“We understand the curse that was slavery, white people do,” Giglio said during a conversation Sunday about race in America with hip-hop artist Lecrae Moore and Chick-fil-A chief executive Dan Cathy, who is an evangelical Christian. “And we say that was bad. But we miss the blessing of slavery, that it actually built up the framework for the world that white people live in.”
Giglio’s comments became a trending topic on Twitter on Tuesday as people objected to slavery being described as a “blessing” and to his implication that the concept of white “privilege” — a term that refers to the advantages white people enjoy in a racist society — could be equated with a gift from God.
“It’s a bad theology that has existed since the beginning of the slave trade,” said Anthea Butler, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania who is working on a book on white evangelical racism. “Giglio said what was true to him and what’s true to a lot of evangelicals, but it doesn’t make it right.”
After his comments started to draw backlash, Giglio tweeted that he was “not seeking to refer to slavery as blessing — but that we are privileged because of the curse of slavery. In calling it a privilege/benefit/blessing — word choice wasn’t great. Trying to help us see society is built on the dehumanization of others. My apology, I failed.”
Giglio declined an interview request through a public relations professional who attends his church. On Tuesday, he posted a video to his social media platforms, tearfully offering an apology for his words. He said he intends to help his white brothers and sisters to understand “white privilege is real.”
“I don’t, to be clear, believe there’s any blessing in slavery,” he said.
At the church event, Giglio said that hearing the words “white privilege” are “like a fuse goes off for a lot of white people because they don’t want somebody telling them to check their privilege.” He said if the phrase is tripping people up, then “let’s get down to the heart.”
“And I think maybe a great thing for me is to call it ‘white blessing,’ ” he said, noting that he was born in 1958 in the South, where segregation was still the law of the land. “That I’m living in the blessing of the curse that happened generationally that allowed me to grow up in Atlanta.”
Giglio is the founder of Passion, a popular Christian conference. He was slated to deliver the benediction at President Obama’s second inauguration in 2013, but backed out after news reports about a sermon he’d given in the 1990s in which he said “being gay is a sinful choice” and that gay people “will be prevented from ‘entering the Kingdom of God.’ ”
Lecrae, a popular black artist who has a large following among white evangelicals, nodded as Giglio was explaining what he meant by “white blessing” during the event. He, too, was later criticized on social media. In an interview, Lecrae said he spoke with Giglio after the conversation about several aspects that made him uncomfortable, including the “white blessing” comments. He said he tried to redirect the conversation to reiterate “white privilege” and said there’s a fragility in not being able to say those words.
He also said the event should have included more black people’s voices, and that he felt uncomfortable as the only black person onstage.
“This needs to be a time where [white evangelicals] listen and learn, and not a time when you’re leading,” he said. “We’re tired of conversations.”
As he began the event, Giglio noted the death of 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks, who had been fatally shot by Atlanta police just two days earlier. Giglio said that the panel was expecting to be joined by the Rev. Bernice King, a daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but that she backed out the night before because of health issues.
King and Cathy could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The 70-minute conversation was primarily focused on bringing an awareness of racial inequality in the United States.
Many white evangelicals look at the history of slavery and try to find ways to redeem it, said Jemar Tisby, author of “The Color of Compromise.” White theologians and pastors would historically cast slavery as redeeming because African slaves would convert to Christianity.
Gerardo Martí, a sociologist at Davidson College and author of “American Blindspot,” described Giglio’s comments as “classic slaveholder theology” because the benefits of enslavement were often used in justifying the institution.
“It was not just a poor choice of words,” Martí said. “It displayed an ignorance of what this phrase blessing of slavery meant, how this argument had been made to justify the oppression of blacks, and a God-ordained way of life.”
Martí, who watched a recording of the discussion, noted that it focused on general awareness of racial inequality but did not dive directly into the topic of police brutality. During the conversation, Giglio and Cathy talked about what police and their families might be feeling as a result of the protests.
“It makes it out to people’s feelings,” Martí said, adding that it appears Giglio was trying to “soften this language, because maybe that’ll help them to have the attitude change.”
The event was highlighted online by Nicola Menzie, founding editor of Faithfully Magazine, which elevates Christian communities of color. Menzie said she thought Giglio was not trying to minimize slavery but was using an imperfect analogy about the financial advantages whites gained from enslaving others.
“We equate blessings as coming from God,” she said.
At the same time, Menzie noted that more conservative Christians have been participating in the recent wave of protests over police brutality than she has seen in previous years. “Something has turned in this moment,” she said. “I feel like more people feel like they can put their foot in this, whether it comes out awkwardly or not.”
She noted that Chick-fil-A’s Cathy, in the discussion Sunday, appeared to shed tears and walked over to Lecrae, shining the singer’s white sneakers as a sign of humility and offering him a hug.
“It can come across as performative,” she said. “At the same time, I don’t want to dismiss that. This is a journey, especially for white people.”