The privilege and silence of white “beyond evangelicals”

Trigger warning: racism, racialized violence, silence and enabling around racial violence.

[Ed note:] I’ve been really appalled (not to say surprised) by the silence from most prominent white evangelicals – liberal, moderate, and conservative – on the Trayvon Martin case. There are a few popular white Christian bloggers and publications that have addressed the case – Fred Clark/Slacktivist and Sojourners, among others. Even uber-conservatives Franklin Graham and John Piper have weighed in. But for the most part, most white Christians – like most white Americans – have said little or nothing about this.

I have a lot more to say about this, but it’s too long for one post. For now I’ll just include a comment I left on Slacktivist’s first post about this case:

Fred, thank you so much for writing about this. I was just talking to a white Christian blogger last night about how disheartening it is to witness the silence of white Christians with a significant social media audience on this case. The same people who were investing so much time in writing about and looking into Invisible Children two weeks ago are absolutely mum on this, even though it’s an issue where awareness and spreading the word can actually make a huge difference to a grieving family. If white American Christians want to understand better why white churches have so much trouble attracting and retaining members of color, well, here’s an example. We see how little white Christians care about the issues that affect us – and in this case an issue that *everyone* should care about, because an innocent child is dead and his murderer is being protected by people who are supposed to work to see justice served.

So thank you again for posting about this. I hope others follow your example.

So I really appreciated seeing Natalie Burris’ post calling out her fellow social justice minded white “beyond evangelicals” for their silence on this case, and I appreciate her letting me cross-post it here.

Natalie Burris: Privilege and silence of white “beyond evangelicals”
(originally posted at Natalie’s Narrative)

Encouraging things are happening within U.S. evangelicalism. No longer solely aligned with Religious Right politicians, six-day creationists, anti-gay movements, and other conservative-leaning groups, many evangelicals are questioning the status quo. We’re concerned about the environment and poverty, and have moved away from a premilennial dispensationalism that disregards the now. Rather than dish out condemnation, we’ve learned to be more willing to extend grace.

Various labels describe these movements: emergent, missional, progressive. Frank Viola chose the name “beyond evangelical.” I’m conflating several different strains here, but the general direction has been away from the evangelicalism that emerged in opposition to modernism.

While these developments are encouraging, I’ve noticed most progressive evangelicals are no different from their predecessors when it comes to race. The heavy-hitters in these movements are white, and the privilege that comes with being white remains even in the new evangelical streams.

Efrem Smith often points this out, and I’ve shared how evangelicalism’s growth was spurred by corresponding growth of white suburbia and its racist underpinnings. If you follow Anthony Bradley on Twitter, he also provides great critiques of evangelicalism’s whiteness, and Lisa Sharon Harper discusses the black-white divide here.

What most determines what progressive evangelicals believe or what they feel worth promoting is not their faith. The dividing line is actually race.

A great illustration of this color line is the death penalty. Attorneys have meticulously researched the psychology behind jury selection. Researchers have found that “similar religious beliefs can lead to completely opposite policy preferences among respondents of different racial backgrounds.” Black evangelicals are more inclined to oppose the death penalty than white evangelicals, who are more likely to support it.1

Although it’s fair to say that most of these new kinds of white evangelicals have reconsidered their stance on the death penalty, to have a more consistent pro-life ethic, another illustration of the color line between white evangelicals, including the more progessive ones, and Christians of color is happening right now.

Yes, Twitter is anecdotal and unscientific. But the radio silence from white evangelicals – even the more progressive ones – is disappointing. White evangelicals yield a lot of influence, politically, economically, and in the media, enjoying massive amounts of privilege. Invisible Children’s recent “Kony 2012” campaign demonstrated that earnest, well-meaning, young evangelicals are capable of spurring world leaders to action and causing 100 million hits on a YouTube video.

Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin

But when the uproar over the murder of a black child, Trayvon Martin, goes viral, most white evangelicals are silent. Despite adhering to a religion that came from the margins, many white evangelicals’ privilege keeps them silent. White evangelicals are oblivious to the invisible knapsack (PDF) of privilege they carry around. Most don’t have to worry if their children will be shot when returning from the corner store. Most don’t even have to think about race itself. Whiteness is neutral, the air they breathe. White evangelicals can remain oblivious to the injustices that people of color face in the U.S.

Sadly, their whiteness, rather than their faith, is what informs their thinking. Here’s another take on the color line:

Blacks […] support the death penalty less than any other major social group (about fifty-eight percent in the 1998 election survey), largely because they are keenly aware of the way in which capital sentencing values the lives of black victims and offenders less than those of their white counterparts. More white conservative Christians would be likely to appreciate this flaw at the heart of the system if they interacted more with their black brothers and sisters.
[M]any black leaders are skeptical of [white evangelicals’ efforts to add black members to their churches]. In their view, such contacts have gone on for years, are largely symbolic, and have not increased white suburban evangelicals’ concern about the situation of racial minorities or the needs of the inner cities. Black leaders remark that whites want to form individual friendships with blacks, but that they balk at confronting social and political issues such as inequality in the economy and racism in the criminal justice system.2

Trayvon Martin’s murder is a major issue in the African-American community. It must hurt deeply to see a group as influential as white evangelicals not take initiative to spread the word, despite taking very energetic initiative recently to “make Kony famous.”

White “beyond evangelicals:” if you haven’t tweeted, blogged, signed a petition, or otherwise promoted the unjust circumstances surrounding Trayvon Martin’s murder, I’m interested to know why. As you can tell from the absence here on my blog, I’ve been busy, so I understand many simply don’t have time to react to every current event. But many are online all day, and many have smartphones.

I also have a broader question: do you know any people of color? If not, why not? Do you actively make efforts to read or listen to perspectives from Christians of color? If not, why not?

I’m curious about the general silence from my fellow white Christians with regard to Trayvon Martin. This silence should give us pause. Let’s examine whether our whiteness is the most important factor in our lives, rather than our faith in a subversive Christ. And to white evangelicals who push against the status quo: let’s keep pushing.

1 Melynda J. Price, Performing Discretion or Performing Discrimination: Race, Ritual, and Peremptory Challenges in Capital Jury Selection. 15 Mich. J. Race & L. 57, 87-8 (Fall 2009).
2 Thomas C. Berg, Religious Conservative and the Death Penalty. 9 Wm. & Mary Bill Rts. J. 31, 58 (2000)


  1. The trigger warnings thing is utterly ridiculous. Are we supposed to believe your readers are so weak they need to be told ahead of time about any fact or idea they could encounter that might disturb them?

    It’s stupid.

    • Ok, you don’t think posts about legitimately, seriously disturbing issues could possibly upset anyone enough that they might want warning to prepare themselves or avoid reading about them as necessary, based on what they feel they can handle. Cool.

      So what exactly is your excuse for being so bothered by trigger warnings that you’re compelled to tell people they’re “stupid?” I’d love to know.

  2. I understand, and agree, that we need to be careful about neglecting the “other” in the causes we choose. Do you have any suggestions for how to avoid doing this while simultaneously not abusing our privilege and appropriating causes that we aren’t able to understand because of our position of privilege. I don’t want to ignore problems, but my reaction to the Trayvon Martin case was similar to the Kony 2012 campaign – I don’t want to start trying to be a hero to come in from outside and save all the “little people” who clearly need my help. I can see (at least somewhat) that that’s a problem, but I’m unsure of how to move from there to a more wholesome and healing attitude.