Abstract:The acts of white supremacy that took place in Charlottesville, VA should encourage the church to act aggressively to deter racist ideals within her ranks. Evangelicals, as a whole, must engage white supremacy as a worthy opponent to the mission and message of the gospel instead of acknowledging race-based hate as a minor threat. Failure to do so directly injures the church’s ability to reach marginalized groups who have become victim to rising attitudes of hate and xenophobia. This responsibility falls on both leadership and members alike, to and both assembly ministers and Christian academics. Evangelical thought and action toward white supremacy cannot be a mere afterthought to the Charlottesville, Virginia incidents August 11, 2017 and like events.
On Friday, August 11, white supremacists descended upon Charlottesville, VA, to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park—previously known as Robert E. Lee Park. Neo Nazis, members of the Ku Klux Klan, the Alt-Right, National Socialistic Movement, and other extreme groups marched through the city with torches reminiscent of the Hitler Youth Movement, shouting racial phrases: “Blood and soil,” “You will not replace us,” “Jewswill not replace us,” “Deus vult,” and “White lives matter.” They were met with opposition by students from the University of Virginia as they attempted to approach the statue of Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia.
The next day, Saturday, August 12, the white supremacist protesters were met by scores of counter-protesters, including members of Black Lives Matters, local clergy, many ordinary citizens, and those described as “Antifa.” The meeting of supremacist groups and the counter-demonstrators quickly erupted into vehement and violent clashes. Many of the supremacist protesters were well-armed, equipped and organized like militia groups (of which some also were members). They wielded long rifles, carried clubs and shields, and marched with Roman phalanx-like maneuvers to fend off counter-attacks as they weaved through the crowds. They were met by some counter-demonstrators armed with makeshift shields and aerosol cans used to ignite flames toward those bearing symbols of racial superiority and hatred.1 They also were met by many alarmed yet peaceful people who stood their ground for love and decency.
The United States President’s initial and subsequent lack of both moral clarity and unequivocal denunciation in his statements about the white supremacists is well documented.2 The castigation of wrongdoing on “both sides” of the riots served to normalize and minimalize the evil of the efforts of the hate groups.3 Given the President’s rhetoric on immigration reform and border security, his executive orders concerning protecting the nation from foreign terrorists, and his appointment of the former executive chair of Breitbart Newsto his administration, one should not have been surprised at his slowness to criticize a display of racial hatred. However, as Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, stated, “It is long overdue for the President to develop a plan of action to combat white supremacy and all forms of hate…. Without a clear denunciation and plan of action, these bigots are only emboldened.”4 The fatal mowing down of a counter-protester with a car may only be the beginning of the bold lengths to which the supremacists will go to silence those who would oppose them.
The church must begin treating racism/white supremacy as the formidable,5 seasoned opponent it is, instead of barely acknowledging race-based hate as if it is a newly-emerging, minor threat. This responsibility falls on both leadership and members alike, both shepherds and Christian academics. This responsibility cannot be a mere afterthought to Charlottesville and like events. Where the church is presently on the defensive front concerning racism, it must shift to the offensive position and take active steps to deter racist ideals or hate justification within its ranks. Failure to do so directly injures the church’s ability to reach marginalized groups who have become victim to rising attitudes of hate and xenophobia.
1. White Supremacy and Christian Identity
The hateful intentions, rhetoric, displays of might, and efforts of the Unite the Right movement, their growing public boldness and increased recruiting campaigns, and the attempts of some of their members to identify as “Christians” should concern Christ’s people greatly. We too, especially American evangelicals, are long overdue in developing plans to dismantle white supremacy, racial bigotry and discrimination, and violence against Jews, African Americans, and other ethnic minorities and people of color. It is past time for us to add sustained energies to our thoughtful, well-crafted, sincere, gospel-centered statements on race. As much as we partner with, and call upon the legislatures and courts to support “family values,” we should entreat the same to put a wooden stake in the heart of organized white supremacy. As much as we use our pulpits to preach on the sanctity of the lives of those with birth defects and terminal illnesses, we should proclaim all cruciform implications of the dignity of the image of man as relates to race, ethnicity, racial bias, and hatred.
