Since 1997, I've been wondering, and seeking clarification on, exactly how it was that Calvinists, as those who pride themselves on having "right" doctrine, were consistently on the wrong side of the transatlantic slave trade, American slavery (in the North and the South), and supporters of Jim Crow or passive bystanders. Why didn't the power of the gospel work among these Christians in such a way that they championed the dignity and freedom of Africans and African Americans? For my own tribal reasons, I had hoped that Presbyterians would be the ones to lead the rest of evangelicalism in this discourse on race and the gospel in America but I now realize that for many Presbyterians who defend the South the issues of race are simply not too urgent. I do know for some that is not true. Under the advice of Presbyterian pastors, I have sobered and readjusted my expectations and realize now that the Presbyterians follow the lead of Baptists on the issues of race and justice as allies in the Kingdom.
The initial response to my queries over the years has ranged from deflection (like talking about the of William Wilberforce or MLK's infidelities or theology), to denial of association ("I wasn't there"), to denial of importance ("why are we talking about the past"), to defensive detachment ("those were not the same types of Christians we are today), or even denying that racists in the pasts were "true" Christians because they were engaged in sin--this is also known as the "no true Scotsman fallacy." Therefore, I am thankful for Dr. King, liberals (progressives), Southern Baptists, and President Obama because if it were not for these voices I'm not certain Reformed evangelicals would be having a broad conversation on race.
Martin Luther King, Jr: I am thankful for Martin Luther King, Jr. Had it not been for his leadership, of course, it is likely that Jim Crow statutes would not have ended when they did or at all. Moreover, even though white Christians had access to power during the Jim Crow years, there was no "William Wilberforce" for black equality from Reconstruction through the Civil-Rights Movement in the United States.
Liberals and Progressive Evangelicals: On November 2, 2014 Pastor Bryan Loritts wrote a blog post titled, "Praise God For Liberals." In the post, Loritts observed the evangelical impulse to romanticize the past in such a way that conservative, gospel-centered, evangelicals emerge as the untainted heroes of the story. Evangelicals are the heroes and liberals are the villains. However, Calvinists and conservative evangelicals are largely ignorant of the history of racial oppression that is the other side of their own tradition in the United States. Perhaps they are not the untainted heroes of orthodoxy that many are led to believe. Unfortunately, I can honestly say that had it not been for the for the work of Dr. Joel Alvis (Religion and Race: Southern Presbyterians, 1946 to 1983), Dr. Peter Slade Open Friendship in a Closed Society: Mission Mississippi and a Theology of Friendship, Dr. Stephen Haynes, (The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation) and Dr. Carolyn Dupont Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975 members of the Presbyterian Church in America would likely have ever learned about the role that race played in the formation of the denomination and in the roles of Presbyterians in South during slavery and Jim Crow. Would Presbyterians in the OPC, PCA, EPC, and so on, ever know these stories without the scholarship of "outsiders?" It does not seem likely to me given the fact that I graduated from two schools associated with the tradition and did not know any of that history until a few years ago. The dominate position seems to be craft a narrative of the "true" heroes of the story as those who left liberalism for theological reasons without noting their cultural captivity to other social currents of the day.
Southern Baptists Convention: The Southern Baptist Convention, without question, is the leading conservative evangelical denomination in the America on confessing past racism, being completely honest about being on the wrong side of racial oppression, and taking strides toward racial reconciliation (and led by very visible leaders like Russell Moore). For example, Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition initiated, led, and directed a conversation about the response of evangelicals to the Civil-Rights Movement. The entire series was highly instructive and I was honored that Justin Taylor even thought my question was worth investigating. In a follow-up discussion, Russell Moore and Matt Hall had a courageously public and transparent conversation about the failings of Southern Baptists and posted it on social media--an unprecedented move for two white males, in my experience, with high levels of credibility within conservative evangelicalism. Kudos to them!
In the 1995, the Southern Baptists led evangelicalism again by passing a racial reconciliation resolution. In 1994, the Missouri-Synod Lutherans released a denomination wide report titled Racism and the Church: Overcoming the Idolatry published by the Commission on Theology and Church Relations. This document is so outstanding that it became of basis of my book Aliens In the Promised Land. The Presbyterian Church In America did their good work on racial reconciliation at the denominational level in 2002.
President Obama: President Obama ignited a helpful conversation about humility by high-lighting that Christians were perpetrators of racial oppression in the name of the Jesus Christ and his gospel. I agreed with Eugene Scott, that the most disturbing part of the reading many white evangelical responses was reading the mental and theological gymnastics of saying that KKK members, lynchers, and so on, were not real or "true" Christians. Yes, they were.
Tribalism creates these types of blind spots. When your tribe's Christianity is a built on the foundation of "we are always right" and that "the gospel" is the fill-in the blank rhetorical solution to every problem in the world, you lose the ability to say, "those Christians in our own tradition were wrong, deceived, and we need to confess it, apologize and/or repent." You are also, then, vulnerable to believing that salvation rests on your tribe being right.
Believing the gospel does not mean that you automatically think correctly about human flourishing. The gospel does not magically fix people's thinking. The Westminster Divines knew better than to say something as overly simplistic as "the gospel is the answer." WCF 17.3 (HT: MR)
From The Westminster Confession Of Faith:
"Nevertheless, they [the saints] may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God's displeasure, and grieve his Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves." (17:3)
In conclusion, I am grateful for the leadership and forwarding thinking of liberals and progressives, Southern Baptists, and the historical reminders by leaders like President Obama to point evangelicals back to their need for the gospel and the humility to say, "we were dead wrong." Honoring your fathers should not mean white-washing history. Without these voices taking these first initial steps, I'm not certain that the rest of conservative evangelicalism would be discussing these issues. Today, I am grateful for all of them!