The Desecration of Black Life and The Silence of American Evangelicals
In this article, I argue that White American Evangelical Christians and Evangelical Leaders have been silent regarding this vital issue in our culture: the desecration of black life and the dehumanization of black humanity. Their coldness about death and violence toward black people in America is a blunt denial of the biblical worldview about the sanctity of life and the doctrine of humanity grounded in the doctrine of God. American Evangelicals suffer a terrific existential crisis of biblical authority and faithfulness to the Word of God. Because of its silence, the disaster of American Evangelicalism lies in the fact that it (indirectly) supports the dehumanization of black people.”
As an Evangelical Christian and thinker, my target audience is American Evangelical Christians and Leaders. I must admit I do not subscribe to some of the ideological apparatuses associated with American Evangelicalism–particularly in reference to Evangelical views on social and political issues: immigration, race, war, public policy, foreign policy, economy, etc. I find some of these views unbiblical, and theologically dangerous and unhealthy to the Christian witness in the public sphere, missional evangelism, the Lordship of Christ, and to human flourishing and the common good.
The Desecration of Black Life and The Silence of American Evangelicals
As a Christian minister, scholar, and theologian, writing about the humanity and dignity of black people in the era of violence and death towards black folk in America is an uneasy task to do. I keep asking myself these puzzling questions: why the American evangelicals are silent about this vital issue? Why have the influential Evangelical leaders kept their mouth shut about defending the dignity and humanity of black people?
I do not believe their silence is an indication of their disbelief about the equality of all people or races; rather, their coldness about death and violence toward black people in America is a blunt denial of the biblical worldview about the sanctity of life and the doctrine of humanity grounded in the doctrine of God. American Evangelicals suffer a terrific existential crisis of biblical authority and faithfulness to the Word of God. Because of its silence, the disaster of American Evangelicalism lies in the fact that it (indirectly) supports the dehumanization of black people. In Jeremiah 22:3, God has ordered his people not to be silent regarding the plight and dehumanization of the oppressed, but to be socially engaged in the transformation of their culture and the practice of justice: “Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.”
Evangelical theological reflection about the presence of evil in our midst is more than an intellectual discourse. It should accompany radical social activism sourced in a revolutionary theology of love, justice, and peace, and a biblical ethics of relationality and social transformation. After all, the Christian is called to resist evil in the world and practice justice. American evangelicalism has failed black people and black Christians in America because of its weak theological ethics and inadequate theology of humanity and theology of God. The predicament and inhumanity of the Evangelical world lies in the fact that somewhere it has (indirectly) killed a man–that is a black person, a black Christian.
I suppose we black Evangelical Christians and thinkers should force our White Evangelical Christians and thinkers to ask honestly: what is the relevance of American Evangelicalism and its missionary message to Black America and to the non-believer? Or to put it another way, what is value of the Evangelical affirmation of the authority of Scripture in matters of life (practice) and faith (theology)? American Evangelicalism has constructed a conservative moral worldview, seemingly informed by divine revelation and scriptural authority and fidelity, is not “thick” enough to embrace and defend all lives and particularly, the dignity and humanity of black folk in America. The decline of American Evangelical ethics and moral theology in the public sphere is also premised in American evangelical tribalism and moral partiality.
I’m afraid that American Evangelicals are losing/have already lost the cultural and political war–the concern of their relevancy in the tragic time of despair, fear, alienation, and black death. Sometimes, I just wish my evangelical brothers and sisters would join the chorus to denounce these social sins, fight for the weak, and defend all lives. Modern American Evangelicalism must confront the meaning of black existence, and that black being as human nature is originated in the Imago Dei and shaped in divine likeness. God does not take pleasure in the death of anyone, even the wicked; therefore, we should not rejoice over the death of anyone–even our supposedly enemy.
How Shall We Move Forward?
First of fall, I do not believe that the “Shooting-Back- at the Police Method” is a dangerous strategy for the peace-making and racial reconciliation process in America. The way of violence or violent retribution is always a serious threat to the way of love, peace, and social justice, and a deadly attack on the sanctity of life. As a nation, we do not humanize life by taking away the life of another individual; we can’t move forward toward national peace and celebration of life by dehumanizing some lives and preserving the life of other individuals simultaneously. As a people and nation, we need to confront the implications and meaning of human existence and affirm that any life is worth living, preserving, and defending. The “Shooting-Back- at the Police Method” is not only wrong; it is a dehumanization of life and the denial of peace and love. God does not take pleasure in the death of anyone, even the wicked; therefore, we should not rejoice over the death of anyone–even our supposedly enemy. God’s attitude toward the wicked is clear: He does not want them to die without repentance. He wants them to change their wicked ways and walk humbly and in holiness before the Lord their Creator. Consider these Scriptural references from the book of Ezekiel
Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (18:23)
Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? (33:11)
Secondly, I would like to make the following threefold assertions: (1) Black history is American history; (2) The Black experience is American experience; and (3) Black culture is American culture. My target audience is White American Evangelicals, and White American Evangelical Leaders. American Evangelical Christians need to confront their own ideological tribalism informed by the racist structures of our country and unhealthy theological discourse and imagination, which in turn, have divided Evangelical Christianity and Americans into different ethnic groups, racial categories, ethnic churches, ethnic minorities, etc. What have you? It is from this perspective that Southern Baptist Theologian Russell Moore in his excellent text, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, could write in this manner:
Our Churches must embody the reconciliation of the gospel by doing more “ethnic” ministry, whose very nomenclature assumes that there are “regular” people and “ethnic” people. We’re all ethnic. The “white church doesn’t “do ministry” to hose “ethnic” churches dependent upon it. We assume often without thinking that the church is white, American Protestants doing missionary work for the benefit of everyone else. But the church isn’t white or American; the church is headed by a Middle Eastern Jewish man who never spoke a word of English. We do not need more “ministry” to the poor or racial minorities or immigrant communities. We need to be led by the poor and by racial “minorities” and by immigrant communities (pp. 120-1).
