Owning and Repenting of "White Evangelicalism"
Over the past few weeks, the cultural world I occupy, American Evangelical Christianity, has been impacted by hip-hop artist Lecrae’s public divorce from something called “White Evangelicalism,” and John Piper’s equally-public response. And then a bunch of responses to his response.
A lot could be, and in fact has already been, said about the back-and-forth. As a White Christian who has become passionate about race, justice, and cultural issues in America, and who grew up entrenched in the Conservative-Evangelical world, I have been watching this unfold with serious interest.
First, it’s worth saying that in some ways I was encouraged by the tone of Piper’s response to Lecrae. He demonstrated (I believe) true thankfulness for Lecrae’s honesty, and some openness to the critique he offered. This is a welcome change to simply shutting him down for “being divisive” or “playing the race card.” But Piper also got something really, really wrong, which is painfully typical of White-Christian responses to the issue of race today.
See, it’s precisely when Piper began to directly engage with the idea of “White Evangelicalism,” that his response became seriously misguided, and why I felt compelled to write my own. He admits that he doesn’t understand what exactly is being referred to here (which is not necessarily a problem in itself; the normative power of “Whiteness” in America is precisely what makes this conversation so confusing for many White folks - we are so inculcated in it we have no idea what it is, like the proverbial fish who doesn’t know what it means to be “wet”), but then he takes careful pains to distance himself from what he seems to think Lecrae was referring to as “White Evangelicalism.” His defensive laundry list includes: not voting for Donald Trump, not valorizing Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy, and not being afraid to talk about “systemic” issues.
Do you see the problem yet?
Piper is here displaying his own very-white discomfort with being put under a larger category of “Whiteness,” even remarking that he needs to put “White Evangelicalism” in quotation marks because it “puts too many whites in bed together.” Lecrae used the term to label a large social group in America that has undeniable cultural influence, and Piper subtly obscured the very same label so he could distance himself from it.
This is all-the-more frustrating to see, because it is precisely the White-Evangelical culture that has given Piper his pedestal and influence. In my experience, White-Evangelicals (especially of the more conservative bent) absolutely love Piper. We buy his books, go to his conferences, share his blog posts on social media, and quote him in sermons. But Piper (like most white folks) doesn’t (or maybe can’t?) see “White Evangelicalism” for what it is: a powerful culture-shaping segment of the Christian church in America, marked by specific cultural expressions like styles of music (Hillsong, Tomlin, Redman), theological framework (favoring Reformed or Neo-Reformed Calvinism), liturgical practice (high value on teaching/preaching at every gathering, less importance on the sacraments), de facto authoritative teachers and guardians of doctrine (people like Keller, Chandler, DeYoung, and Piper himself - notice the whiteness and maleness?), individualistic soteriology (“personal relationship with Jesus”and “asking him into your heart”), conferences (The Gospel Coalition and Passion) and like it or not, overwhelming identification with right-wing politics in America.*
People like John Piper (and me) are undeniably part of a larger cultural expression. We just are. Let’s lift our eyes and stop playing the “but I’m an individual” card. And when someone like Lecrae, who has graciously, tirelessly worked so hard for years and years to make healthy in-roads to our cultural group, becomes exhausted and decides to throw in the towel, we (White Evangelicals) need to sit up, take notice and start asking ourselves, “Is there something we need to do differently?”
Or, “Do we need to change direction?”
Or, in biblical language, “Do we need to repent?”
But you can’t repent of something that you never owned up to in the first place. And this, if I may hazard an educated guess, is exactly what has thoroughly burned-out people like Lecrae, and even some of my personal friends of color. We White-Evangelicals just haven’t owned our culture - all of it. The good, the bad, and the ugly parts.
And in so doing, we are left scratching our heads when we hear prophetic challenges to the ways our cultural-group expression of faith doesn’t make room for others, or demands them to change. At best, we are left in a benign confusion, wondering what happened and why people are upset. At worst, and I fear this happens more than we care to admit, we don’t recognize how we have made our contextual, cultural-religious behaviors and practices into non-negotiable requirements for participation in the body of Christ, and in so doing we heap unnecessary burdens onto the shoulders of brothers and sisters without lifting a finger to help them.**
Lord, have mercy on us.
So, in closing this post, let me get more personal. I’m not Reformed in my theology, Hillsong kind of makes me cringe, I don’t read the Gospel Coalition, and I most certainly did not vote for Donald Trump.
But I’m still a White Evangelical.
And that’s not just because I like plaid and flip-flops (though I most certainly do), it’s rather because I’ve been undoubtedly shaped by that culture. My first public response to Jesus was at a Baptist-style altar call when I was 9 years old, in which I was exhorted to individually accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. My enduring love for studying our scriptures was instilled in me by the conservative-traditional, majority-white worshipping communities that held the Bible in such high regard at every gathering. As a vocational minister now, my “White Evangelical-ness” is a major reason that I’ve had a relatively easy time navigating American church culture, frequently being given authority, influence and a platform without much resistance or scrutiny. Even more, my “White Evangelical-ness” is what made it initially very, very difficult to wrangle with the notion of systemic problems, because I so deeply imbibed the you-are-what-you-make-of-yourself, individualistic narrative I was given.
So, yes, I own that I’m a White Evangelical. And I repent.
I repent of assuming my influence in the church was always and only something I earned by my merit and hard work. I repent of my obliviousness to my own comfort in “White Evangelical” spaces while people of color sitting next to me have had to put up a facade to make sure they fit in. I repent of distancing myself from the problematic aspects of my White Evangelical culture, while holding on to the parts of it that make my life easy.
And finally, I repent of offloading the responsibility of prophetically challenging these very issues to my brothers and sisters of color like Lecrae, Christena Cleveland, and Michelle Higgins, as well as those in my local community and vocational circles. I want to shoulder that burden with you, make your load easier to carry.
I know that repenting in a blog post isn’t the end of the journey. But perhaps publicly voicing this will hold me accountable when I inevitably get tired, frustrated, and wonder if it’s all worth it.
I end with an invitation: join me in the journey of owning and repenting of our White Evangelicalism, for the sake of the honor and glory of God’s kingdom and Christ’s multi-ethnic, multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-lingual body, which has for too long been torn, mangled, and dissected by our own cultural comforts.
Lord, have mercy on us.
*This is, of course, not supposed to be an exhaustive list or systematic definition. I am attempting to define a “culture” here, which by necessity is messy and imprecise, not scientific. Yes, there are counter-examples of musicians, theological systems, and teachers that don’t fit my definition but would still fall under the label “White Evangelical.” Nevertheless, I’m convinced that this doesn’t give us the option of neglecting to identify the culture we are part of, and, frankly, to deny the impact of the culture marked out by this list would be foolish. Even a brief survey of the largest Evangelical conferences and programs in our country will show that the same speakers, the same music, and the same topics are all present. If that doesn't mark out a cultural group, then I don't know what does.
**See Matthew 23.4 and Luke 11.46