“For M is Musick” is devoted to music. But Donald Trump was elected President five days ago, and this post is my way of coping with the state of things. This will be the first and likely only post dealing with a non-music topic.
First a few prefatory remarks. I am a White Christian male who up until the past few weeks was comfortable to a large degree with calling myself both evangelical and conservative. I was part of the #neverTrump contingent throughout this election season and voted third party, and I made no attempts to hide any of this. In fact, my goal on social media was to convince as many fellow conservatives as possible not to vote for Trump since I became convinced that he is less qualified than his primary opponent on grounds of both character and experience, and that he would be a worse president for both the country and the Church in America. (I truly hope I am wrong.) It’s a terrible goal to have, which I knew was the case but somehow still devoted too much time towards it.
This blog post is to be read from that perspective. It’s an essay about my current thoughts about today’s crazy world. More specifically, it’s an essay about race, injustice, de-centering, evangelicalism, and the Church’s involvement in all of these. I did not set out to write an essay about why Trump was a wrong choice per se. I won’t rehearse the reasons I refused to vote for him. But it’s impossible to discuss today’s world without the 2016 election entering the picture, and to the extent that Trump’s rise touches upon the issues I do wish to address, it is brought into the conversation. I don’t even know if there will be a single point or conclusion. I’m just writing. And it may be that I will look back on this in a few weeks and consider it an gross overreaction. But I’m just writing.
My training is in music. I am not a theologian, historian, philosopher, psychologist, sociologist, historian, or journalist, and I am not at all very qualified to discuss topics such as race relations. Because of this, I have as much as possible quoted those who are more qualified than me. However, given that I have always resided within conservative White Christian evangelicalism, I might have at least something to say to that tradition from within. I’m a 40-year old white male speaking from the center of white privilege who is slowly and belatedly coming to understand that privilege. If I write this essay for others within my own tradition to read, I write it more so for myself, since the process of writing is both thought-clarifying and therapeutic. I don’t have things figured out, and I’m not where I want to be, but this is part of a longer journey.
Listening & De-centering
“If you don’t know any [X], you have no right to say anything about [X].” Statements like this one have become so trite to the point of being entirely ignored. And yet, if there is anything this political season has taught me is that we are no better at sympathizing with or even attempting to understand people with whom we either disagree or share little in common. This is no new problem for us humans who when engaging in political or moral argument are each to varying degrees hypocrites. We see things the way we want to see them. We use cherry-picked data in biased ways that support our already-formulated theories. Our social media timelines are made up of people just like ourselves who shout “Amen!” at our pronouncements that the media on the other side is biased. After all, our own biased media told us so! (The irony of Sean Hannity decrying media bias on his MSM television show.) We each live in our own bubbles in which we having purged any competing votes and from which we demonize those outside. In the past few months, more than one of my liberal friends on Facebook have asked that any Trump supporters defriend them immediately. That we are all hypocrites has been convincingly argued by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, a book I am currently reading. “We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool ourselves,” says Haidt. We’re all hypocrites, and we’re all biased. But it’s not good enough to simply admit that it’s true, as being “just the way it is.” We should make every attempt to remove hypocrisy and bias. The lack of commitment to do this has been evident with great clarity this political season. And I am guilty of it as well.
I would venture a guess that most responses on the part of white American conservative Christians to protests like the ones happening across the country following Trump’s victory are little more than coping mechanisms exercised until the status quo is restored, stating that “God is in control” being not only the most common and understandable such mechanism, but also the one which most quickly assuages any internal discomfort and most quickly appeases the conscience. Such measures also distance one from these events and the issues they touch upon at the same time.
Calling on believers to “pray for our leaders” can be another such mechanism. There is undeniable power in prayer, power in the recognition that God can work wonders through any vessel and any circumstance — in the recognition that He always remains in control — but there is an additional power in the way praying can reorient the pray-er. Prayer changes the pray-er, and praying for our leaders is a direct commandment that we all must obey.
