Five years ago today, a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. A human became a hashtag, an uprising occurred and a movement was born.
Much of the attention today and this weekend will focus on remembering Brown, discussing criminal justice reform and evaluating how society has or hasn’t changed since that fateful day. These are appropriate topics to discuss.
But remembering Brown on the five-year anniversary of his killing would be incomplete without acknowledging the impact that this tragedy had on race relations within American evangelicalism.
I know how that day and the subsequent events affected my faith and my relation to those who I once thought of as my spiritual family.
Six days after Brown’s killing, I wrote for the first time publicly about my traumatic encounters with the police. Every black man I know has harrowing stories of being pulled over, searched, handcuffed or even held at gunpoint. When I encouraged readers to "pause to consider the level and extent of injustice that many blacks have experienced at the hands of law enforcement officers,” the responses disclosed a deep divide.
One told me to submit myself to the authority of the police. He wrote, "Let us exhort each other to be in subjection (Romans 13:5) to police and other civil authorities so long as they are not causing us to commit evil/sin as shown by the example of the apostles and other disciples of Christ’s generation.” He didn’t acknowledge that police can be wrong, too.
Another person said that it wasn’t just black people who had to be cautious of the police. She, as a white woman, had distasteful run-ins, too. “I think cops do stereotype, they did it to me, my dad and no doubt black people. It sucks but don’t think it happens to you alone. Rural cops do it to city folks or people driving out of state plates, city cops do it to minorities, folks who drive muscle cars or people like me who drive clunkers.”
Still another person told me I was just wrong and thought he would correct me. After giving a litany of “facts” related to the Trayvon Martin killing in 2012 and Brown’s death, he said I was being duped by the media. "So, again, I would strongly admonish you to really understand what actually happened and the proper context of each case in which the (liberal) media is saying that somehow we have a war of white police officers killing young black teens. Don’t be hoodwinked.” He ended by pointing me to what he thought were reliable news sources such as the Blaze and conservative commentator Michael Savage’s website.
Those responses came from a single blog post. I can’t list the vitriol that erupted in the comment sections of similar posts on Twitter and Facebook.
I’m not alone. Other black Christians have endured opposition from white evangelicals.
In December 2015, InterVarsity a 75-year-old college campus ministry organization held its triennial missions conference. Urbana ’15 highlighted Black Lives Matter during the program. Several hosts wore T-shirts with “Black Lives Matter” on the front. A keynote speaker, Michelle Higgins, who is black, criticized the focus of white evangelicals on abortion to the exclusion of racial justice issues, such as criminal justice reform.
Many white evangelicals swiftly criticized InterVarsity because, as they saw it, the organization had let itself be co-opted by liberal influences.
When Grammy-winning hip-hop artist Lecrae used his music and platform to speak publicly against racism, his white evangelical fans were quick to criticize.
In a 2016 interview, Lecrae reflected on the response of white evangelicals to his calls for justice.
"I went from a show that may have had 3,000 there to 300.”
In his view, though, it was worth it. “Those 300 people were people who I knew loved Lecrae, the black man, the Christian, all of who Lecrae was, not the caricature that had been drawn up for them,” he said.
Thabiti Anyabwile, a black D.C. pastor and a popular speaker at white evangelical conferences, witnessed the blowback from white evangelicals when he publicly wrote and spoke about justice in the aftermath of the Ferguson uprisings.
Along with a link to one of Anyabwile’s talks from 2010, a white evangelical posted on Twitter that the pastor had lost his way. “Before he became an agitator for the radical left wing #BlackLivesMatter movement, Thabiti Anyabwile was arguing for a more biblical, gospel-centered approach.”
Anyabwile wrote in a blog post about the sense of betrayal he felt. “But mention ‘justice’ and that wall of evangelical troops splits like the Red Sea and turns against itself. Men who worked as fellow combatants in the traditional ‘culture war’ begin to suspect and even attack one another when ‘justice’ becomes the topic.”
Other events have helped widen the rift between black Christians and white evangelicals: s stream of cellphone videos showing unarmed black people being beaten or killed by police; the slayings of the Emanuel Nine by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C., in 2015; and, of course, the 2016 election that saw 80 percent of white evangelicals who voted to support President Trump.
Black Christians like me and many others began a “quiet exodus” from white evangelical congregations and organizations. We distanced ourselves both relationally and ideologically from a brand of Christianity that seemed to revel in whiteness.
Now, after this quiet exodus, we find ourselves wandering in a sort of wilderness. Some are rediscovering the black church tradition and moving in that direction for healing and solidarity. Others, often by necessity, have remained in white evangelical spaces but with a new degree of caution. Some of us still don’t have a faith community to call home.
The word “evangelical” is broad and messy, used academically to define people who especially emphasize a relationship with Jesus and prioritize evangelism. It is sometimes difficult to define exactly who and in what sense one is an evangelical. But a few characteristics are clear.
Brown and Ferguson highlighted that when it comes to some parts of conservative evangelicalism, whiteness is not a bug, it’s a feature.
Every time I see the word “evangelical” in a news headline, I subconsciously append the word “white,” because more often than not, the commentary speaks to the views and thoughts of white Christians, not people of other races and ethnicities.
As a black Christian, I can never call myself an evangelical, because I realize now more than ever that my color, my culture and my concerns don’t fit the narrow mold of many. I am, at most, “evangelical adjacent.”
White evangelical responses to Ferguson and Black Lives Matter have not been uniformly negative. On the same post I wrote about my experiences with the police, one commentator remarked: “Thank you for sharing an honest and nuanced response to current events. White people like me need to hear the truth about what it’s like to be Black in America.”
I speak and teach nationwide about race and the church, and many in the audience are full of white evangelicals. I have seen a hunger on the part of some white evangelicals, young and old, to become advocates for racial justice.
While the willingness of many white evangelicals to fight racism is encouraging, responses to Michael Brown’s killing have given me a more realistic sense of what changes are possible. I have come to accept that I may not see a significant shift in white evangelical churches and institutions in my lifetime.
Change is possible. It’s happening right now. But this is long, patient, slow work. Racial progress only comes through constant struggle and hope tempered by painful experience.
It may take decades to fully realize the ramifications of Brown’s death in terms of race relations between black Christians and white evangelicals. But as painful as this racial reckoning has been, it is better to know the truth about where white evangelicals stand.
In a way it is liberating.
Having been awakened to the racial realities of modern evangelicalism, I am free to pursue the good news brought by a brown-skinned Jew named Jesus, who doesn’t require me to be racially and culturally white to be righteous.
Tisby is president of the Witness: A Black Christian Collective and co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast. He is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Mississippi and author of the new book “The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.”