Why White Evangelical Pastors Must Speak out about Racism and Anti-Semitism in our Country
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In light of the events of Charlottesville I thought I would offer some reflections regarding why white evangelical pastors must speak out about racism and anti-Semitism in our country.
With much love,
Like many Americans, I was sickened to watch Nazis and so-called White Nationalists march in Charlottesville last week. As a Jew, I couldn’t believe that in the year 2017 certain Americans would march down a street in our country chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” and “Blood and soil” (a Nazi slogan glorifying people who till the land over against “Jewish shopkeepers” and “Jewish doctors”). One protestor told a reporter, “The reason that we’re here is to kill Jews!”
I personally experienced a small taste of this bigotry via social media last Saturday. Someone sent me a disgusting anti-Semitic message regarding my Jewishness. Of course, this is not the first time this has happened to me. A local Nazi posted a blog on a Nazi website accusing me – among other crimes – of spreading “Jew theology” in the Gentile church. (You mean, like the theology of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus? Or like the theology of the Jewish rabbi, Paul? I plead guilty to these crimes!)
Hand in hand with the marchers anti-Semitism was their racism and avowed white supremacy. Some of the white supremacists marchers demanded a “whites only” state in America. Others were KKK members. All had gathered ostensibly to protest the city of Charlottesville’s decision to remove a confederate statue of Robert E. Lee, a man who led a rebellion against the US government to protect the grossly immoral institution of slavery.
Now, one would think that it would be the easiest thing in the world for evangelical pastors to clearly and unequivocally condemn the racism and anti-Semitism of the protestors in their local congregations. If ever there was a huge softball tossed slowly over the plate, this was it! Many did offer stinging condemnations. Yet some were deafeningly silent. And a few prominent evangelical leaders actually defended the protestors or accused the Charlottesville City Council of deliberate provocation for deciding to remove the confederate statue. It doesn’t take great moral or spiritual discernment to conclude that something is desperately wrong in the white evangelical church.
I love the evangelical wing of the Christian church. When I met Jesus at age 18, it was that portion of the church that nurtured my new-found faith. It was the evangelicals who taught me to love the scriptures. It was evangelicals who discipled me, loved me and my family, and welcomed me into their community. I have considered myself to be part of the evangelical church for my entire adult life.
As a pastor, I can understand why white evangelical pastors hesitate to plainly and clearly condemn the protestor’s racism and anti-Semitism in specific terms in church. First of all, you could spend your entire life in ministry responding to the latest outrageous tweet or the most recent incident of hate-speech or racially motivated violence. Most pastors signed up to actually do something – to actually change people’s lives, to heal broken marriages and rescue troubled teens, to comfort grieving widows and feed hungry people. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know how often we ought to speak since racist incidents are publicized on a near daily basis.
Second, most of us don’t want to add to the rancor and incivility that our country is now being subjected to 24/7. With all the screaming heads on TV, radio and on social media, do we pastors have anything to add that is worth saying?
Third, in my particular case, Vineyard Columbus is an incredibly diverse church that includes people from 125 different nations where everyone is welcome regardless of economics, race, nationality, religious background, education or political perspective! I love the fact that Vineyard Columbus seeks to be a church home for everyone who is sincerely interested in pursuing a relationship with God. Like most pastors, I’m incredibly aware of the fact that we live in a time in history where everything is politicized. Every moral stand we take as a church, every statement I make from the pulpit regarding justice is now read through the lens of partisan politics. Of course, what is and is not considered “political” depends primarily upon the hearer. For some, when I speak about immigration or race, I’m being “too political”! Yet, when I speak about abortion I’m being “biblical”. For others, it’s exactly the reverse.
We pastors try to be sensitive to the reality that we live in an extraordinarily partisan era. We try not to be unnecessarily provocative lest we alienate people we’re trying to reach.
But there is a fourth reason why white evangelical pastors don’t speak often enough and loudly enough about issues of race and that is because of the stunted theology that we have inherited from our wing of the church. While claiming to be people of the Book, we evangelicals have reduced the 66 books of the Bible and 2100 pages (in my NIV Study Bible) to just two laws – the “bad news” that we are all sinners and therefore alienated from God and the “good news” that Jesus came into the world to reconcile us to God. If we trust in him we can be saved and all will be well. We have naively believed that if we could simply bring someone to Jesus every other good thing would automatically happen in their lives, including love for people who are racially different from them.
All the other broad themes of the Bible have been taken out of our evangelical preaching. Gone are themes of creation and creation care. Gone are the Bible’s repeated commands for us to care for the widow, the orphan, the immigrant and the poor. Gone are the incredible number of verses about social justice and Jesus’ command to us to feed the hungry, welcome the foreigner, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner. I often think that if we evangelicals were half as biblical as we claim to be, our country would be turned on its head!
It’s this inheritance of a reduced gospel and one social concern (abortion) that makes evangelicals suspicious of every other social movement and justice claim.