But what is the difficulty of declaring in prayer that “God is in control through difficult situations” when the said difficulty is not experienced in any significant way by the one who prays? Such an affirmation persuades the one who prays that things are going to be okay. But were things not already okay for such a person? What faith is being exercised here? Such a prayer is even more callous if actions taken by the one who prays have in some way contributed to deep angst that is experienced more directly by “others.” Zack Hunt has put it this way: “My white friends say God is in control today. All I hear is I’m oblivious to the pain & fear my minority, LGBT, & Muslim neighbors now live in.” Those who have signed their names to the cause that erected the source of “others’” fear do not have the luxury to merely assuage their own consciences from afar. Furthermore, while declarations of God’s sovereignty may be a good reminder for those most anxious, they often fall flat in failing to truly sympathize, to weep with those who weep. They may not necessarily need to be reminded that God is in control. As Lecrae said post-election, “I know God is in control. But so did Jesus when he wept for Lazarus.”
Other, more cynical responses are less forgivable. The knee-jerk reaction to berate all protestors for the acts of vandalism done by a subset of them constitutes a failure at sympathy. It is a default response that the late philosopher Ted Cohen described in a book on metaphor entitled Thinking of Others when he talks about a “kind of intelligence… very ready to assign stupidity or some other disability to those who are different… a kind of pseudo-intelligence in the form of one of those ideologies that includes, built-in, an explanation of those one does not understand. This explanation, in fact, is either a pretense to understand or a refusal to admit that there is anything to be understood.” Such responses, Cohen says, are “nothing more than the speaker’s oblique confession of his own ignorance about the person he presumes to be explaining.”
Responses to Black Lives Matter protests, for example, that suggest the movement is entirely manipulative and preys upon an entire demographic is very likely the result of such “built-in” thinking and constitutes another failure at listening and sympathizing. It’s also insensitive and demeaning, suggesting that those who protest in the BLM movement have merely appropriated thoughts and sentiments they don’t sincerely have or believe. It’s not far from a “refusal to admit that there is anything to be understood.” Put another way, it equates to saying, “Trust me. The concerns of those people are illegitimate, despite what they tell you their feelings are.”
It just might be that, as Louis Love found out first hand, a significant contingent of the BLM movement is made up of people who are civil and genuinely caring for the demographic they purport to represent. Love, a black pastor who is an outsider to the BLM movement, visited a BLM meeting and found that “everyone was treated with common courtesy. It didn’t matter if you agreed with them or not, the person speaking was received by a room of respect.” Love “marveled and was deeply impressed by the gracious tone [he] observed from the leaders and the other attendees. Even when people disagreed, which happened frequently, civility was never lost.” Love writes about the entire experience over at The Front Porch, which included discussions about the Gospel with non-Christian BLM members.
The inability to listen to one another has been put forth recently with particular clarity and conciseness by A.J. Smith in an article entitled “Suggestions for White Evangelicals.” Smith says:
I am often preoccupied with the need for people to understand me more than I desire to understand them. This isn’t a white problem; it’s a human problem. We have a tendency to believe that we are right about most things and we have an extremely difficult time understanding another person’s viewpoint. […] At this juncture in time, white Christians should seek to understand more than to be understood. If you are not black, then you literally cannot understand the black experience in America, so you must rely on your black brothers and sisters to help you understand. This is not the time or place for them to hear you out. It’s time for you to hear them out with a heart that genuinely wants to learn.
As I write this very essay in an attempt to be understood, in an attempt to believe that I am right about these things, I have come to see this “listening” problem with a little bit more clarity than before, thanks in no small part to the several suggestions-for-white-Christians pieces I’ve read in the recent past. One of the most helpful came in the form of a mini tweet storm by Jemar Tisby, president of the Reformed African American Network (RAAN), who said:
Many white evangelicals are asking what specifically they can do to demonstrate their support of racial minorities esp. African Americans. First, I think white evangelicals should talk to their friends relatives coworkers etc. about whiteness. Help them see that much of their worldview comes from a nation that gives benefits for whiteness and penalties for any other color. Second, white evangelicals should de-center themselves in diagnosing racial problems and in offering possible solutions. Since white evangelicals are part of the majority, sometimes they can’t see what they can’t see. People in the center need the perspectives of those on the margins so the former can act more justly towards the latter. How can white evangelicals de-center themselves? By supporting and promoting the work of minority-led ministries. I want allies who will fund minority-led ministries & say “Do whatever u think is best. We lay down our privilege. We trust you. Lead on.”
