A letter to White leaders about White supremacy and Christian nationalism
“Dad, you know something really disturbing? They put up a Confederate flag in the Capitol.”
My seventh-grader walked into the kitchen for lunch in shock last Thursday. His virtual class had been processing the prior day’s attack on the US Capitol—the first time in history the Confederate flag entered the Capitol in an act of insurrection.
A few days before, in our middle school youth group, another student had shared he was worried about civil war. As the leader, I had downplayed the threat given the anxiety our students already feel these days. But now his words were haunting me.
To many of us, the troubling events on and around January 6 were about more than “just” race. Some are upset about the violation of the sacred halls and traditions of the country, or about threats to democracy, or fear of authoritarian dictatorship. All disturbing. But personally and as a faith leader, the elements of racial inequality and injustice are the most troubling for me, and are inextricably woven through the rest.
I can’t shake the images of people walking the halls of the Capitol casually for hours, waving both Confederate flags and flags proclaiming Christian faith. Following acts of destruction and other federal crimes, most were allowed to simply walk away freely that day. White privilege and White supremacy were on full display—and mobilized in the name of Jesus.
I’m writing this post from the perspective of a White leader primarily to White leaders, in the hope of suggesting some ways forward toward reflection, repentance, and action in light of this month’s events and the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., which we celebrate this week.
Hearing King’s rebuke to White Christian leaders
In April 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He was responding to the criticism of White pastors and clergy members in his community that protests and calls for reform were too much, too soon. King respectfully disagreed.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. …
For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
Later in September of that same year, in that same city, a bomb exploded just before a “Youth Sunday” service at 16th Street Baptist, killing four teenage girls. The bombers weren’t arrested. The White church mostly remained silent.
Justice delayed, justice denied.
Church historian Jemar Tisby points out, “The most egregious acts of racism, like a church bombing, occur within a context of compromise. The failure of many Christians in the South and across the nation to decisively oppose the racism in their families, communities, and even in their own churches provided fertile soil for the seeds of hatred to grow. The refusal to act in the midst of injustice itself is an act of injustice. Indifference to oppression perpetuates oppression.”
This “justice denied” was not part of conversations I heard as a kid. I grew up on a farm in the remnants of the Old South. We were a border state—I knew I had relatives on both sides of the Civil War, and once I found an old Confederate coin while wandering through a corn field. Slavery and Jim Crow segregation were literally in the ground of my childhood, but we talked about them as long-ago history more than present-day problems. In my small town, it was assumed that King and the civil rights movement of the 1960s mostly “solved” things. Any problems current-day minorities experienced were perceived as a result of poverty or personal work ethic. We even pointed to middle class Black families in our town as proof that race wasn’t an impediment to success.
Today I live in Los Angeles, with the age of social media revealing assaults on Black and Brown bodies all over the country. Intensity has been building since Michael Brown’s 2014 death in Ferguson, Missouri, and exploded nationally (even globally) in 2020 following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. With each shocking story, I hear people of color asking White leaders to respond—to speak out against racism, racial violence, White supremacy, and the resulting injustices perpetrated when we remain silent. To quote another well-known King rebuke, "In the end, we remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
What does all of this have to do with the attack on the Capitol last week? Everything.
Fuller’s president, Mark Labberton, who published responses to events last week and last summer, wrote, “There is a temptation to view these occasions as isolated instances of radical hatred. But this violence is sadly not unique—it is in the core of our nation’s existence and the expressions of violence against non-white bodies that have been a perpetual rhythm since America’s founding.”
This is who we have been, and this is who we still are.
A distinctly American Christian problem
The events of January 6 also have been called a “Christian insurrection.”
Images of the attack feature crosses, “Jesus saves” signs, banners aligning Trump and Jesus, and slogans like “God, Guns, & Guts made America.” The story of the Israelite’s march around Jericho was evoked, as well as the “Armor of God.” The president’s rally inciting the attack included a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
Historians are drawing clear links between our painful racial past and the events in Washington, in particular Reconstruction-era rage that led to White supremacist violence both then and now. These movements have always dragged Christianity along into the fray. The KKK was founded at this intersection of White supremacy and faith, instigated by a Methodist preacher and others who burned crosses and brandished the Bible in the name of genocide against Black bodies.
But White supremacy reaches much farther than extremist groups. It seeps into our church sanctuaries and youth rooms—often unseen.
InterVarsity leader and author Brandi Miller explains, “The Church most often prefers focusing on good and spiritual intentions for unity over understanding our involvement in racism in the United States. It is this removal from our historical reality and our inability to look racism square in the face that causes the Church to fundamentally misunderstand what White Supremacy is (and by extension to do anything about it). We understand racism as individual racist moments instead of a historically entrenched system of oppression rooted in capitalism.”
