Last week the news spread quickly among evangelicals: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, one of the nation’s largest evangelical college ministries, had purportedly endorsed the #BlackLivesMatter movement during a major missions conference in front of 16,000 college-aged students. This was big news in some circles.
Although many evangelical organizations have assumed prominent roles in cultural debates over issues such as abortion and sexuality, fewer have publicly engaged in questions of racial justice with consistency. Writing for Religion News Service, Tobin Grant suggested that this could be “a watershed moment in American evangelicalism.”
InterVarsity clarified that it hadn’t “endorsed” #BlackLivesMatter, a fact that will disappoint some and relieve others. Its news release made clear that “InterVarsity does not endorse everything attributed to #BlackLivesMatter” but that the ministry is nevertheless “co-belligerents with a movement with which we sometimes disagree because we believe it is important to affirm that God created our Black brothers and sisters.”
InterVarsity’s engagement with #BlackLivesMatter sparked a larger debate within some corners of evangelicalism over an important question: Do black lives matter enough to most evangelicals? Evangelicals have long struggled with race relations, an issue particularly acute and relevant in major urban areas.
Could it be that black lives don’t matter enough to many evangelicals?
The “evangelical” label is itself fraught with generalities and differing understandings (not unlike the label “#BlackLivesMatter”). But we do know that most white evangelicals worship in mostly white churches and participate in mostly white religious organizations. The same is true of many Asian and other evangelicals who cluster in ethnic-specific institutions. Many evangelicals know little about the ways in which the criminal justice system affects black lives.
Like many religious and nonreligious Americans, many evangelicals know little about the local politics that determine things such as access to housing, education, business development and health care for mostly black areas in their cities.
Thousands of evangelicals of all races labor in the inner city, in multi-ethnic churches and in ministries of reconciliation. But the lack of evangelical engagement on issues of racial justice, particularly from evangelical institutions, leaves the question of whether black lives matter an open one for some.
At least one lesson could be gleaned from InterVarsity’s engagement with #BlackLivesMatter: Evangelicals should be able to find common ground with other people and other causes without being accused of (or thinking it requires) complete alignment with those people and causes.
Why would evangelicals not stand with a movement that advocates racial justice in the common ground that they share? Why would they not work with atheists who care about helping to educate kids in inner-city schools? Why would they not work with progressive secular groups in a common effort to allow citizens the right to protest in public spaces regardless of their beliefs or ideologies? Why would they not work with gay rights groups against bullying of LGBTQ teenagers?
Evangelicals can pursue such common ground where it exists. They can work with non-Christian groups such as the Interfaith Youth Core on college campuses, support religious freedom for Muslims in court and partner with nonbelievers in improving cities.
Evangelicals can wholeheartedly affirm causes of racial justice in the areas where they agree. They can, in the words on the website blacklivesmatter.com, commit “to collectively, lovingly and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension all people.”
Evangelicals can affirm, as that same website does, “Black folks’ contributions to this society, [their] humanity, and [their] resilience in the face of deadly oppression.” They can use this common ground and these areas of agreement as avenues for exploring a deeper awareness of the challenges and a deeper yearning for solutions.
Finding common ground does not mean endorsing every goal or every value of the people to whom we draw near. But it does mean drawing near. That is at the heart of the vision of what I have called “confident pluralism.” That vision is a challenge to enter into the reality of pluralism around us to find common ground. And we can do so out of a confidence in our own beliefs.
Pursuing meaningful common ground requires actions, not just words. But it begins by asking the right questions. InterVarsity asked the right question to a largely evangelical audience: not whether #BlackLivesMatter is friend or foe, but whether black lives matter. For some people in this country, religious and nonreligious, the answer to that question is that they do not. InterVarsity has said black lives do matter, but that is the beginning — not the end — of engagement.
John Inazu is a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of “Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference” (University of Chicago Press, 2016). He is a member of the board of trustees of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The views expressed in this essay are his own.