Patricia Ann Ashley said her mother was still in high school when the white man her family worked for as sharecroppers accused her grandfather of stealing a bail of cotton.
It was a lie, Ashley said, a way for the man to keep from having to pay her grandfather his full due. But this was the early 1940s in Montgomery, Ala., and the man’s denial only angered his boss. The Ku Klux Klan descended, beating Ashley’s grandfather and uncle “to a bloody mess.” Her grandfather called for the police.
“But the police did nothing,” Ashley said. Not that the family had much hope to begin with. “We knew in Montgomery the police wore two uniforms. Some of them, not all of them,” Ashley said. “They were police by day, and the Ku Klux Klan by night.”
Shortly after the attack, Ashley’s grandfather suffered a stroke and died.
Nearly 80 years later, the mother of three says part of being a Black parent is teaching one’s child how to survive being pulled over or otherwise approached by the police.
“We have to teach our children strategies on how to come home alive,” she said.
Experiences like these are why Ashley, who now lives in Arlington, Texas, supports the calls for racial justice that have coalesced around the banner of Black Lives Matter. They are also why the author and speaker, who has spent much of her life moving among Evangelical faith communities, finds the responses from her white brothers and sisters in the church—responses she says range from silence to hostility — discouraging.
Discouraging, but not all that surprising.
The Past is Present
There are many denominations that identify as Evangelical, a tradition that accounts for nearly a third of all Christians living in Texas. By far the largest and most influential, however, is the Southern Baptist Convention. Less of a unified institution than a fellowship of congregations, it formed in 1845 when nearly 300 white Southerners broke off from the national Baptist organization to form a pro-slavery faction.
Following the Civil War and the adoption of the 13th Amendment, the SBC continued to operate as a vehicle for Black oppression through the promotion of segregation throughout much of the 20th century, a position its members habitually framed in biblical language just as their predecessors had with slavery.
Among one of the most influential and virulent voices during this time was that of W. A. Criswell, the longtime pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas and two-term president of the SBC. Criswell’s beliefs on racial justice can be summed up in his slur-studded 1956 address at a South Carolina Baptist convention, in which he said of civil rights supporters: “Let them integrate. Let them sit up there in their dirty shirts and make all their fine speeches. But they are all a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.”
Even later in life when Criswell walked back his remarks in support of segregation, his cultural stance remained one of a crusader called by God to cut down the liberals who stood in the way of a righteous, Christian America.
His was not the only prominent voice that emerged from the SBC around this time, however. To say Billy Graham was progressive on race would be a mistake.
The rock star of a preacher refused to participate in Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington, instead declaring that “only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand-in-hand with little black children.”
King, Graham believed, was too confrontational, too much in a hurry to heal a wound he believed only God alone could heal. At the very same time, however, he was known to draw the ire of the likes of Criswell for holding integrated revivals. For Graham, it seems, politics and the accompanying culture wars represented at best a necessary evil, and at worst a distraction in his quest to reform not societies, but individuals.
Today it’s easy to hear the echoes of both men’s voices, be it in the SBC President J.D. Greear declaring “black lives matter” while distancing himself from the organization, or the current president of First Baptist Church of Dallas’s continued and full-throated defense of President Donald Trump. Nevertheless, such differences are arguably cosmetic when compared to what unites them, and that is a belief that racism is ultimately an individual sin best addressed by individual repentance.
“White Evangelicals absolutely want racial equality. They wish they had interracial churches. But they will do absolutely nothing to make it happen,” said University of Texas at Austin’s Dr. Jennifer Graber. The reason, she believes, goes back to this Graham-esque emphasis on diagnosing racism as a problem with “individuals and individual hearts.”
Michelle Reyes who, along with her husband, is a co-church planter in Austin’s east side, agrees. “There’s this recurring line that the church just needs to focus on the gospel right now and how the gospel changes hearts.”
To be fair, racism isn’t the only issue white Evangelicals view through the lens of individual conscience. Poverty, addiction, crime — these are just a few of the social ills believers have sought to heal through personal reformation ever since their rejection of the social gospel movement in the early 1900s. Then again, if the last 50 years have shown anything, it’s that all adherents need is the right cause and leader to mobilize into one of the most powerful political forces the country has ever seen.
But even if Jerry Falwell had never united the Religious Right, this individualistic attitude toward racism would be an ironic one for the very reason, as Emma Green pointed out in 2015, that white Evangelical leaders have been some of the chief architects of the very structures activists are currently working to dismantle.
“They’ve been conveniently ignorant,” Ashley said in reference to her white fellow congregants. “They’re not ignorant of the suffering in Africa. They’re not ignorant to the suffering in Indonesia.” So then why, she wanted to know, are so many seemingly so “indifferent to what’s happening here in your own back yard?”
The Evangelical Case for Black Lives Matter
Evangelical critics of Black Lives Matter are quick to dismiss it as Marxist, coincidentally the same label detractors of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. applied to him more than half a century ago. But for those who support the current movement (though, notably, not the BLM organization itself), some tools to do so feel near at hand — starting with the Bible.
“Scripture demands that we as the people of God collectively and continually work toward a more just society,” said Reyes, who is the vice president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative.
Dr. Pete Enns agrees. Though no longer an Evangelical himself, the author and professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University spent years steeped in the tradition. The way he sees it, the New Testament is a blueprint for pushing back against political institutions.
