White Christian America is my tribe, my people, my network (mainly), although I have worked hard in recent years to break the cultural boundaries and extend my understanding and engagement. More about that in a minute, but the first order is to confess the truth and bemoan the way things have been.
It has been a good tribe for me in many ways: teaching me about Holy Scripture and Jesus and the good gospel work which captured my imagination 55 years ago. I have never regretted any of it and have delighted in most of it all these years.
Yet, my tribe hid many things from me: Bible things, gospel things, important things that I am just now beginning to discover and understand and embrace. Robert P. Jones wrote my story when he wrote his in White Too Long. We were both raised Baptist boys in the South and therefore were inoculated against the realities of race and class and (what Isabel Wilkerson calls) caste. It kept us from seeing things around us, and in us, and also in the Bible.
“White Christianity suffers from a bad case of Disney Princess theology,” writes Erna Kim Hackett in a perceptive description of me and most of my mentors. “As we read Scripture, we see ourselves as the Princess in every story. We are Esther, never Xerxes or Haman. We are Peter, never Judas. We are the woman anointing Jesus, never the Pharisee. We are the Jews escaping slavery, never Egypt.”
I changed the pronouns in that quotation to let it more powerfully convey the truth of my formation, to allow it to be my confession.
Some want to focus this searing judgment on white Evangelicals only, and I suppose they are at the front of this cultural parade (and proud of it, it seems). But strung out behind them in a never-ending line of believers are all the rest of us: Mainline Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, even Pentecostals. I suspect that there are a good many white adherents of other faiths and of no faiths, all of us waving this banner of White Christian America.
But no more. I have stepped to the curb, so to speak, and am watching it all go by. I’m learning a lot.
Our tribe did some good stuff over the years: creating the country, to begin with, and nurturing great leaders and artists and inventors. Even parents: mine were good people—kind, hospitable, noble, generous. But they were also right in the middle of the parade. I don’t remember a single time people of color gathered around our dinner table. International students, yes, but local blacks or even visiting dignitaries of color, no.
I was trained as a pastor and a theologian in a region dominated by race and its awful curse. But it was hardly mentioned as a factor in understanding Jesus as Lord and Scripture as Holy. I recently reviewed important books of theology, books that have shaped my intellectual sensibilities over the last four decades; I was astounded at the indifference to racism and realize now the role it played in creating the rottenness at the core of our congregations. (Read my research)
White Christian America is afraid of what is coming. We think the future cannot be as good as the past if we are not in charge. We think the Christian community cannot survive and the American community cannot thrive and, indeed, the entire human community cannot possibly become all that God designs if we are not at the head of the parade. We are afraid.
I say “we” because I am part of this now melting iceberg of religious culture. The truth is, I no longer feel a part of it. Perhaps I am a small chunk of that once mighty continent, broken off and floating away. Away from the arrogance, the ignorance, the indifference that has made White Christian America what it was and what it is.
Dr. Jones put this title on one of his books, The End of White Christian America. It is shocking, but it is also consoling. It means that much of the meanness at the center of my religious culture is being overwhelmed by a measure of truth, and justice, and the fierce mercy of God. I am glad.
I have many people to thank for this: Robbi Barber, T. Vaughn Walker, Lawrence Carter, Kevin Cosby, Valerie Bridgeman, Ernest Brooks, and Brenda Iglehart, to name a few, and a host of Young Preachers associated with the Academy of Preachers, to name the many.
I wish I had a place to march in celebration of this transformation, another parade, so to speak. I wish I had a banner big and bold that says IT’S ABOUT TIME or HALLELUJAH AND AMEN or I CONFESS or even BLACK LIVES MATTER. Or something like that.
White Christian America is fighting for its life. But I, for one, will be glad when it is all over. Maybe then, we can become the America we need to be and also the community, the people, the tribe God has called us to be!