Subverting White Discipleship and the Myth of an Apolitical Jesus, Part 2: 
Divided by Race


This week Rachel Held Evans tragically passed away and I’ve been in shock, angry, and grieving. I had no idea how much her death would affect me. We only met once, but I’ve followed her work for a decade or more, and she’s been a consistent advocate for my wife’s work. In fact, my wife spent a week with her last year as one of the speakers at Evolving Faith, a conference Rachel co-directed. I’m really sad that I wasn’t able to attend. When I met Rachel here in St. Paul at a different conference a few years back, I was struck by how she made me feel like we were old friends. Her authenticity was her superpower. She processed her faith in public, demystifying complex theology and making it accessible to a broader audience.

I seriously considered interrupting this series to write a stand-alone tribute to her, because Rachel was a faithful voice for those of us who are cursed to critically evaluate our faith not just intellectually but also emotionally. She used her head and her heart to follow Jesus and blazed a trail for those of us who were handed a form of Christian faith that hollowed us out on the inside. She asked the questions that forced us to grapple with the ethics of faith and to grow in emotional intelligence. Her leadership in the online space is a large part of how and why I still blog.

So, I’m continuing in this series as a tribute to Rachel. I think she would have enjoyed reading some of it, and pushed back with incisive questions. But I also think she would have cheered me on as she did so many others. She loved to see people explore faith and theology with an eye toward justice for those who are most often overlooked or mistreated. She was an fierce advocate and a faithful accomplice—which makes for good motivation to keep writing this series.

Recapping Part One

In this series, I’m exploring the intersections of being the church in America, how American racialized society forms our social imagination, and how that formation affects the perspectives of the privileged when it comes to political engagement and biblical interpretation. If you haven’t already read the first post in this series, I’d encourage you to read that first. You are less likely to understand this post without the context of the first. But, to recap, in part one I set the stage for this series by pointing out that much of the biblical narrative revolves around the motif of God’s people in exile. This is true not only of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), but also of the New Testament. God’s instruction to God’s people is for them to remain distinct in their convictions and faithful to God by being an alternative society within society. But perhaps paradoxically, God also instructs God’s people to engage in the politics of Babylon. God calls God’s people to “seek the shalom of the city”. That word shalom is loaded. It isn’t just the “peace” that is an absence of conflict; it has deep and far-reaching dimensions. Shalom is holistic well-being, right-relatedness, ecological flourishing. To seek the shalom of Babylon necessarily means God’s people cannot withdraw, cannot disengage, cannot be apolitical.

However, recently in the United States there’s been a trend among some white evangelicals, and even some white Neo-Anabaptists, to advocate for an apolitical vision of Jesus and disengagement from “politics” in our respective contexts. How did we get from “seek the shalom of the city” to “Jesus wasn’t political and neither should we be”? Part of the answer to that question has to do with the racialization of America.

Babylon is Racialized

The ‘Babylon’ that God’s people are called to engage might be a totalizing military empire like Rome or it could be a democratic republic like the United States. “Babylon” is the earthly context in which God’s people live as exiles. It is the domain where the powers flail about in their final death throws. Since they have been defeated in principle in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, their days are numbered. But in the meantime, humanity continues to suffer at their hands. While the Kingdom of God is currently breaking in, God’s people are exiles in every national context. Our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. This means followers of Jesus who live here in America engage American society as an exilic community, and this American ‘Babylon’ is racialized.

Racialization is not a term that is used a lot, but it’s an important one. Perhaps one of the best resources written for followers of Jesus in America that details the racialization of American society is Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Drs. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. Emerson and Smith use their sociologist skills to expose much of what often remains hidden to white followers of Jesus in America about the role race plays in our theology and practice. They helpfully define things like “race,” “racism,” “racialized society.” Those definition are instructive for our purposes too.

