CCDA Part 3: Woke White Christians

One of my heroes is Viola Gregg Liuzzo. Most people don’t know her as her name has been lost in a sea of Civil Rights Movement stories. She grew up in poverty in Tennessee but came to realize that even when poor, she was still granted some social privilege because she was white. As a wife and mother of five, she saw the deplorable conditions Black children experienced in schools in Detroit, and to highlight the disparity, she withdrew her own children from the school system to homeschool them, despite the legal consequences. Later, she came to Selma to march with Dr. King across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. She was portrayed in the film Selma, simply as a white woman passing out snacks, and as is the case in most depictions in Civil Rights movies, she is seen smiling and serving but her name is never audibly mentioned. After the movie ended, her actual life continued–albeit briefly. She was killed by the KKK while driving other activists to the airport. After her murder, the FBI began a smear campaign on her character to cover up how she died in order to protect an informant that was in the car with the Klan at the time of her death.

viola-liuzzo
Viola Gregg is shown in this 1943 photo. She married. Anthony Liuzzo, her second husband. She was shot to death while en route to Montgomery, Ala. on Thursday, March 25, 1965. (AP Photo)

She’s one of my heroes because of what she did, what happened to her–in life, death, and her character assassination to cover up the truth–and how she is remembered. She heeded the call, she served, and much like Black lives in this country, her character was smeared for years in public–while the Black community affirmed, honored, and grieved her in private. She stood and suffered with us. She never asked for compliance masqueraded as peace and unity. She didn’t model false hope but genuine hope because she left even what little privilege she had to stand with the oppressed while serving them. Her name is inscribed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama as she serves as a powerful symbol that there are some white Christians who are woke all by themselves (“Woke” is a slang term used to describe people who have become aware to the realities of social injustice). In honor of her, and as I reflect on the woke White Christians I met, heard from, and engaged with at CCDA, there are a few commonalities worth mentioning.

Woke White Christians:

1. Affirm Dignity; They Don’t Try to Give It.
During The Great Depression, a team of historians went around the southern US attempting to collect stories on how the economic upheaval was affecting Black people. It wasn’t before long, they realized they were meeting actual former slaves, voices from the past. The leader of the expedition, a white man, said he was attempted to demonstrate to one of the interviewees he was safe, that he was trying to give her dignity. He said her reply stayed with him the rest of his life, “You can’t give dignity. You can take it away, but it’s not yours to give.”
perkinsWoke White Christians understand why we pursue multi-ethnicity and ethnic reconciliation. It is not so they feel better or can have a sense of pride about treating people of color better than white people did in the past. We pursue justice, equality, and ethnic reconciliation because there has been a denial of the God-given dignity of people of color since European settlers came to North America and began colonizing land that belonged to Native Americans. Woke White Christians don’t approach people of color from a place of superiority, attempting to give dignity. They approach the conversation from a place of humility and equality, affirming the dignity and value of our lives that has long been denied.

2. Take Responsibility for Becoming Aware; They Don’t Place the Burden on People of Color. 
When we become interested in something, anything–whether someone we are attracted to, a movie, a sports team, a new hobby–we take an initiative to learn. Especially, in this information age, we have access to more global knowledge than any generation before us. Yet, when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity, there remains a broad, deep, and strong lack of awareness of those issues not just in the white community, but especially in white evangelical circles. There is utter shock among far too many white evangelicals that people of color could be hurting or experience displacement in varying cross-cultural contexts. The burden of helping white evangelical communities understand the perspective of people of color then falls to the one or two people of color who are in majority white rooms–and depending on their roles, they still may not have power to change things but are merely consultants who are limited to using their influence from the margins. We have to contain our tears, bracket our mourning and sanitize our emotions in order to become teachers.
learnSadly, and more accurately, we are less likely teachers but more so advocates, because if white evangelical leaders disagree, can’t understand, or feel uncomfortable with the perspective of people of color, nothing changes. The Woke White Christians I met at CCDA–and there were very few who spoke from up front–did not speak on issues they simply read about. They also lived them. They had seen people of color experience injustice. They witnessed first hand the protection of the privilege and the denial of dignity of people of color. (Some have experienced denial even more deeply, having to navigate the difficulties of being both a woman and a woman of color.) Howard Thurman, Shirley Chisholm, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Efrem Smith, Michelle Alexander, Soong-Chan Rah, and others past and present have written tons on these issues. If one would simply type “books on social justice” into Google of Amazon, resources will appear. In, Where Do We Go From Here, Dr. King wrote, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”  In every other area of our lives we need to self-educate and be lifelong learners- directions to a new city, new skills at work, even finding where the groceries are when a store decides to rearrange its displays. For an issue of justice and human rights, where people’s’ lives are at stake every day, how much more should we be seeking to learn?

