What follows is a creative imagining of what Martin Luther King Jr. might say to white American evangelicals today. It was written by Joel A. Bowman Sr. in the spirit of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Dear white American evangelicals:
In 1963, the sweltering heat of injustice could be felt in Alabama as Gov. George Wallace delivered his speech in which he declared, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever!”
That same year, I sensed a divine call to travel to Alabama, to initiate nonviolent protests. Alabama was the epicenter of Southern racism and Jim Crow laws that mandated separate facilities for Blacks and whites. Facilities for Blacks were inferior to those of whites, and inhumane.
The police took me to jail and placed me in isolation. While there, I read a letter from eight white clergymen in which they attacked me and called our protests “unwise and untimely.” My response to these clergymen is now famously called “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Today, nearly 59 years later, as my birthday is commemorated around the country, I am compelled to write a similar missive to you who have been identified as white American evangelicals.
It pains me to say, I pen these words with an even heavier heart than I had while in that lonely cell in Birmingham. I was hopeful that by now more progress would have been made. It appears we are losing ground.
What I have to say will be extremely difficult for you to receive. But, know this, all I have to say is being said out of my love for you and all of humanity.
In keeping with the Apostle Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus, my aim is to speak the truth in love. Please resist the temptation to immediately dismiss, deflect or defend your position.
Brothers and sisters, you piously claim to have a high view of Scripture. However, you are among the most prolific purveyors of racism and white supremacy in America today. Lest you think I embellish, consider how you have perpetuated the evil of racial injustice all throughout American history.
In fact, many of those whom you consider “great” theologians and academicians were slaveowners. These include men like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield, James Boyce and John Broadus, to name a few.
Yet, many of you are so very proud to have their books in your libraries and their names on your buildings and institutions. Prior to and during the Civil War, many of your leaders misused the Bible to justify slavery, standing squarely on the side of the Confederacy.
“Brothers and sisters, you piously claim to have a high view of Scripture. However, you are among the most prolific purveyors of racism and white supremacy in America today.”
The words of Frederick Douglass are just as relevant now as they were in 1845 when they were first published: “I love the pure, peaceable and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds and the grossest of all libels.”
I find no joy in saying that white evangelicalism is, in part, what Douglass called the “Christianity of this land.” Therefore, it is a fraudulent version of Christianity.
Even some of the abolitionists whom you hold up as heroes of the faith did not have clean hands or hearts when it came to their view of Black people who, just like them, were created in the image of God.
Charles Finney, leader of the Second Great Awakening, did not believe in Black equality. Although he advocated the abolition of slavery, he did not want someone who looked like me preaching from his pulpit. As I’ve said before, Sunday morning at 11 o’clock is the most segregated hour in America.
Many of you have wholeheartedly accepted the myth of the Lost Cause. This is the erroneous belief that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery, but over what you call “states’ rights.”
Some of you who live in the North have embraced the Confederacy, calling it noble, even flying the Rebel flag which to your Black brethren is a symbol of hate, terror and oppression.
Like the white moderates to whom I wrote in 1963, white evangelicals, writ large, refused to support me in the cause of racial justice. Even when you saw that Bull Connor had used fire hoses and dogs against peaceful protesters, including women and children, you did nothing.
Many of you accused me of being a communist or communist sympathizer to justify your callousness toward our struggle for freedom. Now, suddenly, some of you quote me as if you have always imbibed my values.
Many of you have misappropriated my words to forward an agenda I never supported. Yes, I did say at the March on Washington, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
“Many of you have misappropriated my words to forward an agenda I never supported.”
But these words have been co-opted by many of you who have erroneously claimed that I advocated a “colorblind” society — one in which we did not acknowledge cultural distinctions.
You cynically imply that I would have been against affirmative action. Nothing could be further from the truth!
In 1967, I said, “It’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And many by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression and as a result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading.”
I clearly was not advocating colorblindness, but racial equity. If you’re going to quote me, at the very least quote me in context!
In my estimation, present-day white evangelicalism is not much better than the version we saw in the antebellum South. Its racism is just more subtle and sophisticated, and it shows in the policy positions you hold, rather than in the whips you wield. It shows in the people you vote for, rather than any slaves in your fields.
Any question as to who you are as a people was answered with the results of the 2016 presidential election. Most of you voted for Donald Trump. Many wondered how people who said character mattered in a political leader could be so critical of Bill Clinton, yet so accepting of Trump, a man with no moral compass.
“The truth is you have always been primarily motivated by power — political and economic power.”
Over the course of decades, Trump has shown himself to be a narcissist, misogynist and a racist. Yet, most of you still voted for him, twice, and you continue to enable his pathological lying. Well, for you, it never really has been about character, as you claimed. The truth is you have always been primarily motivated by power — political and economic power.
Brothers and sisters, Christ offered you a heavenly kingdom focused on the divestment of power, and you rejected it. Trump offered you an earthly kingdom focused on the acquisition of power, and you accepted it. No one can serve two masters. Like Judas, you’ve sold any credibility you might have had for 30 pieces of silver.
