Ferguson, Part 3: Power and Privilege Among Evangelicals

Good Ole American History
We Americans take great pride in our history. I remember learning about the Founding Fathers, the American Revolution, and great presidents like Abraham Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and the Kennedys. Slavery and Civil Rights were also included in one quick chapter, with references only to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Apart from those two, most of the people that were impactful to US history were white—or so I was taught. Middle and high school history books continued the typical American narrative, celebrated Dr. King and his leadership as though the country was always in support of him, championed our great nation for its desire to end slavery. A few books mentioned American slavery not being that bad. My freshman year of college at the University of Texas at Austin, my history professor literally said in class, “Black people were better off as slaves; they received housing, food, and care.” She recanted very quickly when she saw the rage building in my eyes and the eyes of my black classmates.

Learning about Black History in America
That rage was building because what I learned in history class and what older Black people told me didn’t align. It is incredibly interesting that there are radically different interpretations of history. Granted, history is not a record of everything that has ever happened, but rather a record of the major events that changed the course of humanity.

Winston Churchill remarked years ago, “The history books will be kind to me for I intend to write them.” It took me a few years to wrap my mind around white supremacy and white privilege, but the way in which we tell history is a very clear example. From the founding of the country, right up until the present, most of it is told from the dominate culture perspective. This would be perfectly fine if people from other ethnic groups weren’t also writing, or if the dominate interpretation of history included the ramifications of colonialization (read destruction of pre-existing communities), but it doesn’t.

American history is told from a privileged perspective, and so is much of Western evangelical theology.

Learning Christian Theology Mirrors Learning American History
I was raised in a Black Baptist church. It introduced me to the Bible, and the God of the Bible. The people looked like me, sang songs that resonated with my soul, and served as a model for Christian community. When I came to college, and my faith became serious. I joined InterVarsity Christian Fellowship through a Black student chapter, and I eventually came on staff with IV, but through it all, I have noticed something wasn’t right.

Words like “evangelical,” “theology,” “ecclesiology,” and “eschatology” were being passed around as common as conjunctions in sentences. At first, I thought I simply needed to learn the language of the faith or the organization. (That Black church I grew up in was big on discipleship, evangelism and missions but they didn’t use the language my InterVarsity peers were using.)

I felt compelled to learn “theology,” so I started reading. Recently, I enrolled in Fuller Theological Seminary to enhance my theological framework…and it happened again.

Every single theologian we are reading about is white.

Not just white, white and male.

My Christian theological education is mirroring my education in American history—it’s consistently and mostly told from the perspective of the dominate culture, which sadly automatically means the marginalization of people of color. I am a firm believer in learning from people who are different than myself—I think that’s true wisdom. However, I am perplexed when theologians of color are omitted but [racist] writers like Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel are mandatory. “Negroes are inferior to whites,” and “the human race is perfected in whites” are recorded beside their philosophy and theology, and they are not alone. I have asked in my professors about racism in theology and their responses have been largely the same, “Yes, much of Christian theology has been written from the perspective of white men, and we need other voices.”

With the exception of James Cone—and even he is presented with disclaimers—theologians of color are largely omitted. It’s odd that Black people, Black Christians, Black Evangelical Christians have been largely dissatisfied with the responses of evangelical churches and ministries not just around Black Lives Matter, but racial disparities throughout the United States. One could argue the theologians we study largely didn’t address race and ethnicity in their times which is probably why evangelicals don’t know how to respond to issues like immigration or #BlackLivesMatter. Phrases like “controlling the narrative” or “that’s your perspective” sometimes are true and can be helpful, but too often are really attempts to influence what information is presented in order to give the false appearance that legitimate progress has been made when in reality, we have only made behavioral changes, not addressed systemic issues that have lasted for generations. That’s power (determining who will be heard and who will be silenced) and privilege (being able to live in your own world without having to interact with any sub-dominate groups).

Enter Ferguson, Missouri.

Being a Western Evangelical Means Being a White Man
While in Ferguson, attending the National Black Scholars Gathering, for the first time in years, I found myself in a room largely of Black Christian theologians. Most of them had Masters, Doctorates, and/or PhDs from evangelical institutions, and several taught at evangelical seminaries.

I decided since InterVarsity paid for my trip, I wasn’t going to throw them under the bus. I am paying Fuller Seminary, so I decided I would toss them out there to see what happened. I explained to a panel of five Black evangelical seminary professors I just completed my first year of seminary, was learning a great deal, and while the classrooms were diverse, I was confused by the lack of diversity in theological authorship. “One could easily conclude that Black people have not written theologically given most of their writings are not included in our course syllabi,” I said. “However, this room is filled with Black theologians with doctorates and PhDs. I know you all have published books, that’s what you do—you write. Help me understand why there are so few authors of color presented in Evangelical circles.”

The answer from the panel of professors floored me.

Young man, the goal of being an Evangelical in America is to turn you into a white man…Keep in mind the source material. If the authors we are called to study wrote without consideration of ethnic groups around them, then it stands to reason the foundation of Western Evangelicalism is devoid of diversity intentionally. You are assuming Black scholarship does not exist. It does exist, however, as is the case with Black people, our perspective has been dismissed as irrelevant.

The panel of five one-by-one began to share what it was like attending evangelical ministries and institutions where diversity in authors was minimal and that after they graduated, they had to de-colonize their minds and contextualize the gospel they had spent years going to school to learn about. There was common agreement that the Black church has its roots in evangelicalism, but that evangelicalism today has been hijacked by Western ideologies that seek to colonize rather than contextualize people—and avoid discipleship around ethnicity at all costs, especially in the dominate culture. The group went on to say becoming a white man wasn’t meant to be bad, but rather the end result is a lack of awareness and acknowledgement of the diverse issues around us.

American History and Western Evangelical Christianity are largely taught by those in power from a perspective of privilege. If people are not able to assimilate to this model, they are pushed from the mainstream to the margins. This is also evidenced by the lack of diversity in our evangelical organizations and seminaries around the United States. The struggle to recruit and retain people of color reflects the systemic issues of minimizing different voices that have existed since those African slaves appeared off the coast of Virginia in 1619. Theologians of color exist. They either are not being hired or they don’t want the job.

The Great Reverse Migration
I have noticed a recent trend with my Black Christian friends. They are starting to leave behind those die-hard dreams of multi-ethnicity and racial reconciliation that they learned from dominate culture evangelical settings. Let me rephrase, they aren’t leaving those dreams behind, but the interpretations of those dreams they have been taught. They are leaving large dominate culture churches and ministries that have multi-ethnicity as a value as long as it means diversity in the room and not how we live out the gospel. They are returning to Black churches, frantically searching for Black theologians or any theologian that has written from the perspective of the marginalized, oppressed, or forgotten. They are searching for communities that care about “the least of these.”

Getting Practical:

  • Read diversely. Check out: Howard Thurman, Carl Ellis, Tom Skinner, Dr. King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Jacquelyn Grant, Russell Yee, Gustavo Gutierrez, Charles Christian, and Daniel White Hodge for starters.
  • Listen diversely. If God is birthing a heart in you for multi-ethnicity and racial-reconciliation, listen more than you speak. Listen to the voices that are not at the table, and the voices who are leaving the table.
  • Accept change in one of two ways: repentance of previous behaviors and systemic issues or abandon the goal of racial reconciliation. This emerging generation is serious about changing oppressive structures and systems. We must change/repent, not simply apologize for benefiting from the broken systems in place.
  • Pray like crazy. God’s kingdom to come, His will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

Sean
@seanisfearless

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