This article was published in Faithfully Magazine No. 2 (Summer 2017).
Well-intentioned White Christians who choose to remain blind to their own privilege and ignore systems of inequity will continue to fail their brothers and sisters of color and hamper racial unity in the Lord’s church. Until “whiteness” is understood as an existing social tool of prejudice and exclusion — and not dismissed as a guilt trip — and racism is understood as more than a defect of the individual heart or soul, every step toward reconciliation will inevitably recede amid lapses in judgment that betray how desperately White Christians, especially, need to wake up to the realities of race.
Although the Southern Baptist Convention has provided recent tangible examples of Evangelical Christianity’s ongoing challenges with overcoming racism, these difficulties are by no means exclusive to the SBC; they are present in many U.S. Christian denominations, churches, and organizations.
The 2017 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention provided an unfortunate yet accurate example of what majority-culture Christians risk when they fail to grasp the necessity of seeing eye-to-eye with believers of color or allowing believers of color to lead them on matters of race. For a denomination that acknowledges how its “relationship to African Americans has been hindered from the beginning” by its embrace of Black enslavement, it was discouraging to leaders of color to see the denomination take such a casual approach to discerning God-sent opportunities to deepen reconciliation.
The SBC, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States and the largest Baptist body in the world, claims more than 15 million members. The Pew Research Center described the SBC as 85 percent White in a 2015 report. However, the denomination says that more than 50 percent of its church plants over the past three years have been “predominantly non-Anglo.” The SBC is home to 46,500 self-governing Baptist churches and 4,500 non-autonomous mission churches in the U.S. and its territories.
It was not until 1995, 150 years after its founding, that the SBC officially confessed, repented of, and apologized for perpetuating the enslavement of Blacks in the 19th century and resisting the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th. Southern Baptists acknowledged their sins ahead of other denominations such as the United Methodist Church (2000), the Episcopal Church (2006), and the Presbyterian Church in America (2016), who all waited until the 21st century to formally repudiate their racist acts that separated them from Black believers.
The Rev. William Dwight McKissic, Sr., pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, is a longtime SBC member and a former trustee of one of the denomination’s six seminaries. He is also the one who in 2016 prompted the SBC to issue a resolution compelling members to drop public display of the Confederate flag. This followed educational institutions such as Georgetown and Harvard universities, for example, making penance for slavery once being integral to their business models, and Southern municipalities removing Confederate monuments from public view. The resolution was a timely gift to the SBC; the 2016 resolution remains a milestone in the 172-year-old institution’s mission to bridge divides between descendants of the enslaved and descendants of enslavers.
For this year’s meeting, McKissic came with another prescient resolution: one calling for a firm denouncement of the controversial “alt-right” (alternative-right) movement and the white supremacist ideology fueling its more vocal, visible, and sometimes violent members.
Central to the alt-right movement is the assertion that the United States belongs to European- descended people. Its members, typically young White males who are discontent with the conservative/Republican establishment and active online, push a form of ethno-nationalism that views things such as immigration, diversity, and interracial marriage as harbingers of a “White genocide.” Richard Spencer, credited with coining the term “alt-right,” has pitched what he terms “peaceful ethnic cleansing” through implementing and enforcing borders. People of color, Jews and Muslims are inarguably the most threatened by a movement in which a large number of members embrace Nazism, the Confederacy, and a racial hierarchy.
McKissic’s resolution asserted that the alt-right movement is “a growing (and toxic) menace to political order and justice that seeks to reignite social animosities, reverse improvements in race relations, divide our people, and foment hatred, classism, and ethnic cleansing…” The resolution insisted that the alt-right “infect(s) the minds and actions of its violent disciples” with “totalitarian impulses, xenophobic biases, and bigoted ideologies.” McKissic concluded his resolution with a prayerful request that alt-right proponents “may see their error through the light of the gospel, repent of their perverse nationalism, and come to know the peace and love of Christ through redeemed fellowship in the Kingdom of God…”
McKissic’s resolution failed to get a green light from the SBC Resolutions Committee. The committee decides which resolutions among many will be presented to, or withheld from delegates for a vote of adoption during their annual meeting. Barrett Duke said his 10-member Resolutions Committee, predominantly White, with one Black man, one woman and one Hispanic leader, “spent a number of hours considering the proposal,” according to the SBC’s Baptist Press. But in the end, the committee was unable to overcome the “multiple issues” and “inflammatory language” in McKissic’s resolution. Some committee members also thought the resolution was redundant in light of the SBC’s previous anti-racism statements.
