RECENTLY WE’VE SEEN yet another example of suppressed white outrage bursting out because — gosh darn it! — we’re spending way too much time on the things that interest Black people and not the things that interest “regular” people. We’re focusing on Breonna Taylor and George Floyd (identified only with a racist slur) and not on the Things That Matter.
This time it was the daughter-in-law of a white pastor of a successful Evangelical church in the suburbs of a growing city in the Southwest. You can go hunt down the video if you want — I won’t link to it because it’s scandal-porn. Nothing in it is remarkable or significantly different from the many conversations I’ve heard before from white people convinced that Black people have it too good in America . . .
I’m sure it was a shock to the pastor’s family and to the pastor himself. I’m sure that there were several people on staff who were shocked, and several, perhaps many, people in the congregation who were also shocked.
Shocked. Surprised. Angry. Shamed. Horrified.
Go ahead and add to the list of adjectives describing their feelings. You won’t come up with a new one because they’re all being used to explain how the good people feel about this entirely unexpected racist outburst.
Then I waited.
You see, some friends contacted me about this. Had I seen this? What did I think? They couldn’t leave comments on the church web page because the comments were deleted and the people blocked. We discussed what the church should do, and we discussed what the church would likely do instead. All we had to do was wait a while until the church formulated an answer.
And so, after a day of controversy, the church did respond. The pastor wrote a statement about how the “…words that were said in this video do not represent me, my wife, the views of this church staff, and they definitely do not represent or reflect the purpose and goals of [church name].”
These is a fine response, I guess, because it does the needful. It explains how these words from the pastor’s daughter-in-law do not truly represent the pastor and his family, and don’t represent the pastor and his church. And then . . . silence about what happens next. Some words about addressing the words in his family. Some words about continuing to do what he’s doing to promote fairness and justice.
Nothing wrong with the words. But none of them express any sense of accountability, responsibility — and action.
What will they do differently? What they’ve been doing in the present hasn’t worked. What will they do to get their white congregation to enter into this conversation from more than an intellectual or even emotional level?
My thoughts are not that they should just let this pass or not speak out. Those words and promises are good things to do when your own family or church or company does something racist. It is good and proper to speak out because when something is wrong, it’s wrong, and needs to be called out as being that.
And yet . . . the outbursts keep erupting. White people, often white Evangelicals, keep demanding to change the subject. Black people and People of Color (BIPOC) keep being the target of these words and actions from white people who are outraged again and again that BIPOC are being “centered” just too much. BIPOC people react predictably and powerlessly, hurt and demeaned and dehumanized, and convinced yet again that white people simply cannot change. White people react with words and feelings and promises of change . . . and then we just go on. We can walk back in a traceable line from George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo and others — Black people caught up unexpectedly in policing incidents that led to their deaths at the hands of police officers — and see repeating cycles of injustice, outrage, promises, and then . . . we just go on.
It’s time to stop that cycle, and while the solutions are many, in the case of white people and their responses, the solution is going to take more than being shocked or ashamed. It’s going to take some specific, targeted, energized action from white people into the lives of other white people. And it’s going to take action especially from white leaders who claim to have a responsibility over white lives as spiritual, political, or educational leaders to do the work of not just speaking out against these actions of racist injustice, but also against the complacency of white people who will let these actions repeat, again and again, because it doesn’t really matter to them.
Specifically for Evangelical churches, it’s time for white pastors to stop allowing racism to flourish in their churches, start confronting racism where it is, start holding people accountable for their words and actions — and start demanding that racist words and actions result in removal from leadership and authority and ownership with the same authority that actions and words of theological error result in swift response. Racism is a sin, not just a human failing or minor social faux pas. It needs to be dealt with as sin, which means it needs the full attention of spiritual leaders to rip it out completely, root, branch, and leaf.
Pastors need to go deeper in repentance than just words of shock and promises of change. It’s time for white pastors to ask “how can we as an entire church body confront these words, call them out for what they are even if they come from people with visible positions of authority in your church, and confront the wickedness of white racism? How can we bring healing not just to the speaker in this video, or in the (very few) Black staff members or parishioners, but to the white congregation as well?”
There is no possibility that these thoughts from a white Christian, turned into words, exist in a vacuum. These ideas about Black people and Black pain are common in white congregations because these ideas are comfortable and familiar and expected, and thus are not called out.
But racism doesn’t exist as a single sprout on dry ground or a branch grafted onto a healthy plant. Racism is a field of weeds that perpetually reseeds itself unless every plant is uprooted and the field replanted with good seed. This racist video comes from somewhere, and one of the places it comes from is the sense of safety and “rightness” that white people have that it’s okay to attack, demean, and hurt Black people, because the worst that will happen is words of outrage.
To be fair, taking actions against white racism is going to cause the church to grow smaller. People will leave. But pastors and their congregants need to ask, “if we didn’t have to worry about the risk to the budget or tithes or attendance or public support or church reactions, what would we do to elevate the life and value of Jesus in our church?” If the white church can’t eliminate racism from the church because doing so would reduce the size of the white church to almost nothing — then I think we’ve identified something about the white church that makes it time that it be reduced to nothing.
I’d suggest that the first thing Evangelicals need to do is to confront what happened. You need to use real words and not euphemisms. You need to state directly and clearly to white people not only what was said but why it is so utterly reprehensible in the body of Christ. But then, after you demonstrate repentance, you need to start working on how you’re going to bring healing to your church, your community, and the wider world of people living with Christians among them who talk and act like this.
There are signs in many shops: “You broke it, you buy it.” This is your “buy it” moment as a church. Time to step up to the counter and pay the bill. It’s far past due for payment.