The problem with white evangelicalism

You may be thinking from the title that this is going to be one of those posts that bashes white evangelicalism. After all, there has been a plethora of pieces over the past few years that have done just that. You know the ones. It’s where the author decries how white evangelicalism doesn’t really model the Christ in Scripture, isn’t accommodating to people of color, and wraps itself in a blanket of Americanism. Well I suppose if that is the description of a congregation and its worship services, then it makes sense to want to leave. Our churches are to model the other worldly kingdom with Christ enthroned and everyone subject to his authority. When we enter a worship service we need to be reminded that we are citizens of another kingdom.

However, I get the sense that the blasts against white evangelicalism have turned into generic diatribes against predominantly white denominations as if they all fit the description of American culturally entrenched gatherings that wave American flags as a symbol of faith and proclaim Republican loyalties as a mark of Christian commitment. I came across this piece in the Jude3 Project blog, The Catch-22 of Theological Decolonization. Cam Triggs cautions that spurning white evangelicalism can also lead to abandoning the faith. It’s a good exhortation but sadly, I found it echoes the same sentiment I’ve heard repeatedly concerning the rejection of white evangelicalism;

First, let me clearly say that we do in fact need to decolonize our faith. We don’t worship white Jesus or bow down at the altar of American exceptionalism. We need Gospel activists and multiethnic mediators proclaiming justice, teaching truth, and defending the faith from the cultural syncretism that so often plagues our churches. In that sense, we must be on guard against ways we have sinfully fused our articulation of Christianity with predominant cultural affinities.

Here is the problem with this exhortation, it presumes that unless a congregation is multiethnic (or at least promoting multiethnicity which I take to mean multi-racial) and speaking against justice (which I presume to mean promoting our present day justice causes from the pulpit), THAT congregation has bowed down at the altar of whiteness especially if the congregation is predominantly white and there may even be Republicans in the mix. This is the congregation I presume worships a white Jesus not that they are actually declaring Jesus is white. Never mind if the fabric of the service itself focuses on Christ with the acknowledgement that he has come for all people’s from every tribe, tongue and nation, that there is truth proclaimed from Scripture with exhortation on what it means to be sojourners in this world, there are commands to love our neighbor, and the faith defended from cultural syncretism.

Regarding that last component, I do agree that our other worldly, other political paradigm should eschew cultural syncretism. However, it strikes me that the kind of syncretism mentioned here only goes one way–the syncretism derived from infusing patriotic laced Americanism with Christianity. And yes, that rightly should be condemned if we are conflating that with Christianity. (It’s why I refuse to attend patriotic services). But what about the cultural syncretism that follows the dictates of the world in how issues of race and justice should be viewed and handled? That is also cultural syncretism.

Now if we’re talking about the cultural fabric of worship services, like the liturgical elements of the service and sermon delivery, then we probably need to ask the question if that is what makes a congregation gain the label of white evangelicalism. Does this kind of white evangelism marginalize minorities? Should we toss hymns for being too white? What of liturgies that are rooted in a more historic Protestant tradition such that you would find in Presbyterian or Anglican churches? Does a rejection of cultural affinities mean that blackness needs to be affirmed so that minorities are comforted in knowing that whiteness is not being exalted? Because if that’s what it means to spurn white evangelicalism and its culture, then we need to ask some hard questions of how much emphasis we’re putting on the cultural aspects of a church instead of the content related to its head and the emphasis on his kingdom. How does this emphasis not avoid cultural syncretism on the other end?

And who is this white Jesus? Is it the Jesus who is wrapped in an American flag? Or is it applying whiteness to a theological paradigm that is so construed with slave holding and segregation, that the God-man who came to redeem people of many different ethnic groups gets reduced to this paradigm? If that’s the case, by building this caricature of Jesus, we’ll likely create a refashioned Jesus in our own image rather than the Christ who came for all people.

This gets to what I consider the biggest problem of this generic spurning of white evangelicalism. What is it and how do you define it? By making blanket accusations, the label of white evangelicalism flattens white congregations to a monolithic group that can temper us into believing that there is no place for minorities. It sets the tone for believing that any gathering of white evangelicals is going to be a hostile place unless there is a noticeable focus on race and ethnicity. It reduces individuals to a caricature of this embodiment, a rich irony considering that is what happened with black people for centuries. Even worse, it chips away at the faith we actually need to combat the cultural influences that cause these concerns in the first place.

Listen, I have been part of predominantly white churches for many years. I can appreciate the concern of how a majority cultural dominance can overlook the concerns of ethnic minorities especially in light of how much issues of race and justice have been at the forefront in recent years. But really, how are we judging whole congregations? If the pastoral leadership is setting the tone for exalting Christ and his kingdom over and above the kingdoms of this world, then we need to take pause before making allegations. Sure, there might be a contingency in the congregation that are clueless about minority concerns, who rely a little too heavily on partisan politics (a particular concern with entanglement with Trumpism), and may make ignorant statements. But who is the church as a whole and what is being emphasized? Because honestly, if you are in a congregation that is earnest about the lordship of Christ, the authority of Scripture, the fellowship of the saints and love of neighbor, the reality is that will draw people from varying socio-political perspectives, from the conservative Republican to the social justice oriented millennial. And there will be opportunity to address and break down these barriers. But that also means prioritizing our shared union in Christ and bearing with one another as Scripture commands.

One thought on “The problem with white evangelicalism

  1. Gregory Brewster February 1, 2021 / 8:08 pm

    From John: And this we have heard from him, he who loves God will love his brother also. I’ll venture to say our Lord spoke to his Apostles not of brothers just of their birth but, in him. All, sisters too,” if we love as he loved us” does color even come into the picture? As it’s written, man looks at the outward appearance God looks at the heart. Each must decide.

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