I wrote before of my hesitations of coming on the #RubyWooPilgrimage because “Evangelical” is not a word I care to be associated with. In the past year, this word has shifted, becoming synonymous with whiteness and political power while also leaving many wondering “How did we get here?”
Our goal of the #RubyWooPilgrimage was to examine how the journey of justice is a spiritual one while also centering the work of women of color. We stopped at several places such as the Harriet Tubman Museum, African American History Museum, and Chinatown, learning from current and historical leaders. A highlight in this journey for me was hearing from Ruby Sales at the National Black Theatre.
Mama Ruby spoke of the Crisis of Whiteness in America. Heralding one of my favorite theologians — Martin Buber, she said whiteness needs to learn to value itself. The I and the We — learning to harmonize with the other. The crisis is that “white people don’t believe they are worth being redeemed.”
Although our time with Mama Ruby was at the midpoint of our trip, these words crystallized a lot of the dissonance I was feeling being amongst Evangelical leaders. Her statement about the crisis of whiteness connects to the current fragility of Evangelicalism.
THE CRISIS OF EVANGELICALISM
Evangelicals are known for proselytizing and the dogmatic manner in which they name right and wrong. They have waged wars on culture, communities and even against theologies and doctrines amid themselves. Given the force in which Evangelicalism influenced the last election, and how the current administration exemplifies values contrary to Jesus’ teaching, I find myself observing a tipping point: Is Evangelicalism worthy of being redeemed?
The birthright America loves to claim — one of God’s favor and blessing — is one that is stolen, like with the brothers Jacob and Esau. We cannot escape how White Supremacy is indoctrinated into the foundations of this nation; Evangelical Christianity has shaped western civilization. When providence is mixed with dominance it tangles up our sense of spirituality and wholeness.
Mama Ruby also spoke of the need for theologies to have hindsight, insight and foresight to be lasting. These words stuck with me as I examined the context I was in. This trip was about hindsight. Our pilgrimage was focused on learning about the journey of women’s’ rights, from Women of Color. However, I still felt a tension, knowing Evangelicalism at its core is latent with White Supremacy.
Evangelicalism has lacked insight (introspection) leaving it in a crisis. Evangelicals are now in need of their own message of repentance. Will they turn from the way faith has been used in pursuit of power? Can we develop an hindsight, insight and foresight that brings redemption? Can we reimagine Evangelicalism?
HINDSIGHT | THE GIFT OF HOPELESSNESS
I was listening to a podcast that featured Ta-Nahesi Coates, a brilliant scholar and thinker of our time. I appreciate the way he is able to articulate current societal shifts and changes. In this conversation he commented how white people want him to point to hope after he shares hard truths of where our society is at. I appreciate Krista Tippett putting forward that he doesn’t need to point to hope. Offering hope, she said acts as a bandaid over the ways others have been hurt in the past. Instead, Coates said hopelessness focuses him.
I’m often told “We’ve come so far!” “We had a black president!” But these measures do not uproot the deepest myths of our nation. Healing requires learning the hard truths of American history and how it was influenced by Christianity. The oppression that creates the wealth of this nation, how we continue segregation through prison systems and housing all stem from a belief that we had right to claim a land that wasn’t ours.
Even what we label as ‘progressive’ falls short. Progressivism says let us make man in our own [white] image. It depends on whiteness as the standard to set the Other against. It’s a more nuanced measure of colonialism — progress is only recognized when the success of the Other is achieved in white institutions. Rarely do we acknowledge Natives, Latinos, Blacks or Asians until they have succeeded in the arena of the white man.
Ta-Nahesi Coates does not claim to be a spiritual person, so I do not expect him to articulate truth in a spiritual dimension. But I do know this; he is right. Hopelessness brings the opportunity to reevaluate our history. When we are faced with the hard truth of the past, we are forced to be redirected. Hindsight can provide the insight we need for a renewal of faith. Evangelicalism is in a crisis. We must allow this hopelessness to focus us.
INSIGHT | WHOSE JUSTICE?
Land is a crucial part of the “American Dream” and how we claim prosperity as God’s blessing on America. Evangelicals are denying safe land to refugees and supporting a travel ban. It’s clear through the laws of this nation (and the use of land) that justice is only for some. But when we choose to practice insight, it opens up a new question Whose justice are we fighting for?
I don’t quite have the words to explain how sits in my soul, but knowing that the same people who are praying for justice and promoting progress are the ones who subjugate those who don’t look like carries a tension.
Insight allows us to refocus our hopelessness. God’s definition of justice is one of sharing so no one has need. It is one of humility over dominance, freedom over oppression. Justice welcomes the refugee and stranger in our land. It centers those who have less. Insight pushes us past hopelessness, past ourselves and moves us to focusing on the other. It is the beginning of harmonizing the I and the We.
FORESIGHT | REIMAGINING JUSTICE
No matter how progressive we become current events show us we still have the capacity to dehumanize the other. We see it in the news with reports of shootings, bombings and abuse. We act and react out of a deep rooted spirit of white supremacy and colonization.
Even our imagination of justice and healing is still centered on dominance and control. We think peace means having the right laws and policy. We must reimagine justice. We need to start talking about justice in a way that decentralizes whiteness. Justice is about restoring the humanity of the other. To return to Martin Buber, it’s the I and the Thou, the ability to see the sacredness in each other.
At the end of our time Mama Ruby was asked our opening question “Can Evangelicalism be redeemed?” The Evangelical Church must first learn that redemption will come from a Jesus who isn’t white. Then they can learn to love themselves, with all their flaws and failures. Loving themselves will come through embracing the other. Reimagining justice and having foresight will mean embracing discomfort — practicing introspection. As James Baldwin says:
“To accept one’s past — one’s history — is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.”
Evangelicalism has already been and is being reimagined, just not through a white lens. I’m grateful to say I met many women of color who are leading the way with beauty and power. They are doing the hard work of decolonizing their minds, they are championing others who offer perspectives different than the White Evangelical narrative. They are fighting for justice. I also met white women who were committed to learning and leading under these wise women of color.
Resolving the Evangelical Crisis becomes a question of sight. Can they recognize leadership that is already present? Will they accept a Jesus who isn’t white? Will they see that their redemption has come, more in the form of a samaritan rather than a rich young ruler?
As Mama Ruby concluded, “anything we love can be redeemed.”