As the corporate identity, “one new man” (Eph 2:15), the church plays a critical role in the war against racism and hate rhetoric. In the work of redemption, Christ reconciled in himself ethnic groups forcefully posed against one another, “killing the hostility” they had toward one another. The complete death of such hostility inherently calls the church to the complete removal of language that would incite racial hatred rather than promote the fellow-citizens work of the gospel. Seemingly, therefore, individual believers and local churches have an active responsibility to condemn the use of evangelical themes as racially coded language.6 As Christ followers who prioritize the love of one’s neighbor as second only to the love of God, evangelicals must work vehemently to remove conduits of racial hatred from within the church itself.
Historically, hate groups have used religious, Christian-based rhetoric to perpetuate acrimony, xenophobia, bigotry, and segregation in America. The misuse of Christian themes and evangelical theology to preserve slavery is a particularly poignant example of such malevolent magniloquence. Pro-slavery advocates co-opted gospel discourse even to the point of encouraging African-American slaves to accept their enslaved status as their rightful, God-ordained place in a white society.7 National Christian groups, most notably, the Southern Baptist Convention, also have origins birthed from racism.8
In a very similar manner, this misuse of Scripture is evident in an interview that preceded the supremacists’ night march in Charlottesville by a few weeks. Colombian American news anchor, Illia Calderón, sat down with a white supremacist who threatened her repeatedly, while quoting Scripture as the justification for his disdain for her and [her] people.9
Although this warped, malicious use of Christian beliefs is deeply ingrained within the fabric of American culture, and within contemporary Christian institutions, racism, unlike other spiritual wrongs, is not subject to aggressive widespread criticism within the evangelical milieu. Instead, it often seems that it is brushed under the rug as the deep, dark family secret that local assemblies hope they simply can pray away, or address with a timely sermon or statement after a national, race-related tragedy. Rarely does the sin of racism receive corrective church discipline.10
2. The Church’s Historical Fights against Racial Aggression
Most relevantly, as a collective, evangelicals have not taken a hard stance against political candidates who tote racism as part of their election platform in the same manner they have opposed candidates who are Pro-Choice or Pro-Same-Sex unions. Arguably, in November 2016, many evangelicals did quite the opposite.11
Although presently, the church is failing to raise its banners in the war against racism in American society, history portrays the church at the center of successful movements toward racial equality and civil rights. An iconic example of a Christ-inspired endeavor towards racial justice is manifest in the life of William Wilberforce’s passionate efforts to end the Transatlantic Slave Trade in England. History similarly remembers the legacy of Corrie ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and other members of the true church in Germany concealing Jews from murderous Nazis and/or speaking against their extermination during the Holocaust. Likewise, the Black Church was a central force in the advancement of the Civil Rights Movement in America.
Wilberforce, ten Boom, and others who championed their faith to drive out racial hatred possessed bold willingness to sacrifice their own lives to rescue others from evil. Wilberforce, ten Boom, and other bold champions were willing to follow God’s word without compromise rather than dilute their faith in order to live within the safety of the common and socially accepted, racially oppressive practices of the day. They did not avoid rocking the boat in order to keep the peace, or work to see validity “on both sides.” They recognized evil and hatred for what it was and took up arms against it.
In the 1930s, the Confessing Church of Germany stood up to the Aryan Supremacy of the Third Reich and her so-called church of “German Christians.” Yet Bonhoeffer was unable to persuade the Confessing Church to make a statement (or stand) against the Nazi treatment of the Jews, for, as Siegele-Wenschkewitz notes, “Only a few were able to put behind them the institutionalized anti-Semitism of the Christian church. Only a few spoke up for the Jews who were deprived of their rights, humiliated, stripped of human dignity, driven out of Germany and eventually killed by the millions in the holocaust of the gas chambers.”12 In the wake of the Charlottesville incidents, the invoking of the memory of the church versus early 20th-century Nazism is appropriate as the philosophical offspring of the German Nazis walking through our streets waving flags bearing swastika flags.
