Black History in the Making
What ‘White Evangelicals’ Can Learn
Act One: Picking Up the Story in the 1940s
On April 26, 1942, 47-year-old Alec Brown Bey was being processed by his local draft board. Yes, that’s old to be drafted. But thirteen million men between 45 and 64 were processed in this way during World War II.
The form to be filled out required that Bey give his height, weight, eye color, and race. The racial options to be checked were White, Negro, Oriental, Indian, or Filipino. Bey rejected the classification of himself as Negro.
Born in Manning, South Carolina, Bey had been part of millions of black immigrants who moved from the South to the North in the 1920s and 1930s. Between the time he arrived in Philadelphia in the late 1930s and his draft board encounter in 1942, Bey had joined the Moorish Science Temple of America.
The group taught that so-called Negroes were, in fact, literal descendants of Moroccan Muslims. Bey believed that it violated a divine command to refer to himself as Negro. He was allowed to cross out “Negro” and write in “Moorish American.”
This story illustrates what Judith Weisenfeld calls “identity-fashioning.” The story is from her 2016 award-winning book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity During the Great Migration. Weisenfeld is a professor in the department of religion at Princeton University.
The book deals with the larger picture of “religio-racial” refashioning of one’s identity among blacks of the Great Migration as they encountered the Nation of Islam (who saw themselves as “Asiatic Muslims”) or Ethiopian Hebrew congregations (who saw themselves as descendants of the lost tribes of Israel) or Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement (who refused any racial label but human). The book asks, How did people “self-fashion” themselves racially and religiously (“religio-racially”) when they connected with new religious groups?
Weisenfeld shows that this new “identity-fashioning” was far more thorough than new doctrine. It involved new names, new clothes, new diet, new customs, new worship, and a new way of thinking about self and the world.
Act Two: African-American-Identity Reality Check in 2017
In October 2017, there was a flurry of interactions about younger African-American Christians “divorcing” themselves from (white) evangelicalism. I put white in parentheses because evangelicalism per se in America was seen to be white. “Black evangelicalism” was felt by many to be an oxymoron.
In my experience of the last sixteen months, this so-called “divorce” has been more cultural than personal. In other words, the people I have relationships with who embraced this “divorce” did not pull away from me personally. Nor from the Christian faith.
The watershed issue for them was the election of Donald Trump. Even though the vaunted 81 percent of evangelicals who supposedly voted for Trump has been shown to be a significant exaggeration, the numbers are high enough, and some evangelical leaders are so high-profile in their support for Trump that many African Americans were disillusioned about the meaning of the term evangelical.
This “divorce” discussion opened the issue of “racial development identity work.” What became clear for some blacks is that “you thought you had a 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.’”
In other words, the question that many African Americans asked more pointedly (in the wake of the “81 percent”) was, How should my cultural-relational-ethnic “identity” be defined in view of some former identity markers becoming alien?
Act Three: Enter the Indigenous and Pilgrim Principles
Andrew Walls, former missionary to Sierra Leone, and Honorary Professor in the University of Edinburgh, distinguishes two principles that define the way Christianity spreads globally to more and more cultures and ethnic groups.
Along with the indigenizing principle which makes . . . faith a place to feel at home [Acts 15:19], the Christian inherits the pilgrim principle, which whispers to him that he has no abiding city and warns him that to be faithful to Christ will put him out of step with his society [Romans 12:2; 1 Peter 2:11]; for that society never existed, in East or West, ancient time or modern, which could absorb the word of Christ painlessly into its system. (The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith, 8)
For two thousand years, Christianity has spread from one culture to another without obliterating the receiving culture. Or to put it positively, it has spread to more and more ethnic groups by means of ever-new cultural incarnations of its historical and doctrinal essence (indigenous principle). But none of these cultures or ethnicities remains unchanged. “For that society never existed . . . which could absorb the word of Christ painlessly into its system” (pilgrim principle).
