‘Confess these sins’: white Evangelical churches reflect on racism

‘Confess these sins’: white Evangelical churches reflect on racism

In Dothan, Alabama, First Baptist Church, like many white, Evangelical churches nationwide, is now addressing issues related to race for the first time. Motivated by the Black Lives Matter movement, faith groups from the Southern Baptist Convention to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have acknowledged that systemic racism remains today, and that churches can’t ignore it. Their challenge now, experts say, is that they’ve historically done just that.

Says historian Jemar Tisby, “Christianity in the United States has been coded as white, which means that any attempt to identify whiteness and white supremacy in it is taken as an attack on the faith.”

Moving forward may be a long, narrow road.

“We have a history of this,” says Taylor Rutland, a pastor at First Baptist, who first preached racism as a sin on June 7. “And so we’ve got to go before the Lord and confess these sins and repent of them in order to move forward.”

But one sermon can matter – at least Mr. Rutland’s did to Abby Maddox. “I just wanted to stand up and cheer,” she says. “We’re called to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. And we’ve got a whole group of people who are mourning right now.”

By early June, Taylor Rutland was certain God wanted him to preach about racism. What he didn’t know is how his congregation would react. 

Mr. Rutland pastors First Baptist Church of Dothan, Alabama – a Bible belt town just above the Florida border. Like many white Evangelical churches, he says, First Baptist almost never discusses racism. And like many such churches in the South, he says, First Baptist has racism in its past. In 1961, the church voted to stop funding Southern Baptist Theological Seminary after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited campus. 

So on June 7, after delivering his first sermon on racism as sin, Mr. Rutland says he felt comforted to hear congregants tell him they wish he’d addressed it sooner.

“We have a history of this,” he says. “And so we’ve got to go before the Lord and confess these sins and repent of them in order to move forward.”

But moving forward may be a long, narrow road. First Baptist, like many white, evangelical churches nationwide, is now addressing issues related to race for the first time. Motivated by the Black Lives Matter movement, faith groups from the Southern Baptist Convention to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have acknowledged that systemic racism remains today, and that churches can’t ignore it. Their challenge now, experts say, is that they’ve historically done just that.

The church has long been one of the country’s most racially divisive institutions, historians say – so much so that denominations remain largely segregated. (It has also been a frequent setting for racially motivated violence.) As many white congregations now call for reform, many Black church leaders say real change demands much more than a sermon, statement, or conference. 

“Even as Christian leaders and institutions make statements and make commitments to racial justice in the future, very few are taking a critical look at their own history,” says Jemar Tisby, a historian and president of The Witness, a Black Christian collective. “For us, racial justice is an ongoing pursuit. It’s not seasonal according to events or headlines of the day.”

When the past is silence

To build a lasting commitment to faith-based racial justice, white churches need to understand their past. That past is one of silence, segregation, and complicity, says Mr. Tisby. 

In early America, racism existed in the church just as it did in the rest of society, says Michael Emerson, head of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a leading expert on race and religion. For a long time, white Americans debated whether Black Americans could even be Christian. Even after the Civil War, says Professor Emerson, white churches still refused to integrate – entrenching a spiritual divide that remains today. 

“We’ve had 160-plus years of separate cultures forming, with different authors people read, different interpretations of the Bible, different music that’s listened to, and I think most fundamentally completely different lived realities.”

The Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Haynes III, lead pastor at Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, says it is critical to address systemic and structural racism. Otherwise, “it’s almost as if you want to clean the attic of cobwebs, but you don’t want to address the spider.”

Such a long rupture has made it so that integration now requires more than mixing white and Black congregants, experts say; it requires bridging institutions, whose differences saturate to their very theology. 

“Christianity in the United States has been coded as white, which means that any attempt to identify whiteness and white supremacy in it is taken as an attack on the faith,” says Mr. Tisby. America’s distinct blend of white supremacy and Christianity, he says, has evolved with the times. It existed when white churches used the Bible to defend slavery, when the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses during Jim Crow, when pastors remained silent during the civil rights era, and now, when many white churches avoid addressing racism today.