“Jesus is Lord means Caesar is not,” he said, a reality he believes should inspire Evangelicals to “critique power,” and in particular state power, rather than align with it.
Dr. Karen Swallow Prior is an author and research professor of English, Christianity and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She’s also a prominent voice within the world of Evangelical Twitter, where she has staked out a claim of more than 45,000 followers who have all come to expect her humor, pithiness and exasperated eyerolls. All three she wields at breathtaking speed in the name of a conservative brand of Evangelicalism rooted in the belief of the “sanctity of human life.”
“When I say sanctity of human life, I mean abortion, but I don’t mean just abortion,” she explained. Rather, her belief extends to “issues of systemic racism that not only impede human flourishing but actually take literal lives and break up families.”
Finally, there is the argument Greear made himself when, during a presidential address, he said: “Of course Black lives matter. Our Black brothers and sisters were made in the image of God.”
It’s this last point Dorena Williamson says should have been driving Evangelicals, and Christians generally, to not only embrace but champion the value of Black lives long “before it was a movement and a hashtag.”
Along with Prior, Williamson is a member of the Pelican Project, a women’s organization dedicated to “fostering commitment to Christian faith and practice across cultural, denominational, and racial lines.” Between her involvement there and her work writing inclusive children’s books, Williamson has had her fair share of conversations with Evangelicals about race. On the one hand, she says, she has observed a greater willingness among non-Black Evangelicals to take a stand against racism, including “a beautiful movement of Asian American Christians who are saying Asian Americans for Black lives.” And yet “there’s just this really sad deficit and bankruptcy of awareness and of action” — a bankruptcy she believes is, frankly, unbiblical. “That is one of the first things in creation that’s put forth,” she said. “Specifically God says we were made in his image.” To turn a blind eye to systemic racism, then, is to allow others to “degenerate” an “intentional design by the creator.”
Too Little Too Late?
Responses by Evangelical leadership to the Black Lives Matter movement haven’t been merely rhetorical. Two days after Greear’s presidential address, he announced his intention to “retire” a ceremonial gavel named for a slaveholder. Five days later, the SBC unanimously elected its first Black chairman, Rev. Rollande Slade, to its powerful executive committee.
For some, like sociologist Dr. Ryon Cobb, moves like these are merely part of a cycle meant to retain worshippers of color. A quick glance at the data reveals why. One in four Evangelical congregations are multiracial, according to some of the estimates Cobb has seen, and nearly a third of Black Americans attend Evangelical-affiliated congregations.
“So one can see why the leaders of these congregations do not want those people to go,” said the incoming assistant professor at the University of Georgia.
To keep them, Cobb said, every four years or so—usually around presidential elections—leaders will engage in a kind of routine apology tour.
“Anytime Republicans go, ‘Uh oh, we’ve gone too far,’ then there’s going to be a reconciliation movement.” At best, he sees “a unified belief that use of chokeholds and killing Black and Brown men is immoral” emerging from the current moment. “And it’s sorry that we really have to come to this point that I have to tell you that murdering someone is immoral.”
It’s not only Evangelicals of color who church leaders may have to worry about. Sarah Holliday, a white woman who grew up attending a SBC congregation in Plano, says she’s “hesitant” to claim the denomination that raised her because of its views on systemic racism, among other things. And while she feels like the recent steps by the SBC are “encouraging,” she wonders: “Why now? And why is it still not enough?”
Still, there are others who have taken heart from the changes they’ve seen. Among them are Rev. Dwight McKissic and Rev. Rick Armstrong, pastors based out of Arlington. Both have published open letters in recent months calling on SBC leadership to divest from the organization’s racist heritage and to elevate Black voices where possible.
“The majority of responses by far to the letter were very supportive of taking action to make our convention leadership more diverse,” Armstrong said. Among those offering their support were some of the SBC’s top brass, such as President of Southeastern Seminary Dr. Danny Akin and Vice President of the Executive Committee Willie McLaurin.
McKissic, meanwhile, has been gratified to see “white brothers and sisters” reaching out to Black parishioners of his own congregation, saying, “‘We know you’re hurting. We know this is of deep concern for you. And we’re just calling and emailing to see what we can do.’”
And what has been his answer?
“Listen more than you talk,” McKissic suggested. “Take the initiative for a brief phone call, a card, a letter. The same way we respond when someone loses a loved one, a small token to say ‘You matter. Your Black life matters.’” Even more than that, he said he’s been “pleased beyond measure” to see the number of white marchers who have showed up in support of Black Lives Matter there in Arlington. “That’s another good way to reach out. If you’re marching, please let us march with you,” he said, adding he’s been grateful as well for those who have reached out to offer financial support to the Black community.
Williamson, too, spoke with hope about the increased number of white Evangelicals “who are standing with us, who are speaking out, and who are saying, ‘Yes, we believe Black lives matter.’” Nonetheless, she said there is more to be done “to prove our repentance,” including “reparations by way of educational opportunities” and “appointing leadership that looks like the kingdom of God.”
The way Patricia Ann Ashley sees it, Graham wasn’t wrong about the need to begin with casting “the spiritual wickedness” of racism from individual hearts. But it can’t stop there. “Faith without works is dead,” she said. “So put some feet behind that.” A place she suggests starting is to “own the reality that every system we function in has racism factored in. And then be committed to using your influence to address it. That,” she said, “would be a start.”