In an attempt to override the committee’s decision, McKissic submitted a motion to have the resolution voted on anyway by the reported 5,000 delegates at the annual meeting. McKissic failed, however, to get enough delegates to side with his motion to force the resolution committee’s hand. The SBC’s reluctance to move forward with a resolution condemning the alt-right movement and white supremacy left some Black and White Christians at the meeting, and others watching via livestream and social media, appalled and confused.
When Duke and his committee decided hours later that they could, after all, draft an acceptable resolution, their decision — which many called “bold” and “brave” — only came after the outcry and the headlines about their initial failure to condemn a movement that inherently marginalizes people of color and religious minorities.
SBC President Steve Gaines and Chief Parliamentarian Barry McCarty (a seminary professor featured in a figurative blackface photo just months prior) told the world in the midst of their embarrassment that the Resolutions Committee had decided on its own to request more time to review and re-work the alt-right resolution. This was an example of another majority-White institution claiming agency and responsibility for a resolution drafted and led by a leader of color, thus sidelining his voice and leadership. If Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson had been in the room or watching the livestream as that strange claim emerged, he might have tweeted: “Watch whiteness work, y’all.”
“We regret and apologize for the pain and the confusion that we created for you and a watching world when we decided not to report out a resolution on alt-right racism,” Duke said the night a resolution condemning the alt-right was finally passed. He made it clear that the committee’s failure was not due to any agreement with the hateful movement. Duke and McKissic also shook hands over the apparent misunderstanding.
It is worth noting that the convention elected this year Black seminary professor Walter R. Strickland and Hispanic pastor Jose Abella as first vice president and second vice president, respectively. H. B. Charles, Jr., a Florida pastor, became the first Black leader elected as president of the SBC Pastors Conference. But Fred Luter, elected in 2012, remains the only president of color to ever preside over the SBC in its existence. Asian pastor Dennis Manpoong Kim was nominated by McKissic to replace Luter in 2015, but was unsuccessful in his bid against Ronnie Floyd. The denomination’s six theological seminaries all have been led by White men since their founding, with the most recent one started in 1957 and the oldest in 1859.
It is taking too long for such a Christian institution — conceived, birthed and entrenched in racism — to cleanse itself of this stain, particularly when it upsets the status quo.
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European explorers in the 16th century used “White” to distinguish themselves physically from those of darker hues they encountered. But in 18th- and 19th-century America, “whiteness” as defined by scientific racism — and “blackness” as theologized by White Christian scholars — gave the concept a whole new meaning, particularly for the elite. “White” determined who was a citizen, who could own a gun and, with Christians involved at every turn, who was made in the image of God. During this era even Jesus was baptized as White, according to Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey in The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. Based on our modern movie casting choices, many Americans still cannot imagine Christ any other way.
“Race is a social construction, it’s not natural,” said Glenn E. Bracey II, an assistant professor at Villanova University whose scholarship focuses on critical race theory, social movements and religion. “It’s just what we’ve decided, and it’s inconsistent. It changes over time, it changes over location, it changes in number.”
The function of “race” in a society is for the purpose of managing resources, Bracey said.
“‘White’ is the category that was created to say ‘you deserve to have the resources. You can have the material resources, jobs, money, neighborhoods, citizenship, etc. And you can have the symbolic resources — you’re the true Christians, you’re smarter, you’re prettier’ you know, all those sorts of things,” Bracey added. “But ‘White’ is just a designation [meaning], ‘you have the right to dominate others.’”
Bracey, who described himself as “a Christian of color with a long history in White churches,” conducted a study for his dissertation several years ago to see what he could discover about persistent segregation in U.S. churches. His paper, titled “‘Race Tests’: Racial Boundary Maintenance in White Evangelical Churches,” was published in the May 2017 issue of Sociological Inquiry.