Consistency of activism 

Mr. Rutland says he understands why many pastors – particularly those in the South – are so reluctant to preach on issues of racial justice. No congregant wants to be called a racist, he says, and no one wants sermons to get too political. 

Yet the common evangelical refrain that politics should be kept from the pulpit can be rather hypocritical, given how active they are on other social issues, such as abortion and LGBTQ rights, says Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission at the Southern Baptist Convention. 

The question for Evangelicals – and white churches more broadly – is not whether they should be socially active, says Mr. Moore. It’s whether they should be consistent in their activism.

“When the subject is race, there’s a temptation for white Christians to suddenly become mute or very ambiguous,” he says. “That was the case in 1963. That’s the case in many contexts in 2020.”

Meanwhile, promoting racial equity has long been one of the key roles of the Black church, which has historically connected social and spiritual liberation, says Anthea Butler, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.  

To join that movement in earnest, she says, white churches will need to dismantle systems of structural racism that disproportionately benefit them – some of which they helped create.

As always, change comes at a cost, says the Rev. Dr. Frederick Douglass Haynes III of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas. But accepting that cost to uplift the most vulnerable in society, he says, is the gift of religion. 

The church, in his opinion, needs the “moral courage” to promote a more equal future and the humility to admit failures in the past. Rev. Haynes, whose father and grandfather were also ministers, is all too familiar with those failures. 

Daryl Sullivan/The Daily Times/AP/File

The Rev. Dr. Willa Estell (left), receives a standing ovation at the end of a rally Aug. 23, 2017, at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Alcoa, Tennessee, when she speaks about why it is important to say “Black Lives Matter.” She is pastor of St. Paul A.M.E. Zion Church in neighboring Maryville.

In 1991, he remembers the heartbreak of addressing his church after the beating of Rodney King. It was a similar feeling, he says, when he spoke on the death of George Floyd this year. Both times, he says, he took that pain and laid it before his congregation. In his opinion, advocating racial justice is the responsibility of every church – including white evangelicals, who may at first need to listen and learn.

“If you’ve been quiet for 400-plus years and all of a sudden you say something for a week, I’m sorry,” he says. “That’s not enough.”

After the spotlight

Mr. Rutland agrees. Still, even he admits that had this summer’s protests not come, he doesn’t know when he would have first preached on racism. He plans his sermons in advance, he says, and the topic wasn’t on the docket.

“We should have responded to this hundreds of years ago, and we didn’t,” he says. “We can’t just act like because I preached one sermon on racism we’ve arrived.”

But after decades of silence, one sermon can matter – at least Mr. Rutland’s did to Abby Maddox, a congregant at First Baptist for most of her life. 

“I just wanted to stand up and cheer,” she says. “We’re called to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. And we’ve got a whole group of people who are mourning right now.”

Mourning, for her, has involved reflecting on racism in her community, and even her own life. She’s been reading books on race theory, attending a discussion group with friends, and having hard conversations with her children and family. People need to talk about the issue to make it better, she says, but making it better requires more than talking. The change needs to last.

In the eyes of Mr. Tisby, leader of The Witness, change doesn’t come from the many who join a movement when it’s easy. It comes from the few who remain, who adopt social justice as a way of life. The current level of activism around racial justice is unsustainable, he says. So, when it wanes, who will be left?

That’s a question the Rev. Reginald Davis, of First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, also has in mind. Founded in 1776 by a group of slaves worshiping in a carriage house, he says, First Baptist is one of the oldest Black churches in the nation. Martin Luther King Jr. visited in the early ’60s, and the crowd was so large that many listened through open windows on the street.

“Black Americans, we have fought about this. We have preached about this. We have marched about this. We’ve been jailed about it. We have written about it. And we died for it,” says Mr. Davis. “But it has not been solved because enough white Americans have not gotten involved.”

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For the first time ever, he’s seen a large number of white Americans getting involved. The question now, he says, is who will remain.

“When the media walks away, the cameras are not on us, the interviews are gone, if we don’t engage the system to correct the systemic problems,” he says, “we’ll come right back to where we were before.”

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