Over the holiday break a small storm in the evangelical blogosphere broke out over Intervarsity’s recent endorsement of Black Lives Matter at their annual Urbana event. Most notably, many commented on the speech given by Michelle Higgins, director of Faith for Justice and a worship leader at South City Church in St Louis. (I suppose I should mention at this point that three of my closest friends attend South City and I’ve been there for worship once and was richly blessed by both Michelle’s work leading worship and by the sermon given by her father, who is also the senior pastor at the church.)

You can see Michelle’s speech below the jump:

Michelle Higgins – Urbana 15 from InterVarsity twentyonehundred on Vimeo.

Though I’m mostly sympathetic to Michelle, there are some things in her speech that one could reasonably criticize. Her discussion of the pro-life movement isn’t helpful, although this piece by Life Site News would be much better if it actually criticized Michelle’s real argument rather than misrepresenting her based on a failure to listen to everything she said. Michelle’s point is not to condemn certain forms of pro-life activism, but to highlight how it is much easier to go picket a clinic for a couple hours rather than actually adopt a child at risk of being aborted or currently in the foster system. The point she is making is that evangelicalism is very good at forms of activism that do not require much from us, but that we are not as good at more costly forms of activism. The way she framed the whole thing made it more likely that white evangelicals would misunderstand her, but one would hope that sites like Life Site News would handle her words more responsibly and charitably than they have in that piece.

The other significant point to consider is her endorsement of Black Lives Matter, an organization whose key principles certainly include points that conflict with orthodox Christianity. That being said, one can reasonably argue that Black Lives Matter, just as Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movements, is only loosely tied to any centralized organization. Michelle’s endorsement of Black Lives Matter shouldn’t be understood as an endorsement of the entire centralized organization, but rather of the more general movement which is a far more complex, heterogeneous thing than the centralized body.

That said, this is another rather predictable problem. As often happens in these conversations, white conservatives tend to be aware of racial issues only when a headline-grabbing event occurs and, in many cases (though not all), the headline-grabbing event is characterized by a great deal of ambiguity. The Mike Brown case is perhaps the most obvious example. Thus white conservatives know Black Lives Matter chiefly for things like the Dartmouth protests. What white conservatives generally don’t acknowledge is that while the Brown case was ambiguous, the record of the Ferguson PD on race issues is anything but. Here is just one example of what you’ll find in the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson:

ferguson-report-justice-department

Black Lives Matter isn’t simply the branch of America’s SJW campus radicals concerned with race. It’s also a far more heterogeneous movement of many different types of people trying to address clear abuses of justice like the example given above.

There is more that needs to be said on this point though. Several weeks ago I was eating dinner in a Chinese restaurant in Lincoln NE watching Donald Trump give his speech calling for a ban on Muslims entering the USA. To put that another way, I was watching a major presidential candidate (who has already called Mexican immigrants “rapists”) seriously endorse a policy that is at the very least xenophobic, if not specifically racist.

This is a man who enjoys support from 35% of polled Republican voters on average and currently leads the nomination race by 15.5% in the polls. Not only that, but I was watching this speech while sitting in a restaurant that is, in a sense, a living memorial to the legacy of American racism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries toward Chinese immigrants. And, to top it all off, I was doing all this while living in a state that was for centuries inhabited by various native groups prior to our nation’s seizing of their land and obliteration of their history and culture through the use of manipulative, dishonest treaties and boarding schools that punished students for speaking their people’s native language and forced them to dress as westerners.

And here’s the kicker: Those examples of xenophobia or racism mentioned above don’t even include black Americans. It only covers Mexicans, Arabs, Chinese, and the various indigenous peoples. Put another way, one can give a horrifying history of American racism and injustice without even discussing the racial minority that has suffered most regularly at our hands, black Americans, or the most horrifying example of racial injustice, race-based slavery.

Given all that, is it so implausible to us white Americans that our nation would still struggle with significant issues of racial injustice that are built into our legal systems as well as being hardwired into the cultural norms and habits that shape our nation’s shared life?

