Why Talking About Systemic Racism Can Be Difficult For Evangelical Pastors

Jun 5, 2020
Originally published on June 5, 2020 4:56 am
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Some Christian pastors are struggling with how to lead in the call for racial justice. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports that those from the evangelical tradition are more comfortable talking about individual sin and salvation, less about large-scale social reform.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Evangelical Christians focus on the need to have a personal relationship with Jesus, to confess one's sins and to seek forgiveness. It's about people as individuals. Talking about systemic racism can be difficult. Virgil Walker is an evangelical pastor in Omaha and co-host of the "Just Thinking" podcast. The most recent episode focused on the killing of George Floyd. Walker, himself African American, argued that Floyd died because of the sinful behavior of one police officer in need of salvation, not because he was victimized as a black man.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "JUST THINKING")

VIRGIL WALKER: The injustice had nothing to do with the melanin of his skin. What he suffered was due to sin. And it's not until I see myself in the same light as the man who's putting his knee in the back of George Floyd's neck - once I see myself, then I recognize my need for a savior. Apart from the grace of God, I'm the police officer.

GJELTEN: Conservative evangelicals have long railed against the notion of a social gospel, the idea that God's kingdom can be achieved in part by making things better here on earth. But Alan Cross, a Southern Baptist pastor raised in the South, says there should be no conflict between social justice and personal salvation.

ALAN CROSS: The way that we work and live in the world, how we care for our neighbors - those are all things that the Bible speaks really clearly about. So somebody who is transformed from relationship with Christ should have a transformed view of how they see their neighbor, how they perceive issues of life and justice. And you know, that's the situation that we're in right now.

GJELTEN: Many African American evangelical Christians yearn to hear that message from their pastor. Trillia Newbell (ph) attends a Southern Baptist church in Nashville.

TRILLIA NEWBELL: I want to hear that we're mourning and weeping - we weep with those who weep - 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 that pastor would speak out against that.

GJELTEN: And many are speaking out. Rob Daniels (ph), an African American pastor at a Southern Baptist Church in the Dallas suburbs, sent an emotional video message to his predominantly white congregation last week, saying he wanted them to know how upset he was by the killings first in Georgia of Ahmaud Arbery and then in Minnesota of George Floyd.

ROB DANIELS: 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.

GJELTEN: Daniels is theologically quite conservative. But as an evangelical, he has no problem seeing how sin exists simultaneously in one's own heart and in society. He says that's a false distinction. When speaking to his white members, Daniels says he urges them to consider hard questions.

DANIELS: Do I find myself seeing black people, Latino people, any person other than white - do I see them beneath me? And stay there, and deal with that. And then whatever comes out of that, that's work that you need to do before the Lord.

GJELTEN: This week, Daniels led a group from his own congregation, many of them white, to join an anti-racism demonstration in Dallas, not necessarily because he sees the solution in some government action but to make sure that people hear how deeply others are hurting.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.