Tisby ties these threads through American church history to today as part of the cloth of Christian nationalism, which he warns is the “greatest threat to Christianity in the United States.” Christian nationalism is an unholy mashup of God and country played to the drumbeat of racism. According to the ecumenical movement Christians Against Christian Nationalism, this mashup ultimately distorts “both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and ... often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.”
Can a Christian love their country? Sure. But Christians pledge fealty first to the way of God’s kingdom, which is a way of justice, humility, and self-giving love. We cannot tie this allegiance squarely with any candidate or political party.
Pastor and author Eugene Cho warns that Christian nationalism is a form of idolatry, concluding, “Using Jesus to promote nationalism is simply not the way of Jesus.” This idolatry has been on full display before, during, and after last week’s attack.
Again, this is who we have been, and this is who we still are. Seeing it clearly is the first step toward plotting a way forward.
What can we do? What must we do?
You might be appalled about recent national events, or you might be thinking, “But I don’t support these views or act like this. It’s not my problem to solve.” Our stories all diverge in unique ways, but for those of us leaders who identify as White, owning the overlap is a critical part of any movement toward racial healing.
Based on my own journey, here are a few actions White youth ministry leaders can take to do something about racism and White supremacy today.
Tweet this: Our stories all diverge in unique ways. For White leaders, owning the overlap is a critical part of any movement toward racial healing. Read more from FYI Director and author Brad Griffin.
Practice confession and repentance by revisiting our own history
A couple of summers ago, I was in Alabama and made sure to visit the newly-opened lynching landmark in Montgomery, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice created by the Equal Justice Initiative. It was sobering to walk among steel pillars hanging from the ceiling, representing thousands of Black lives ended through locally-approved terrorism all across the US.
Throughout the landmark, each pillar represents a county. I located the county where I grew up in Kentucky, and where my grandparents grew up during the height of lynching in the early 1900s. I never met my grandfather on my dad’s side, but as I stood there looking at the hanging pillar for Fleming County, where both he and my father were raised, I saw the name Grant Smith and the date of his death, and I remembered a photo I had seen as a child.
Once in a family album I’d noticed a picture of my grandfather as a boy dressed in a Klan robe (I had to ask what it was). That’s all of the story I knew. But on that hot summer day as an adult in Alabama, I realized that my grandfather had probably been there bearing witness to Grant Smith’s death.
I’m implicated in that death by the sins of my ancestors, and this requires confession and repentance. Repentance might look like speaking out against the lynchings of the Grant Smiths of today like Ahmaud Arbery, who was attacked by White men while on a run in his neighborhood, or 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot walking home from buying candy. It might look like speaking out against racialized police brutality. It might also look like learning about racial bias and working against it in myself, and for the sake of the diverse young people in my ministry.
To repent is to turn, so we might say repenting of racism is turning toward anti-racism.
In addition to exploring our personal histories, we may also need to talk openly about the histories of our denominations and traditions when it comes to racism. This may require some research. I once served on staff at a downtown church that had a cornerstone engraved with coded segregation language. It didn’t take much exploring to uncover the truth, which I then unpacked with our students.
We have to tell stories like this to young people in order to free the past of its power over us—the power of sin to bind us. We have to disrupt the narrative in order to change it and move forward.
Talk openly with young people about race and racially-motivated violence
The teenagers around us are connecting dots on their own, but they need us to name and process what we see and how it is tied to racism. Leaders and parents, our word choice matters. In light of last week’s events, educator Alyssa Hadley Dunn suggests,
Think about the language that the media is using, especially when this first started happening. What does this language mean? What does it reveal and what does it obscure? (Hint: Racism.) For example: “protestors” versus “terrorists,” “protest” versus “attack” or “coup.”
Talk about the reasons for hate crimes and the ways social media facilitates and foments racial rage. When Twitter blocked the president’s account on January 8 (and later closed it), my teenagers just rolled their eyes. They’ve been asking for four years, “Why doesn’t Twitter shut down his account?” because they know what bullying is. And they know none of this behavior would be allowed at their school—or most any school in America.
Language about race is never neutral. FYI advisor Montague Williams, a scholar on race, theology, and youth ministry, writes, “Race is not and has never been a neutral concept. Rather, it is based on the myth of whiteness, which places human beings on a spectrum from white (top) to black (bottom).”