Why must white evangelical leaders clearly and unequivocally speak about race and lead our congregations to be racial reconcilers? Let me mention three reasons why white evangelical leaders like me must speak about race and lead our congregations to be racial reconcilers. First (and most tragically) because for much of our history, we white evangelicals have been “missing in action” regarding the cause of racial equality in America. While evangelicals today celebrate the achievements of Dr. King—I have a picture of Dr. King along with my other great hero, C.S. Lewis, over my desk. But the tragic truth is no white evangelical pastor joined Dr. King’s Civil Rights marches or worked for civil rights legislation. There were many rabbis who marched with Dr. King. Catholic priests marched with him. Prominent Episcopalian and Presbyterian clergyman participated in Civil Rights demonstrations. So did Unitarians. But white evangelicals were conspicuously absent from Dr. King’s marches.
Billy Graham, whom God used to reach more people than anyone in history with the saving message of Jesus’ death and resurrection, told the New York Times in 1963 that his good friend, Dr. Martin Luther King (who was at the time languishing in the Birmingham Jail) would be well advised “to put the brakes on a bit”. Frances Fitzgerald in her book The Evangelicals, reports that he opposed the confrontational tactics of the Civil Rights Movement, and what he called “forced integration”. Dr. Graham blamed “both sides” – white segregationists and black civil rights workers for the unrest in the South. And Dr. Graham refused to endorse the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Christianity Today and the National Association of Evangelicals also did not endorse those two landmark pieces of legislation. Since then, Christianity Today and the N.A.E. have been outspokenly on the side of racial equality. But, if the Lord tarries and we evangelicals are here for another two centuries, we still will not atone for our silence and complicity regarding white discrimination against African Americans in the United States.
Second, our brothers and sisters of color legitimately ask us – do you white Christians care about threats to our community? Is the church a safe space for us to express our pain and process the trauma we experience with every fresh act of racial violence and every fresh expression of white supremacy? Brothers and sisters of color ask, “Must we process our pain privately or only with a few friends who look like us? Or is this church really the home of Jesus, the “man of sorrows and acquainted with suffering”?” Is the church going to be a community of healing for all or must some of us suffer in silence?
Third, we must state the obvious. 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump for President. Evangelical leaders are among the President’s strongest supporters, defenders and explainers. It’s entirely legitimate for people to ask those of us who are part of the evangelical tradition: Do you entirely support the President’s statements regarding Charlottesville? Do you agree there are “many sides” to blame? Do you support the President’s statement that monuments to confederate soldiers are “beautiful” and ought to be kept in place? Speaking personally, my answers would be no, no and no. What I personally wish the President would have said would be something like this:
“I condemn every expression of white supremacy, so called white nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism, and find the statements made by the protestors in Charlottesville utterly repugnant. I am revolted by their philosophy and I utterly reject their support of me!” Full stop! No ifs, ands or buts. No defense of their actions. No blaming of “many sides”. Full stop!
How should we move forward as a church community? First, words are incredibly important to God and should be incredibly important to us evangelicals. After all, we claim to believe in Jesus who is the Word of God. And we claim to believe in the Bible, the Word of God written. It matters what we call things. Isaiah 5:20 says:
Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter
Injustice always mislabels things. Nazis called death camps labor camps. They talked about “the Final Solution” instead of the extermination of Jews. Their policy of “relocating” Jews was a cover up for killing Jews.
We perpetuate injustice whenever we call things by the wrong names. It is injustice when we call all Muslims “terrorists”, when we call Mexicans “rapists”, when we call those who oppose war “un-American” or “unpatriotic”, when we call pro-life people “anti-choice” and when monuments for people who fought to divide America are called “beautiful”. Words matter!
Listening to each other matters! We need to be a reconciled reconciling community. Vineyard Columbus needs to create hundreds and hundreds of safe environments where people can share their experiences of life safely without having their experience immediately invalidated. I can tell you that it is because I have listened with an open mind and an open heart to brothers and sisters of color as they shared their own experiences of discrimination and hurt that I have been changed. I’m not the same man that I was 20 years ago. I am not entirely free of racial bias. I see it creeping up in lots of petty and private ways. But I’m not who I was because I’ve taken the time to listen.
Finally, as a community, we need to commit ourselves to be people of the Book. This means the whole Book and not just those parts of the Book that our particular political brand celebrates. I imagine a church like ours committed to seeing people getting converted, being lovingly discipled in the fullness of God’s plan and becoming people who love God with all their hearts, souls, minds and strength and loving their neighbors as themselves.
I love Vineyard Columbus. I have never been more thrilled to be a part of what I consider to be one of America’s great churches. Let’s commit ourselves to becoming even better together!
If you are a reader, pick up one of the following books: Dynamic Diversity by Bruce Milne, Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson, or Beyond Racial Gridlock by George Yancey.