“White actors in White social spaces initiate utility-based race tests to determine whether people of color are willing to serve the interests of Whites in the space, or execute exclusionary race tests to coerce people of color into leaving the space,” Bracey and co-author Wendy Leo Moore, of Texas A&M University, conclude in the paper.
Bracey, who is Black, attempted to enter the congregational life of seven predominantly White evangelical churches between 2008 and 2011. The churches were conservative Protestant places of worship located either in Florida, Texas, Indiana or Illinois. Their sizes ranged from 100 to 10,000 attendees. His experiences ranged from microaggressions to explicit violent reactions from White Christians at churches or in small group gatherings at homes. In some cases, he was only welcomed as “a Black man” needed to serve a particular function. Bracey concluded that it is Whites seeking to maintain majority or exclusively White spaces who help perpetuate Christian segregation.
The impact of whiteness on the Christian church in America “is not just something you can cap off and leave to the side and corner off,” he said. The preferences of White Christians, who have historically called the shots, have “filtered through every single aspect of the church, and if you’re a person of color you can see that.”
Some White Christians see it, too.
“White transparency is a cancer, and I don’t use that word lightly. It’s a cancer in a multiethnic church or in a church that’s wanting to walk in the Spirit of God along matters of racial justice and harmony” – Beau Hughes, pastor, The Village Church
Leaders at The Village Church, a predominantly White Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated multi-campus church in Texas, have been preaching about racial reconciliation for years.
In a sermon earlier this year, a White campus pastor, Beau Hughes, told congregants that in order to “grow in racial intelligence and racial empathy” (with the goal of loving their neighbors as themselves), White Christians must “consider our own racial identity and heritage.” In a sermon titled “Racial Reconciliation,” Hughes preached that Anglo Christians need to interrogate what it means to be White, specifically in America.
Hughes, grounding his sermon in Philippians 1:27-2:16, shared sociological terms he assumed were new to the congregation: “white transparency” (walking through life without being conscious of being White), “white normativity” (Whites assuming that how they do things is just how things are done), and “white structural advantage” (Whites benefiting from systems and institutions — schools, businesses, social groups, politics — inherently built to preference them).
Hughes repeatedly assured congregants that the point was not for Whites to feel guilty for having social advantages. Even still, he sought to illustrate the danger of Anglos moving through society without being conscious of their skin color — which is an impossible option for people of color.
“White transparency is a cancer, and I don’t use that word lightly. It’s a cancer in a multiethnic church or in a church that’s wanting to walk in the Spirit of God along matters of racial justice and harmony,” Hughes said, according to a transcript of his sermon.
He went on to say:
“Brothers and sisters, from the beginning of our nation’s history, [W]hite people have established and held the location of dominance in our country’s racial hierarchy. What this has meant, among other things, is that they’ve also, just numerically speaking, held political dominance and economic dominance, and [W]hites have disproportionately controlled or influenced political parties, the legal system, government agencies, industry, and business. Again, I’m not saying you need to feel guilty about that. It’s what it is. It’s inarguable historically.
“This has gifted [W]hite people in this country, generally and comparatively speaking, certain structural advantages that have not been afforded, generally and comparatively speaking, to racial minorities in this country. These structural advantages are expressed all over the place if you have eyes to see it. It’s what drives our white transparency and our white normativity, and it’s what has been institutionalized in innumerable ways throughout the history of this nation.”
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Despite signs of progress in congregations like The Village Church, there remain many White Christian leaders who have not grappled with their own privilege or seriously considered the barriers and stereotypes faced by their brothers and sisters of color. This painful reality resurfaced this June, when three White employees at Grace College & Seminary, affiliated with the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, were fired for appearing in a mock rap album cover photo that mimicked blackface (with one of them even wearing an afro wig). The school’s president, Dr. Bill Katip, said in a brief statement that the photo was “insensitive and inappropriate.” Katip did not attempt to explain the context of the photo but emphasized the school’s commitment to “diversity and inclusiveness.”