Which means that recalibration of identity in relation to race, religion, and culture is inevitable wherever Christianity is taken seriously. All Christian faithfulness, in every ethnic group in the world (and there are thousands), involves repeated adjustments of how indigenous our Christian identity is, and how pilgrim-like it is. If culture were static, we might not need such recalibrations. It is not. As culture moves away from truth, faithfulness may become increasingly pilgrim. Not to recalibrate — even “divorce” — may be apostasy.
Act Four: Plot Thickens — Who Needs Identity Work?
For about four hundred years, American Christianity has, to a great degree, been so indigenous to the white ethnicities (German, Dutch, British, Scandinavian, etc), and the amalgam that developed from them, that the pilgrim principle was minimized. The thought that belonging to Jesus Christ requires a profound exile mindset in America was marginalized in preaching and discipleship. Conversion to Christ was not seen as putting one significantly out of step with the majority culture.
As we sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” or “America the Beautiful,” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” or “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” or recited our “Pledge of Allegiance,” or pasted on our bumper stickers, “Love It or Leave It,” we scarcely considered the question, Where is your pilgrim mindset?
Where is there a deep personal and cultural experience of being “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), whose decisive “citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20)? Where are the outworkings of the self-evident biblical truth that real American Christians have more important things in common with Russian, Chinese, Arab, and Nigerian Christians than with American non-Christians? These are the truest and deepest compatriots.
What Weisenfeld has done, in calling attention to the “religio-racial” identity issues during the Great Migration, and what African Americans in the last three years have done by drawing our attention to their recalibrating “identity development work” in relation to white evangelicalism, has been to shake up a white American Christianity that is so at home in its indigenous cultural at-homeness, it does not realize that it has its own “identity development work” to do. In other words, majority-culture Christianity in America needs to continually recalibrate its own cultural identity.
Act Five: Is There an Evangelical Identity to Divorce From?
The dechristianizing of American culture in recent decades has been a shock to the evangelical mainstream that never had to come to terms with being truly another culture, as it must today. This is, I think, a very salutary awakening — very slow, and not at all pervasive yet.
As our comfortably indigenous civil religion is collapsing, with the disintegration of the evangelical hegemony, not surprisingly, some will find it inevitable that fighting for cultural evangelical identity is not just undesirable, but meaningless. Evangelicalism, defined not just with Bebbington’s four pillars (biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism), but with inevitable cultural and ethnic markers, has increasingly broken up. Which means, there is no such clearly defined cultural entity to divorce from.
Act Six: Recalibrating Our Homing Devices — and Finding Real Companions
In the New Testament, the all-important doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s blood and righteousness alone, for the glory of God alone, was not delivered abstractly, but in the embattled context of its implications for antagonistic ethnic relations.
At one level, the conflict was over works of law versus faith in Christ. “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). But when Peter failed to walk in step with this gospel truth, Paul put the issue in ethnic terms: “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:14).
Paul put the racial/ethnic/tribal implications of justification by faith like this:
We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one — who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. (Romans 3:28–30)
And when the glorious gospel of justification by faith alone penetrates more and more ethnic groups, new incarnations of the gospel happen. The people of God are created in a new dress. The culture is not obliterated. Yet something radically new has penetrated another culture. The culture can never be just as it was. Sojourners and exiles have been created (1 Peter 2:11; Philippians 3:20). A new humanity is spreading (Ephesians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 15:22; Galatians 6:15). A new allegiance dominates all others. A real pilgrim principle comes to life.
American evangelicals are discovering this — some for the first time — as the fatherland they so mistakenly considered their home disintegrates before their eyes. It could be that one of the beautiful effects of this disorienting situation would be to recalibrate our Christian homing devices, so that we find ourselves traveling toward heaven in such synchronization with sojourners of every race and ethnicity and culture that we would feel the sweetness, as never before, of who our real traveling companions are.