Race is a “social construct [that] arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to justify the overtaking and enslaving of whole people groups.” (p.8)

Racism is “not mere individual, overt prejudice or the free-floating irrational driver of race problems, but the collective misuse of power that results in diminished life opportunities for some racial groups. Racism is a changing ideology with the constant and rational purpose of perpetuating and justifying a social system that is racialized. The justification may include individual, overt prejudice and discrimination, but these are not necessary. Because racialization is embedded within the normal, everyday operation of institutions, this framework understands that people need not intend their actions to contribute to racial division and inequality for their actions to do so.” (p.9)

Racialized Society is “society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships. A racialized society can also be said to be ‘a society that allocates differential economic, political, social, and even psychological rewards to groups along racial lines; lines that are socially constructed.” (p.7) [1]

America has always been a racialized society. From its inception, “all men are created equal” did not mean that those who considered themselves “white” also considered those who were labeled “black” equal in any significant way. Even the very one who penned those words was himself a slave-owner.

Jonathan Walton is an InterVarsity Area Director in New York, a published poet, and author of the new book Twelve Lies that Hold America Captive. He writes about the this “equality” as one of the “myths” that are involved in WAFR (White American Folk Religion):

…with the myth that we are all created equal running in the background of the American operating system, adversity turns into a problem for the individual, not for the collective. WAFR’s assertion that we are all created equal implies that if I am behind, no one is to blame except me. If equal opportunity is the goal and the reality, then we all have the same starting line. The outcome is my fault or my credit at the end of the day. To implicate the elaborate system of social barriers keeping me, my family, my people group, or my culture in perpetual poverty is a cop-out. I need to take personal responsibility. The effects and influence of barriers and opportunity structures are minimized, if not wholly dismissed. (p.65) [2]

A racialized society is one with a hierarchy of barriers that impede opportunity for some and create steps toward success for others. The fact that America has always been a racialized society belies the myth that “equality” was ever guaranteed to all its citizens. Meanwhile, American Christians who have bought into the dominant folk religion are ill-equipped to even recognize this lie, since it is the water in which their churches swim. This is confirmed by research throughout Divided by Faith:

“As heirs of traditional values that make the United States distinct, white evangelicals overwhelming [sic] hold both that the United States offers equal opportunity for all and that inequality results from lack of individual and noncompetitive practices, such as accepting single-parent homes, having too many children, not stressing education, being too willing to receive welfare, and being unable to move beyond the past. White Americans favor individualistic explanations over structural ones. White American evangelicals are even more inclined to this pattern.” (p.109)

This heavily influences what white American evangelicals think about race:

“Much research points to the race problem as rooted in intergroup conflict over resources and way of life, the institutionalization of race-based practices, inequality and stratification, and the defense of group position. These are not the views of white evangelicals, however. For them, the race problem is one or more of three main types: (1) prejudiced individuals, resulting in bad relationships and sin, (2) other groups—usually African Americans—trying to make race problems a group issue when there is nothing more than individual problems, and (3) a fabrication of the self-interested—again often African Americans, but also the media, the government, or liberals.” (p.74)

What Walton called “White American Folk Religion” is so pervasive it is simply considered “Christianity.” This normalization largely goes unnoticed until it is pointed out. But those who point it out are vilified as “heretics” and “trouble-makers.” And no one loves hunting down and excluding “heretics” as much as evangelicals.

Taking the Social Out of the Gospel

Rachel Held Evans was a frequent target of heretic hunters who sought to “farewell” her like they did Rob Bell when he questioned the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. There are large, organized coalitions of predominately white group of men who promote their beliefs about divine determinism and patriarchy who also spend time gatekeeping for white evangelicalism. A prominent member of one of those groups, John MacArthur was the principal framer of yet another “Statement” on the boundaries of their version of “The Gospel.” In it, MacArthur and the other framers make clear that the “politics” of racial justice have nothing to do with “the Gospel.”

“WE DENY that anything else, whether works to be performed or opinions to be held, can be added to the gospel without perverting it into another gospel. This also means that implications and applications of the gospel, such as the obligation to live justly in the world, though legitimate and important in their own right, are not definitional components of the gospel.” [3]

For MacArthur and millions of other white evangelicals, it is self evident that “living justly” is an addendum to “the gospel” at best, but more likely a dangerous distraction. For white evangelicals, “the gospel” is about personal, individual salvation, not community transformation and especially not social justice. The statement goes on to make this explicit.

“And we emphatically deny that lectures on social issues (or activism aimed at reshaping the wider culture) are as vital to the life and health of the church as the preaching of the gospel and the exposition of Scripture. Historically, such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel.”

