I sent off a letter many years ago to Duke theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, chronicling some trouble I’d been experiencing at the church I was serving. The trouble centered on my failure to sufficiently celebrate the Fourth of July in worship. The elders called me into a meeting in which they chastised me for refusing to sing patriotic songs in worship. My refusal, they suggested, disrespected the veterans in the congregation. (And by the way, where was the American flag that used to sit at the front of the sanctuary, anyway?)
I argued that God is the only true object of worship, and that when we gather as a community for worship, nothing should distract us from our focus on the divine. To allow patriotic symbolism, no matter how well-intentioned, to intrude on our worship of is God idolatrous. My use of “idolatrous” was met with obvious opprobrium. (So, yeah, I wasn’t making friends or influencing people with my performance.)
We reached an impasse. Finally, a retired minister spoke up and said, “Well, what if we told you to do it anyway? Sing some patriotic songs, put the flag back where it’s supposed to go? You’d have to do what we say.”
I said, “Well, I’m sure that if that’s what you want, you could definitely find somebody to follow orders. But I want to be clear that that person’s not going to be me.”
So, I wrote to Stanley Hauerwas, knowing well his opposition to anything that might compete with God for our loyalties. I rehearsed for him in the letter how the meeting went, and how I was shaken about where this whole episode left me in relationship to my employment.
I didn’t expect anything to come of my letter. But mentally, the thought that someone I believed important and sympathetic to my complaint would read about my frustration and fear brought me some comfort.
The next week, on my day off. I was sitting downstairs at the computer when the phone rang. When I answered it, a voice said, “Hi, this is Stan Hauerwas. Am I speaking with Derek?”
Taken aback, I said, “Yeah, this is Derek.”
Setting aside niceties, he said, “Well, have they fired you yet?”
I stammered something about how I didn’t think they had the votes yet to fire me. But I could certainly see some among the elders who would pursue it if they thought they could get it done.
The next thing he said to me, though I suspect he meant it as a throw away line has stuck with me all these years—even though I recognize in it my own penchant for self-justifying aggrandizement. I think about it often when I hear about trouble in churches, or when Christians face the difficult demands of following Jesus. Hauerwas said, “Don’t be too hard on them. They’re not used to this. Nobody’s ever asked to them to act like Christians before.”
I’ve been thinking about Stanley’s words since the violence over the weekend in Charlottesville. It’s not often that a moral issue presents itself with such stark clarity. But the emergence of an unapologetic and public racism is such an occurrence.
Over the past 40 years or so, though racism was still a badge of honor for some, it was a badge worn in secrecy—allowing both the naïve and the cynical to argue that racism is a thing of the past, that we live in some imaginary construction called a post-racial society. But Charlottesville, with its swastikas and torches, put the lie to the convenient fiction that racism ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Growing up in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, having been socialized with stories of the heroes who refused to yield in the face of hatred and fear, I frequently imagined myself as one of those courageous people who would stand with my African American neighbors against the bigotry of the White Citizen’s Council and the KKK. I believed the choice was obvious, and that given the chance, the Christians I knew wouldn’t hesitate to make their voices heard for justice. After all, I (and so many white evangelical kids like me) was taught that “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world … black and white, they are precious in his sight.”
But the problems of racism were gone by the time I was old enough to think much about it … or, so I thought. What was largely gone, it turns out, was the overt bigotry of Bull Conner and George Wallace, of German Shepherds and fire hoses, of lynchings and Jim Crow. But racism, hadn’t gone anywhere; it had merely put on the more respectable, albeit passive-aggressive, face of dog-whistle politics. You know, those people — the people who cheat welfare and food stamps, who murder each other in the streets and threaten our white women. Racism accomplished with a wink and a nudge.
With overt bigotry gone subterranean, many white evangelicals believed racism had been extirpated from the social fabric, and that the only reason people still talked about it at all was because there was some advantage to be gained by keeping things stirred up. “How long are they going to use the whole slavery-thing as an excuse?” I heard countless times.
As long as the cross-burnings and swastikas remained regrettable images in history books, white evangelicals — like I was growing up — could convince themselves that there was really nothing to be done about racism. To the extent that racism still existed, it was an argument initiated by militant black people and their liberal academic enablers.
What was there still left to do? Apart from refraining from prejudiced epithets (at least the most egregious ones), nobody ever asked me to act like a Christian when it came to racism.
But Charlottesville and the president’s mealy-mouthed response to it have exposed the expedient lie that racism is a thing of the past, that it’s not something with which we need to concern ourselves any longer. The polite mask that has concealed racism from middle class white Christians has now been torn off.
However, with some notable exceptions, I haven’t heard the righteous outrage over Charlottesville, the kind usually associated with more profound moral and theological issues—like baking gay wedding cakes or denouncing the cabal of progressives and atheists determined to declare war on Christmas.
I find myself asking, “Where is the practiced fury of the professionals of public piety when it comes to the president’s flirtation with white supremacy?”
It’s then that I have to stop myself and remember Stanley’s words: “Don’t be too hard on them. They’re not used to this. Nobody’s ever asked to them to act like Christians before.”
If it’s true that you’ve always longed to be a heroic moral figure in seeing God’s will lived out among all people, regardless of race, but just didn’t quite find the opportunity, you may now consider this the time when someone asked you to act like a Christian when it comes to racism.
Please. The world needs those who claim to follow Jesus to actually live like it.
- See here for a list of responses from evangelical leaders against racism and white supremacy. Striking in its absence, however, is any statement calling on the president to repent of his inappropriate (but “plausibly” deniable) relationship with white nationalism. ↩