116 Been Real
Lecrae, “White Evangelicalism,” and Hope
My response to Lecrae’s interview with the thoughtful women at Truth’s Table is mainly thankfulness and hope. Why would anyone care about my response? I don’t know that they would. But here’s why they might.
This interview, along with the new album he just released (All Things Work Together), gives expression to Lecrae’s loosening his ties with “white evangelicalism.” There are echoes here of the same development recently chronicled about Jemar Tisby and the Reformed African American Network (RAAN). This loosening of these ties, considered by itself, is not the reason I am thankful and hopeful. But the loosening is not by itself.
Invitation to Hope
Lecrae’s loosening his ties with “white evangelicalism” has roots. And it has fruit. Part of that fruit is my response of thankfulness for Lecrae’s faith (and Jemar’s). As we will see, the roots have been painful. So their enduring faith, and my thanks for it, are not to be assumed.
Since I’m the only supposed native of this “white evangelical” tribe that Lecrae mentioned in his interview, I thought it might be helpful to say publicly how I respond to this loosening of ties. I would even hope that others in the tribe might join me in feeling more thankful than frustrated, and more hopeful than disheartened.
Roots of the Loosening
Roots can be very deep things. For Lecrae the roots that reach back to his mother’s passionate blackness seemed, for a season, to be severed. “When I became a believer I was taught to lay my black heritage aside.” Given his musical talent and mental sharpness, the inevitable happened — tens of thousands of young white Christians crowded his concerts, and Lecrae held his own with the theologians.
Three experiences stand out in Lecrae’s interview at Truth’s Table as the roots of the recent change.
First, Lecrae’s friend, Tyree Boyd-Pates, the Curator of History for the California African American Museum, told him, “You have said some things that were poignant and provocative for black people, but the phenotype of your music was not black . . . sonically it wasn’t resonating with our soul. . . . It’s like [the] ‘I have a dream’ speech over a rock record.”
Second, the Washington Post called him an “evangelical mascot.”
Third, he went public with his dismay over the Michael Brown shooting, and woke up to the reality that this “white evangelical” world did not feel what he felt. “The visceral attacks that came my way were like a shock to my system. That did some identity work.”
Racial Identity Development
This phrase “identity work” is an allusion to the term “racial identity development work” that many younger blacks are forced to undertake. Lecrae’s interviewers said it may be required by events like a presidential election, or being called the n-word at school. You thought you had a pretty good handle on your racial identity, and suddenly you realize it’s not as simple as it once seemed, and there is work to do — “racial identity development work.”
So the turning points came. And the questions.
If I turn my back on white evangelicalism, who am I? If we disagree on . . . Black Lives and social justice, and I’m not getting pats on the back from John Piper, then who am I now? . . . For years that had been what was shaping my identity. . . . If I’m not the evangelical darling, who is Lecrae? . . .
What if they get upset? What if they don’t like me. It took blood on the ground for me to say, “I don’t care what you think. People are dying.”
Through a season of depression and questioning, Lecrae was forging a new identity. Not all new. But new. He says,
[Lecrae] can be true to his cultural roots and still embrace his faith which has been colonized and stripped away and made to be very Western and Eurocentric. . . . No. No. No. You can’t have that. It’s for everybody. Jesus ain’t American.
I spoke out repeatedly in 2016 in many different ways, and it affected me. I went from a show that may have 3,000 people to 300. . . . Those 300 love Lecrae, the black man, the Christian, not the caricature that had been drawn up. . . . This is not Lecrae placating a white audience. . . . I don’t feel any sense of prioritizing white evangelicalism.
I just told my wife this morning, “I’m really free. . . . I don’t feel I have to be the rappin’ pastor. . . . I’m just a man who loves Jesus, who creates music and hopefully impacts people.”
Thankfulness and Hope
His new album bears a title taken from Romans 8:28. This invincible promise was key to unlocking the prison of identity confusion and depression. “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Lecrae said he wants people
to rest in the reality of grace. . . . All things work together for those who love God and are called according to his purpose. And that means all things. The pain, the suffering, the tears, the depression — it all works together. Don’t be afraid to wrestle. Don’t be afraid to process. There’s grace for you.