3. The Great Commission and Deterrence of White Supremacy
If the Church is lackluster in its fight against racism running rampant in the nation and the world, it will be hindered in the achievement of one of its primary callings: The Great Commission. In the wake of Charlottesville, the Christian community received criticism as multiple members fled in mass from Trump’s Manufacturing Council and Strategy & Policy Forum while only one member “quietly stepped away” from the Evangelical Advisory Board.13 Although other members of the Evangelical Advisory Board spoke publicly against White Supremacy, the Advisory Board remained largely intact, appearing to some as a reflection of the minor concern the Christian community has for the growing racial animosity in America.
Within the practice of law, judges and legislators use the principle of deterrenceto discourage undesirable behavior through precise legal schemes.14 Deterrence is a model based upon punishment and awareness: Where a population perceives a detrimental outcome of a higher social cost than benefit for a certain behavior, the behavior is prevented by avoidance of the resulting negative outcome.Unfortunately, despite its long history and familiarity with racism and hate rhetoric, the church has yet to discern an equivalent, Spirit-wrought, sustainable deterrence model for these social disgraces.
Without deterrence, racism will retain its association with evangelicalism, and thus, with the message of the gospel from evangelicals. Evangelicals leave themselves open to the charges of hypocrisy akin to those levied with the colonialism of missionaries to Africa.15 The church will be hindered in its proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus to and for people of “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9) when the recipients of the message perceive that those bearing the message are unconcerned about racial conflicts and injustices.16 The message of the cross is a message of the integrity of life in its stewards, written on the hearts of the ones we serve, and to be read by all observing our New Covenant ministry (1 Cor 4:1–2; 2 Cor 2:17–3:3; 1 Tim 4:16; 6:11–16). People should read from our lives—our motives, intentions, goals, words, and acts of service—a love of neighbor that does not tolerate racial hatred. This reading, notes Paul, is an outworking of the gospel we preach in the lives of others (2 Cor 3:3). Just as a life of holiness is essential to the heralding of the gospel message in one’s local spheres of influence, so also a life of righteousness and love is necessary to preach the gospel among those outside of one’s own ethnic background. Just as we lose credibility of witness if our message appears to be, “The Lord can change your life even though there is no evidence he has changed mine,” so too we equally lose the moral capital of our Christian testimony if our message appears to be, “The Lord loves all people even though I show no evidence of such love or concern for the wellbeing of people of other (or certain) races and ethnicities.”
4. A Perspective on Social Hatred
Perhaps a socio-religious analysis of what transpired in Charlottesville will broaden one’s understanding of the hateful intentions, rhetoric, displays of might and efforts of the Unite the Right Movement aforementioned in this essay. It appears that the KKK, the Alt-Right, Neo-Nazis, and Nationalists abhor social change and relish the present status quo, even at the risk of living anachronistically. Thus, the call to “Make America Great Again” became code words for those who enjoy the perks of white privilegeand serve to provide reassurance that a certain level of comfort will be maintained at the expense of poor people and people of color.17 Any attempts to “equalize” or to “level the playing field” represent threats to those perks and are met with cries of “reverse discrimination” and various acts of violence.18 A recent sociological report documents 900 hate incidents 10 days after the 2016 election, one-fifth of which were committed by supporters of the newly elected President or done in his name.19
At a deeper level, those acts of violence represent a defense against feelings of fear of loss of status and privilege based on demographics that suggest that there are more people of color in the world than there are white. According to a 2014 U.S. Census Bureau Report, in the United States the racial and ethnic composition is predicted to shift to a majority-minority by 2044.20 Even though a full realization may be three decades or more away, and depending on the strength of one’s belief in the accuracy of these data analyses, the thought of such a reality raises fear in the minds of many white citizens who have enjoyed the rewards of being part of the majority.
