I am often told by those who belong to the majority culture, that it is ethnic idolatry to consider myself an African-American Christian rather than just a Christian. Supposedly, the gospel eradicates or is at least supposed to render ethnic identity inconsequential. I often wonder whether or not this same principle or rule applies to the majority culture church and the identity it finds in the Republican Party. It often seems that there is a greater measure of acceptance within Evangelicalism for a Christian to identify themselves with the Republican Party than there is for a saint to find a sense of identity or belonging within their ethnic heritage. Allow me to elaborate with a story.
John is an African American Christian who came to Christ through the faithful gospel ministry of a black church. John was from a very close family and so prior to Christ he already had an understanding of community. Still, as he joined this black church, he found a deeper sense of community than he ever knew prior to Christ. John, however, began growing in his theology and doctrine and began to find himself uncomfortable in the congregation due to significant differences regarding various theological convictions. John ultimately decided to leave his black church and join a majority culture church (white church) because there was a greater degree of doctrinal agreement and intellectual intentionality. John just so happened to join this church at the beginning of the same year that Barack Obama became a contender for the presidency. John was excited to witness the potential rise of the first black President. He remembered the first time he heard Obama speak at a convention. Obama spoke about the plights plaguing the black community and how he desired to change them. Obama himself had tears in his eyes and John remembered weeping at Obama’s words as he saw for the first time in his life, a politician who seemed to actually care about minorities. Furthermore, he saw a politician who was a black man and yet able to speak in a way in which his message was being received by the majority culture as well. Despite being deeply grieved by Obama’s stance on Abortion, John was still happy to see representation. John, however, was now a member of a majority culture church and he learned quickly that within his current context, there were two kinds of heresy. There was theological heresy and political heresy. John learned that if he wanted to be accepted in the community, he had to avoid any charges of political heresy and so he kept his joy bottled up inside, and began to only watch Fox News.
Days went by and the vitriol and disdain his covenant faith family had for Obama became more and more intense. John wanted to speak up and inform the church about the hope the President symbolized for the African American community but he couldn’t. How could he speak up when he is commanded to be at peace with all men? Doesn’t speaking up about the hope Obama represents constitute disturbing the peace of the Church? So, John remained silent. Yet, for anyone truly listening, the silence of his voice only magnified the sounds of his breaking heart as his faith family tore down what to him was a symbol of ethnic reconciliation and hope. John himself was politically conservative, but he couldn’t in good conscience identify with either party. Secretly, he admired the first family, but he knew he couldn’t tell anyone other than his wife and family who also saw Obama as a symbol of hope and not just a political figure head or policy maker. After all, John wanted to be a pastor, and the last thing he needed was to be placed under the microscope anymore than he already felt he was. You see, the issue wasn’t politics. He didn’t agree with Obama’s politics. The issue for John was; he couldn’t rejoice in the reality of a black President because “Evangelicalism” would not allow him to compartmentalize. According to his white evangelical church, Obama was a liberal and therefore evil, there was no middle ground for John if he wanted to be accepted and perceived as an equal rather than perceived with suspicion. John sacrificed his joy in the first black president for the sake of unity within his church community. Then came #BlackLivesMatter and later Donald Trump. The same church tradition that demanded he hate Obama now demanded that he reject the need for racial Justice and support a presidential candidate who showed clear signs of racism. His church now demanded he now see young black protesters as terrorists and white supremacists at Trump’s rallies as simply overzealous. John refused to be silent concerning social injustice and he refused to support Trump and because of that, he lost much of the community he worked towards. In fact, when John spoke out against Donald Trump and advocated for social justice, he received many inquiries from his friends in the faith asking him, “Why are you speaking out, I thought you were one of us?” John often felt, isolated, alone, and confused. He belonged to a Faith Family but he often felt as if he was a stepchild locked away in an attic, never able to join the rest of the family at the living room table. John felt muzzled and caged within his own spiritual home.
