A Fragile Hope Has Been Broken By My White Brothers and Sisters

Tuesday, November 22, 2016 - 5:30 am
LYNCHBURG, VA - JANUARY 18: Supporters of Donald Trump reach for bumper stickers before the Republican presidential candidate delivers the convocation at the Vines Center on the campus of Liberty University on January 18, 2016 in Lynchburg, Virginia. A billionaire real estate mogul and reality television personality, Trump addressed students and guests at the non-profit, private Christian university that was founded in 1971 by evangelical Southern Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A Fragile Hope Has Been Broken By My White Brothers and Sisters

After several years of teaching at a large state school where my academic work had always focused on race, racism, and religion, I entered into the theological academy. I was making a personal decision, a vocational decision. Nearly ten years ago, I prayed:

“God, make me an instrument of your peace.”

God answered with a new assignment.

Too often we have demanded that men and women of color teach us both about their own history and about white racism. We have long insisted that unwilling faculty members or church members be teachers when we are too lazy to do the historical and theological work of understanding how racism functions in Christendom. We have cried for more conversation in order to facilitate our understandings of each other, even while always demanding that people of color disproportionately carry the load. But I chose this work.

I chose to go into predominately white spaces — sometimes all-white spaces — to teach from my areas of expertise. I offered myself as a professor and a mentor, trying my very best to create an atmosphere where tough issues around race or gender or sexuality could be discussed. Some days I succeeded and some days I failed, but I kept trying. More importantly, I traveled this nation, speaking almost everywhere I was invited, but particularly at white churches and schools. I have written for popular media, facilitated workshops, preached, lectured, appeared on television and radio — all in my quest to be a bridge-builder within the body of Christ.

Because I don’t believe that you can live your faith on the sidelines, I entered into spaces I knew weren’t hospitable. I’ve lectured at churches that don’t ordain women, despite being an ordained clergywoman. I’ve spoken to congregations that don’t support LGBT rights, despite my embrace of them. And I’ve been a guest speaker at far too many places that were deeply suspicious of my frank talk about racism and white supremacy in Christian spaces.

Some invited me back, some did not. Some embraced me as a sister in Christ, some probably considered me a heretic. But I’ve been doing the work to which I’ve been called. And I am grateful for the students, colleagues, and friends who support me along the way. I am grateful for my welcoming home in the Black church that has sustained me all my life. The work hasn’t been easy, but sometimes a “thank you” note arrives in my mailbox and I weep in my office.

My years in theological education were at the forefront of my mind while trying to understand the outcome of this historic 2016 election, in which over 81 percent of White evangelicals and born-again Christians voted for the president-elect.


Donald Trump supporters pray as they attend a Trump rally the day after his first debate with Hillary Clinton on September 27, 2016 in Melbourne, Florida. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images / © All Rights Reserved)

On November 8th, I watched as 81 percent of White evangelicals and born-again Christians voted for someone who, on tape, mocked a journalist with disabilities, and who, also on tape, lied about mocking that journalist.

I watched as 81 percent of White evangelicals and born-again Christians voted for someone who admitted to sexually assaulting women and gleefully affirming that he would face no consequences for doing so.

I watched as 81 percent of White evangelicals and born-again Christians dismissed his affairs, adultery, multiple marriages, participation in porn subculture, refusals to release his tax returns, failure to donate to charities to which he promised money, mockery of his own supporters (including their wives and parents), participation in racist lies about President Obama, stereotyping of African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Muslims — and still voted for him.

I watched as 81 percent of White evangelicals and born-again Christians voted for someone who lies about even the most trivial things.

I watched as 81 percent of White evangelicals and born-again Christians voted for someone who conveniently “found religion” just in time to court a voting bloc, but who could not answer even baby questions about this newfound faith.

I watched as 81 percent of White evangelicals and born-again Christians voted for someone who in his acceptance speech did not mention “God.” Not one time. Not even to thank God for his victory or to suggest that “God bless America.”