The late Frances Cress Welsing, a noted African American psychiatrist, argued that racism/white supremacy is a conspiracy to “ensure white genetic survival.”21 She based her argument on the theory of Neely Fuller, a native Washingtonian, who theorized that racism, aggression, and hostility stems from white fear of genetic annihilation in an overwhelmingly “non-white world.” Secondly, Welsing argued that while blacks have been labeled an inferior people, and operate on feelings of inferiority, it is actually white people who are experiencing feelings of inferiority based on the biological fact that black people produce melanin that gives a darker pigmentation to the skin. Since white people do not produce melanin, and there are more people of color in the world than white, she argued that white people feel threatened of annihilation, and therefore react in various hostile ways towards people of color.
Whether or not we agree with Welsing’s analyses, we certainly agree that racism/white supremacy exists, and has been around for hundreds of years. Yet, we have failed miserably in this country to engage in honest dialogue on race, racism, and racialization in any significant way.
Gregory Carr, professor of Afro-American studies at Howard University, says, “Ending racism has never been a matter of polite discourse or easy solutions. People will not agree, and paths of most resistance will involve fighting with one another.”22 However, violence is not a gospel-centered solution to problems of racism and racial injustice. As Dr. Martin Luther King admonished American society, “Violence multiplies violence.… The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”23
Writing on the Charlottesville incident, Jarvis Williams notes, “Many African Americans believe that there has been little or no significant change in race relations since the days of Jim Crow, and that the aftermath of recent racial violence in Charlottesville has many Christians and churches asking with more urgency, ‘How should we respond to white supremacy and racial injustice?’”24 The answer to this question may require a paradigm shift in how blood-bought, Spirit-filled followers of Christ view racism/white supremacy. Rather than viewing it primarily as a social issue, we need to view it as a gospel issue. In their Charlottesville Declaration, the Reformed African American Network proclaims,
Thus, it is with great concern for the soul of this nation that we, the undersigned, covenant to “cry loud and spare not” (Isaiah 58:1) against America’s national sin, beginning within the body of Christ. White supremacy—often called by many names including racism, white privilege, “alt-right” and the KKK—is an insidious doctrine that in manifold ways steals, kills, and destroys the inviolable dignity of all God’s children (Genesis 1:26–28). It suppresses the truth of God (Romans 1:18), and walks out of step with the true Gospel (Galatians 2:14). All that is left for an unrepentant stance toward sin is God’s justice and judgement. Alas, many of the Lord’s followers remain hard of heart and hearing, making God’s judgement upon this nation seemingly inevitable.… Now is the time for the Church to again be the moral compass for this nation. Now is the time for a prophetic, Spirit-led remnant to bear credible “word and deed” witness to the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ.25
Christ “gave Himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age” (Gal 1:4). On this verse, Williams comments, “Racism is part of that evil age.” Williams continues to explore the application of Christ’s atoning work to overcoming racism within the body of Christ by saying, “Jesus’s blood and resurrection reconciled a diversity of humans into one transformed “ethnically and racially diverse Christian Community (1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 5:9).”26 Williams recommends that if churches desire to offer any help to those enslaved to racist ideologies like those displayed in Charlottesville, or to those who suffer from white supremacy, they must first see the gospel as the basis for our responses. Racism and white supremacy—both personal and systemic—are forces that work against the gospel.27 Justice, in this present society, must not be confused with the justice provided on the cross (cf. Rom 3:25). However, neither should justice in society be divorced from the justice of the cross—justice that establishes rulers to curb sin in the present world (cf. Rom 13:2–5).
Social scientist Gordon Allport advanced a theory called “Intergroup Contact Hypothesis,” or “Contact Hypothesis” for short.28 He proposed that members of different groups can come together and work to reduce prejudice and intergroup conflict, and improve social relations. He suggested four key conditions that must exist for this to occur: equal status, intergroup cooperation, common goals, and support by social and institutional authorities.Contact under these conditions is especially effective for reducing prejudice; even if all the conditions are not present, unstructured contact can reduce prejudice.