Of course, preachers like MacArthur, groups like The Gospel Coalition, and other contemporary white evangelical gatekeepers aren’t the first to divorce social justice from “the gospel.” White evangelicals used Christian theology to justify slavery in the antebellum South and to justify the apartheid system of ‘Jim Crow’ laws after abolition. There hasn’t been a time in the United States when race didn’t divide the church and when white evangelicals didn’t use Christian theology to suppress political action toward greater justice for marginalized groups. The fruit of this anti-political, white discipleship has been violence.

Radicalized in a White Evangelical Church

The most recent eruption of deadly violence based on racist hatred happened just over a week ago outside San Diego. There a 19 year old white man opened fire in a synagogue called Chabad of Poway. The terrorist murdered one person and injured four others, including the rabbi. This attack mirrored several other high-profile terrorist attacks, including the Tree of Life synagogue attack in Pittsburgh only months ago, and the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand. But, there was something different about this terrorist than the others: This terrorist was a professing evangelical Christian from the Reformed or Calvinist tradition.

The Washington Post published an article on this shooting entitled: “The alleged synagogue shooter was a churchgoer who talked Christian theology, raising tough questions for evangelical pastors”. The article talks about how the terrorist posted a manifesto of sorts before committing his attack and that it not only contained White Nationalist ideology but also a clear articulation of Calvinistic, evangelical theology. This led the terrorist’s pastor and family to issue statements wrestling with where their teaching went wrong. His pastor is quoted as saying,

“We canʼt pretend as though we didnʼt have some responsibility for him — he was radicalized into white nationalism from within the very midst of our church,” [4]

This also led to several pastors of color in the same Calvinist/Reformed tradition asking questions very publicly about how this could happen. Pastor Duke Kwon, a Korean American Presbyterian pastor, reflected on this very publicly on Twitter and pointed out two important issues.

“Thereʼs a deep and ugly history of anti-Semitism thatʼs crept into the Christian church, that needs to be continuously addressed, condemned and corrected,”

He mentions, for example, that passages in the Gospels which refer to “the Jews” in relation to the conspiracy to execute Jesus have had a long and disgusting history of inciting violence against Jewish people.

The San Diego terrorist also rails against “cultural Marxism” in his pseudo manifesto. This led to Pastor Mika Edmondson to write about how he’s experienced having that label used to describe him—as the only African American pastor in the same Reformed/Calvinist denomination as the terrorist. He’s quoted as saying,

“Thatʼs a term some Reformed and Calvinist people use to resist calls for racial justice. He does use that term. I myself have been called that many times, by other Calvinist people […] This particular term is used to question a personʼs orthodoxy, because orthodoxy, within our circles, is a huge institutional currency. . . . Theyʼre suggesting that whatʼs really driving you is not the orthodox biblical faith.”

The article goes on to say,

“…resistance to discussing current-day justice issues is common in some evangelical churches, where pastors say they are only there to preach the Bible.”

“Itʼs possible to teach people in the church about personal individual salvation in Jesus Christ and still fail to instruct them regarding the ethical implications of that faith,” [Pastor Duke Kwon] said. Going forward, Kwon called for “a vision of the gospel that includes implications for the love of neighbor and those that are different from ourselves, to teach it as an essential feature of the gospel of grace and not just an add-on or an appendage to more important matters.”

The anti-Semitism of the terrorist who attacked the congregants of Chabad of Poway is part of the larger White Supremacist framework that has always formed white evangelical theology in America. In response to this terrorism, African Americans have had to form their own Christian traditions. Those traditions serve as a vital and impactful witness to what it means to be exiles in Babylon. The Black Church in America is a prophetic witness to the powers that be and a powerful witness of how to seek shalom in Babylon.

The Politics of the Black Church

Dr. Bruce L. Fields contributed to Five Views on the Church and Politics, representing the “Black Church (Prophetic) View.” He writes,

“From the witness of Scripture and of human events over time, Black people discern that God is a God of justice who cares about the oppressed, but he also calls for individuals and communities to do what is right. For them there is no inherent separation between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular.’ All aspects of life are experienced holistically, including the political sphere.” (p.108) [5]

For black people, “politics” isn’t a dirty word, because they have experienced it as a means by which God has joined with people to create greater justice, more flourishing. For black Christians in America, “politics” is merely a term for all that relates to the “polis.”