The concept of “de-centering” surfaces again and again in such encouragements. If you don’t know what “decentering” means, it’s likely because you are in the direct center, just as those who never or rarely think about white privilege are likely in the center of that privilege. Decentering is an important step towards understanding those less privileged on the margins or those with whom one disagrees. Decentering is an important step in bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), and it’s an important step in weeping with those who weep, living in harmony with one another, and serving one’s enemies (Rom. 12:14-21). More on de-centering later.
Fox News ran a story following Trump’s victory showing University students weeping on a campus somewhere in America. A heading reads, “Colleges pandering to students after election” while a commentator reports that “they are canceling tests, giving out free hot chocolate, offering therapy dogs and free passes to skip class to those students who are just so upset. They’re also giving them crayons and play-doh, which is something I give my five year old when he gets upset.” This news story has a subtext: what we should be doing is telling these “kids” to grow up and get their acts together. I believe this story is a gross misrepresentation. As a university professor who did none of those things this past week, who is not aware of any of those things being done on my campus, nor heard or saw any weeping students, I would suggest that the “Get your act together!” message not only rings hollow but is simply callous, uncaring and insulting. It represents the kind of inability to sympathize and understand I’m talking about. I had no weeping students, but if did, I would do what I could to console and encourage them, and I imagine that my conservative friends who mock the students in this news story from the comfort of their computer screens would do the same. (Based on personal experience of working with and being around young adults for the last 20 years, I would suggest that there are no young people with a greater sense of entitlement than those within the conservative white evangelical tradition to which I belong. Attributing entitlement uniquely to bleeding heart liberals is entirely inaccurate.)
Furthermore, it has been my experience that those who ridicule the political correctness of “safe spaces” and the entitled young people who need them generally live in the center of white, middle/upper-class, cisgendered, heterosexual, Christian privilege, the safest of all spaces in America. There is little wonder very few black people feel safe in white churches. Isaac Adams from 9Marks writes about this, offering no fewer than thirteen reasons for this discomfort.
1) Many white brothers and sisters don’t work against, much less acknowledge, racism, whether subtle or blatant.
2) Lots of white people have privileges blacks don’t.
3) It feels like the majority doesn’t want to hear what it feels like to be black.
4) They think they have a safe space for blacks, but some don’t.
5) Many people do not understand the black experience to be both corporate and individual.
6) Sometimes blacks feel like projects instead of peers.
7) “Gospel-unity” ain’t always gospel unity.
8) Blacks are often only seen as “other.”
9) The hall of faith seems white washed.
10) Black sisters are seen as second-class.
11) All-white leadership doesn’t advocate for blacks in some white churches.
12) It’s easy to be black and lonely in a white church.
13) When some white people call for “dying to yourself,” they in effect mean, “assimilate or leave.”
I encourage you to see how Isaac unpacks each of these by reading the whole thing, which would be a good exercise in de-centering. Isaac rightly points out that racism is not just ugly, it’s an affront to the gospel, which is radical in its openness to all races (no longer Jew nor Greek). As Galatians 2 demonstrates, “Peter’s racial prejudices acted against the gospel—not an implication of the gospel but the actual gospel.” (Adams)
Russell Moore of the SBC who has been one of the most vocal anti-Trump voices within conservative Evangelicalism has also suggested that many of the isms embedded within Trumpism are an affront to the Gospel:
[Trump’s nomination] casts light on the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry all over the country. There are not-so-coded messages denouncing African-Americans and immigrants; concern about racial justice and national unity is ridiculed as “political correctness… The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech did not envision that more than 50 years later “Go back to Africa” would be screamed at black protesters or that a major presidential candidate would tweet racially charged comments. Some American Christians may be tempted to ignore these issues, hoping they are just a wave of “political incorrectness” that will ebb in due time. That sort of moral silence shortchanges both our gospel and our future.
