In the weeks leading up to Sunday, August 13, Emily C. Heath, a United Church of Christ pastor in Exeter, New Hampshire, was preparing her sermon for that day.
It was going to be tied to one of that day’s Bible readings: Matthew 14:22-33, the section of the gospels where Jesus encourages his disciple Peter to come to him over a stormy sea. Peter begins to walk on the water, only to become afraid and sink. Heath planned to use the story in her sermon to illustrate the importance of faith and how it helps us do the impossible.
Then this weekend happened. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a Confederate monument. Counter-protesters came to parry their vitriol with a show of support against racism and white supremacy. An anti-racism protestor in Charlottesville was killed by a Nazi sympathizer, a domestic terrorist. Suddenly, a story about someone remaining above the fray became less important for Heath than a story about someone willing to dive right in.
“I was thinking about how I’ve been reading this story, thinking that the problem was that Peter didn’t have enough faith,” said Heath, in a copy of her final preached sermon she shared with Vox. "And I began to wonder if the point wasn’t so much that Peter could have walked on water if he had been faithful enough, but that, just maybe, the point was that Peter wouldn’t have been so scared of going into waters had he not doubted that Jesus would be there with him.”
In other words: To be a Christian in a time of hatred and injustice should be to demand and offer solidarity; to do the hard work of being in the world and combatting its injustices in the here and now.
"I think the point of being a Christian is not to stay safe and dry,” Heath said. “I think following Christ means getting out of our boat, and diving in, unafraid of the deep waters, and what lies beneath. ... Instead, I’m ready to plunge into the waters of my baptism, and resist evil and oppression in every form.”
Heath was not alone in asking herself these questions on August 12. Across America, white pastors struggled with how to address and respond to Charlottesville before their white congregations. Heath, a member of a mainline Christian tradition, was not among the famous 81 percent of evangelical Christians who voted Trump into office. But she — like many pastors across the political and denominational spectrum — was challenged to question the extent of white and Christian complicity in allowing racism to flourish.
Elizabeth Wartick, a Lutheran pastor in St. Paul, Minnesota, wondered the same thing. Like Heath, Wartick was preaching on the story of Peter and the storm (most mainline Protestant traditions follow the same established order of readings in a given year). And for her, too, that story took on a new shape: the call to follow the frightened and the afflicted into the heart of the storm.
In her sermon, Wartick recalled how as a child, she'd naively assumed that racism was something from the past, or that structural racism in America was limited to the South. She recalled in her sermon how she, too, had been complicit through inaction: "Longtime residents express concern over the ‘new people’ coming to town from Davenport, or Cedar Rapids, or Chicago, and I confess that I said nothing because it was easier to say nothing. I remembered hearing that a swastika was painted on the home of a Tipton resident who is part of a racial minority and I confess that I didn’t do anything. I remembered a conversation with a woman who has lived in the county for 20 years and told me she is still called by racial slurs on a weekly basis, and I confess that I was too timid to do anything but stutter an apology.”
Yet, she said, the time for such timidity was over. Charlottesville was a wake-up call, a reminder of the importance of social justice to the overall gospel message. “We can’t keep being so paralyzed by fear or by not wanting to disagree that we let ourselves be overwhelmed by the storm,” she said. "I saw bodies in the air as a car drove into a crowd of people. I saw all the symptoms of racism, anti-Semitism, and hate coming out into the open like a cancer destroying the body it infects. And I heard a great deal of silence. I have, myself, watched in silence too often — whether in public or in private, and God help me, I repent and I will try to do better."
Wartick and Heath’s responses fall within a wider dialogue within the Christian tradition, which has often created an easy dichotomy between a focus on worldly justice and a focus on salvation and the hereafter. Throughout the mid- and late 20th century, a number of intellectual movements within the Christian sphere — from the Marxist-inspired liberation theology to feminist theology — argued not just that advocating for social justice in this world was part of being a good Christian, but that we should understand various forms of oppression as sin, or a spiritual as well as a moral cancer, one with metaphysical weight.
The traditional Christian understanding of sin as an individual problem for which the individual should repent — like, for example, pride or lust — was complemented by an understanding of sin as a structural, societal issue: something in which we are all complicit. But critics of that approach across the Christian spectrum have traditionally said that an excessive or excessively political focus on the “here and now” veers too far from Biblical principles and dilutes the spiritual nature of the Christian message: that it’s about the Bible, salvation, and Christian's personal relationship with Jesus Christ, not about “isms.”
Vox’s Jeff Stein quoted one proponent of this latter approach Monday. A black pastor in Alabama, Jimmy Freeman, decried the politicization of faith: "What most people don’t realize is you’re going up or you’re going down,” he told Stein, "they use this world to get our mind off heaven and hell.”