This came on the heels of the news that five White Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary preaching professors, one of them also a dean, donned rapper costumes (that included lots of bling, bandanas and even a gun) for a group photo on campus. They were accused of being racist and participating in figurative blackface by Christians on social media, where they had gleefully shared the images. Southwestern’s president, Paige Patterson, issued a statement titled “Racism IS a Tragic Sin,” in which he insisted the men were regretful and in no way racist.
Patterson explained that the preaching professors who participated in the photo were “sorry” for their “mistake” that may have “communicated something that was completely foreign to anything that any of us felt in our hearts.” He explained in a June 22 follow-up email to Faithfully Magazine that he saw no need to punish the men for their “tragic mistake,” as “not a one of these men has an ounce of racism in them anywhere. They feel worse about it than anyone.”
The men in the photo may not have any racist bones in their bodies; but there certainly were some racial assumptions in their heads when they discussed, organized and followed through on dressing in figurative blackface for a public photo — which they later celebrated on Twitter and Facebook.
A major problem, according to Bracey, the critical race theorist, is the tendency to view incidents like the ones that happened at Grace College & Seminary and Southwestern Seminary as the failures of individual White people — not a structural injustice owing to whiteness.
“What we, me and my co-author Wendy Moore, are trying to point to is that there has to be an institutional climate that allows for that, an institutional climate (where) whiteness is normative, in order for those things to take place,” Bracey said. “The conversation … happening around those particular incidents and that I hear happening (with similar) incidents all the time is: ‘Wow, how could that person do that?’ or ‘Why aren’t they having better diversity discussions?’ and … ‘It’s a matter of sin’ and ‘It’s a matter of the heart’ and ‘It’s individualized.’”
“What we’re saying is, actually this is cultural and institutional. It flows all the way through these [W]hite evangelical institutions, whether we’re talking about schools or churches or seminaries, it doesn’t matter. It’s flowing all the way through,” Bracey added.
Walter R. Strickland, an Instructor of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, called David L. Allen, a dean and one of the Southwestern Seminary professors in the controversial photo, within minutes of seeing the image. As previously mentioned, Strickland, 33, was elected first vice president of the SBC at their annual meeting. He spoke to Faithfully Magazine a week before the election.
“My initial statement to him [Dean Allen] was ‘my family and I pray that people don’t react to me as a stereotype that you just perpetuated because it can get me killed.’ That was my statement. I said, ‘You doing that only increases the likelihood of my being treated as such, and then I’ll end up just like Trayvon Martin,’” said Strickland, who also serves as Special Advisor to the President for Diversity at the Wake Forest, North Carolina, school.
His assessment of the situation was similar to Bracey’s.
“For us, we would see that scenario and see there’s no way that they can’t know what they’re doing. But, there are, unfortunately, places where something like that can be put up and they’re not thinking that they’re doing anything that’s wrong. There are places where there’s that level of cultural ignorance or lack of awareness. That’s the assumption of white dominance and white centrality, white normalization in that sense, that they can do that and not even think twice about its ramifications,” he added.
One place to start to avoid some of those situations is to interrogate the assumptions of whiteness, according to Bracey.
“How is whiteness informing our doctrine? How is whiteness informing our hiring process? How is whiteness informing how we conduct our services? How we conduct home groups and small groups? Is our model for church growth based in whiteness? If we weren’t White, how would this work? How would this look? … They don’t understand that whiteness is the backbone of White Evangelicalism,” he said.
For Strickland, the problem runs deeper than he can personally imagine, he said, “because everything that White people in America have assumed to be normal is slanted by this racism.”
“It is unconscious, but their consciousness is telling them, ‘Hey, let’s be equitable, let’s be fair, let’s stand up for injustice,’ especially racial justice right now in our cultural climate. But we have to begin to interrogate all this stuff that’s been assumed to be normal, and that’s gonna take a lot of time and effort and people staying the course.” It is also going to take the power of the Holy Spirit, he added.
What will the SBC, and other denominations, churches, and organizations do when Black Christians, and other Christians of color, grow weary of the majority culture’s comfort with the status quo and decide to leave? Will they care?
Edited by Katelyn Beaty