Hot button issue of the moment: Evangelical. Evangelicalism…specifically “white evangelicalism”.
About a year into my newly redeemed life, I asked this of our pastor,
“what exactly is an evangelical and am I one?”
One of the benefits of getting saved as an adult is learning about new terms and phrases that Christians have used for years. I’ve have noticed a tendency with those who have grown up in the church and have heard various phrases or words all or most of their professing Christian lives do not really know the meaning behind many commonly used words or phrases in the church. Evangelicalism or evangelical is one of those words.
Due to that lack of awareness, there now seems to be a distinction between evangelicalism and “white evangelicalism”, with the latter being attributed to carrying an ideology that put Trump in office, promotes racism, has a disregard for social justice, and intentionally rejects non-white brother’s and sister’s within Christian circles or communities.
The disdain that these words are causing within the church is remarkable. Recently many have felt inclined to make attempts to publicly distance themselves from the word “evangelical” due to their inability to separate the word “white” from the word “evangelical”.
It does not help when the mainstream media, who are adamantly opposed to any hint or aroma of the Christian faith, is determined to create a caricature of the term “white evangelical” in order to discredit the entire bride of Christ.
It seems as though many are failing to “stand firm” while pop culture and/or political divisions inside and outside the church drag the name of Christianity through the mud by connecting “whiteness” to the word evangelical. For many that profess the name of Christian, especially Christians of color, it is just too much pressure to contend for the faith, because even though our faith is perfect, the manner in which we all live out that faith is imperfect. It has now become easier for many to “divorce” themselves from the phrase “white evangelicalism” specifically, or in general, evangelicalism all together.
Many articles have recently been written on this issue of white evangelicalism.
According to Raymond Chang in a recent article he wrote for Christianity Today says,
“White Evangelicalism is a segment of modern evangelicalism that is led and shaped by a cultural agenda defined by whiteness”
I’ve been married for 13 years to a white man who loves Jesus. According to Chang, he would be considered a “white evangelical”. Thirteen years is a enough time for me to figure out that “whiteness” is not a thing.
When Christians begin to follow in the footsteps of the “political machine” by allowing them to give us names for what they have demonized and do not understand, like using the term “white evangelical”, we are naively and sinfully homogenizing all those with a pale skin tone into one profile where no individuality or singularity in thinking or patterns of behavior can occur. Yes, there are some people that think the same and act the same, but, truth be told, that is not a “white thing”, it’s a people thing. There is not a single ethnic group or people group on the planet that does not have pockets of people that cannot think for themselves. Social psychologists call it “group think”.
Chang takes it a step further. He attempts to defend Lecrae’s public declaration that he was officially divorcing white evangelicalism. He writes:
The reason people struggle to distinguish between evangelicalism and white evangelicalism is because evangelicalism was historically and consistently shaped by whiteness. It was because of this dominance and exclusion within evangelicalism that non-white populations formed their own evangelical organizations (National Black Evangelical Association, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, etc.). Essentially, blacks and Latinos found that their issues and needs weren’t being addressed by their white counterparts, so they started their own movements. It was because white evangelicals didn’t make room for non-white evangelicals that black evangelicalism and Latino American evangelicalism emerged. If they had, we wouldn’t have the need for adjectives before the term evangelical. I fear that unless white evangelicalism changes in significant fashion, Lecrae is only going to be the beginning of the exodus, despite not being the first to depart.
Group think is a term coined by a social psychologist in 1972. It was used to explain when a group of people made “faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment”. Group thinkers tend to ignore alternatives and will inevitably take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups. Group think ideology will typically be made up of individuals or members that are similar in background and it most often occurs when the group is insulated from outside opinions as well as when there are no clear rules for overall decision making.
Most importantly, group think does not discriminate. It occurs in all ethnic groups, white, black, Latino, Asian and everything in between. Group think is actually the lens in which social justice advocates are viewing all social disparities through, while at the same time creating an enemy and drawing a line in the social sand that the majority demographic is the sole reason for various injustices. Sadly, many Christians of color are falling right in step with this unbelieving group think lens, largely forgetting the biggest indicative of people behaving badly is not due to skin color or demographic majority, but rather originating in Genesis 3.
Sadly, this disdain for the term “white evangelicalism” has become so widespread that John Piper felt compelled to give his own opinion on the matter. In his book, Bloodlines, he shared with the world his own shortcomings growing up in a time where segregation was the norm and was the preferred expression of white Christian community. He seemed to have taken racial reconciliation very personal by setting the tone of self awareness and admitting his former sins, though it seemed to not be enough. Piper was one of the first high profile reformed evangelicals to have taken notice of Lecrae, back when his lyrics were explicitly God-centered. One can only imagine the hurt and confusion Piper felt when he learned that Lecrae declared publicly that he was divorcing himself from “white evangelicalism”. Piper took this public rebuke very personal. He then proceeded to pen his own rebuttal of Lecrae’s public declaration of divorce. He writes:
“people of color are finding that white evangelical churches and institutions fail to truly embrace them. After doing their best to carve out a space for themselves within white evangelicalism, give it a fair shot (or multiple shots), and even endure through the challenges for decades, there is a growing number of people of color who are seeking places where they can finally feel at home, while still yearning for the greater eternal home”.
Piper’s response is telling.
What does it mean to “feel at home” with other Christians? Especially Christians who are different than us ethnically or culturally. Is it even possible this side of heaven?
Piper admits that he doesn’t know what it means for minority Christians to divorce themselves from “white evangelicalism”. He wonders if white majority Christians should engage in some kind of “identity development work” in order to help minorities feel welcome.
