Racial reconciliation can be a lonely path for the black and brown (and especially Reformed) Christian. This piece highlights a few reasons why.
- American Evangelical Movement Predominately White
Black and brown evangelical Christians are the minority in the American evangelical movement. In fact, white privilege and racism are closely connected with the historical origins of the evangelical movement in this country. Historically, the evangelical movement was not only a movement with certain theological beliefs about God, Christ, the Trinity, and Scripture, but it also had political and racist ideas.
Evangelicals were historically some of the greatest opponents of Civil Rights for black and brown people. And the political and racial elements of the evangelical movement ostracized many black and brown people who were not part of the political and racial majority.
The evangelical movement continues to benefit from racist structures in society (e.g. racialization). And since many evangelicals tend not to think racism is a gospel issue, black and brown evangelicals who hold minority views on race must look long and hard on occasions to find white evangelical allies willing to work toward gospel racial reconciliation and justice.
- Loss of Cultural Credibility
Black and brown evangelicals lose credibility in many non-evangelical black and brown communities because they are part of a predominately white Christian movement. To clarify, Christianity is NOT a white man’s religion. Jesus was Jewish, and Christianity began in the Mediterranean world. But the evangelical Christian (and especially Reformed) movement in America is predominately white.
Neither black and brown people nor white people are monolithic. But I think each racial group generally shares similar cultural experiences and commonalities within their group, although there are always exceptions.
Black and brown people in America have no choice but to think about their race because they are minorities and live in a racialized country that prioritizes whiteness. Even those black and brown people who claim to be colorblind can’t escape the fact that they are racialized and that society often perceives them in certain ways because of their black or brown skin.
Black and brown people will also generally experience some form of racism in their lives because of the color of their skin. These racist experiences even happen in the Christian community. But, often, when we identify with a predominately white movement (e.g. the evangelical movement or the Reformed movement), we lose social capital within our own black and brown communities, a loss that white evangelical communities can neither entirely understand nor for which they can substitute—no matter how hard they try or how much black and brown people desire them to do so.
Our anxieties, pain, and fear are not always the same anxieties, pain, and fear of many white evangelical sisters and brothers.
Some white evangelicals will empathize, and others will even eagerly sacrifice their privilege and identify with the marginalized black or brown evangelical community. But white evangelicals, if and when they’re ready, will be able to socially navigate in ways that black and brown people are unable because of their normalized whiteness and because we are unable to pick up and put down our blackness and brownness whenever we please.
- The Pressure to Become White
Many black and brown evangelicals may feel pressure to appropriate all things in white evangelical culture and to reject all things in black and brown cultures. If you ask black or brown evangelical or Reformed Christians, many will tell you that we have felt suspicion in certain white evangelical contexts because we are black or brown. And if we honor, love, appreciate, value, and talk openly about our experiences (positive or negative experiences) as black and brown people in those contexts, we are often accused of playing the race card or being unpatriotic by those within our Christian community.
In certain evangelical contexts, it’s not enough for black or brown evangelicals to be conservative Christians or Reformed, but some evangelicals who confuse the gospel of Jesus Christ with political power will chastise the black and brown evangelical because they don’t always share the same political views or American experiences. For example, certain white evangelicals might socially pressure black or brown evangelicals to reject all things about the first African-American president because they disagree with his policies or to reject all things that are sensitive to the concerns of black or brown people. But if they don’t universally reject these things, then questions about their faithfulness to the gospel could be raised by some.
In a similar way, in certain predominately white evangelical communities, black and brown evangelicals can feel like outsiders because we are not white. There are general differences in how white evangelicals and black and brown evangelicals experience the world and the Christian faith. Black and brown evangelicals in America experience the world and their faith as racially marginalized people, but white evangelicals as the privileged majority.
Once more, if a black or brown evangelical worships in a predominately white context, depending on that context, whiteness is often prioritized—from the images on the walls to the issues addressed in the curriculum. And when black and brown people introduce valuable things from their cultures to help enlighten the biblical text or to enrich the Christian experiences of other cultures, some white evangelical contexts will have a difficult time receiving these contributions as normal because whiteness has been normalized for them. They might even label these black or brown contributions as unbiblical, unpatriotic, bad for America, or ungodly simply because they’re not the same values or experiences held by majority white evangelical culture.
There are times when one’s values are neither right nor wrong and neither biblical nor unbiblical when held to the standard of Scripture. Instead, there are times when one’s values are simply cultural. For example, it’s part of American culture to celebrate certain holidays or to watch the Super Bowl or the World Series. But in some cases, black and brown evangelicals will either feel overt or covert pressure to succumb to white ideas of acceptable Christianity because these ideas are normalized for the majority culture, when in fact these ideas might not have anything to do with following Jesus.
- Black and brown evangelicals do NOT need to become white to be faithful to Jesus.
- Black and brown evangelicals should NOT be ashamed of their black or brown identity.
- Black and brown evangelicals should ensure they are reading black and brown authors and have some black and brown role models. If their evangelical world is predominately white, they might be tempted to believe the only ones who contribute anything good to the Christian faith or to America are white people.
- Black and brown evangelicals should not feel compelled always to agree politically with the white evangelical majority to be faithful to Jesus. Jesus was neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and he was NOT a white evangelical. He was a Jewish immigrant and God in the flesh. And he probably wouldn’t even be welcomed on the shores of America today by some evangelicals.
- More now than ever, black and brown Christians need to lead in the work of gospel racial reconciliation. We cannot spend all of our energy trying to convince white evangelicals racial reconciliation is a gospel issue. And we can neither spend all our energy only working in majority white church contexts, engaging in reconciliation on the terms of the white majority.
Instead, black and brown evangelicals should also spend time partnering with other diverse black and brown Christians, leading diverse multi-ethnic church plants, and working with white Christians willing to partner and humbly submit underneath minority leadership to lead the church forward in the work of gospel reconciliation.
- Black and brown evangelicals who are able need to speak for ourselves and tell our own stories. Our stories can enrich lives and Christian experiences of others.