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.

Photo by Alex Conchillos on

“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.

If 1850 Comes Again, We’ll be Ready

Presidents of the six Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) seminaries have issued a statement rejecting Critical Race Theory (CRT) as antithetical to Baptist Christian faith and doctrine. The seminary leaders met together recently to affirm the doctrinal and confessional status of the “Baptist Faith and Message 2000,” a document that, according to the statement, “unites and defines Southern Baptist cooperation and establishes the confessional unity of our Convention.”

Notable in this statement was the direct and unequivocal rejection of “Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality and any version of Critical Theory” as “incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.” The report of the SBC house organ, Baptist Press, can be found here along with the full text of the statement. Particularly objectionable to at least some of the presidents was the association of CRT with Marxist analysis. The presidents associate Marxist analysis with atheism and rule it categorically out of bounds for Baptist Christians. Yonat Shimron reports for Religion News Service on the details of the statement.

Photo by Chait Goli on

CRT developed out of critical legal studies and, most notably, the founding work of Derrick Bell. CRT has five “tenets”: counter-storytelling; the permanence of racism; Whiteness as property; interest conversion; and the critique of liberalism. I have found a series of videos to be the most effective and concise description and application of CRT. The videos are entitled, “What is Critical Race Theory…Really?” Click on the title to get the first session and go from there.

The SBC presidents land, as do many other critics, on the last tenet as the most problematic. CRT offers a cogent and cutting critique of political liberalism (not to be confused with “liberal” in the current partisan sense) as a system that promotes hierarchy under the guise of equality of opportunity. More to the point, this critique calls into question the role of western capitalism as the source, partner, and beneficiary of race-based chattel slavery, beginning in the 1500’s. Marxist class analysis plays a role in this critique as a tool, but not as an ideology. So, for my money that criticism of CRT is a red herring.

Instead, we can apply the “white evangelical cultural tool kit,” as described by Robert P. Jones in White Too Long to the SBC statement for a clearer understanding. It’s helpful to rely on Jones for this since he grew up in the SBC and spends a large part of his book assessing the racist history, legacy and continuing policy of the denomination.

Jones relies on the work of Emerson and Smith (2000) for the identification and description of the white evangelical tool kit. “Specifically, Emerson and Smith discovered that the white evangelical cultural tool kit contained three main tools that are all interconnected by theology,” Jones writes, “freewill individualism, relationalism, and antistructuralism.” (page 97).

In sum, freewill individualism asserts that there are no structures and institutions, no larger social movements, no cultural or social constraints, nothing bigger which controls or influences individuals. People are responsible for their own situations and accountable for their own freely chosen actions. Relationalism builds on this by asserting that poor relationships between individuals are the root of all problems rather than any systems or institutions.

Antistructuralism, then, is the necessary result of the first two tools. It “denotes the deep suspicion with which white evangelicals view institutional explanations for social problems, principally because they believe invoking social structures shifts blame from where it belongs: with sinful individuals” (page 98).

CRT demonstrates the role that communal realities play in determining individual behaviors. It sees systems and institutions as embodying and underwriting racism in our society. It describes “whiteness” as a role people are trained to perform and then claim as inherent to themselves. And it sees the individualistic bent of liberalism as a tool for those in power to maintain their privilege and position. In Christian terms, we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.

What strikes me is that the SBC arguments have the same odor as theological pronouncements made at the founding of the denomination in the 1850’s. Jones describes that theological history in precise detail. The SBC was founded in the fervent belief that Christian theology supported and even required race-based chattel slavery. For the representatives of that denomination now to attack a theoretical framework that continues the anti-slavery fight is just too rich for words.

It’s so easy, for me as an ELCA Lutheran, to throw stones at the SBC folks. That’s not my biggest concern. Instead, I am deeply troubled by a sentence from White Too Long. “Over the last two decades,” Jones notes, “there is increasing evidence that this cultural tool kit, developed primarily in the context of white evangelicalism, has become embedded across white Christianity more generally” (page 98). He notes that the three parts of the white evangelical tool kit have become embedded in large parts of white American Christianity in general.

In the mid-1800’s, old line Protestant denominations in the North were, I think, quite content to allow their southern counterparts to do the theological heavy lifting when it came to the scriptural and doctrinal underpinnings of Christian white supremacy. This had the virtue of allowing the northerners to continue occupy the moral high ground without sacrificing any social, economic or political power. Even many abolitionists in the North were white supremacists in their social theory and theology.

That has not changed for 150 years. Northern white churches did not, for the most part, release attack dogs to keep blacks out of their buildings and services. But the effect was equally as powerful. The documentary, A Time for Burning, demonstrates how that worked among LCA Lutherans here in Omaha in the mid-1960’s. Lest you think I am again name-calling, ALC Lutherans were even less engaged in the issues.

After that time, white flight and de facto segregation solidified the process to the point that white Lutherans in most of the Omaha metro don’t have to think about race (or ethnicity or poverty or class) ever — unless it happens to pop up in unflattering terms in the local paper. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law is a powerful report on how that has worked out every in this country. It is, with notable exceptions in some of our east Omaha ELCA congregations, a chapter of history left unnoticed and un-discussed.

CRT challenges the assumptions of the white evangelical tool box. That’s a good thing. CRT is much closer to the analysis we find in the prophets and in the Sermon on the Mount than anything we might find in the Baptist Faith and Message or in most mission statements of ELCA congregations. It won’t happen, but I do wish that our denominational leadership would state publicly that CRT is not contrary to Lutheran theology and social teaching.

After all, if you want to find a critic of capitalism, you need look no further than Martin Luther. He was no friend of rich people and no naïve advocate for greed. Of course, that element of Luther’s writing is typically suppressed. I did not hear about it in my seminary training and was surprised to discover it later on in life. So, our Lutheran theological heritage has resources to analyze and critique modern (neo)liberalism, if only we put them to use in order to attack our own institutional racism and reject our capitalistic understandings of mission and service.

The alternative is to hope that 1850 comes around again. Because if it does, boy howdy, are we ever ready!

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