“[People] desire community and a sense of belonging. This inherent need and desire for community inevitably leads to the formulation of principles governing the behavior of the members of a group. To have community is to have the political, the forging of principles and laws arising from said community to accomplish the common good, assuming that in a given setting there is consensus on what constitutes the ‘good.’” (p.108)

According to Fields, the Black church seeks the shalom of Babylon by holding American political leaders to account, to improve the lives of those who are marginalized and oppressed in society.

“…the Black church can serve an important role *confronting* injustice and assaults on human dignity. Those who exercise authority are responsible for work under the auspices of moral law; they are not free simply to do what is advantageous to themselves, select persons, or parties. The Black church has alway strived to achieve just because conditions in the life and the teaching of Scripture demand the effort. The church has all the more reason to hold government officials to account, for their decisions affect access to basic rights of citizenship, and—even more poignantly—the experience of human dignity. The Black church and the government must cooperate in a multilayered network to achieve justice and alleviate the sufferings from poverty. As Craig Gay reminds us,

‘Justice must, therefore, be completed by mercy. Both are necessary for shalom. Providing the norm for institutional behavior, justice renders unto each his or her due, while mercy compensates for the impersonality of institutions and for the accidents of birth and circumstance.’

The Black church can be a powerful instrument to help achieve such justice and mercy.” (p.122-123)

Dr. Thomas W. Heilke, the contributor who represented the “Anabaptist (Separationist) View” agreed, writing,

“The Black church has undoubtedly taught us, especially through the Civil Rights Movement, a principle that Anabaptists would affirm: If the ruling authorities make moral claims regarding their rule, then use their language to call them to account. That is an integral part of the Christian witness to the state.” (p.128)

This seems to be precisely what Pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler, a Mennonite Pastor in North Carolina and author of the new book Fire by Night, has discovered. She writes,

“I recognize this tendency—this desire to stay clear of religious trouble—in my own church tradition. For Mennonites, nonconformity is both a source of pain and hope. It provides a theological foundation to stand against participation in militarized violence. The long line of faithfulness to the gospel of peace is rooted here. At other times, nonconformity in the hands of white Mennonites imperiled the witness of the gospel. Throughout the period of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Mennonites were at odds as to the form our political engagement should take. Should Mennonite separation from the world—our Romans 12 call to ‘not be conformed to the world’—take the form of removing ourselves from the political movement for black freedom?

Vincent Harding, alongside other Mennonites of color, demonstrated that the tradition of nonconformity could be envisioned as a call to oppose racial segregation in bathrooms, buses, courtrooms, and classrooms. Harding told Mennonites that the ‘race war’ was simply another form of violent worldly incursion against which Anabaptists must distinguish ourselves. He utilized the language of nonconformity, peace-making, and love to call Mennonites to this new theological challenge.

Harding wrote that, ironically, the response from white Mennonites was ‘non-conformity to the ways of this world [while they] slavishly and silently conformed to the American attitudes of race and segregation.’ The Mennonite historian Felipe Hinojosa explains, ‘White Mennonites did not so much disagree with black civil rights leaders as they feared what civil rights engagement might actually mean for them. White Mennonites questioned whether they were suited for political protest on the streets or promoting legislative action.’” (p.51-52)

American racialized society has more influence on the theology of white American Christians than they are often aware—even Anabaptists, who have a heritage of nonconformity and resistance to the powers that be. The cultural waters we swim in like fish can blind us to our own values, which affect our view of political engagement and our interpretation of Scripture. That’s what we address in part three: “Blinded by Individualism.”


  1. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: 2000).
  2. Jonathan Walton, Twelve Lies that Hold America Captive: And the Truth that Sets Us Free (IVP, 2019).
  3. “Statement on Social Justice” []
  4. “The alleged synagogue shooter was a churchgoer who talked Christian theology, raising tough questions for evangelical pastors” []
  5. Five Views on the Church and Politics (Zondervan, 2015).
  6. Melissa Florer-Bixler, Fire by Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament (Herald Press, 2019).