By Alan Rudnick
News broke on Wednesday that South Carolina deputy Ben Fields, who brutally abused a student in school — WWE-styled — was fired. The abuse was caught on tape. This incident was the latest in a series of police related violence. Many have called the act racially motivated. As these events have transpired many evangelicals have either turned their head or flat out rejected racism was involved.
Evangelicals popular on television and radio have sparked a debate by refusing to begin a conversation on racism or by rejecting that racism has a part in recent violence. Former presidential candidate and evangelical pastor Mike Huckabee once remarked that Jay-Z had pimped out his wife, Beyonce. Oblivious to the obvious to the racial stereotypes and cultural references, Huckabee did not retract his statement.
Calls for evangelicals to abandon their tone-deaf cultural views have largely gone unnoticed. In 2012, speaking on the death of Trayvon Martin, Southern Baptist Convention Richard Land, then president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said black leaders were use Martin’s death to“gin up the black vote” and that the black man is “statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man.” Land learned he was living in a different world when he lost his radio show and resigned his Southern Baptist leadership position because of his comments.
The Public Religion Research Institute asked if violence and killings in Ferguson were racially motivated and 59 percent of white evangelical Protestants said the police killings were isolated events. In contrast, a minority of 39 percent of all Americans said recent violence was not racially motivated. Perhaps the most damning evidence that racism is alive and well is a 2015 Department of Justice study that found that police are searching black drivers more often but finding more illegal contraband among white drivers.
Evangelicals have to wake up to the reality before them: racism is still a part of American culture. Evangelicals have been fighting against a narrative of American racism since the founding of this country. My own denomination, the American Baptist Churches, split with Southern Baptists mainly on the issue of slavery. Segregation was codified by white evangelicals in the South. Evangelical pastor and author Billy Graham addressed this issue in 1993 when he wrote:
Tragically, too often in the past evangelical Christians have turned a blind eye to racism or have been willing to stand aside while others take the lead in racial reconciliation, saying it was not our responsibility. (I admit I share in that blame.) As a result, many efforts toward reconciliation in America have lacked a Christian foundation and may not outlive the immediate circumstances that brought them into existence.
In contrast, Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, responded to recent violence on Facebook in March by beginning his diatribe with, “Listen up — Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else.” He proclaimed that “most police shootings can be avoided.” He continued, “If a police officer tells you to lay down face first with your hands behind your back, you lay down face first with your hands behind your back. It’s as simple as that. Even if you think the police officer is wrong — YOU OBEY.” Public reaction was predictable. Without a shred of compassion for victims, Franklin Graham, an evangelical pastor and leader, sought to educate about his ethical teaching with “Listen up — Blacks ….” and invoking distinctions of race. Clearly, Franklin never understood his father’s words on racial reconciliation.
By issuing demands, laying blame and explaining away violence, evangelicals have rejected Jesus’ pronouncement in Matthew 25: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Jesus not only issued a list of sins of commission but sins of omission. It is a sin of omission to turn away from our neighbor in their time of need. It is a sin of omission to refuse to commit to racial reconciliation.
The time is at hand for evangelicals to stop seeing personal responsibility as the cause for racism and begin to admit that it is a deeper systemic problem that requires Christ-like reconciliation.