Talk about this myth—and its very real impact—with students in your life. What do they see in their schools, in their neighborhoods, and in your church? What racial violence has happened close to home for your students, and what causes could be behind it? How do race, socioeconomics, immigration status, and power play out in your community?
I’m so grateful to teammates Kat Armas, Jennifer Guerra Aldana, and Ahren Samuel for creating a guide to do just that, Talking about Race with Teenagers. One of the most helpful features is a full glossary of terms (like Whiteness, colorism, and internalized oppression) that you may have heard but struggle to define.
Listen to, read, and learn from voices of color
Discussing race with young people can quickly expose gaps in our knowledge and understanding. Martin Luther King Jr. also wrote from Birmingham, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
It can be embarrassing to learn as an adult about historical figures who weren’t part of your education, family, or church conversations growing up. I remember learning the name Emmett Till as a seminary graduate, and being appalled that I was just hearing the story of this 14-year-old whose lynching created outrage that fed the early steps of the civil rights movement. Just a few years ago, my coworker Jenn told a story about meeting Dolores Huerta, and I had to ask, “Who’s Dolores Huerta?” I was ashamed when I realized the importance of this civil rights icon and my lack of education—my “shallow understanding.”
These moments present us with opportunities to learn and grow. We can do the research. Read up on history. Listen to leaders of color.
At FYI we’ve created several lists for further reading and listening, (the most updated list can be found here). In addition to some of the authors already mentioned in this post like Jemar Tisby and Montague Williams, I have found the following especially helpful in my own growth:
- Ibram X. Kendi’s work distinguishing between “not racist” and “antiracist”
- Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, tracing slavery in America from its roots to today.
- The podcast series Seeing White from Duke’s Center for Documentary studies, hosted by John Biewen and Chenjerai Kumanyika.
- Latasha Morrison and her organization Be the Bridge, which includes faith-based content for adult and youth groups.
Take a good look at who is in your life
While we want to be mindful not to burden leaders of color around us to do the work of helping us learn, we absolutely can’t live in antiracist ways without genuine cross-cultural relationships. Good White people are famous for having “my [one] Black/Latino/Asian friend,” but what are our relationships really like? Who are our actual neighbors, friends, colleagues, and church members? Who are other ministry leaders in the community we connect with? How can we expand our circles or engage better within them?
For my entire marriage, my wife and I have lived next door to people of color, and at times have had housemates of other races. This proximity does not mean we fully understand their lives, but it gives us lots of small opportunities over time to share updates, stories, pain, and joy together. Similarly, our kids have grown up in a majority-minority public school system, learning from students, teachers, and administrators from different backgrounds than our own. At home and in their schools, we have worked to learn names, hear stories, and model openness to difference.
These regular, everyday practices haven’t saved us from falling into the traps of whiteness, but they have grounded us in reminders that our stories are not the only ones that matter. And this kind of slow, regular, everyday rhythm is part of how we will undo both personal and systemic racism.
This is critical both in our homes and in our ministries. My teammate Ahren Samuel writes, “Listening to students share their stories and cultural experiences is how we learn from one another. We can’t know what we don’t know and we can’t honor our students’ truly authentic selves without stepping into their lives, neighborhoods, and families in order to get to know them holistically.”
Be willing to try—and to risk getting it wrong
Last summer after George Floyd’s death, I made a mistake with our FYI team. In an attempt at maintaining normalcy in the midst of uncertainty, I plowed forward in a staff meeting without acknowledging the pain in our country or the way it might be personally impacting teammates of color. A staff member followed up to help me see what I had missed. I was disappointed in myself, but reached out to individuals and apologized to the entire team once I understood more of the pain I had caused by failing to name reality.
I have to admit that it took a long time to work through my insecurity about making such a big blunder. As a White leader, I have had to come to terms with the certainty that I will make mistakes and missteps working with a diverse team. It wasn’t the first time, and won’t be the last. But we can’t quit. We have to be open to try, open to learn, open to get it wrong, apologize, and try again. We will most certainly face critique and correction, which can feel paralyzing. But it can also open up beautiful opportunities to grow in grace, humility, and wisdom.
As we honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy, and as we look ahead toward a presidential inauguration in which we will welcome the first elected Black, Asian American, and female vice president of the United States, let’s take to heart these words toward the end of King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
Now is the time. The time to reckon with what has been exposed. The time to lean into hard conversations. The time to be creative in our ministries.
Because the time is always ripe to do right.
Tweet this: The “silence of our friends” can speak volumes. FYI Director Brad Griffin shares a message from the heart, offering 5 actions White youth ministry leaders can take to do something about racism and White supremacy today.