You call yourselves “pro-life,” because of your belief that life begins at conception and your consistent stance against abortion. Many of you are so invested in this singular position that you are blind to the various forms of human life that are marginalized and brutalized every day.
You are blind to how the Republican Party has exploited your myopic view of the sanctity of life to enact policies that are harmful to the lives of the poor and people of color.
You speak disparagingly about those whom Jesus called “the least of these,” minimizing the role of government in helping such persons. You label as “socialism” any effort to provide basic health care to all citizens, affordable child care, and universal Pre-K. Yet, at the same time, you cheerfully support congressmen who pass tax cuts for the richest citizens while they add billions of dollars to the national deficit.
You are all about deregulation when it comes to major corporations that put profit over the health and safety of people. It doesn’t bother many of you that these corporations have been allowed to pollute the environment in poor communities around the country. It also doesn’t bother you that in some parts of the country people can’t get clean drinking water.
“You demonize Black men like Colin Kaepernick who have peacefully protested injustice. However, you sanitize white men like Kyle Rittenhouse who have used violence as a means of exerting control.”
More than any other group of Americans, you support the expansion of our military industrial complex. Your commitment to militarism is so strong that you have no problem with preemptive war, mass civilian casualties and torture. You believe our foreign policy should be guided by the principle of imperialism.
You are big on “law and order” rhetoric but never stopped to consider the history of its dehumanizing impact on Black people. You demonize Black men like Colin Kaepernick who have peacefully protested injustice. However, you sanitize white men like Kyle Rittenhouse who have used violence as a means of exerting control.
You are eager to posit capital punishment as a deterrent to violent crime but don’t seem to care this would disproportionately and unjustly impact people of color and the poor.
You say “the real problem” in Black America is fatherless households, but the racist systems you have enabled and supported for hundreds of years have perpetuated this phenomenon. From the transatlantic slave trade to the mass incarceration of Black men, you’ve had your hands in all of it.
No, most of you are not truly “pro-life.” You are merely anti-abortion. If you were truly pro-life, you would show tangible concern for all human life, from the womb to the tomb.
After the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, some said we had entered a period of racial reckoning in America. It was believed we would finally face our nation’s racist past and present.
Sadly, this has not been the case for most white evangelicals. Some of you have doubled down on your racism, and your leaders have been strangely silent. And the silence is deafening.
“What you and your leaders have not been silent about are sincere efforts on the part of others to analyze and address systemic racism.”
Ironically, what you and your leaders have not been silent about are sincere efforts on the part of others to analyze and address systemic racism.
The hysteria over what many of you ignorantly call Critical Race Theory has been manufactured by right-wing extremists. Critical Race Theory is the “boogieman” of the moment being used to mobilize white people who are afraid of losing their status in history. Those who are the most threatened by it are the ones most invested in white supremacy.
When you’ve heard the passionate cries of “Black Lives Matter,” many of you have offered the insensitive retort, “All Lives Matter.” All lives don’t matter until Black lives are valued equally in our society.
Rather than joining your Black brothers and sisters in the struggle against racist policing, many of you have spent your time researching what you’ve been told are the “Marxist roots” of the Black Lives Matter organization. This is eerily similar to what happened to me when they called me a communist.
Perhaps we’d be farther along had you devoted your energy to fighting injustice, rather than engaging in “culture wars.” Like the Pharisees whom Jesus rebuked, you have neglected the “weightier matters of the law” (justice, mercy and faith).
Now, our democracy is under attack as never before, and you are complicit. This was so evident as those insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol on that tragic day.
To be sure, Confederate flags had been a staple in or around certain Southern capitol buildings. But I never thought I’d see the day a Confederate flag would be carried into the citadel of our democracy.
John Lewis and Hosea Williams were nearly beaten to death on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they marched for voting rights on that “Bloody Sunday.” These dear friends of mine would be rolling over in their graves if they knew there is currently an all-out effort to destroy everything we accomplished in the 1960s.
What makes all this so excruciatingly difficult to bear is that you who call yourselves “Bible-believing Christians” are on the side of those attempting to suppress the votes of those with the least power and privilege in society. Have you no decency?!
Like the prophets of old, I call on you to repent! Turn from following the false god of Americanism. You have been led astray into a sordid love affair with power, while your brothers and sisters continue to suffer under the weight of racial injustice.
I implore you to be a true follower of Jesus who is loving, the one who cares about the powerless. The one who has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
A Drum Major for Justice
Joel A. Bowman Sr. is a native of Detroit and serves as the founder and senior pastor of Temple of Faith Baptist Church, in Louisville, Ky. He also maintains a practice as a licensed clinical social worker with nearly 30 years of experience in the mental health field. His commentaries and poems have been printed in numerous publications. Joel and his wife, Nannette, have three children, Kayla, Katie and Joel Jr. Follow him on Twitter @JoelABowmanSr.
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