“Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” – Genesis 4:10
We at Christianity Today deeply love the church. Serving the bride of Christ, growing her love for God, and telling the story of her redemptive and transformative work in the world is the heart of what we do. We do not revel in the history of her sin. But we cannot love our brothers and sisters well if we cannot tell their story in truth. And we cannot tell their story in truth if we cannot confess our participation in it. The Bible is honest about the flaws of even the most remarkable people. We should follow its example.
Two original sins have plagued this nation from its inception: the destruction of its native inhabitants and the institution of slavery. Both sprang from a failure to see an equal in the racial other. As Bishop Claude Alexander has said, racism was in the amniotic fluid out of which our nation was born. There was a virus present in the very environment that nurtured the development of our country, our culture, and our people. The virus of racism infected our church, our Constitution and laws, our attitudes and ideologies. We have never fully defeated it.
The first slaves arrived upon these shores before the Pilgrims, before there was a Massachusetts or Connecticut. Slavery had been established for 113 years when George Washington was born and 157 years when the Declaration of Independence was written. Nine of our early presidents were slaveholders. Slavery meant husbands and wives, parents and children were violently torn apart and never saw one another again. It meant white men repeatedly raped hundreds of thousands of black girls and women. American Slavery As It Is, published in 1839 with extensive sourcing by Theodore Weld and Angelina Grimké, writes that slaves:
are frequently flogged with terrible severity, have red pepper rubbed into their lacerated flesh, and hot brine, spirits of turpentine, &c., poured over the gashes to increase the torture; that they are often stripped naked, their backs and limbs cut with knives, bruised and mangled by scores and hundreds of blows with the paddle…that they are often hunted with blood hounds and shot down like beasts, or torn in pieces by dogs; that they are often suspended by the arms and whipped and beaten till they faint, and when revived by restoratives, beaten again till they faint, and sometimes till they die; that their ears are often cut off, their eyes knocked out, their bones broken, their flesh branded with red hot irons; that they are maimed, mutilated and burned to death over slow fires.
This is the institution that endured on American soil for nearly 250 years. We shudder when we think not only of the physical torment but of the social suffering—the sense of humiliation and abandonment, that the white society around the slaves was often deaf to their cries and did not view them as human and worthy of love—and we wonder at the profound wound it would leave in the collective consciousness of a people. Slavery in the antebellum economy was one of the most powerful engines of wealth creation in the history of our people. It generated economic and cultural capital that flowed downstream into affluent communities, as well as opportunity for labor and investment and educational institutions that supported research, innovation, and quality of life. Yet it left African Americans utterly desolate.
Only about 42 percent of white Christians believe the history of slavery continues to impact African Americans today. Yet slavery was a symptom of the virus, not the virus itself. Even after the abolition of slavery, the ideology that had supported and formed around slavery endured. The symptom passed. The virus persisted by mutating.
The collapse of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow imposed racial segregation and oppression in the South until 1965. Since plantation owners still needed cheap labor after the Civil War, they exploited their sharecroppers and tenant farmers and often treated them just as brutally as they had before. Lynchings terrorized black families and enforced a regime of domination and control, while southern legislators found ever more creative ways of preventing blacks from voting or defending themselves and their property. In the North as well, especially as great numbers of blacks fled the oppression of the South and sought work in factories in northern cities, systematic discrimination in the housing and labor markets made it virtually impossible for African Americans to finance home ownership and build generational wealth.
Many progressive policies only deepened the social and economic divide between blacks and whites. Social security laws in the New Deal era effectively excluded the vast majority of blacks from federal retirement assistance, and the GI Bill was thoroughly ineffective at supporting home ownership and only meagerly effective at funding college education for black veterans returning from war. As a matter of policy as well as prejudice, blacks were forced into neighborhoods of ever-deepening poverty, and very few could climb their way out. Young people growing up in proximity to violent crime, surrounded by joblessness, family breakdown, addiction, and despair, could not secure a quality education, a home, or a fair shake in the job market. All this is to say nothing of the collapse of the American criminal justice system in the second half of the 20th century, which led to over-incarceration and increasingly violent clashes between law enforcement departments and the communities they serve.
Others have told this story in greater detail. We believe it is important to keep telling it in the pages of Christianity Today. The result of the story is a catastrophic wealth gap: The median net worth of black families in the United States today is one-tenth the median net worth of white families. Sixty-two percent of black children born between 1955 and 1970 were raised in poor neighborhoods, compared to 4 percent of white children. Results for the generation born between 1985 and 2000 were even worse, with 66 percent of black children raised in poor neighborhoods compared to 6 percent of white children.
The only way to explain the story above is the persistence of racial prejudice and its enshrinement into the apparatus of government. Allow me to borrow (but use in a different way) a metaphor from the scholar Wendy Doniger. Two explorers enter a cave filled with the most elaborate spiderwebs. One of them cannot locate a spider, and thus refuses to believe it exists. You see the webs, replies the other. The spider is implied. Racial prejudice is the implied spider that has woven the web of policies and practices, inequalities and abuses that have constrained black Americans now for four hundred years.
What role did the church play?
Of course, some white Christians strove at great length and great risk to abolish slavery, and many shed their blood in the war that emancipated slaves in the Southern states. Rightly interpreted, the Bible at the center of the church has been an enormous force not only for the redemption of sinners but for the advancement of justice and charity. But the exceptions were far too few. A multitude of Christian communities, including evangelical communities, were silent in the face of slavery or even complicit in it.