3. Earn Our Approval; They Don’t Seek It.
When you arrive at the airport, there are a couple of things you need to do before you can enter a terminal. Anyone can get to the airport, but if you want to travel somewhere, you will need to get past security. That can be short or long, but you won’t go anywhere until you get past them. Once inside the airport, you can go just about anywhere. You can travel anywhere, but all airports have one line and one sign, “No re-entry beyond this point.” If you cross that line, it’s not that you cannot re-enter, but you will have to start back at the end of the security line.
People of color, especially Black people, are like airports. It takes a lot for you to get into our community. We will tell you when we feel safe around you. Once that trust is earned, there’s a lot you can do, but there are one or two things that break legitimate trust, and when that trust is broken, you have to start all over again.
Too often, white evangelical Christians approach people of color with the expectation that trust will be freely given. This is an individualistic mindset that ignores the history of the country and the context people of color may be coming from. To quote Soong-Chan Rah, “Because the individual is solely responsible for individualized and personal [actions], there is no sense of shame for corporate actions that are also expressions of human selfishness. Our reduction of sin to a personal issue means that we are unwilling to deal with social and structural evils…” There are conferences, books, seminars, seminary classes, that repeated announce they will address issues of race and ethnicity that these resources will be the tools people of color have been asking for, only to discover they are surface, sanitized, simplified to protect the status quo. There are countless stories and examples from my own life and from people of color who step into displacing and/or volatile situations and we are expected to blindly trust, only to experience deep wounds because of a lack of awareness in white evangelical circles.
I have yet to find a book or an article depicting Viola Liuzzo as trying seek approval from Black people during the march. Her presence, her heart, and her partnership were enough. The Woke White Christians at CCDA were the same. They didn’t come in fear or pride, assuming trust would be given. They spoke to the reality of racial and social injustice in the country. Shout out to again to Ian Danley who shocked us all. I cannot put into words what he embodied and declared. Just watch the message when it is made available. All I can say is he is one woke white man who loves Jesus.

4. Own Their Mistakes; They Don’t Cover Them Up.
sweepWinston Churchill once said, “The history books will be kind to me for I intend to write them.” This is the summation of American history from white and white evangelical perspectives. Everyone was in favor of slavery ending–after it ended. Everyone was in support of Dr. King–after he was assassinated. There is not one single solitary example in American history where the majority of the evangelical church was on side of the oppressed, whether on issues of race or gender.
I cannot tell you the level of frustration that is raised among Black Christians when Dr. King is used as a defense against Ferguson, Colin Kaepernick, Black Lives Matter, and ________. History celebrates the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement but it doesn’t tell the whole story. No one remembers that the Director of the FBI used his resources to attempt to sabotage Dr. King, close the Black Panther Party–after having it labeled a terrorist organization–or that FBI and CIA were found liable for Dr. King’s death among other items. For that, elders of color who were alive during those years remind us of Dr. King’s arrests, his rebuke of the appalling silence of white Christians, and that there was not universal support of his actions by all Black people. Reverend Dr. King is too often sanitized into a tool for compliance rather than seen who he was–a baptist preacher fighting oppression in America.
Both InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Fuller Seminary, whom I support and believe in and owe a great deal to, regularly share their history of diversity, but both paint the story with overarching success, not with a posture of humility whereby they share where and how they failed, and how it influences changes they are willing to make in the future. The Woke White Christians who spoke at CCDA led from success and failure. As John Maxwell said, “They didn’t just fail, they failed forward.” They learned from their mistakes and changed how they served and led, rather than merely covering them up and therefore repeating the same mistakes of the past. Leading with failure invites the next generation to fight for justice and righteousness and erases the false perspective of having arrived that is often birthed in the next generation when our elders and leaders are not honest about the world are leaving for us.

