Posted on August 15, 2020

For Some Evangelicals, Black Lives Matter Now

Tamarra Kemsley, Reform Austin News, August 13, 2020


There are many denominations that identify as Evangelical, a tradition that accounts for nearly a third of all Christians living in Texas. By far the largest and most influential, however, is the Southern Baptist Convention. Less of a unified institution than a fellowship of congregations, it formed in 1845 when nearly 300 white Southerners broke off from the national Baptist organization to form a pro-slavery faction.

Following the Civil War and the adoption of the 13th Amendment, the SBC continued to operate as a vehicle for Black oppression {snip}

Among one of the most influential and virulent voices during this time was that of W. A. Criswell, the longtime pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas and two-term president of the SBC. Criswell’s beliefs on racial justice can be summed up in his slur-studded 1956 address at a South Carolina Baptist convention, in which he said of civil rights supporters: “Let them integrate. Let them sit up there in their dirty shirts and make all their fine speeches. But they are all a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.”


His was not the only prominent voice that emerged from the SBC around this time, however. To say Billy Graham was progressive on race would be a mistake.

The rock star of a preacher refused to participate in Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington, instead declaring that “only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand-in-hand with little black children.”


Today it’s easy to hear the echoes of both men’s voices, be it in the SBC President J.D. Greear declaring “black lives matter” while distancing himself from the organization, or the current president of First Baptist Church of Dallas’s continued and full-throated defense of President Donald Trump. Nevertheless, such differences are arguably cosmetic when compared to what unites them, and that is a belief that racism is ultimately an individual sin best addressed by individual repentance.

“White Evangelicals absolutely want racial equality. They wish they had interracial churches. But they will do absolutely nothing to make it happen,” said University of Texas at Austin’s Dr. Jennifer Graber. {snip}

Michelle Reyes who, along with her husband, is a co-church planter in Austin’s east side, agrees. “There’s this recurring line that the church just needs to focus on the gospel right now and how the gospel changes hearts.”


Evangelical critics of Black Lives Matter are quick to dismiss it as Marxist, coincidentally the same label detractors of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. applied to him more than half a century ago. But for those who support the current movement (though, notably, not the BLM organization itself), some tools to do so feel near at hand — starting with the Bible.

“Scripture demands that we as the people of God collectively and continually work toward a more just society,” said Reyes, who is the vice president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative.

Dr. Pete Enns agrees. Though no longer an Evangelical himself, the author and professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University spent years steeped in the tradition. The way he sees it, the New Testament is a blueprint for pushing back against political institutions.

“Jesus is Lord means Caesar is not,” he said, a reality he believes should inspire Evangelicals to “critique power,” and in particular state power, rather than align with it.

Dr. Karen Swallow Prior is an author and research professor of English, Christianity and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She’s also a prominent voice within the world of Evangelical Twitter, where she has staked out a claim of more than 45,000 followers who have all come to expect her humor, pithiness and exasperated eyerolls. All three she wields at breathtaking speed in the name of a conservative brand of Evangelicalism rooted in the belief of the “sanctity of human life.”

“When I say sanctity of human life, I mean abortion, but I don’t mean just abortion,” she explained. Rather, her belief extends to “issues of systemic racism that not only impede human flourishing but actually take literal lives and break up families.”

Finally, there is the argument Greear made himself when, during a presidential address, he said: “Of course Black lives matter. Our Black brothers and sisters were made in the image of God.”

It’s this last point Dorena Williamson says should have been driving Evangelicals, and Christians generally, to not only embrace but champion the value of Black lives long “before it was a movement and a hashtag.”

Along with Prior, Williamson is a member of the Pelican Project, a women’s organization dedicated to “fostering commitment to Christian faith and practice across cultural, denominational, and racial lines.” Between her involvement there and her work writing inclusive children’s books, Williamson has had her fair share of conversations with Evangelicals about race. On the one hand, she says, she has observed a greater willingness among non-Black Evangelicals to take a stand against racism, including “a beautiful movement of Asian American Christians who are saying Asian Americans for Black lives.” And yet “there’s just this really sad deficit and bankruptcy of awareness and of action” — a bankruptcy she believes is, frankly, unbiblical. “That is one of the first things in creation that’s put forth,” she said. “Specifically God says we were made in his image.”  To turn a blind eye to systemic racism, then, is to allow others to “degenerate” an “intentional design by the creator.”

Too Little Too Late?

Responses by Evangelical leadership to the Black Lives Matter movement haven’t been merely rhetorical. Two days after Greear’s presidential address, he announced his intention to “retire” a ceremonial gavel named for a slaveholder. Five days later, the SBC unanimously elected its first Black chairman, Rev. Rollande Slade, to its powerful executive committee.

For some, like sociologist Dr. Ryon Cobb, moves like these are merely part of a cycle meant to retain worshippers of color. A quick glance at the data reveals why. One in four Evangelical congregations are multiracial, according to some of the estimates Cobb has seen, and nearly a third of Black Americans attend Evangelical-affiliated congregations.


Still, there are others who have taken heart from the changes they’ve seen. Among them are Rev. Dwight McKissic and Rev. Rick Armstrong, pastors based out of Arlington. Both have published open letters in recent months calling on SBC leadership to divest from the organization’s racist heritage and to elevate Black voices where possible.


The way Patricia Ann Ashley sees it, Graham wasn’t wrong about the need to begin with casting “the spiritual wickedness” of racism from individual hearts. But it can’t stop there. “Faith without works is dead,” she said. “So put some feet behind that.” {snip}