John left a context where he thrived and entered into a new context where he placed his ethnic identity into bondage. This was not his desire, and this is not something he expected to happen. When he first began visiting his majority white church, the congregation went out of there way to make sure he felt welcomed. When he joined the church, the elders went out of their way to affirm their commitment to multi-ethnic ministry. Some of the leaders in his church even began to disciple John, and he was encouraged by the opportunities he was presented with within the body. It wasn’t until unarmed black bodies were being killed in the street that John began to feel something was wrong. As the black community, including John, was wondering out loud if their lives matters, his elders and church responded with utter silence. Occasionally, he would stumble across members of his church talk about how the unarmed black men must have deserved it, or how they were most certainly all criminals. When Trump came on the scene, John witnessed his elders call racial justice advocates in the church divisive and alt-right supporters within the body simply mistaken. Over time, John learned that he was only accepted in the church as a black man to the extent that he was willing to conform to what the church considered to be faithfully black.
Over the past several months, I have spoken to dozens of Johns. Men and women of color who share in camaraderie the story I have written above. Obviously, there are elements of this story that are personal to me and others that are the testimonies of others. There is a multitude of conservative black Christians who feel like they are in bondage within their own covenant faith families. As a Christian counselor who has spent a large amount of time listening to the stories of black christians in white church spaces, let me share with you an all too common testimony [Summary of the consistent testimonies I receive from counselees]:
I have spent the past eight years of my life despising a man because of his policies and because of my inner desire to be accepted by my white conservative brothers and sisters. I have sat by as they have maligned his character, have criticized his family, and have called him every name in the book. On many occasions, I even joined in the hyper-criticism. When I reflect on 2016, there is a deep sense of regret and remorse that I feel. I regret that I allowed my joy in ethnic progression (first black president) to be taken away from me for the sake of winning acceptance. It hurts deeper when I realize how little the sacrifice actually won me. I essentially gave up the joy I should’ve had in the inauguration of the first black president for nothing. As long as I opposed Obama, I was accepted by the majority culture church, but the moment I spoke out concerning minority issues, I still lost that acceptance.
Then came Trump. Obama has been an exceptional husband and father. He has been a man of outstanding character (despite my disagreements with him on some SERIOUS policy issues). Trump came along as a living embodiment of everything Christians are called to abhor and the same people who demanded my allegiance against Obama were now demanding I support Trump. Despite my years of advocacy for the unborn, I was told that I was pro-abortion if I didn’t support Trump.
2016 was a rough year for me; it was a year that left my family an emotional and at times a spiritual train wreck. I’ve spent most days in tears and when I am not crying, it is because it is a day where I am jaded or too emotionally drained to feel at all. I finally decided to leave my majority white church, and for the first time in awhile, I finally feel free! I am finally comfortable again with who Christ made me to be and no longer live in a way that seeks to gain the approval of my white brothers and sisters. However, I now have a very deep seeded distrust in my white brothers and sisters. I need help overcoming personal pain and trauma as well as learn how not be afraid of my white brothers and sisters. My default now, is to assume white Christians don’t truly love me, and that they all desire to use me for some purpose.
This is a story I have heard too many times to count. Over the past few years, as a counselor, stories like this have become my new normal. If I’m honest, I identify with this story on a personal level. I too left a majority white church last year that I served at as a lay leader and counselor for almost 5 years. There are absolutely elements of the story above that I can fully identify with. Today, I’ve chosen to only address the disease that is infecting many churches. The simple truth is, there is no true desire for a cure unless the impact of a disease is first fully grasped. Evangelicalism is infected with a cancer that I destroying Christ’s witness and devastating his body.
You can follow me on Twitter @KyleJamesHoward. Also, check out my podcast Coram Deo Podcast which focuses on issues concerning Biblical Counseling and Practical Theology. You can search for podcast on any major podcast catcher, listen on the web here, follow updates @CoramDeoPodcast.