5. Are Gospel-Proclaimers, Not Gospel-Gentrifiers.

Christianity is sometimes mislabeled as “a white man’s religion.” This is largely in part due to the history of Christianity in the West. While the Good News of Jesus proclaims “freedom for those in bondage,” far too many Christians used the gospel enslave, murder, and oppress without prejudice for centuries. Too many theologians, from but not limited to evangelical and reformed theology, owned slaves and were either silent on those injustices or wrote incredibly racist motifs that are often omitted when commenting on them today (see point 4). Bishop Desmond Tutu remarked, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” In The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Douglass called North American Christianity “the greatest of all libels…and misnomers”. This is not the gospel of our Lord. The gospel is good news to the world. We declare the God-given dignity of all people, the rights of justice, freedom, life eternal, and shalom in this world and in the world to come. Because there will be a great multitude where every tribe and culture is present (Rev. 7:9), we recognize cultural and ethnic diversity are not problems to be solved, but a song to be sung that gives praise to God. That is the good news Christians and Woke White Christians proclaim.
Sometimes, however, instead of gospel proclamation, we get gospel gentrification. “Gospel Gentrification” is a term, coined by Charlie Dates, whereby the gospel is used to colonize communities of color under the falsehood that colonization equals biblical transformation. Too many people of color, after navigating white evangelical circles, not only reject the contexts they come from but speak openly against them. Does not the gospel call us to be reconciled to each other and call us back into the communities from which we came to be ambassadors for the kingdom? Something is wrong with a gospel that once applied to a Black person’s life that he or she should hate the place they came from, shun their culture and language and customs, in complete favor of white evangelical male models of leadership and theology–which are too often colorblind and contributed to the oppression people of color are still trying to escape from.
I didn’t see any Woke White Christians at CCDA attempting to correct the Black community. They spoke of the realities of the country, past and present, and provided examples of what they were doing at the individual and organizational/systemic levels to bring about lasting change. They weren’t about changing behavior, but structure.

I met my own Viola Liuzzo after CCDA ended. I was in the LA airport waiting for my flight when an older white woman approached me. She was the shirt I was wearing, which I had just purchased at the conference, and recognized me because, well…I stood up for half the messages–something that is common in my culture that I don’t feel safe to do in InterVarsity or at Fuller. She thanked me for my smile and energy and then proceeded to share how life-giving CCDA was for her because she was around other people of color and white people who were aware of the realities of what was happening in the country. She expressed her fatigue at having to educate her husband, her boss, her friends, her co-workers constantly and that the conference gave her a glimmer of hope that she wasn’t alone.

Her hug, her smile, her kind word gave me hope. She wasn’t on stage. She didn’t speak at the conference. She simply came to listen, learn, lean in, and lead when she got back home.

Just like Viola Liuzzo. Just like so many other Woke White Christians.

Part 4 of this series will be on ending the Black and White binary discussions on race. For examples of Woke People of Color, check out part 2 of this series.

Making It Practical

  1. Get Woke. Reading The Next Evangelicalism by Soong-Chan Rah is a great start. Click here for a comprehensive reading list. (Shout out to Yulan Lin for editing and recommending the resource!)
  2. Take steps to build/rebuild trust in communities of color. (Remember: Awareness, Action, Advocacy.) Here’s a previous post with more thoughts.
  3. Reflect on any cross-cultural mistake you’ve made. What did you learn from it? Did you apply what you learned? How did it change your perspective? Has it changed your perspective? Where are the gaps between your perspective and the perspective of people of color? Go learn why.
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1 Comment

  1. Well written about a person of whom I had never heard, and I’ve lived in Chattanooga, TN since 1975. Thank you for a well researched, and well written article, Sean M. Watkins. I appreciate the time and effort you took to educate us on this person and the social and economic injustice people of color still face on a daily basis due to the stifling residual of white privilege.

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