The Common Good
March-April 1997

Evangelicals and Race

by Jim Wallis | March-April 1997

Something new, real, and potentially very important is
happening among several groups of white evangelicals.

Something new, real, and potentially very important is happening among several groups of white evangelicals. A deep conviction and growing passion about racial reconciliation is taking root in the very unexpected soil of the white, conservative Christian world.

First, some honesty. White evangelicalism simply has been wrong on the issue of race for a very long time. Indeed, conservative white Christians have served as a bastion of racial segregation and a bulwark against racial justice efforts for decades, in the South and throughout the country.

All during the civil rights struggle, the vast majority of white evangelicals and their churches were on the wrong side—the wrong side of the truth, the Bible, and the gospel. I will never forget the words spoken to me as a white evangelical teen-ager by an elder in my home church when I began to ask questions about our city of Detroit's painfully obvious racism and its divided churches. Without apology he said, "Christianity has nothing to do with racism."

Ever since, when evangelical Christians gathered to draw up their theological concerns, the sin of white racism was nowhere to be found. In recent years, when conservative white Christians began to construct their political agendas, a recognition of racism's reality was absent from the issues list of abortion, homosexuality, tax cuts for the middle class, and, yes, opposition to affirmative action.

But suddenly, all that appears to be changing. One of the first signs was in the National Association of Evangelicals, the country's largest group of evangelical denominations and organizations. New NAE president Don Argue last year called together black and white evangelical leaders and, in a dramatic moment, confessed the sin of racism by white evangelicals, asked forgiveness, and committed the NAE to forge new multiracial relationships to change evangelical institutions. Even initially skeptical black evangelical leaders became convinced that the new direction was for real. Similar declarations of repentance have been made by the Southern Baptist Convention and by white and black pentecostals at a historic gathering that was dubbed the "Memphis Miracle" (see "The Spirit Speaks," September-October 1995).

Perhaps the most visible white evangelical group now passionately invoking the language of "racial reconciliation" is the Promise Keepers. In their large stadium rallies and in their list of "promises," a commitment to build relationships between white, black, and brown men has become more and more central to the Promise Keepers mission. Black staff and board members of Promise Keepers testify to the sincerity of the efforts, but the real tests are still to come. Several Promise Keeper leaders came to Washington, D.C., and to Sojourners recently to discuss their hopes and plans for advancing the agenda of racial reconciliation.

CLEARLY, PILGRIMAGES TOWARD racial reconciliation must lead to concrete commitments to racial justice if the journey is to be truly authentic. Sitting around the campfire together singing "Kumbaya" and holding hands will not suffice. Outside the church meeting rooms and stadium rallies where white and black Christians are hugging each other is a nation where racial polarization is on the rise, where the legacy of slavery and discrimination is still brutally present, and where the majority white population is signaling its tiredness with the "issue" of race by voting down long-standing affirmative action policies.

One black evangelical leader privately wonders whether his white evangelical colleagues "who still hold the trump cards will ever be willing to give them up—purse strings and the decision-making power." Will "racial reconciliation" just be "another fad," others ask, or will white evangelicals let that commitment take them to places they have never been before? Will they allow racial reconciliation to transform the evangelical world, or will they stop short of any real changes? "The crowd still looks pretty much the same," observes one closely involved in the process.

The approach that "we are all racists and need to repent" is neither good theology nor honest history. In the deepest and most honest sense, the real issue at stake in American racial history is the idolatry of white supremacy, as Eugene Rivers names it in his important article in this issue. The persistence of white identity itself, with the accompanying assumption of white privilege, is still the major obstacle to real change in the racial climate. Italians, Swedes, Irish, and Germans were never a common ethnic group, but all became "white people" when they arrived in America.

Indeed, the "white race" was and is merely a political construction to supply the ideology for oppression. That is the ideology that must be dismantled if racial progress is to be made in America. And because the ideology of the white race is also an idolatry that challenges our true and common identity as the children of God, its exorcism is a spiritual and theological necessity. Will evangelical Christians demonstrate the faith to overcome racism? That, ultimately, will be the test of racial reconciliation.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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