Why Do White Christians Have A Narrow View Of Racism?

“I’ll be honest, Lowell. I think you are creating more division rather than healing it. What you are proposing [reparations] would wreck our country and any hope for racial unity. Only the gospel can bring forgiveness, healing, and unity–not money.”

Introduction

In A Case For Reparations In NWA, we noted two changes that white Christians must make:

  1. We must understand that reconciliation is important but insufficient to get us from here to equality – we must widen our view of racism.
  2. We must understand that reparations is not a ministry of mercy but of justice – we must renounce control.

In this post I want to explore why white Christians – especially evangelicals — have a narrow view of racism.

Why do white Christians — especially evangelicals — have a narrow view of racism?

In A Case For Reparations In NWA, we noted that most white Christians misunderstand racism. We understand racism to be an individual problem that requires repentance and an interpersonal problem that requires reconciliation; however, we do not understand it to be an institutional problem that requires reform or a cultural problem that requires reparations.

I believe that white Christians – especially evangelicals — have a narrow view of racism because of dysfunctional white evangelical culture.

white Christians – especially evangelicals — have a narrow view of racism because of dysfunctional white evangelical culture

By culture I mean the behaviors, beliefs, and values that people have in common.

By evangelical I mean Christians who believe in (1) the authority of the Bible, (2) the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus, and (3) the importance of sharing one’s faith (this is how Emerson and Smith define evangelicals in Divided by Faith)

By dysfunctional I mean that – in terms of understanding the problem of and solution to racism – white evangelical culture does not work: it divides the gospel and disables white evangelicals from doing justice.

I will make the following observations of white evangelical culture:

  1. White evangelical culture values individualism and is isolated from black people
  2. White evangelical culture believes a small gospel – emphasizing a personal relationship with Jesus and de-emphasizing systems
  3. White evangelical culture behaves unjustly – actively and passively supporting American institutions and culture characterized by white supremacy

1. White evangelical culture values individualism and is isolated from black people

Individualism

In Individualism and Biblical Personhood, Williams writes that while the Bible understands people in terms of three concentric circles — we exist in the context of the church (people of God) and creation (kingdom of God) — evangelicalism has a “highly individualistic understanding of persons.”

Williams comments on evangelical individualism:

“Much of what evangelicalism says is good and right. It properly stresses the individual’s need for salvation. And yes, we each have a personal relationship to the Lord. But a reduction of the full biblical reality takes place when this is all we say. At best it is only a partial truth. It sees the whole through the part, or the part as the whole, and as such it is exceedingly dangerous for how we understand ourselves, our relationship to God, and our relationship to the world about us. Evangelical individualism reflects a right insight gone wrong. The right insight is that individual people do matter within creation and within redemption. Personal faith is crucial. Yet we must contend that the individual is not all-important.”

Isolation

In Divided by Faith, Emerson and Smith describe white Christian isolation from black people:

“Because about 90 percent of African Americans attend predominately black congregations, at least 95 percent of white Americans — and probably higher — attend predominately white churches.”

In The End of White Christian America, Jones confirms the findings of Emerson and Smith (see also White Too Long by Jones):

“In 2013, a PRRI [Public Religion Research Institute] survey uncovered the staggering levels of segregation within Americans’ personal lives. The survey asked Americans about their core social networks, defined as up to seven people with whom they had discussed important matters in the last six months. The survey found that, on average, the core social networks of white Americans are a remarkable 91 percent white and only one percent black. Moreover, three quarters of white Americans have completely white core social networks. Among white evangelical and white mainline Protestants, these levels of homogeneity are even higher. Fully eight in ten white evangelical Protestants and 85 percent of white mainline Protestants have entirely white core social networks.”

The impact that individualism and isolation have on our beliefs and behavior is hard to overstate.

2. White evangelical culture believes a small gospel – emphasizing a personal relationship with Jesus and de-emphasizing systems

In When Helping Hurts, Corbett and Fikkert write that most evangelical Christians  – when asked why Jesus came to earth – answer something like “to die on the cross to save us from sin so we can go to heaven.”

They write that this is a half-truth. A fuller truth is that God made man for relationships with God, self, others, and creation, and to make culture – expressed in economic, social, religious, and political systems (see Genesis 1-2). When Adam rebelled, sin cursed both relationships and systems (see Genesis 3). Jesus came to earth to make his blessing flow “far as the curse is found” – to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God (see Luke 4) and to renew all things — both broken people and broken systems (see Colossians 1).