In fact, complicity is not a strong enough term. Much though it grieves us as people who love the church, it may be that the most monstrous sin of the white church in America was shaping a theology of racial superiority in order to legitimize and even encourage the institution of slavery. Slavery was not only permissible, many white Christians argued, but beneficial insofar as it brought gospel and culture to a benighted people. Even on the eve of the Civil War, preachers spurred on the secessionist cause by arguing it was part of God’s “providential trust” in the Southern states “to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as it now exists.” If God had ordained the racial hierarchy, who were we to overturn it?
Many of the same ministers who defended slavery in the antebellum South likewise defended the racist systems that followed after the Civil War. Many Protestant denominations split as their Southern branches defended slavery and white supremacy before and after the war. Christian ministers and lay leaders participated in lynchings, in the Ku Klux Klan, and in the defense of segregation. Although an increasing number of evangelicals came to support the civil rights movement, many evangelicals with our strong beliefs in individualism were ill equipped to recognize and dismantle the ways in which racial inequalities had been systematized in government and the marketplace.
Even after the institution of slavery faltered, the theology endured. It pronounced divine approval over racial bias and rationalized countless means of enforcing prejudice against African Americans. Bryan Stevenson puts it well: “The great evil of American slavery wasn’t the involuntary servitude; it was the fiction that black people aren’t as good as white people, and aren’t the equals of white people, and are less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving than white people.” White churches were not only complicit in writing this fiction; they gave it the imprimatur of God.
The name of Phalaris is not much remembered in the 21st century, but in classical antiquity it was infamous. The tyrant of Agrigentum on the island of Sicily, Phalaris is known for a gruesome instrument of torture: a hulking bronze bull, hollowed on the inside, set over a fire. As victims were forced into the bull and roasted alive, the nostrils of the bull rendered the screams of the dying into a sonorous groaning that filled the palace with music. You might be a guest at the feast, unaware that your entertainment came through the agony of others.
Today’s generations may say we did not invent the bull of racial injustice. But we have benefited from it. The resiliency, creativity, industry, and indomitable faith of African Americans in spite of all they have suffered is nothing short of miraculous. We have all benefited not only from their labor but also from their innovations and entrepreneurialism, their art and music, their films and poetry and books, their hymns and preaching. The transformation of black suffering into economic abundance for America, as well as art and passion and brilliance, has enriched our feast in the palace. Perhaps we can honestly say we did not know what our brothers and sisters were suffering. Now we do. So there’s only one thing to do: put down our forks and get our brothers and sisters out of the belly of the bull.
These are painful realities in a complex world. The United States has been an extraordinary force for good, a powerful advocate for democracy, human rights, and economic opportunity. The ideals it champions have brought hundreds of millions out of poverty and oppression, and its technologies and innovations and art have changed the lives of practically every person on the planet. Likewise, the American church has advanced the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ in countless ways, from sending missionaries to translating the Bible to supporting and staffing ministries that bring light and life to every corner of the world. And yet, historically, far too often, American evangelicalism has been silent on, complicit in, or an apologist for racial inequality. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.”
How then should we respond?
Two biblical narratives have been on our minds. The first (from Acts 10) concerns the apostle Peter, who believes that as a Jew he should not associate with people of other nations. Jew and Gentile, he thinks, should remain divided. Yet God shows him in a vision that he should not call unclean what God has made clean. He goes into the home of a Gentile named Cornelius, preaches the gospel, and the Holy Spirit is unleashed. This is a watershed moment in the spread of the gospel to non-Jews, when Peter recognized that what he thought was righteous was actually unrighteous.
Likewise, it’s time for white evangelicals to confess that we have not taken the sin of racism with the gravity and seriousness it deserves. The deep grief and anger over the death of George Floyd is about more than police brutality. It’s about a society and culture that allowed for the abuse and oppression of African Americans over and over and over again. We have been a part of that society and culture, and sometimes we have been the last to join the fight for racial justice. Christianity Today’s own record in this regard is mixed. Neo-evangelicals generally believed it was enough to preach the message of salvation and trust that justice would follow as a matter of course. It hasn’t. What we thought righteous was unrighteous. We repent of our sin.
But repentance is not enough. The other biblical narrative that comes to mind is the story of a tax collector in Jericho. Zacchaeus was a collaborator with the occupying Roman authority, and by adding his own extortionary fees, he plundered the wealth of his neighbors and enriched himself. Jesus encountered him and shocked the crowd by going to his home. Salvation came to the house of Zacchaeus on that day. He proclaimed, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will give back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).
Zacchaeus had not personally designed the unjust system of Roman taxation. But he had not denounced it either; he had participated in it and profited from it. So Zacchaeus did not merely repent of his ways; he made restitution. He set up what we might call a “Zacchaeus fund” in order to restore what belonged to his neighbors. Are we willing to do the same? Black lives matter. They matter so much that Jesus sacrificed everything for them. Are we willing to sacrifice as well?
Perhaps the country is not ready to make reparations. But the history of racial injustice demands personal and corporate response. Perhaps the church can lead the way in biblical restitution. I am aware of one “Zacchaeus fund” in Atlanta, where Christians who believe that African Americans have been subjected to four centuries of injustice and plunder are beginning to do their humble part to make it right. A majority-black committee assigns the funds to support rising black leaders in the church and in the marketplace. It will not be enough, but it will be something. What if there were Zacchaeus funds in every city and believers gave sacrificially, so our brothers and sisters could be restored and so our neighbors could see once again the Christlike love that overcame the world?
We have hope. We believe in the God who brings healing where there is brokenness and life where there is death. We believe that love is stronger than death. We have served in churches of all colors, and have seen the Spirit of Jesus at work.
The bride of Christ is beautiful. She can overcome this plague. Let us all do our part.
Timothy Dalrymple is the president and CEO of Christianity Today .
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 60+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more