There are multiracial, multicultural, and predominantly homogenous congregations across the country whose members are putting into practice equal status(e.g. mutual dignity), intergroup cooperation(humility and fellowship of love), common goals(unity of mind and heart), and support by social and institutional authorities(congregational care and the body building up itself in love) with respect to embracing people of all races and ethnicities. Such persons also have the habits of being sensitive and sincere toward the pain and trauma people of color endure with every event like Charlottesville or Ferguson. There are many believers who understand that equal status in justification (Gal 3:28) should promote equal status of all persons within a local body (Eph 4:3). There are many who fight against racism as an outgrowth of the holy conduct of Christ’s bride in contemporary societies (cf. 1 Pet 2:12).
5. Pastoral Admonitions for Congregational Dismantling of Racial Hatred
Each congregation, parachurch board, and school administration must give prayerful consideration to practices that will guide their members to the faithful dismantling of racism. However, allow us to suggest a few possible acts that may have come to the imaginations of some. First, encourage participation in the festivities, remembrances, awareness events, artistic expressions, and historical displays of the various minority ethnicities within your congregation and local community. Trips to museums of various cultures is one means of growing in empathy toward the needs and struggles of different people groups. For example, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC is poised to initiate such discussion.29
Second, give strong, clear, responses to the issues surrounding local and national incidents of racial conflict, especially in which racially-charged threat, harm, police or judicial action, and/or tragedy has come to fore. In every such event, the love of God, love of neighbor, the image of God in man, and treatment of others as one desires to be treated are pathways from the cross to social issues and back to the cross again (cf. Gen 1:27; Matt 7:12; Mark 12:30–31; Luke 6:31; Jas 3:9). Silence on such issues will be understood as complicity with supremacists by some, apathy by others, and love by none. Again, Dr. King said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”30 In academic settings, point-in-time responses to issues of racial conflict should complement annual theological curricula that, inherently, should expose and rebuke a litany of sins woven into the fabric of racism and ethnic superiority.
Third, promote regular, active, intentional, personal fellowship of saints across ethnic lines. Such fellowship happenings, often involving the sharing of a favorite ethnic meal by the host family, allows for believers within the same congregation to reveal and understand the private, cultural backgrounds experienced by the marginalized. Unlike the formal and protected settings of public worship and Christian education, the casual and comfortable venue of a home provides an atmosphere for sharing concerns by all parties. In this arena, myths may be dispelled, and misunderstanding may be addressed without humiliating shame. This may be a good place for feelings of fatigue, anger, disillusionment, and unwarranted guilt on issues of racial justice to find weeping sympathy, mutual confession, forgiveness, acts of mercy, and wisdom (Rom 12:8; 15:12; Eph 4:31–32; Col 4:5; Jas 5:15–16).
In addition to the promotion of fellowship, avoid denying the reality of racial insensitivity within your own fellowship, regardless of the numerical assessment of the ethnic diversity in your congregation. Within predominantly white structures—even churches and Christian institutions—ethnic minorities often withhold the pains of racially and ethnically-based disappointments in order not to be perceived as disruptive or dis-unifying.31
Fourth, in public gatherings and private moments, we should pray for those who are contending directly with episodes and establishments of racism and white supremacy.32 Only the work of the Spirit of God can overcome the race-related sin within persons and society. Moreover, what a congregation hears in public prayer will become part of its understanding of what should be pastoral and congregational priorities.
6. Conclusion: The Blockade against White Supremacy
With passion, intentionality, courage, and much prayer, evangelicals should use every spiritual, theological, congregational, denominational, ecclesial, missiological, homiletical, musical, literary, artistic, educational, governmental, diplomatic, domestic, international, organizational, institutional, professional, corporate, economic, judicial, cultural, sociological, electoral, charitable, familial, philosophical, athletic, historical, publishable, moral, ethical, generational, and personal Christ-honoring means at our disposal to rid the earth of all forms of racial supremacy and hatred. If the evangelical church in America does not take the strongest possible stand and draw a blockade line around the events of Charlottesville and the like, and say to white supremacists they will not cross into our lands, that lack of a line will create for us a bridge for the supremacists to cross. We then should expect the spiritual descendants of the Third Reich to follow. Only the gospel message, proclaiming and modeling equality in Christ, has the power to dismantle white supremacy and roots, and to make Charlottesville-like incidents a thing of the past.