Of course, some white Christians strove at great length and great risk to abolish slavery, and many shed their blood in the war that emancipated slaves in the Southern states. Rightly interpreted, the Bible at the center of the church has been an enormous force not only for the redemption of sinners but for the advancement of justice and charity. But the exceptions were far too few. A multitude of Christian communities, including evangelical communities, were silent in the face of slavery or even complicit in it.
In fact, complicity is not a strong enough term. Much though it grieves us as people who love the church, it may be that the most monstrous sin of the white church in America was shaping a theology of racial superiority in order to legitimize and even encourage the institution of slavery. Slavery was not only permissible, many white Christians argued, but beneficial insofar as it brought gospel and culture to a benighted people. Even on the eve of the Civil War, preachers spurred on the secessionist cause by arguing it was part of God’s “providential trust” in the Southern states “to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as it now exists.” If God had ordained the racial hierarchy, who were we to overturn it?
Many of the same ministers who defended slavery in the antebellum South likewise defended the racist systems that followed after the Civil War. Many Protestant denominations split as their Southern branches defended slavery and white supremacy before and after the war. Christian ministers and lay leaders participated in lynchings, in the Ku Klux Klan, and in the defense of segregation. Although an increasing number of evangelicals came to support the civil rights movement, many evangelicals with our strong beliefs in individualism were ill equipped to recognize and dismantle the ways in which racial inequalities had been systematized in government and the marketplace.
Even after the institution of slavery faltered, the theology endured. It pronounced divine approval over racial bias and rationalized countless means of enforcing prejudice against African Americans. Bryan Stevenson puts it well: “The great evil of American slavery wasn’t the involuntary servitude; it was the fiction that black people aren’t as good as white people, and aren’t the equals of white people, and are less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving than white people.” White churches were not only complicit in writing this fiction; they gave it the imprimatur of God.
The name of Phalaris is not much remembered in the 21st century, but in classical antiquity it was infamous. The tyrant of Agrigentum on the island of Sicily, Phalaris is known for a gruesome instrument of torture: a hulking bronze bull, hollowed on the inside, set over a fire. As victims were forced into the bull and roasted alive, the nostrils of the bull rendered the screams of the dying into a sonorous groaning that filled the palace with music. You might be a guest at the feast, unaware that your entertainment came through the agony of others.
Today’s generations may say we did not invent the bull of racial injustice. But we have benefited from it. The resiliency, creativity, industry, and indomitable faith of African Americans in spite of all they have suffered is nothing short of miraculous. We have all benefited not only from their labor but also from their innovations and entrepreneurialism, their art and music, their films and poetry and books, their hymns and preaching. The transformation of black suffering into economic abundance for America, as well as art and passion and brilliance, has enriched our feast in the palace. Perhaps we can honestly say we did not know what our brothers and sisters were suffering. Now we do. So there’s only one thing to do: put down our forks and get our brothers and sisters out of the belly of the bull.
These are painful realities in a complex world. The United States has been an extraordinary force for good, a powerful advocate for democracy, human rights, and economic opportunity. The ideals it champions have brought hundreds of millions out of poverty and oppression, and its technologies and innovations and art have changed the lives of practically every person on the planet.
Likewise, the American church has advanced the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ in countless ways, from sending missionaries to translating the Bible to supporting and staffing ministries that bring light and life to every corner of the world. And yet, historically, far too often, American evangelicalism has been silent on, complicit in, or an apologist for racial inequality. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.”
Two biblical narratives have been on our minds. The first (from Acts 10) concerns the apostle Peter, who believes that as a Jew he should not associate with people of other nations. Jew and Gentile, he thinks, should remain divided. Yet God shows him in a vision that he should not call unclean what God has made clean. He goes into the home of a Gentile named Cornelius, preaches the gospel, and the Holy Spirit is unleashed. This is a watershed moment in the spread of the gospel to non-Jews, when Peter recognized that what he thought was righteous was actually unrighteous.
Likewise, it’s time for white evangelicals to confess that we have not taken the sin of racism with the gravity and seriousness it deserves. The deep grief and anger over the death of George Floyd is about more than police brutality. It’s about a society and culture that allowed for the abuse and oppression of African Americans over and over and over again. We have been a part of that society and culture, and sometimes we have been the last to join the fight for racial justice. Christianity Today’s own record in this regard is mixed. Neo-evangelicals generally believed it was enough to preach the message of salvation and trust that justice would follow as a matter of course. It hasn’t. What we thought righteous was unrighteous. We repent of our sin.
But repentance is not enough. The other biblical narrative that comes to mind is the story of a tax collector in Jericho. Zacchaeus was a collaborator with the occupying Roman authority, and by adding his own extortionary fees, he plundered the wealth of his neighbors and enriched himself. Jesus encountered him and shocked the crowd by going to his home. Salvation came to the house of Zacchaeus on that day. He proclaimed, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will give back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).
Zacchaeus had not personally designed the unjust system of Roman taxation. But he had not denounced it either; he had participated in it and profited from it. So Zacchaeus did not merely repent of his ways; he made restitution. He set up what we might call a “Zacchaeus fund” in order to restore what belonged to his neighbors. Are we willing to do the same? Black lives matter. They matter so much that Jesus sacrificed everything for them. Are we willing to sacrifice as well?
Perhaps the country is not ready to make reparations. But the history of racial injustice demands personal and corporate response. Perhaps the church can lead the way in biblical restitution. I am aware of one “Zacchaeus fund” in Atlanta, where Christians who believe that African Americans have been subjected to four centuries of injustice and plunder are beginning to do their humble part to make it right. A majority-black committee assigns the funds to support rising black leaders in the church and in the marketplace. It will not be enough, but it will be something. What if there were Zacchaeus funds in every city and believers gave sacrificially, so our brothers and sisters could be restored and so our neighbors could see once again the Christlike love that overcame the world?
We have hope. We believe in the God who brings healing where there is brokenness and life where there is death. We believe that love is stronger than death. We have served in churches of all colors, and have seen the Spirit of Jesus at work.