One of the top documentaries on Netflix right now is Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey. It’s about the FLDS, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who once were in Utah and then in Texas. If you were around in the early 2000s you may remember watching one of their leaders, Warren Jeffs, on trial for abuse, polygamy and appalling underage marriages.
The four-part series is disturbing, especially for any white Christian like me. It’s about a God-fearing all white community with strict rules and purity codes that places a strong emphasis on righteous living and getting the perfect spot in the celestial kingdom of God.
As I sipped my bourbon and binged the series, I was alarmed by the parallels to my own white Christian upbringing. I’m a Baptist pastor who grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist world that was filled with Warren Jeffs-like white leaders who were complete dictators and used their power to abuse women, children and yes, even men.
These types of fundamentalists leaders indoctrinated generation after generation with catchy songs about salvation, patriarchy and apocalyptic teachings that would take your soul straight down damnation ally. In the world of FLDS, there was a song taught to little girls about women keeping sweet, keeping smiles on their faces even when they were forced to marry and give their bodies to the will of men for the sake of their salvation. The men, especially the leaders, would tell their wives to “keep sweet, pray and obey and you’ll find your way into God’s grace.”
The concept of “keep sweet” is a manipulative tool that forces conformity within faith communities. “Keep sweet” is synonymous with the Southern niceties that spew out of white religion, keeping people from disagreeing with their religious leaders or practicing civil disobedience.
The FLDS docuseries is a cautionary tale for all white Christians. The last episode includes the testimony of one of the underage women who got out of the community and spoke out for the sake of her younger sisters. Her testimony put Warren Jeffs in prison and shone a harsh spotlight on the dehumanizing beliefs and practices of this religion.
It takes courage to step out and step up against your community for the sake of the people you love. White Christians, please don’t keep sweet. Don’t keep silent. Don’t keep choosing the status quo over the physical, emotional and phycological well-being of all God’s children.
Too many white Christians in America keep sweet out of fear they will be excommunicated from their people, from the status quo of their religious society. Little do they know that when they keep sweet, they support a system that keeps harming others. This includes both liberals and conservatives.
Liberal Christians can easily become fundamentalists by forcing people to the edge of each side of the theological and political divide. As a white Christian and a religious leader, there have been seasons when I chose sweetness, silence with a wide smile, because I was afraid to engage disagreements about hard topics like abortion, gun control and racism in America. When I found myself in these apathetic seasons clinging to the status quo, I turned to those who have taught me to believe God always finds a way out of no way.
The African American community is a critical part of American history and an essential part of helping America find a way out of no way. African Americans have found a way through centuries of enslavement, decades of Jim Crow, and year after year of taking the hardest hits when the economy suffers, when pandemics surge and when policies such as abortion rights disappear.
Why would America, specifically white America, not want to lift up the African American community full of fighters, of innovators, of people who for generations kept their heads held high even when they were beaten down low? This is why white Christians need to celebrate Juneteenth. On June 19, 1866, down in Galveston, Texas, slaves finally received word of their freedom. Juneteenth should not only be an American holiday but a Christian celebration.
Lewis Brogdon is an African American preacher, prophet and associate professor of preaching and Black church studies at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. In his Juneteenth piece for The East Hampton Star, Brogdon calls for white allies with compassion and courage to support the Black community. He acknowledges many white folks have been willing to listen over the past two years during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, he also says that “too many white sisters and brothers lack the courage to go beyond listening. To them, I say, ‘Listening is not enough.’”
“Listening and doing nothing is an act of keeping sweet.”
Listening and doing nothing is an act of keeping sweet. White America has built a system, a compound of religious and political conformity, that keeps the status quo in the same ways the good ol’ days were good only for a handful of white people. White Christians must speak out and begin by amplifying the voices that rise up out of the African American community. Brogdon says:
The African American community needs more than a few listening ears if we are going to build a better America. We need allies with courage, or, as we say in the country, “with backbone.” Allies are not just personal friends but groups and organizations willing to take a stand, use their platforms and positions of power, and leverage their influence and resources to stymie the effects of systemic racism and white extremism that have become “normative” today.
As a white Christian in America, I believe we can find a way out of no way by following the Way, the example of Jesus Christ. Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan in order to articulate how to love our neighbor. Brogdon explains how this story “illustrates how many see the suffering of others but choose not to enter in and take action to alleviate the suffering with compassion and courage.”
Don’t keep sweet. Instead, celebrate Juneteenth.
This Sunday, celebrate the day of liberation, the day of salvation, the day when the captives were sent free. And then, on Monday, rise once again and keep fighting for and with the African American communities in your city, in your state and in our great country.
Erica Whitaker serves as associate director of Baptist Seminary of Kentucky’s Institute for Black Church Studies. She lives with her husband, Josh, in Louisville, where she previously served as pastor of Buechel Park Baptist Church. Erica is a Baptist News Global and board member. She holds an undergraduate degree from the University of North Texas and a master of divinity degree from Baylor University’s George W. Truett Seminary. She is currently writing a dissertation for a doctor of philosophy degree at International Baptist Theological Study Centre in Amsterdam.
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