms? At best Christians are silent, and at worse hostile to the pain their BIPOC brothers and sisters in Christ are going through. And to be clear, racism is a painful experience that no amount politeness or socioeconomic status can protect Black and brown people from having. Yet white evangelical churches have only exasperated that pain in their silence and skepticism.
The false belief in political ideology reflecting faith has now led to a global demonstration of that idolatry. Fun fact, not one of any American presidents we’ve had has ever had has been an outspoken atheist. So what are you so scared about when voting? When polling? And the opposite and expected conclusion to spiritualizing republicanism is the demonizing of democrats and other liberals. Christians are supposed to know that our enemy is not of flesh and blood and it isn’t in our political parties. The worst extremists now are convinced demons are taking over the white house in two weeks and not in a joking manner. How do you love your neighbor and uphold that idea in the same breath? You can’t. And you don’t.
It is easy to complain online about things as if it doesn’t apply to me, but it does. I am as much a product of my environment growing up in white evangelical churches and not seeing the white supremacy at play there or in my schooling or other areas of life. I was the worst of these white American evangelicals and I’m not even white nor American. Unlearning is actually as essential to our spiritual growth as learning is. It’s uncomfortable to admit when you’ve been wrong and harder still to go back and live out that correction.
I’ve been reflecting a lot on how Jesus engaged with the religious elite of his day and age who he knew weren’t interested in changing their opinions. As they brought out a woman caught in adultery, I wonder if she was even fully clothed as she lay there exposed on the center of the court bracing for their stones. The just and right punishment for this sin was death. They scribes and Pharisees knew that. They were goading Jesus by asking the question. It’s worth considering at this point in his ministry by John 8, Jesus had already proven himself to be a problem for the religious establishment in a big way.
Jesus filled with zeal for God’s kingdom had already whipped and overturned tables in the temple. He had already shared the gospel of his kingdom to a Samaritan woman leading to many in the city to believe in him. Many have been healed and he’s already enraged the Jews to the point of murder over his knowledge of the scriptures. This is post walk on water Jesus, I frankly wouldn’t have any other ideas on how to test him at that point.
But test they did and it’s one of my favorite stories although Jesus’ words are few. In fact he is silent when they ask him what they should do with this obviously guilty woman instead deciding now would be a good time to practice doodling on the ground. I have much to say back to those Pharisees and scribes on the other hand. Where is the man whom I assume they also caught in the act of adultery? Why does the penalty for a two person crime fall squarely on the shoulders of the one woman? What grants a person in that time to be more worthy of repentance versus someone else? And how were they using the Mosaic law as it was to justify that?
But Jesus takes care of any of the questions I could think up and more in a simple statement, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus already understood what it takes us all so much longer to realize which is debating people at their own standard is always a losing battle. The standard I set for myself, and you for yourself always puts us in the lead by a wide margin. But when we look to God’s standard, the humility that follows is how we should’ve approached the situation all along.
As the story goes, slowly they all walked away. The difficult part is what people choose to do next after their introspection is out of my hands and out of my control. I was a journalist working on the front lines when peaceful protesters were treated like invading armies, and I never thought I could be so disgusted to see police passivity the way we saw this week. I would hope introspection would bring more white Christians to a place where they are no longer passive nor silent about the evils of white supremacy in America. That we could see where white church leaders enabled and encouraged syncretism instead of heeding the many warnings of where it would lead.
The one solace is Jesus’ message is clear for the one person left. The woman who in Jesus in his sovereign grace does not condemn. Just says for her to go and sin no more. Notice how he didn’t say that to the crowd. He let them walk away and I think it’s because he knew what their hearts were and were not ready for. But as believers that message “Go and sin no more,” is for us. Whether you’ve been forgiven little or forgiven much. What would it look like to go and sin no more?
The white evangelical witness to the world this Wednesday, Jan. 6 was crosses, nooses, confederate flags, insurrection and white supremacy. American churches cannot simply distance themselves from this — they must step in. Declare who Jesus is and don’t stop with simply saying who he is not. Jesus is not with those domestic terrorist. But if he is in your passively quiet all white church, you should not be content with that either. The nations are your neighbors — seek them. Affirm their identities as image bearers different from you. Comfort them. Love them. And walk with them and our God.
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