“After our arrival we went up to the town of Savannah; and the same evening I went to a friend’s house to lodge, whose name was Mosa, a black man. We were very happy at meeting each other… we had a light till between nine and ten o’clock at night. About that time the watch or patrole [sic] came by, and, discerning a light in the house, they knocked at the door… they said that all negroes, who had a light in their houses after nine o’clock were to be taken into custody, and either pay some dollars, or be flogged,” wrote Olaudah Equiano in his Interesting Narrative, published in 1789. Equiano related that the patrol took him into the city jail, where he witnessed the flogging of “a negro man and woman,” but he managed to escape that fate by protesting that he was a free man, and had legal protection against such treatment. Eventually, it was not Equiano’s appeal to his free status that extricated him from this harrowing situation, but his call to a White man, a Dr. Brady, who could vouch for him.
This incident in 1767 highlights the precarious nature of life for a free African in the Atlantic World. Though Equiano had purchased his freedom during the previous year, he continued to have his Black body threatened by White men. “One day, while I was a little way out of Savannah, I was beset by two white men, who meant to play their usual tricks with me in the way of kidnapping. As soon as these men accosted me, one of them said to the other, ‘This is the very fellow we are looking for, that you lost.’” Equiano defended himself against these White men. Owing to this type of treatment, Equiano, a future abolitionist, decided it was safer for him to reside in Great Britain than in the “colonies.”
Equiano’s struggles in colonial Georgia are glaringly like the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in February this year in the same state in which three men hunted this unarmed African American man whom they thought was a thief. More so, what is common in both incidents is that White men believed that they had a right to accost and injure the bodies of Black persons, especially Black men. But Equiano’s experience with colonial patrolmen who were present to police Black bodies links directly to all the police killings of unarmed African American men from Eric Garner in 2014 to George Floyd on Memorial Day this year. Placed together, the threat against Black bodies in America is steeped in a history of White supremacy, institutional anti-Black racism, and White indifference. White Christians have been both perpetrators and implicit actors in all the former. The George Floyd killing and the protests against American racism is a critical moment for White Christians, especially White evangelicals, to denounce anti-Black racism and repent of their complicity in institutional racism in the United States.
For this writing, evangelicals comprise all Christians who believe in the core teachings of the Protestant Reformation, namely the supreme authority of scripture, salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and belief in the literal Virgin Birth, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This includes Baptists, Presbyterians, Reformed Christians, and Methodists among others. When considering these evangelicals, there were slaveholders across the board. Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists split over the question of slavery in the middle of the nineteenth century. Throughout the Jim Crow Era, Southern evangelicals gave their support; though Northern evangelicals were uncomfortable with segregation, they were complicit in its continuance and were even blind to de facto segregation in the North.
Even considering the recent history of police killing unarmed African American men and the entire history of anti-Black racism in this country, White evangelicals find it difficult to speak about systemic racism in the United States. Part of this difficulty is that there is a belief within White evangelical circles that systemic racism is a phantom, a conjured up liberal concept with no real evidence to support it. In his recent radio show on June 4, White evangelical Eric Metaxas called White guilt an irrational concept. He claimed that it is reverse racism. Metaxas went on to assert that those protesting and calling out anti-Black racism should be grateful for the Civil War that ended slavery, thankful for a William Wilberforce who ended the slave trade and then slavery in the British Empire, and praise God for churches leading the Civil Rights Movement rather than arguing that those past events are less than enough. Metaxas calls institutional racism an “invention” and “bogus.” He is at a loss to define these terms, which means he refuses to educate himself on the concept. With this position, how will Metaxas and his evangelical disciples confront extrajudicial police killings of innocent African Americans and the need for police reform? A careful hearing of Metaxas and others of his ilk reveals that his Christianity is a conflation of time-honored American ideals of personal freedom, equal opportunity, and individualism. It is difficult to decipher his evangelicalism from the Republican Party’s platform.
Christians universally believe human beings are created in God’s image, and that the people of God are to love all image-bearers. No White evangelical would admit that he or she lacks love toward African American image-bearers. But history calls the evangelical church to account for slavery, segregation, and complicity with systemic racism. Many news analysts and activists have asserted that this moment is different. There are so many White faces protesting racism and White supremacy. This is a prime moment for White evangelicals to hear the cry of African American image-bearers and African American Christians and to hear their experiences of suffering from the long night of anti-Black racism in this country. Will White evangelicals join the chorus calling out that Black Lives Matter? Or will so many White evangelicals continue to call into question concepts such as systemic racism and White guilt? Will so many White evangelicals continue to deflect with calls of “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter”? The African American church has clearly preached the Gospel of grace and faith while assuming a prophetic role in preaching against anti-Black racism and structural sin. It may be time for White evangelicals to listen and follow the lead of their African American brothers and sisters.