One of the chief reasons White Evangelical Churches and leaders have been silent on the desecration of black life and are indifferent about the miscarriage of justice toward their black brothers and sisters in the American society is because they have believed a particular version of the American history and the American experience. For some of our White Evangelical brothers and sisters, only one history counts: the white narrative of America; only one experience matters: the white experience in America. These individuals have intentionally ignored the historical narrative of “ethnic Americans” and “ethnic Christian Evangelicals; “nor have they made any considerable effort to learn a different narrative that may complement or even contradict their own version?
Such Evangelical Christians are content about this single story they embraced, and regrettably, they continue to uphold to a monolithic American cultural nationalism and patriotic identity. As Russell Moore advises us in the same text quoted above, “Our task as the people of God is to recognize this culture where we see it, to know where this comes from, and to speak a different story” (p.121). On the other hand, he also adds, “The church must proclaim in its teaching and embody in its practices love and justice for those the outside world would wish to silence or kill…A Christianity that doesn’t prophetically speak for human dignity is a Christianity that has lost anything distinctive to say” (p.115).
The people of God as the church are called to be light and salt of the world, and a city upon the hill. We cannot be and do what and who God has called us to be and do if we hold tight to these destructive ideologies– such as white supremacy, white superiority, the triumph of white history in human history, etc.–which are detrimental to the Christian witness in the public sphere and the proclamation of the Gospel of grace to the unsaved and lost. I’m afraid that American Evangelicals have become the very obstacle that hinders the progress of the Gospel in our society and in the world; in the same vein, they face severe interactional hurdles with their black and African American brothers and sisters. White American Evangelicals and Evangelical Leaders must have the courage to first recognize there is a problem, and second, that they have contributed enormously to that problem. Thirdly, they must have the courage to undo the damages they have caused, as the Evangelical Church (in the collective sense) in the twenty-first century seeks to be a prophetic church and a community that affirms “human dignity is about the kingdom of God, and that means that in every place and every culture human dignity is contested… The presence of the weak, the vulnerable, and the dependent is a matter of spiritual warfare” (Moore, pp. 116, 120).
Toward this goal, a promising approach that could bring White Evangelicals closer to appreciate the meaning of all lives toward racial healing and racial justice in their churches and culture is to be sensitive to the collective plight and struggle of the “ethnic minorities,” if I may use this phrase. White Evangelicals must cultivate both a personal and collective attitude that would allow them to sympathize with the weak, the oppressed, and suffering communities in their city. It is vital for the sake of the Gospel that Evangelical Christians be open to and/or become intentional learners about another but complementary narrative of the American saga: the black experience and history of African Americans in America.
The recommended readings below have all been authored by African American writers and thinkers–both male and female. Some of these individuals were/are historians, novelists, social activists, legal experts, cultural critics, etc. These writers chronicle the black experience and the history of African Americans in the United States from an interdisciplinary angle. This list includes both fiction (i.e. “Invisible Man”) and non-fiction (i.e. “From Slavery to Freedom”). Our goal here is to assist our White Evangelical brothers and sisters to be more acquainted with this version of their own history, which they have neglected or perhaps deemed unimportant to know. As the Spirit of grace continues his work of transformation in their hearts, he will enable Evangelical churches and Evangelical leaders to confront the meaning of black existence and defend the sanctity of black life.
- The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
- Black Boy by Richard Wright
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
- The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison
- Color Purple by Alice Walker
- Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
- From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans by John Hope Franklin
- Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexandre
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The people of God is called by God to be an active community in opposition to human oppression and suffering, social injustice, violence, and war, and an active force against hate, anti-human love, and anti-human rights. May Christ radically reorient our thinking and make us more sensitive to the lived-experiences and lived-worlds of our black brothers and sisters in America–to the glorious praise of the Triune and Eternal God!
May the God of Peace, our Creator continue to give us wisdom and orient us toward the path of racial reconciliation, justice, and peace!
May He guide the Evangelical Churches and Evangelical Leaders in America to become more sensitive to the plight of their black and African American brothers and sisters!