June 27, 2020

Letter to White Evangelicals from a Black Pastor

The following is an open letter shared by Pastor Freddy Haynes, the Senior Pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, TX. Many of you will find this letter difficult to read, I urge you not to let offense cause you to stop too soon in your reading. Instead, let it cause discomfort that can humble your heart to hear what heaven might have to say to you in this time of history.

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts..." - Hebrews 3:15
“...if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land." - 2 Chronicles 7:14

With Sincere brotherly love, Paul Swearengin, NPE

Dear Colleagues in Christ,

During this Coronavirus crisis, we are once again witnessing the devastating racial disparities in our nation’s public health. Being born Black is a preexisting condition that continues to be criminalized and deemed worthy of mortal neglect. This nation has caused us to conclude with the rapper Ice Cube that our skin is our sin. We have ministered to grief-stricken congregants and communities as COVID-19 has spotlighted the pervasive systems of racism and the disproportionate advent of Black death. Black people have been tested least while dying the most. We are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than our white counterparts. The racial sickness beneath the surface of the virus’ deadly spread in our communities has made international headlines, but there have been no healing words from you denouncing the disparities; no show of Christian force to confront the fissures that allow these medical and racial viruses to thrive, especially in neglected and impoverished communities. We are horrified. We are heartbroken. Self-appointed vigilantes hunted down and killed Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia; it took months for them even to be arrested.

Breonna Taylor was murdered in her sleep when plain-clothed police used a no-knock warrant to enter her home and indiscriminately end her life. They shot her eight times in her sleep. Maybe you have watched the excruciating 8 minute and 46-second video of the Minneapolis police choking the last breaths from George Floyd as the officer kneed on his neck and callously almost smiled as he did so. We are sure that you understand that many in our community are emotionally drained and in pain because of the never-ending nightmare that has unfolded during this pandemic. Our sorrow has been magnified by your appalling silence and your glaring absence from the scenes of the crimes calling for justice.

You do know that this nation has an ugly history of passing policies that specifically disadvantage Black people… Now we must repair the legacy of damages by passing policies that specifically restore the spiritual, social, political, and economic lives of Black people

We are writing this missive wondering if your love for our Lord and belief in the Bible does not inspire and empower you to stand up for justice and speak up for the voiceless? Ralph Waldo Emerson attended a Bible Society Convention in a southern state. The convention was held in a room where the window opened on a slave market where Blacks were being auctioned off as property. Emerson describes the scene: “One, therefore heard the glad tidings of great joy whilst the other regaled with ‘Going gentlemen, going…’” The experience of Emerson illustrates the hideous hypocrisy and original sin of white Christianity in America. Those who were studying the Bible during a conference in a slave state had edited out of their biblical hermeneutic a gospel that “sets the captives free.” Worse, their belief in the God of creation did not open their eyes to the humanity of Black people. Do you not wonder why at least one of the pious conference attendees was so convicted by the liberating good news in the Bible that they didn’t run out of the symposium of saints and protest the sin and shame of slavery? No one attending the conference was motivated by the ministry of Moses to leave the comfort of the confab and tell the auctioneer and upholders of the system of slavery to “Let God’s people go.” Sadly, there was no Amos who stood up and challenged the conventioneers to “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream.” Heaven and history now judge them guilty of the sin of silence in the face of inhumanity, iniquity, and injustice.

Is the sin of silence in the face of the suffering of and enslavement of Black people being passed on through the generations? Has it been passed down through the spiritual genes of white evangelical Christianity to ignore injustice while being complicit with systems of racism? Honestly, it feels that way to us. It is unfathomable and inexplicable to us that the white evangelical pulpit, so visibly and vociferously present for right-wing, pro-life politicians and President Donald Trump, remains invisible and blind to the realities of racism and mute about brutal police violence that kills Black people. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lambasted Christian ministers from the Birmingham Jail. “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” Your appalling silence is deafening and disappointing.

We know that you have a powerful platform and we have seen you wield great influence on politicians to advance your moral agenda. We don’t understand why your moral imagination does not include using your influence to dismantle systems of oppression and rid this nation of her original sin? We don’t understand why you have not signed up to be our allies in our battles against bigotry and brutality in policing? We are baffled because you have not used your considerable clout to stand for social change that would end racial injustice in this country. You’ve been a headlight of the vehicle of society on issues of abortion but a taillight on issues of racial injustice. Your “pro-life” agenda causes you to passionately fight for our rights before we are born but you don’t fight the death-dealing culture that aborts the life expectancy of Black people in this country after we are born; when we are here, living and breathing and not breathing and dying.

The death-dealing culture we speak of has exploded in uprisings across the country. As Fannie Lou Hamer said decades ago, Black people are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Dr. King instructed that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” You are a part of the power structure and system that has refused to hear our hearts and to acknowledge our pain. Can you hear us now? The policing system that serves and protects your white communities occupies and oppresses our Black communities. Can you hear us now?

The murder of George Floyd was caught on video but we know so many others in our communities have been brutally, if not fatally victimized by police violence but didn’t have the benefit of video. Can you hear us now? White militias show up at state capitols armed with weapons of mass destruction to demand the opening of the economy so they can be served and get haircuts and they are treated with dignity. But when Black protestors express their anger and frustration the response is militarized. The Commander-in-Chief quotes this nation’s racist past when he tweets “when the looting starts the shooting starts.” Can you hear us now? We have had to console our traumatized children who have had sudden breakdowns of weeping as they reflected on the killing of Black people in “real-time.” Can you hear us now?