In Broken Systems, Broken People, Fikkert writes:

“Nobody should better understand the comprehensive effects of the fall on both individuals and systems better than Bible-believing Christians, because the Bible talks about this. Unfortunately, something has gone wrong in American Christianity. Researchers have found that if you ask Americans ‘Is poverty due to individual brokenness or systemic injustice?’ there’s one people group in all of the country that is the least likely to believe that systemic injustice is one of the causes of poverty. In their book Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith find that white, Bible-believing Christians are the least likely group among all Americans to believe that systemic injustice is a cause of poverty. They suggest that this has to do with the individualism and piety that has often characterized American Christianity. We tend to reduce Christianity to a personal quiet time with God rather than a life-encompassing mission that seeks to bring His kingdom to bear on every square inch of the cosmos, including broken systems.”

Fikkert concludes that the white evangelical value of individualism has impacted our belief in the gospel. We have believed a small gospel – emphasizing a personal relationship with Jesus and de-emphasizing systems (see also Rethinking Poverty Podcast: Potlucking with Jesus with Michael Rhodes)

3. White evangelical culture behaves unjustly – actively and passively supporting American institutions and culture characterized by white supremacy

In A Case For Reparations In NWA, we cited the following analysis of white Christians in Divided by Faith by Emerson and Smith:

  • When asked to explain the black / white socioeconomic gap, most white Christians cited the motivation of black people.
  • When asked about solutions to racism, both white and black Christians agreed that getting to know people of another race is important; however, white Christians were less likely to agree that more structural solutions – like racially integrating churches or neighborhoods – are also important.

Emerson and Smith comment:

“Like their forebears during Jim Crow segregation, who prescribed kindness toward people of other races and getting to know people across races, but did not challenge the Jim Crow system, present day white evangelicals attempt to solve the race problem without shaking the foundations on which racialization is built. As long as they do not acknowledge the structures of racialization, they inadvertently contribute to them.”

What Emerson and Smith call “the white evangelical cultural toolkit” helps us understand why white evangelical culture behaves unjustly — actively and passively supporting American institutions and culture characterized by white supremacy:

“The racially important cultural tools in the white evangelical toolkit are ‘accountable freewill individualism,’ ‘relationalism’ (attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships), and ‘antistructuralism’ (inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences).”

Emerson and Smith comment on the limitations of white evangelical cultural tools:

“As carpenters are limited to building with the tools in their kit (hammers encourage the use of nails, drills encourage the use of screws), so white evangelicals are severely constrained by their relio-cultural tools. Although much in Christian scripture and tradition points to the influence of social structures on individuals, the stress on individualism has been so complete for such a long time in white American evangelical culture that such tools are nearly unavailable. What is more, white conservative Protestants believe that sinful humans typically deny their own personal sin by shifting blame somewhere else, such as on ‘the system.’ (Evangelicals are thus also antistructural because they believe that invoking social structures shifts guilt away from its root source –the accountable individual. However, evangelicals are selectively aware of social institutions — they see those that both impact them in their own social location and tend to undermine accountable freewill individualism. For instance, they are aware of affirmative action because such programs can impact them in their social locations, and they tend to oppose such programs because they go against evangelical understanding of accountable freewill individualism.)”

In summary: the white evangelical toolkit impacts our behavior: because white evangelical culture values individualism, it believes a small gospel and behaves unjustly:

Conclusion: W.W.K.D.

As we remember Dr. King on MLK Day this Monday, it seems fitting to ask W.W.K.D. (What Would King Do?). What he would say to white evangelicals like my friend who wrote:

“I’ll be honest, Lowell. I think you are creating more division rather than healing it. What you are proposing [reparations] would wreck our country and any hope for racial unity. Only the gospel can bring forgiveness, healing, and unity–not money.”

I find King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail – written to white pastors – to be applicable to all of us – but especially to white evangelicals like my friend:

“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,’ and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.”

May we not stand on the sidelines mouthing a small gospel. May our values, beliefs, and behavior be consistent with the gospel of the kingdom of God that renews all things — both broken people and broken systems.

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