While Piper may not know how to process minority Christians divorcing themselves from white evangelicalism, he may not be too far off with thinking that identity development work needs to happen. However, I do not believe identity development work needs to just be an exercise for white evangelicals. Every Christian, regardless of skin color, ethnic group or born into culture, needs to engage in this kind of identity work. In order for relationships to work, both sides need to be willing to engage in identity work.
When positions of leadership are withheld, a drop in record sales, or a presumed lack of acceptance becomes our sole reason for wanting to divorce ourselves from our white brothers and sisters, we are missing major components of what it means to be a New Testament evangelical.
Prior to marrying my husband, I had the “privilege” of creating an ideology about white people in general. I had no reason to change my thinking either. I surrounded myself with those that looked like me, played like me, ate like me, and fought like me, aka, group think. Then God saved me and sent me a husband to grow me to look more like Christ. Why did God feel it necessary to send me a white man for a husband? As much as I have wrestled with that question, had my husband not been white, I would have continued to look at white people as an enemy and an oppressor to “overcome” instead of people to love and learn from.
As in any relationship between two redeemed sinners, who are guided by ruined flesh as a result of the Fall, learning from each other is a life long process. Our offensive and defensive postures and reactions are always a contributing factor in the dance of relationships. We will never engage in any relationship dynamic, whether in marriage, with acquaintances, with life long friends, co-workers or even strangers, 100% neutral. There are days when we will say things or behave in ways that are truly hurtful to the other, but we are directed to love in spite of that hurt. What we do with that hurt discloses what and who we truly are – lovers of Christ or lovers of self.
I easily default to place blame on my husband’s whiteness when he does not see things from my own point of view. In my desire to point out what I think is racism on his part, I end up sounding like a racist because I want to blame his lack of understanding of my woman of color point of view on the fact that he’s white. Truth be told, my own children have called me out on this.
I want to revel in my woman of color identity, wear it like a badge of honor, and declare “I am made in God’s image so suck it up buttercup. I ain’t changing”. I want to point my indignant brown finger at my husband’s whiteness or even his white maleness and declare it to be evil, not empathetic, not understanding, etc. If I’m being completely honest, many times I do. However, the Spirit of God that guides and directs my soul will not allow me to stay planted in my anger at his lack of understanding of my experiences.
My husband cannot help that he grew up with two parents and I grew up with one. He cannot help that his father passed on a strong work ethic that strives to care for his family and I grew up seeing men as irrelevant or users. He cannot help that I was raised by a single mother who relied on an absent “government father”. He can’t help that I experienced things no child should have to and it is because of those experiences, I have a different lens in which to view life.
There are many things that we cannot change about our personal histories and experiences, but that does not excuse us from equally engaging in identity development work today, if we want our relationships inside and outside marriage to work today. It definitely has been painful to my ego to admit that I have carried my ethnicity, my culture, my painful experiences, my past, as personal identity markers that I oftentimes allow to trump my identity as one who is secure in Christ.
How ridiculous would it be if I decided to divorce my white husband simply because he didn’t understand me or my experiences, in all my Latina-ness?
Do I blame his lack of understanding on his faith in Christ and begin using the term “white evangelical” to explain that lack of understanding, then assign him to a group I’ve labeled “white evangelicalism” because he fits the profile?
We need to stop using words like “divorce” when it comes to the collective evangelical body of Christ. In any and all of our earthly relationships Christ helps us when we feel hurt or rejected or misunderstood. We can look to him and remember that he was also rejected and misunderstood. His close disciples did not understand the full breadth of who he was until after he resurrected from the grave.
Since I am not the Holy Spirit, I can’t convict my husband to treat me a certain way nor can I expect him to understand my experiences, especially if I am unwilling to understand his. In the same way, we can’t share our experiences with others and expect to receive a certain degree of empathy that passes our own litmus test of compassion in order to feel “accepted”. This is a reality I am constantly learning.
If Christ’s acceptance of us is not enough, how can we expect others, who are not Christ, to give us value and validation. We also won’t be able to receive any kind of acceptance unless we are willing to accept to be misunderstood in light of the fact that we also don’t understand those who do not share our own experiences.
If we fail to look to Christ for help in seeing our fellow evangelical brothers and sisters as family, regardless of skin color, there is danger there. The human psyche tends to demonize what we idolize, hence why many, not all, Christians of color characterize “white evangelicals” as their racist-enemy when we are not ushered into white Christian community or leadership positions.
We all want to be accepted my others. We also want that validation from others. When we are not given it, in our brokenness, there is a tendency to turn on the ones that rejected us as a form or type of protective measure. If we are demonizing our white brothers and sisters, or any brother or sister, because of that rejection, we need to repent.
As Christians of color, we really need to do some identity work and look at our own hearts when are not given room on platforms at conferences, when our tickets are not bought, or when our brand or name is not flowing from the lips of well known Christians. Newsflash: Christianity is not a network to work, a business to promote, a platform to advance oneself, or a profile to be labeled by the political machine in order to categorize. It’s a family and most importantly, a bride that belongs to King Jesus, made up of people the Father has chosen before the foundations of the earth. The Holy Spirit works, without ceasing, to make her spotless, one soul at a time. Sharing that reality with others, makes one an evangelical.
In our hodge podge of unlikely family members, we need to learn how to unconditionally love and bless first, lest we become what we demonize. Christ never said the Christian life was going to be easy. He set the standard for what we are to expect in this life. If we are letting rejection effect us in such a way that we tear down the church in our hurt, we are missing a valuable lesson in our personal sanctification to look more like Christ.
In order to get a better grasp at what it means to be evangelical it would be helpful to define characteristics, which will be done in the next post. There is just too much to unravel here as we take a closer look at the word evangelical.
To be continued………
“Defining Evangelicalism” will be out this weekend.