We have heard, but we hope it is not true, that white evangelical Christians don’t stand for justice for Black people because they are “more white than they are evangelical.” Dr. Renita Weems says “Make no mistake about it: evangelicalism is white supremacy disguised as religion.” You will have to interrogate your faith walk to determine if this is true. We will just say that from our perspective it appears to be true. We do know that the original sin of the White Church in America is racism. White evangelical Christianity was complicit in the slave trade and the enslavement of our ancestors. White evangelical Christianity modeled and supported Jim and Jane Crow segregation. The track record of white evangelical Christians on issues of race and racism has been abysmal, but the relationships and Christian fellowship that many of us have with you have given us the hope that this generation can be the generation that has the moral imagination and Christian love to overcome the sins of the past. We have faith that we can create a new Church in America that will in turn (and in time) create a new America.

It is our prayer that the white evangelical church will rise to the occasion and meet the challenge of this decisive hour. We are praying that your Christology will reunite Jesus and Justice in holy wedlock. We are praying that you will catch a fresh vision of God’s will for the family of humanity. We know that you are familiar with the story of Peter and Cornelius in the Book of Acts. Cornelius was a Roman soldier, a representative of the occupying and oppressive Roman Empire. These soldiers were known for enforcing Roman repression through terror and crucifixions. However, Cornelius was one who used the power of his privilege for the underprivileged. Cornelius, a Roman soldier, had privileges he possessed because of the benefits that came with his birth as a citizen of the powerful Roman Empire. How are you using your privilege in this crucial hour? Cornelius was conscious of the privileges that opened doors for him because of his inherent affiliation with the empire. Cornelius had an encounter with God in a vision. God was up to something because simultaneously, Peter had an eye-opening vision that set him free from the restrictions of his race. The vision that Peter had was an alternative to his divisive and repressive reality. The vision from God called Peter out of his comfort zone. It is worth noting that this vision was given in Joppa. It was in Joppa that God instructed the prophet, Jonah, to get over his prejudices and preach to non-Israelites in Nineveh. Peter engaged in doctrinal disobedience when he associated and fellowshipped with an Italian representative of the oppressive status quo. In the process, he destroyed the walls between Jews and Gentiles in the Christian family and built a bridge. Peter and Cornelius had a revolutionary vision of restructuring. Will you join us and have the moral courage to reimagine a redemptive restructuring of our nation that is characterized by justice for all. Can we reimagine an America where ALL Black lives matter?

We pray that since white people created racism and white Christianity has given cover to racism that you will take the lead to “cancel” systemic racism. Cancel culture is a modern internet phenomenon where one is ejected from influence and condemned to shame because of their questionable, if not unacceptable behavior. Cancel culture is caused by a critical mass of people who are done with a particular person; it is a final and collective judgment of the people. Just as Jesus canceled the culture of sickness when He saw suffering, and canceled the culture of sexism when He intentionally included and ministered to women, and canceled the culture of hunger when He fed the multitude, we are calling on you to form a Christian critical mass and cancel the culture of racism.

You can begin to cancel the culture of racism by having the humility to listen to and learn from Black people about racism. Your whiteness does not make you an expert in racism and racial injustice. It is vital that you finally hear us. We are done with “kumbaya moments” where we join hands and sing “We Shall Overcome.”  We are done with preaching in each other’s pulpits and temporarily feeling good because we have briefly escaped our respective comfort zones. You will not be able to cancel racism if you don’t know how racism operates in systems and structures. Racism is not simply about you being mean to us or calling us the “N” word. Racism is structural. It’s like going to a restaurant and realizing a “closed” sign facing those who are on the street, but you notice there are patrons inside the restaurant enjoying the food and the atmosphere. Our community has been locked out of the restaurant of privilege and justice, while you enjoy the privileges of being inside and partaking of the meal of prosperity and opportunity. Please don’t believe that just because a few of us make it in that the culture of systemic racism doesn’t exist.

After listening and learning what racism is and how it operates, we want you to use your considerable influence and preach and teach about racism as much as you preach and teach about evangelism and discipleship and prayer. Use your connections to influence politicians to pass policies characterized by racial justice. You do know that this nation has an ugly history of passing policies that specifically disadvantage Black people. The Black Codes, The Dred Scott Decision, Plessy versus Ferguson, convict leasing system, voting poll taxes, redlining, blockbusting, and exclusion from FHA loans up until the 1950s are just some of the targeted policies that hurt and hindered our communities. Now we must repair the legacy of damages by passing policies that specifically restore the spiritual, social, political, and economic lives of Black people who have suffered from such racist policies throughout this nation’s history.

Finally, we need you to show up and speak up as allies at the scene of the crime of racism. Speak up and denounce racism in policing. Speak up and castigate medical apartheid, environmental racism, and food, job and opportunity deserts. Speak up and end voter suppression. Speak up when the president, you adore, uses his bully pulpit to bully us with his racist tirades and tweets. We are not asking for charity, but we are demanding justice.

We pray this letter finds you strong in the faith. We submit it to you with love and hope. Please know that we pray for you. We are praying for our sick country. We are praying for our wounded world. Let us pray and work together to end this long night of pain and division and usher in a scintillating new day of love and liberty, joy, and justice.

Peace and Power,

Frederick Douglass Haynes, III, Senior Pastor, Friendship-West Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas. Co-founder Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Inc.

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