Do you see yet why I respond to Lecrae’s “identity development work” with thankfulness? I know young men whose disillusionment with “white evangelicalism” was not as painful as Lecrae’s, and yet they threw the brown baby of Bethlehem out with the white bathwater. They’re done with Christianity. Done with the Bible. Done with Jesus — except the one they create to fit their present political mood. That could have been Lecrae. It could be you.
It is possible that his story could have been Damascus Road in reverse. Beloved champion becomes bitter challenger. Poster boy turns into arch opponent. Mascot morphs into muckraker. It didn’t happen. I don’t think it will happen. Lecrae is not an adolescent. His faith is not secondhand. I am thankful for that. Very thankful.
What does this loosening from “white evangelicalism” mean for multiethnic relations? I don’t know.
Perhaps one immediate takeaway would be for majority-culture folks to ask whether the “identity development work” applies to us in a peculiar way. When Lecrae read the first draft of this article, he commented that his experience has been that “white evangelicals” generally assume they are a-cultural and bring no cultural influence into the fleshing out of their faith. Which probably means that there is some majority-culture “identity development work” to be done. That is, let there be, at least, a (growing) awareness that our expressions of faith are inevitably shaped by culture. Every expression of faith, everywhere in the world, is embedded in and shaped by culture. Being oblivious to this does not help us with the difficult task of discerning when to be countercultural or not.
But when it comes to the wider and longer implications of some young, Christian, African Americans loosening ties with “white evangelicals,” I don’t know what it will mean for ongoing relations and connections. It would be easy to be discouraged in these rending days. Some things Lecrae said in the interview make me cringe. The reason I have put “white evangelicalism” in quotation marks throughout this article is that it puts too many whites in bed together.
John Piper and a few million other supposed natives didn’t vote for Donald Trump. We don’t think unrepentant lechers should be president. We don’t think Robert E. Lee is a simple embodiment of nobility. We don’t think the confederate flag can fly with impunity. We don’t think kneeling for justice desecrates the other flag. We are baffled that Philando Castile’s shooter walks free. We are dismayed at the nationwide resurgence of manifest racial antagonism. We don’t think “systemic” is an unintelligible word. And a few of us, believe it or not, are impenitent five-point Calvinists (how else can you survive?). Is that “white evangelicalism”?
So it is not yet clear to me what the implications are when young, black, Christian men and women loosen their ties with “white evangelicalism.” What I do know is that nothing has changed about Jesus. Nothing has changed about the gospel of sovereign grace. Nothing has changed about the blood-bought one new identity in Jesus Christ. Ephesians 2 is still in the Book. Nothing has changed about the power of the Holy Spirit. And lots of us still love “God’s very good idea,” that in Christ “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).
Hope from “Facts”
So I say again: my main response to Lecrae’s “racial identity development work” is thankfulness. The process is proving that the roots of his union with Christ are deep enough not to be torn up by the trials of these sad days. And I would add to thankfulness, hope. I feel hope. Don’t you, when you listen to these lyrics? They are from the track of the new album called “Facts.”
I was waitin’ for the right time to tell y’all how I feel
And, yeah, I know that it hurts, but look, it’s gon’ heal.
I waited ’til I was on prime time before I let y’all know.
And you prolly won’t wanna hear my music no mo’
But it’s all good, man, I love y’all
Hope you know that I’m black black
Traded my Smart Car for a Cadillac, can you handle that?
And I love God
I love Jesus, the one out of Nazareth
Not the European with the ultra perm
And them soft eyes and them thin lips
And I’m still hood
Been in the ’burbs for quite some time
But I still might hit the gas station
For the Lemonheads and the pork rinds
And I’m on one
Yeah, 116 been real
Binghamton, Tennessee, from Third Ward to Ceiling Hill
And I live a multiple world, call me a hybrid ’cause I’m so black
Young theologian who educated,
But still be at that Chicken Shack, yeah.
“I know that it hurts, but look, it’s gon’ heal. . . . But it’s all good, man, I love y’all. . . . And I love God, I love Jesus, the one out of Nazareth . . . Yeah, 116 been real.”
Yes. The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). If he believes it, and you believe it, there’s hope. And I am thankful that we do. We still do. Grace.