I lament that, for White evangelicals, my brothers and sisters in Christ (some of whom have joined me in the work of racial justice), the very real lives and experiences of black and brown peoples, Muslims, immigrants, and so many others were apparently not on their radar. People whose highest commandment is to love God and then love your neighbor.

There are real people on the other side of these lies and racism and misogyny. There are Muslims who face physical assault because of an Islamophobia that is being embraced and celebrated in this country. There are women who are raped or sexually assaulted, and who will never seek justice, since sexual assault has been reduced to merely “locker room” antics.

There are children who will endure bullying, and potentially consider suicide, because of the president-elect’s public behavior of bullying and demeaning those with whom he disagrees. There are African Americans living in fear when someone shouts “Kill Obama” during an acceptance speech and the president-elect fails to shut it down — because Black folks know we serve as surrogates for racist rage directed against the president.

As my election night tweet clearly shows, I am left with a crisis. How do I continue to build bridges across racial divides with those who have demonstrated, in overwhelming numbers, that they will partner with a person endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan? Or with those who affirm someone who continues to insist, after eight years, that our current president is not a citizen and is therefore illegally occupying office?

How do I continue to be in Christian fellowship with those who embrace a man still calling for the deaths of five innocent African-American men acquitted of a crime by DNA? How can I believe that racial justice is possible when dealing with those who are quick to forgive the president-elect’s egregious moral lapses, while simultaneously supporting his contention that black and brown youth are inherently criminals deserving of constant surveillance?


People attend a vigil at TD Arena for victims of a massacre at an African-American church Bible study class in Charleston, South Carolina on June 19, 2015. (Brendan Smialowski / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images / © All Rights Reserved)

I am a descendant of enslaved persons, and my ancestors have been in the United States longer than almost any other group besides American Indians. I am not going to leave the country my ancestors built with their blood and uncompensated labor. And I am a Christian — a faith that was birthed in an African cradle. I am not going to leave the faith bequeathed to me by my foremothers and forefathers. But I will always speak truth from my lived experience as an African American living in a nation in which the structural sins of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression are clearly evident even in the body of Christ.

Yet I do not know as I write this whether the work to which I have given my career can continue. I do not know if I can continue to pay the cost of being a peacemaker and a bridge-builder with those who refuse to see how their actions have so deeply wounded minority communities. Something has been broken for me; a fragile hope that the work of racial and gender justice will be embraced by the larger church.

This article is reprinted with permission from Religion Dispatches. Follow RD on Facebook or Twitter for daily updates.

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is an associate professor of African American Religion and Literature and the director of Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. She holds a Ph.D. and an M.A. from Cornell University and undergraduate degrees from Princeton University. Her research specialties include African American religious history, womanist theology, African American literature, and the relationship between race and religion.

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  • Lambchopsuey

    In their 2001 book, “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America“, authors Emerson and Smith clearly identified why churches will NEVER be at the forefront for social change:

    They found that despite recent efforts by the movement’s leaders to address the problem of racial discrimination, evangelicals themselves seem to be preserving America’s racial chasm. In fact, most white evangelicals see no systematic discrimination against blacks. But the authors contend that it is not active racism that prevents evangelicals from recognizing ongoing problems in American society. Instead, it is the evangelical movement’s emphasis on individualism, free will, and personal relationships that makes invisible the pervasive injustice that perpetuates racial inequality. Most racial problems, the subjects told the authors, can be solved by the repentance and conversion of the sinful individuals at fault.

    In particular, evangelical emphasis of individualism and free will seem to predispose them to believe that most racial problems can be solved if individuals will only repent of their sins. Therefore, many well-meaning strategies for healing racial divisions (such as cross-cultural friendships) carry within them the seeds of their own defeat.

