When I was a teenager, I proudly claimed Christian heroes of history like Harriet Tubman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King Jr. However, I never pictured myself as their counterparts: the Christians who opposed those heroes.
I knew there were Christian slaveholders, Christian Nazis, and Christians who opposed the civil rights movement, but in my mind, these people were “Christians” — with scare quotes. These so-called Christians, I imagined, were either conscious hypocrites, using the guise of Christianity to seize and maintain power, or mindless followers of the status quo who never devoted real attention to prayer and scripture.
The problem with this mental framework is that it allowed me to believe that if I had been born in a previous generation, I would have sided with the “real” Christians — as though the fight for justice was a battle of the past.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on my former paradigm in the context of the political attacks we're seeing in the Georgia Senate runoff. Few white Christians today would dare disparage Martin Luther King Jr., but the attacks made against candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock — who pastors King’s former church — are similar to attacks made against King in his time. King insisted “something is wrong with capitalism,” and advocated for democratic socialism, stances which his detractors used to stir up fear, associate King with communism, and discredit the rest of his message. Warnock’s opponents obsessively link him with “Marxism” and “socialism,” and correlate those words with “American decline” and an opposition to values such as family and faith.
I grew up in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, just an hour away from where Warnock was raised in Savannah, Ga., but as a teenager I hadn’t heard of him. If you had described his theology and politics to me, I probably would have considered him a scare-quotes “Christian.” Though many radical progressives of the past fit under my umbrella of “real Christians,” radical progressives of my time did not. My own politics were all over the place, and I took pride in the fact that I could neither be pegged as a conservative nor liberal. I thought the uniqueness of my views reflected God’s work in me — making me the light of the world, salt of the earth, a lily among thorns, etc. Now, I think Christians — and white Christians in particular — need to get our heads out of our asses.
Billy Graham probably thought he was being the light of the world when he responded to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, saying, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little Black children.”
New York City-based Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller probably imagined himself as the salt of the earth when he penned his 2020 article “A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory,” in which he writes that many young Christians, wanting to rectify the church’s failure to do justice, “are taking up one or another of the secular approaches to justice, which introduces distortions into their practice and lives.”
The Southern Baptist Convention leaders might have imagined themselves as lilies among thorns when they put out a recent statement saying “any version of Critical [Race] Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith and Message,” without explaining the supposed incompatibility, though Black evangelical leader Lisa Sharon Harper had choice words regarding their motivation. In a thread on Twitter, she wrote that the timing of the “hastily crafted, anti-academic, and ill-informed statement” (made by six white men whose denomination was founded to protect slavery) was not lost on her. “Here’s what I think. You … wanted to impact #GeorgiaRunOff. Two words: No shame.”
Graham and Keller spoke — I hope — with good intentions, maybe even believing their words could help achieve racial equity, but that does not make their perspectives any less damaging. Billy Graham offered his many followers an excuse not to take part in the civil rights movement, just as Christians today find ways to ignore or undermine the Black Lives Matter movement. The result is the same: White Christians fail to recognize and join the effective movements for racial justice happening in our time while people of color continue to be oppressed in every area of American society, from the voting booth to their own homes.
If the white church is ever to break our pattern of complicity with racist structures, I believe we need to address our sin of religious pride — or our stubborn unwillingness to follow the example of Black leaders fighting for justice. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), a priest and a Levite pass an abused man on the side of the road — two people who shared the religion of Jesus and his listeners. It is the Samaritan man, who listeners would have considered a religious outsider, who did the will of God and showed mercy to his neighbor. Jesus instructs listeners to “go and do likewise” (10:37), a powerful critique to those of us who might pay lip service to the idea of racial equality, but distance ourselves from the people actively fighting for Black liberation.
In other words: White Christians should be leery of our own judgments; we are primed by culture to oppress and primed by religion to think God is on our side. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass called the church of the South “a dark shelter” under which slaveholders found their “strongest protection.” Douglass was not anti-religion or anti-Christian; he — along with Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth — was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, a denomination born out of the racism in white churches that ultimately played a key role in the abolitionist and civil rights movements. Douglass and his fellow AME members knew all too well how easy it was for white Christians to misuse the Christian faith to bolster their own privilege.
The extent to which we are wealthy or powerful — or, especially in America, white — is the extent to which we are at risk of distorting Jesus’ message, allowing “the deceitfulness of wealth” (Mark 4:19) to choke out the gospel, which is always good news for the poor and woe to the rich. If Jesus was among us today, I think he might paraphrase Matthew 19:24, saying that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a white person to participate in the kingdom of God.
How do we, as white Christians, walk that narrow road? Jesus assures us, while it will be difficult, it is possible, with God’s help (Matthew 19:26). We start by taking our cues from Black leaders. And if history is any indication, we should take our cues from the Black leaders — Christian and otherwise — who many in the white church most revile and fear.