Trump and the State of “Evangelicalism”
The fact that more than four-fifths of confessing evangelicals have voted for Trump has been blasted across the media. While many evangelicals themselves may have come to terms with their own personal votes for Trump, all of us Christians must keep in mind that the world at large now equates Trump, with everything that he is, with the evangelical Church. That should concern us all, since the President-elect is seen as a misogynistic, xenophobic, hate-filled racist. I believe this to be a fairly accurate description of him based on his own words and actions, but even if one comes to the conclusion that this is a mischaracterization, it is certainly the dominant perception. I hope it is needless to say that misogyny, xenophonia, hatred and racism each run diametrically opposed to the Gospel message.
This is not merely the perception of those outside the church. Many within the church see him this way. For Al Mohler, this man who would “under normal circumstances be the realization of evangelical nightmares” is now set to become “the Great Evangelical Embarrassment.”
Evangelical minorities in particular are left with a deep sense of disillusionment. They had reason to be optimistic given the number of denominations seemingly beginning to take racial injustice seriously, from the SBC’s statement regarding the Confederate flag to the PCA’s statement on racial reconciliation and apology for racism old and new. It’s no wonder that the election results stung as a sign of hypocrisy. As the Navigators’ BJ Thompson lamented, “In the same year that major denominations put out statements repenting of racism, 81% of evangelicals voted for a racial charged candidate.”
Or take, for instance, pastor Thabiti Anyabwile’s post-election reflection in which he says that
the [Evangelical] movement has abandoned public solidarity with groups who considered Mr. Trump an existential threat to them. I’m speaking here of the many groups who expressed reservation regarding Mr. Trump’s racism, religious bigotry, misogyny, isolationism, and nativism. People with those concerns came from a lot of groups in the country, including African-American Christians, many themselves evangelicals. At 80 percent, white evangelicalism en masse sided with Mr. Trump over and against the concerns of fellow evangelicals weary of his alienating and divisive rhetoric and campaign promises. Based on correspondence during the campaign and following the election, it seems clear to me that that voting decision will likely put a deep chill on efforts at reconciliation and co-belligerence in the culture. For many, evangelicals expressed solidarity (again) with some of the worst aspects of American history and culture while abandoning brothers and sisters of like precious faith. Coming back from that may be difficult.
These are not mainline liberals who might be dismissed as those who have lost sight of the Gospel. These are theologically-conservative Gospel-minded leaders. Anyabwile’s damning conclusion is worth quoting at length:
“[T]he [Evangelical] movement has made its evangelistic mission more difficult with many it wants to reach. A good number of people outside the faith look at the exit polls aghast and angry. Aghast because they themselves cannot imagine supporting a candidate with the personal moral flaws of Mr. Trump. Angry because they’ve watched evangelicals moralize in public for a long time, often shaming people for their sins and moral weaknesses. The vote for Trump creates or amplifies a credibility problem for evangelicals. Why should the unrepentant listen to their gospel when it seems so evident they’ve not applied that gospel to their political choices? “Shouldn’t we view evangelicals as basically concerned with politics over all things?” they ask. Convincing answers will be difficult to find. For many, Christ and the gospel are now bound up—rightly or wrongly—with evangelicals choosing a man with little resemblance to either.
And all of this was wrought by the bulk of evangelicalism itself. No one forced this on the movement. An 81 percent return will not allow us to discard these voters as “not truly evangelical.” At the moment, that’s exactly who evangelicalism is.
