The Strange Silence

After the SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage, evangelicals responded in droves through social media, sermons, and press releases. Our compulsion to respond is not surprising given core theological convictions about the institution of marriage. What is surprising is that evangelicals, with the exception of the ERLC headed by Russell Moore, have mostly remained silent in response to an onslaught of racial incidents: police brutality towards black young men, chants of lynching African-Americans by white fraternity members, and the killing of nine black Christians at a church in Charleston. Should we not speak? Why the strange silence when it comes to the scourge of racism? One thing’s for sure—it’s not for lack of something to say. Racism is rooted in sin and injustice—things about which the Bible has a lot to say. According to the Washington Post, recent polling on racial issues shows that approximately half of white Americans do not perceive any unfair treatment of blacks by police, employers, doctors, restaurants, or schools. This perception is especially the case for white evangelicals who tend to embrace an individualistic view of racism. In Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith show that, because of core theological convictions, white evangelicals are prone to spiritualize and individualize social ills—racism is reduced to personal racial prejudice and individual acts of discrimination. Given that understanding, the “race problem” really is quite minimal. As one evangelical pastor observes, “I don’t think there’s that much division. ... If we didn’t give it so much attention, I think it would die of its own accord” (Divided By Faith 83). The strange silence of evangelicals may stem from denial. If racism doesn’t exist, there is no reason to respond.

But our emphasis on individualism leaves us with an inadequate, truncated view of racism. Although much in the Bible points to the influence of social structures on individuals, evangelicals have historically had difficulty seeing racism as being anything other than an individual problem. Indeed, many white evangelicals would see any effort to define racism systemically as a sinful attempt to shift blame away from depraved individuals to “the system.” We are right to emphasize individual accountability and salvation—individuals must personally trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. But, in the wake of a barrage of racial incidents, it’s time for evangelicals to acknowledge that racism cannot ultimately be eliminated only through individual experiences of repentance and salvation.

First, evangelicals need to accept the reality that racism is both personal and systemic. According to the apostle Paul, sin expresses itself in the created order through “authorities” and “powers,” “spiritual forces of evil” which pervade all aspects of existence; these powers rebel against God and influence human existence toward evil through social, economic, cultural and political systems, practices and institutions that dominate, oppress and exploit (Eph. 6:12).  These powers affect all of us in both personal and systemic ways.

Racism is one of these “authorities” and “powers.” It is a structural evil—something that exists apart from the conscious willing of specific individuals, but nevertheless exercises controlling influence on how groups of people think and act. Racial bias in the United States may thus be seen in both personal attitudes and actions and structural patterns and practices. Most school administrators would deny being racist; black children, however, are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school by those same administrators than white children. Most employers would deny being racist; black college graduates, however, are twice as likely as white graduates to struggle to find a job. The New Testament is clear: Satan, “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), wants to exercise dominion over us. The adversary will attack on a personal level through attitudes of racial superiority and intentional acts of discrimination and he will attack on a structural level through patterns of oppression and practices of discrimination and exploitation. To respond to racism, the church must do more than preach an individualistic call to repentance and salvation. We must also engage the “authorities” and “powers.”

Perhaps the most disturbing reason evangelicals have been silent is that we have been seduced and enslaved by these “authorities” and “powers.” First, in our laissez-faire, consumer culture where churches market for members like Madison Avenue and congregants shop for a church like buying a car, pastors remain silent about systemic racism for fear of losing members or their job. Indeed, popular pastors and larger churches may be least likely to speak and act prophetically on racial issues because they have more to lose in the community by challenging the status quo (Divided By Faith, 166).

Second, enslavement to the powers can also be seen in the thousands of segregated churches dotting the American landscape. Not much has changed in the fifty years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed that is was “appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” According to one recent study, 86% of churches in the United States are still segregated—one racial group comprises at least 80% of the congregation.  While integration is the standard in society, segregation is the standard in churches.

Segregated churches initially developed as a consequence of slavery and Jim Crow laws. Today, predispositions toward homogeneity foster continued segregation. The reality is, however, that segregated churches lose their ability to influence culture toward racial reconciliation: pronouncements to “do as I say, not as I do” always fall on deaf ears. Segregated churches must remain silent because they rightly risk being labeled as “hypocrites.”

Third, segregated churches also promote prejudice and reinforce stereotypes, which further demonstrates enslavement to the powers. Christena Cleveland, in “The Myth of Harmless Homogeneity,” observes that decades of research indicates that segregation and prejudice have a bi-directional relationship:

“Prejudice tends to contribute to division between groups and division between groups tends to contribute to prejudice. ... What begins as seemingly harmless homogeneity often snowballs into distrust, inaccurate perceptions of other cultural groups in the Church, prejudice and hostility.”

Recent Lifeway Research polling bears that out, finding that 71 % of evangelicals say their church is racially diverse enough. Making sense of the data, Ed Stetzer, Executive Director of Lifeway Research, notes that “most churchgoers are content with the ethnic status quo in their churches.” Enslavement to the powers keeps segregated churches silent, maintaining the status quo of racial fragmentation in our society.

Evangelicals must repent of our silence and find our voice. To find our voice, we must be intentional about integrating evangelical churches. Segregated churches witness to division, fear and prejudice; integrated churches witness to the “manifold wisdom of God” which Paul describes in Ephesians. Churches are called by God to display the “multi-colored” wisdom of God to the “authorities” and “powers” (Eph. 3:10). The Greek word typically translated “manifold” could be translated “multicolored” as it was used to describe Joseph’s “coat of many colors” in the Greek Old Testament. The apostle Paul envisions churches as multi-racial communities bearing witness to the power of the Spirit to transcend divisive human patterns of homogeneous grouping.

We must also encourage evangelicals to form diverse friendships. Such friendships can help alter our individualistic understandings and make us more open to structural understandings related to racism. If white evangelicals become less racially isolated, we might look at racism differently and become more amenable to multidimensional solutions.

Ultimately, integrated churches and cross-race friendships help us get our theology right.The true environment for doing theology is not an ivory tower, but concrete relationships with real people who differ from us, whose life experiences differ from ours, who read the Bible through a different set of lenses. Many white evangelicals view racial incidents through the lens of individualism while many black evangelicals view those same incidents through the lens of structuralism. Both rightly claim biblical authority for their perspective. Scripture warrants both individual and structural views of racism and other sins. It is not an either/or but a both/and. Solutions to racism that call only for individual change are as naïve as solutions that call only for structural change. As long as we remain segregated and isolated, our theology will inevitably be one-sided and incomplete.

The issue of racism reminds us that our discipleship must be corporate as well as individual. As part of the eternal plan of God, churches are to be signs and instruments of the Kingdom of God—“counter-communities” holding out and embodying an alternative vision of what it means to live in community. An integrated church in a segregated society can be a powerful witness to the transformative power of the cross, which destroys all “dividing wall[s] of hostility” (Eph. 2:14-16). Together we are the Body of Christ, the one new humanity in which, having been “baptized into Christ” and “clothed” with Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:15; Col. 3:27, 28).

Greg Brooks (@gregkbrooks) has served churches in Florida and Kentucky, most recently as the Executive Pastor at Frist Baptist Church at The Villages. A graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div., Ph.D), he has also taught various theology and ethics classes as an Adjunct Professor. He and his wife, Fran, live in Florida and are the proud parents of three grown children.