    By consistently regarding racism as a personal problem, white Evangelical Christians are fundamentally opposed to policies at the governmental level that seek to protect black people as individuals and to level the playing field with regard to discriminatory privilege for white people. The only cure, you see, is for each individual to “repent” and “get right with God”, and then all the problems will simply *evaporate*. From the book:

    …because members of a group cannot understand and feel the needs and wants of another group as completely and deeply as those of their own group, reliance on love, compassion, and moral and rational suasion to overcome group divisions and inequalities is, in Niebuhr’s words, “practically an impossibility.” For this reason, relations between groups are always mainly political rather than ethical or moral. As Niebuhr says, “They will always be determined by the proportion of power with each group possesses at least as much as by any rational and moral appraisal of the comparative needs and claims of each group.”

    We see this in white evangelicals’ assessment of the race problem and racial inequality. Although they can perhaps talk with empathy about a black friend’s situation, when they assess the group, they speak in ways, as we have seen, that largely justify division and inequality. They know that most of their friends and relatives – who are predominately white – are not hate-mongering racists bent on keeping blacks down. And they know this much better than they can know the experiences of black Americans. So, when they must assess the “race problem,” given their cultural tools, they conclude that it must be blacks exaggerating, or to the advantage of some to claim there is a race problem, or that the race problem is but individual problems between some individuals of different races. In short, they speak in ways that support their own racial group and the American system. Almost no white evangelical suggests that inequality between groups is immoral and ought to disappear, for example.

    This is why you are shouting into the wind, in other words. You are fascinating entertainment, a side show, whose fervent plea will inevitably be understood as a misperception of reality, you poor dear. White Christians are *fine* with Christianity supporting the status quo, because they benefit from the status quo. And Christianity itself always supports the status quo, because Christianity likewise benefits from the status quo. Christianity will always be a highly racist system.

    And, largely isolated in their own racial group, they fail to see their advantages. The exceptions are those white evangelicals so immersed in black social networks that they appear to identify more with black Americans than with white Americans. That is, they are less a part of their racial birth group than they are a part of their “adopted” group, and they therefore have a perspective on racial issues closer to the perspectives of many black Americans.

    This, almost a generation before Rachel Dolezal was vilified on all sides for identifying more with an oppressed minority than with the privileged majority of her birth.

    Because the organization of religion in the United States does heighten the salience of racial boundaries and reduce interracial ties, it necessarily reproduces racial inequality. (p. 159-161)

    As we have seen, the organization of American religion encourages religious groups to cater to people’s existing preferences, rather than their ideal callings. In trying to create meaning and belonging, even to teach religious truths and implications for social action, religious leaders must act within a limited range shaped by the social locations of their congregation. The congregation often looks to religion not as an external force that places radical demands on their lives, but rather as a way to fulfill their needs. Those who are successful in the world, those of adequate or abundant means, those in positions of power (whether they are aware of this power or not), rarely come to church to have their social and economic positions altered. If we accept the oftentimes reasonable proposition that most people seek the greatest benefit for the least cost, they will seek meaning and belonging with the least change possible. Thus, if they can go to either the Church of Meaning and Belonging, or the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, most people choose the former. It provides benefit for less cost. “In practice congregation members expect the minister to do nothing (such as taking a prophetic voice) which would interfere with the harmony and growth of the membership.” As a result, many religious leaders, even if they desire change, are constrained. Unless their message is in the self-interest of the group, they must necessarily soften and deemphasize their prophetic voice in favor of meeting within-group needs. (p. 164) – from Book preview here

    Christians join churches to get their OWN needs met, not to meet the needs of others. There are far more secular groups a person who simply wanted to help others could join, at far lower cost, and with the “helping” being the primary objective.

    The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted that: “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Here, see him saying it for yourself – in 1960: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1q881g1L_d8

    That was nearly seventy years ago, yet nothing has changed within Christianity. There’s a lesson here.

  • Jason K.

    Have you tried looking up a Unitarian church? I’ve heard good things about them. They are supposedly a very welcoming and diverse bunch. Tolerant and non-judgemental. Sorry to hear you feel alone. I’m an atheist, but a lot of them are jerks, too. I just try to live a moral life and consider myself to be a citizen of the world. Make the best of things. It’s all we can do.