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Evangelical Christians Grapple With Racism As Sin

Evangelical Christians traditionally focus on individual sin and salvation. But some are taking a wider view when it comes to addressing systemic racism.
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Evangelical Christians traditionally focus on individual sin and salvation. But some are taking a wider view when it comes to addressing systemic racism.

Christians the world over have been united in their revulsion over the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, and faith leaders from across the theological spectrum have spoken out about the lessons they think Christians should draw from the incident.

Many Protestant and Roman Catholic ministers have emphasized a Christian obligation to love one's neighbor and to work for justice in the earthly world.

Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, raised the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to give aid to a man who had been beaten and left on the side of the road.

"Only the Samaritan saw the wounded stranger and acted," Curry said. "Love, as Jesus teaches, is action like this as well as attitude. It seeks the good, the well-being, and the welfare of others as well as one's self."

In a message to his "dear brothers and sisters in the United States," Pope Francis advised, "We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life."

For evangelical Christian leaders, however, crafting a response to Floyd's killing is complicated by their view of sin in individual, not societal, terms and their belief in the need for personal salvation above all. Evangelical theologians have long rejected the idea of a "social gospel," which holds that the kingdom of God should be pursued by making life better here on earth.

Among African American evangelicals, one theologian who has vigorously challenged such views is Darrell Harrison, an ordained Baptist deacon and co-host of the Just Thinking podcast.

"One way to distinguish the biblical gospel from the 'social gospel,' " Harrison tweeted last week, "is that the social gospel preaches structural transformation that works in society from the outside-in, whereas the biblical gospel preaches spiritual transformation that works in society from the inside-out."

Racism, in Harrison's view, is often misunderstood. "Biblically, ethnic prejudice is not an 'ism,' " he argued in response to George Floyd's killing. "It is hate —period. ... You end hatred by repenting and believing the gospel."

Other evangelicals take a more nuanced view of a Christian obligation to work for social justice.

"The way that we live and work in the world, how we care for our communities, how we care for our neighbors. Those are all things that the Bible speaks really clearly about," says Alan Cross, a white Southern Baptist pastor now leading a congregation in northern California. "Somebody who is transformed from their relationship with Christ should have a transformed view of how they see their neighbor or how they perceive issues of life and justice. That's the situation we're in right now."

For Cross, whose book When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus is in part a memoir of his 15 years leading a Southern Baptist congregation in Montgomery, Ala., the opposition of biblical and social gospel is a "false dichotomy."

"We don't believe that people are saved by restructuring society," Cross says. "But if you do know Christ, if you have a relationship with him, you should see the pain of people around you, and you should say, 'What can I do?' "

Many African American evangelical Christians yearn to hear such messages from their pastors.

"I want to hear that we're mourning and weeping," says Trillia Newbell, an author and Christian commentator who attends a Southern Baptist church in Nashville, Tenn., "that we are active in our community, that we are going to work to love our neighbor as ourselves, that racism and any kind of hate is evil. And that [my] pastor would speak out against that, which he has."

One evangelical speaking out in that manner is Rob Daniels, an African American pastor who leads Christ Freedom Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Lewisville, Texas, just outside Dallas.

In an emotional video message that he emailed to his predominantly white congregation last week, Daniels said he wanted his followers to know "what your pastor is thinking" in the aftermath of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and George Floyd in Minnesota.

"It has just rocked me," Daniels said, "particularly because when I see these two men, created in the image of God, I see myself. I see our three boys. And I also remember countless other incidents that look very similar to these."

Daniels is theologically quite conservative, focusing his sermons generally on the need to find personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. But he views sin as existing simultaneously in one's own heart and also in society.

"It starts first in your own heart, confronting that," Daniels told NPR, "and then we deal with the racism that exists in the hearts of others."

When speaking to his white members, Daniels says he urges them to consider hard questions.

"Do I find myself seeing black people, Latino people, any person other than white, as beneath me? Then, stay there and deal with that," he says. "And whatever comes out of that, that's work that you need to do before the Lord, that you need to repent of."

Earlier this week, Daniels invited several members of his church to accompany him in a peaceful protest against racism and police brutality.

"Most of those who came were white," he says, "and many said it was the first time they had ever marched before. It was the first time they had been among the hurting. And it gave them a real perspective. They were there in it, feeling the pain."

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Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.