Charlottesville has intensified debates about racial politics in the church that have been going on for decades
Charlottesville has been a watershed moment for many pastors across many denominations. While white churches — particularly in mainline denominations — have often been heavily involved in the struggle for civil rights (and it’s important not to forget the clergy that joined the counter-protestors in Charlottesville), questions over racial justice have been central to the polarization of Christianity in the culture wars. As scholar Robert Jones notes in his The End of White Christian America, the growth and proliferation of evangelical churches was deeply rooted in their willingness to support segregation:
…articles in the leading evangelical magazine Christianity Today encouraged Christians to root out racism in their own lives, but also criticized integration. Separating people of different races through law was not portrayed as a moral evil — in fact, some argued that it was necessary to maintain peace in the South. One author declared that supporters of integration were espousing a kind of ‘Christian communism.’
Those distinctions, Jones told Vox, persist to this day. “The truth is that white Christians as a whole — especially evangelicals but also mainliners — are only beginning to deal with how the legacy of racism and white supremacy has shaped their theology, churches, and world views.”
Jones pointed to the differing way white Christians see the legacy of the Civil War, which, he noted, prompted the Charlottesville violence. He noted that a recent Public Religion Research Institute study he helped conduct found that about 80 percent of African-American Protestants see the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism, even as “strong majorities” — between 61 and 72 percent — of every other major white Christian group, from evangelicals to mainline Protestants to Catholics, say they see it as an expression of Southern pride. “That chasm,” Jones said, “tells us just how much soul-searching white Christian churches still have to do.”
Even among more progressive churches, racial reconciliation has often been more effective in theory than in worship practice. It was not for nothing, after all, that Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous statement that the most segregated hour in America was 11:00 on a Sunday morning. (It still may be: According to a 2015 LifeWay poll, 80 percent of Christian congregations are dominated by a single ethnic group).
But perhaps no tradition has had to contend with the legacy of white supremacy as wrenchingly as the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), whose decades-long contention with their history has reached a fever pitch in recent years. The SBC, established in 1845, initially defined itself as a denomination by its defense of slave owners; earlier this summer, however, a convention of SBC representatives almost unanimously passed a resolution condemning the “alt-right” and racism more generally, after days of heated debate.
Pastor James Forbis Jr., who attended that conference and was heavily involved in advocating for the resolution, expressed hope that his denomination would respond with adequate fervor to Charlottesville.
“This is exactly why I was an advocate for and a part of the process to make sure the SBC got the alt-right/white supremacy resolution passed and endorsed,” Forbis told Vox. He called the reaction of those SBC colleagues on his radar “exemplary,” expressing hope that the SBC as a body would respond with the necessary force to Charlottesville. "The majority of my colleagues in ministry across the country in their pulpits yesterday condemned the atrocious domestic terroristic events of Charlottesville, condemned the KKK, and white supremacy neo-Nazis. I myself led our church in Missouri in about five minutes of focused prayer for Charlottesville, prayer for the victims, and prayer for the families of the deceased victims. These people are nothing but agents of evil, servants of sin, and slaves to Satan.”
His words were echoed by perhaps the SBC’s most public face: Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s policy arm. Moore was swift to take action, writing an op-ed in the Washington Post that addressed a wider Christian tendency to avoid politicizing social justice. “Should we not instead just conclude that this is what a fallen world is like and pray for the final judgment to come?” Moore asked rhetorically, before excoriating that very notion: “After all, we are not our own but are part of a church — a church made up of all nations, all ethnicities, united not by blood and soil but by the shed blood and broken body of Jesus Christ.”
Like many other pastors contacted for this article, Forbis appealed to a theological idea known as the imago dei — the image of God — to drive home the theological as well as moral importance of anti-racism efforts. In the book of Genesis, mankind is said to be created “in the image of God.” For Forbes, as for many other pastors, this means that any form of racial injustice isn’t just wrong from an ethical standpoint, it’s a direct, sinful, repudiation of a divine creator’s choice to endow all people with dignity.
"The historical orthodox teaching of the imago dei … was attacked violently on Saturday in Charlottesville,” he said. He sees his role as a pastor to make sure that his flock has the theological and Biblical language and tools to respond to Charlottesville within the context of their faith. "I'm making sure all of my students from the youth ministry are well equipped to explain what the Bible teaches about racial reconciliation and how all people are created in the image of God, if any of their friends ask them,” Forbis said. "Most importantly, though, pastors need to teach how the gospel reconciles people back to God and then how it reconciles people to one another."
This piece has been updated to include a quote from Robert Jones.