Larry Smith

I am a devout evangelical Christian. I am a proud Black man. I am a loving father. These three identities define nearly 100% of who I am. I tend not to speak the language of “intersectionality,” but I do recognize that who people are — or who we consider ourselves to be — is a composite of multiple layers of being. These layers often complement each other; they also may compete or even conflict. Indeed, the first two identities that I referenced conflict with each other. That conflict often causes me pain. 

The primary cause of this painful conflict is the fact that the majority of Black Christians hold substantially different views regarding racism than the majority of our white evangelical brothers and sisters. One need not be an adherent of “Black Liberation Theology” to be severely disappointed by white evangelicals’ appalling apathy (or even antipathy) toward racial justice, as well as their (not coincidental) embrace of President Trump. This is a complicated issue because, as Dr. King said, “There cannot be great disappointment where there is not great love.” 

Admittedly, I am generalizing. Many white evangelicals evince a deep commitment to racial justice, while many white progressives pay lip service thereto, especially when doing so requires what they consider to be a major sacrifice. (For example, wealthy white progressives have balked at racially integrating their children’s boarding schools). Still, evidence and experience suggest that my generalization is far from hyperbolic. (This is reflected in the ongoing racial segregation of our churches.)

One example stands out prominently. The 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, struck a deep and lasting chord with me. I was transfixed by the sight of thousands of white Americans literally placing their bodies on the line to confront white supremacists. While I am aware that not all of the people they combatted considered themselves to be racists, the fact that those “very fine people” did not abandon the rally once they learned who organized it is a sufficient reason to lump all of them together. Watching those (mostly) young white people — such as the late Heather Heyer — take such a strong stand against racism still gives me chills. I felt as close to those protestors as I ever have to any group of people I’d never met. The fact that most of them did not look like me, or even believe many of the things that I believe, is irrelevant. 

While most white Americans view Antifa and similar groups with disdain, African Americans generally embrace them. Indeed, there is a long history of African Americans forming unlikely alliances with people and organizations that most white Americans shun. For example, Black intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright and Paul Robeson found common cause with white communists. In fact, Du Bois’ challenges with being Black in America led him to write about the conflict of multi-layered identities in his inimitable 1903 work, “The Souls of Black Folk”: 

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost ...”

Returning to the anti-fascist protestors in Charlottesville, their personal commitment to racial justice is orders of magnitude beyond the “I have a Black friend” trope. Whoever was there to repel the racist hordes gets a lifetime pass to the proverbial “Black barbecue” as far as I’m concerned. (Sadly, the majority of my white Christian brothers and sisters parrot the “both sides” nonsense about which President Trump spoke.)

The willingness of white “social justice warriors” (SJWs) to stand with — or even in the absence of — Black folk frequently causes Black Christians, including me, to have a greater affinity for them than we do for our white evangelical counterparts. This is despite the fact that these SJWs often are agnostics or even atheists. I find myself stuck between rejoicing about eternal salvation with my white evangelical friends, while concurrently wishing that heaven would be filled with my white racial warrior friends who have not professed a belief in Christ. Indeed, many of them are former Christians who grew disgusted with the white church’s lack of action regarding racial and social justice.

Even as I am drawn to the passion and self-sacrifice of my white brothers and sisters who are standing firm in “the struggle,” I can’t help but be concerned that so many of them are skeptical of religious faith — or reject it outright. My admittedly imperfect understanding of scripture leads me to believe that confessing Christ as Savior is required for salvation. 

I frequently hope that I am wrong.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com

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