This is why I tweeted, to the confusion or chagrin of a few, “Congratulations white evangelicalism on your candidate’s win. I don’t understand you and I think you just sealed some awful fate.” A few took offense. But a couple hundred retweeted it without comment. Not all retweets are endorsements. And perhaps those retweets came from the 20 percent who did not support Trump. But in either case, I’m not alone in seeing serious problems with evangelicalism’s witness at the moment. I fear the fate of the movement may have been in some measure sealed with this vote.” [Italics are his]
There has been no shortage of articles written on the current meaning and usefulness of the “Evangelical” label (really, there are so many), and Trump’s strategic appropriation of the word in declaring himself to be one has certainly further clouded the issue, particularly given his statements regarding his (lack of) need for forgiveness. Michael Horton of Westminster Seminary puts it this way: “Trump reveals, in short, that for many evangelicals, the word evangelical means something that many increasingly do not recognize as properly Christian, much less evangelical. Then again, if the working theology of American spirituality is a combination of ‘moralistic, therapeutic deism’ (Christian Smith) and pragmatism (William James), then perhaps Donald Trump is after all exactly the right candidate for the moment.”
It should concern all Christians that many in today’s America who attend church only once a year or not at all still call themselves “evangelical.” Religions should not be judged by those who distort them, but unfortunately, they are. And claiming to be a Christian while never attending a church, never hearing the preaching of the Scripture, never experiencing Christ’s presence through the sacraments, leads to distortions of all kinds. The “deinstitutionalization of faith has occurred alongside its politicization,” as one has put it, and this has consequences. It results in a brand of “Evangelicalism” that many Christians want no part of, let alone one that will attract anyone from the outside world.
A Trump election with 81% of the Evangelical vote will also make it even more difficult for the Church to gain cultural relevance at a time when it was already relegated to the cultural margins to a significant degree. In one sense, a Clinton presidency may certainly have caused great anxiety for Christians concerned with religious liberty, but a Trump presidency poses challenges for the Church that will be no less significant. In his recent First Things “Erasmus Lecture,” Russell Moore described these challenges at length: “As the world faces, still, tides of racism, and nativism, and anti-Semitism, religious conservatism must lead toward justice and reconciliation regardless of whether that means a rebuke to those who are our allies on other issues.” This is especially true given the now-firm connection in the eyes of many between Evangelicalism with these “tides.” The Church’s responsibility to lead is has been has become even weightier.
Efforts in De-Centering
“De-centering” is an important first step in beginning to understand what white privilege is and in beginning to understand the plight of those outside that privilege. It’s not enough to have one’s theological ducks aligned properly. It’s not enough to affirm the axioms of the Christian faith. Such orthodoxy does not necessarily lead to true empathy, let alone action. Recently, I have taken some baby steps in de-centering from my position of privilege. During the past year, I have read a number of books on race issues of various kinds, all of which changed me in some way or another. Below are five of these books.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson of EJI on mass incarceration and institutional racial injustice in the American judicial system (e.g. in access to competent representation, in sentencing equality, in disenfranchisement laws, etc.). You can get a taste of what Stevenson’s book is about in the following joint talk with pastor Tim Keller, which is available on YouTube. (Don’t skip over Keller’s talk on injustice. It’s excellent.)
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Janet Leovy on black murder rates in parts of Los Angeles and the LAPD detectives who work such cases.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is a brilliant, highly-acclaimed writer whose left-leaning ideas will likely be dismissed by many conservatives as an effort in perpetuating the victimhood mentality of black people. BTWAM is a short book (a two-day read over Christmas break for me), and personally I came away with a better sense of how many blacks view and experience this world, not necessarily how I think the world should be and certainly not how I personally experience the world. (For some reason, I thought to myself after reading, “Now I understand Kermit Washington’s act,” not from the standpoint of excusing that horrible act but from the standpoint of seeing how it is someone could instinctively react in such a way. Coates never mentions Washington, but it struck me when I later realized that Washington and Coates both grew up in the Baltimore-D.C. area.)
Heal us, Emmanuel, edited by Doug Serven with essays by thirty church leaders on various topics relating to racial reconciliation and church unity.
In addition to these books, I make it a point to read articles that address these issues at sites like The Front Porch and the Reformed African American Network (RAAN). Feel free to click on any of the article links provided in this essay, from which you can chase others.
