Weathering the Whitelash

Today I am grateful for my colleagues in congregational leadership who are bravely leading their congregations out of Jim Crow Christianity and into the light of real discipleship. The verdict has not yet been returned, of course, in many white Christian congregations. Which “JC” will we choose – Jim Crow, or Jesus Christ?

Dr. King noted that our Christian worship services represent the most segregated hours in American life. That was true when he said it sixty years ago, and it is still true now. In many parts of this country, that segregation has worsened rather than improved. We continue to harvest that bitter crop week in and week out as Christians remain divided by the color line.

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“White Christian churches have not just been complacent; they have not only been complicit, writes Robert P. Jones in White Too Long, “rather, as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality. This project has framed the entire American story” (page 6). Jones wonders, as James Baldwin asserts, whether some of us Jim Crow Christians have been “white too long” to do anything different.

That’s not a matter for past history but rather for current policy and practice. “Even after the last white American who grew up in Jim Crow America has died, the legacy of white supremacy will survive because, after hundreds of years of nurturing and reinforcement, it has become part of our culture and institutions, Jones notes. “Sometimes it lies dormant, but until it is excised, it remains potentially active in overt and subtle ways” (page 224). This legacy is active and overt in the voice mail and email boxes of a number of white mainline parish pastors today.

I can hear between the words of sermons in the past few weeks (and sometimes quite clearly) that a number of mainline pastors have been hammered for expressing their honest scriptural and theological views of the events of January 6th, 2021, and related realities. They are experiencing what some writers now label as the “whitelash” – the aggressive response by the system of white, male, supremacy to any public challenge.

Some of my colleagues have been cancelled by local media and other platforms. Some have been threatened, covertly or overtly, with removal from their pulpits. Some have been accused of making their congregations and worship services “unsafe” for what is either veiled or open white supremacy.

This last bit is just the church-ified version of calls for political “unity” and for “moving on” from sedition. This “nothing to see here” perspective assumes that racial justice talk in the Church is new, suspect, and likely heretical. That is hardly the case. Mainline preachers know that many of us have censored ourselves for years, decades, centuries, in deference to a particular structure and expression of white, male, hegemony in our churches. The change is that some of our pastoral leaders can no longer keep silent.

Some white preachers have spent lifetimes of un-safety while the white, male, supremacists have ruled without question. I found that every week I needed to weigh something I would say against whether it would generate dissatisfaction that might lead to complaints and ultimately removal. I confess with shame that in most cases I excised or soft-pedaled or camouflaged the “objectionable” parts of the message so my voice mail and email would remain relatively untroubled. I am in some measure of awe at those active white preachers who choose the path of courage at this moment.

I can hear, as well, between the words of those who cannot or will not take the risk. There is the studied avoidance of any mention of racial justice, repentance, and repair. There is the focus on the disruptions caused by the pandemic. Those disruptions are very real for the vulnerable (most of whom are Black and people of color and women), but for many of us those disruptions are simply minor inconveniences. The Pandemic and the normal flow of everyday difficulties provide more than enough cover, however, for those of us who would really rather change the subject when it comes to race.

Many white preachers experience congregational ministry to some degree as a hostage situation. The hostage takers still seek to maintain control, but that control is slipping. So, they feel “unsafe.” For the privileged, however, equity always feels like a loss. For the privileged, however, sharing power always feels like a loss. For the privileged, however, equal protection and opportunity and access, always feels like a loss. The Good News of Jesus Christ always makes power, privilege, and position feel unsafe. You don’t get crucified by the state for being too nice to people.

Some members will leave our Jim Crow congregations as a result of honest and courageous preaching. Some of them will make a dramatic exit in order to punish the offending preacher. Those folks will find a “safe” space. There are lots of Jim Crow Christian congregations and preachers happy to embrace them and their money.

The Church has spent centuries underwriting white supremacy. In fact, we had a large hand in inventing it. Rejecting and abandoning that role will not be easy or pain-free. But we must be communities of conscience, not of comfort. “In short,” Jennifer Harvey writes in Dear White Christians, “transformation will come when white people hear well enough that we actually get it and realize that moving to anywhere new will require letting it cost us something” (page 236).

One protest will be that this is not a “loving” response. I think of the rich young man who comes to Jesus in Mark’s gospel. Jesus looks at him and loves him. Then Jesus tells him to sell all he has, give the money to the poor, and to come and follow Jesus. Then he will have treasure in heaven. The man goes away sad because he’s unwilling to part with his possessions. Jesus doesn’t stop him. And he doesn’t stop loving him. Those actions are not contradictory but rather are two sides of the same coin.

This is hard for some people, and some pastors, to take in. We mainline pastors have been “therapeutized” over the last fifty years or so. Our increasingly secular culture can’t figure what in the world we are good for as theologians. So, the culture has given us the only role that makes sense – spiritual counselor. We pastors have willingly accepted that role because it’s good to do something the world sees as useful.

As we have become more therapeutic, we have lost our public voices. People see us almost exclusively as comforters and counselors. When we step out of those roles, people are often confused. If counseling is our primary role – making people feel better about themselves and their lives – then every hard word is experienced as an error or a failure. In Lutheran terms, we have abandoned the “Law” part of the “Law/Gospel dialectic.” Unfortunately, when the Law goes, so does the Gospel.

The whitelash falls, in my estimation, disproportionately on mainline women pastors. By definition, these pastors are suspect in systems of white, male, supremacy. Add to that the demand that women always are to be nurturing, comforting and quiet. The white, male, supremacist stew becomes triply toxic. Many women pastors serve small to medium sized parishes. These are highly relational and easily dominated by a few families with money. Thus, the hostage-holding power of these households is multiplied and magnified.

When all else fails, in my estimation, there is the weaponizing of white women’s tears. If push comes to shove, one of the matriarchs shows up in my study to weep about how hard things are and how mean I am as a pastor. The males in that system are honor bound to defend the women and avenge the offense. It’s the trump card which is often played in church council and congregational meetings to devastating effect.

I don’t know if the white mainline churches will be able to weather the Whitelash of the present moment. When the whole armor of white, male, supremacy lands on a parish pastor, it’s often time to move on. If it happens enough times to enough pastors, they will find their way to early retirement and/or alternate employment. And the system of Jim Crow Christianity will be sustained and reinforced.

Abandoning our Jim Crow Christianity and embracing Jesus Christ requires self-examination and confession. It requires repentance and repair. That’s hard and painful work, but it beats going away sad and unchanged.

So, pastoral leaders, I’m praying for you today – for you to have energy and hope, courage and calm, perspective and perseverance. I’m grateful that you aren’t giving up. We need your leadership and love. And there are still thousands of knees unbowed to the Baal of Jim Crow Christianity (let the reader understand…).

Harvey, Jennifer. Dear White Christians (Prophetic Christianity Series (PC)). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.