I also bought the new Sho Baraka album entitled “The Narrative.” (The first Christian hip hop album I purchased in 20+ years!) Listening through the album led me to tweet the following in typical Twitterese: “I am a 40yo white Xian male who makes a living teaching classical music written almost exclusively by white males. I can say that I can’t remember being spoken to so directly in a particular moment than when hearing the new @AmIshoBaraka “Narrative” album. An important, challenging and beautiful message that people like me need to hear.” I was particularly moved by the tracks “Foreward, 1619,” “Piano Break, 33 A.D.” and “Maybe Both, 1865” in which Baraka addresses many of the very issues discussed here.
These are baby steps in de-centering, but they’re important steps. Taking such steps means committing to being open to change. It means desiring to envision the world as others unlike myself see it. It means being willing to be made uncomfortable. It means being open to having one’s conscience shaped in new ways, for as Anyabwile warns, “A quiet conscience is not always a biblical conscience.”
Of course, these baby steps in de-centering can all be done from the comfort of one’s own computer chair. It’s a first step, but only a first step. Over time, I have developed a desire of doing something to get involved. This is where I am today. All the steps I’ve taken are baby steps. Now I’m ready for opportunities to get involved. I am ready to find a ministry devoted to racial reconciliation and/or injustice that my family can support as Tisby suggested. I am ready to volunteer to work with refugees in my area. I only pray that God helps me have the strength in following through. From my vantage point, it looks like there will be plenty of opportunities moving forward.
Even though I am just about ready to shed the “evangelical” and “conservative” labels, I consider myself a puritan rather than a separatist. And I am encouraged that there are an increasing number of voices within the church that are concerned about the Church’s apparent disregard for racial injustices, broadly speaking. Such people are uncomfortable with the whiteness of American Evangelicalism and the lack of racial integration. They are uncomfortable with the strong association of Evangelicalism with a political party. (Out of curiosity, I recently scrolled through the members of the House of Representatives. What I found what striking. The Democrat page looks like America. The GOP side is 90% white male. Out of 248 GOP members, I counted 3 people of color (1.2%!) and less than 10% women. Unfortunately, the GOP webpage looked a lot like so many Evangelical churches.)
This movement led by men like Russell Moore is the one I want to be a part of, and it’s a movement that appears to be healthy and building steam, so long as enough Christians are not too disillusioned to remain puritans. I am so appreciative of the way in which Moore has invited white Christians into a decentered frame of mind while at the same time reminding us of the non-whiteness of Christ’s global body:
“The Bible calls on Christians to bear one another’s burdens. White American Christians who respond to cultural tumult with nostalgia fail to do this. They are blinding themselves to the injustices faced by their black and brown brothers and sisters in the supposedly idyllic Mayberry of white Christian America. That world was murder, sometimes literally, for minority evangelicals. This has gospel implications not only for minorities and immigrants but for the so-called silent majority. A vast majority of Christians, on earth and in heaven, are not white and have never spoken English. A white American Christian who disregards nativist language is in for a shock. The man on the throne in heaven is a dark-skinned, Aramaic-speaking ‘foreigner’ who is probably not all that impressed by chants of ‘Make America great again.’”
I understand the reasons a Christian might vote for Trump. I get it. But those who did should not only be cheering this surging Evangelical movement but should be the first two call out the brands of wickedness that are most associated with the President-elect when they surface both in the Church and in culture at-large. They should be leaders in “diagnosing racial problems and in offering possible solutions,” as Tisby put it. Those who do not care about injustice are generally those of us who never experience much injustice in any real personal sense and who have very few friends who do either.
We are comforted in knowing that God is always in control. We must all pray for all our leaders. And we should recognize our own areas of privilege, doing all we can to help bear the burdens of our underprivileged neighbors and those who are experiencing injustice and oppression. In doing so, we obey Isaiah 58:6-12. We obey Proverbs 31:8-9 (“Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”) Tim Keller makes the beautiful point in the talk mentioned above with Bryan Stevenson that God’s deep concern for the poor and oppressed says something about His character, about who He is.
In Proverbs 14:31, God says if you insult the poor, you insult me. Proverbs 19:17 says that if you give to the poor, you give to me, which means that God identifies with the poor. He does not identify with the rich.