Is it so difficult to believe a black person when they say they are afraid of the cops, even when they are simply being stopped for expired license plates or a busted headlight or even for nothing at all? Is it so hard to believe this (white) friend of mine who fears for the safety of her black son? Is it so hard to believe our brother Thabiti Anyabwile when he writes that his one fear with moving back to the United States is what would happen to his sons?

And if all that is reasonable, is it not possible for us to be more careful about our knee-jerk reactions when a black person speaks up about modern-day American racism?

We do not have to endorse everything about the organization Black Lives Matter. We shouldn’t feel like we cannot ask questions—even critical questions—about speeches like the one given by Michelle. But we also should not be instinctively suspicious of the claims of our black neighbors. Our nation’s history is such that we should have no difficulty believing our black neighbors when they tell us about what life is like for black people in America today. Indeed, given our nation’s appalling history it would be more surprising if they didn’t have any problems.

So while it is quite reasonable to ask critical questions about Black Lives Matter and whether they are the sort of organization Christians can work with as co-belligerents, it is not at all reasonable to act as if the grievances raised by Higgins and others are fanciful flights of imagination based on a victimization complex. If evangelicals cannot partner with Black Lives Matter, then the appropriate response is not to silently go about our lives as we always have, serenely comfortable in the way Michelle described in her talk. Rather, we must model a more excellent way for protesting gross injustice and pursuing reconciliation, healing, and reparations for black Americans.

 

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake’s writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Good piece. The fact that so many comments on articles about that are the tone deaf and ignorant ‘all lives matter’ and ‘what about black on black crime’ and ‘the real killer of blacks is abortion’ sort is so discouraging. It seems that there is little desire to actually listen instead of judging prior to listening.

  • So many of the problems in her speech and in a few bits here stem from pitting things that aren’t enemies against one another. Can we not love justice and the wisdom that says wait for a cross examination, for due process? Can we not love our brothers and sisters of all stripes and not speak hastily on their behalf out of courtesy, not cowardice.

    Her core criticism of white evangelicals is an argument from silence that avoids actual particular sins and settles for dissatisfaction that they aren’t doing things her way with the non-profits she likes.

    For that they get labeled kin with racists.

    Her embrace of the “you only care about them until they are out of the womb” talking point is a big terrible slander. It’s not an original thought or line of attack. It speaks more to the voices she allows to cloud her perceptions than to any point in the greater “black lives matter” argument. One that, I’ll add here if it’s not clear enough, absolutely no one contests.

    Black lives do matter.

    It’s the compelled speech or else be branded a racist thing that we’re bristling at. It’s the compelled rushed acceptance of something. When someone says “they’re not ready” there are a thousand considerations. To say others MUST be compelled to use resources for your cause, your lobbying efforts, your building at the expense of the good that they are building in their own sphere is in the least presumptuous.

    I’ve been on the Big Box Evangelicalism Material Waste criticism train for as along as I could spell those words. But conflating a lack of representation in evangelical buying power for the feelings of my people as a whole is a mistake.

    The key here is opportunity cost. Some of us think institutions play a huge role and that pluralistic ecumenical efforts (not to mention deferring to BLM or other by-design-non-christian orgs with time and resources-those two things which together are our enfleshed beliefs) are, if not at odds with the good lord and his work, in the least not faithful stewards. Someone said that a system that does not acknowledge God is by definition God-less. Is it so hard to believe Christians of all people do not want to rush to promote God-less institutions?

    In our rush to be fashionable co-belligerents let us not forget to be Christians. These things need not be in conflict.

    If you want to talk about Justice let’s talk about Justice. If you want to talk about action let’s talk about action. Local churches have been on that grind for literally ages. Faithfulness, not bullying squishy to unfaithful big box evangelicals into funneling cash to your cause is our aim. But once again these two things need not be in competition. Faithfulness will lead to resource driven institution building and changed free men and women.

    I know that the core of this much writing is pushback against bad arguments against her talk but too often we miss our actual disagreements by finding people who are unable to be cogent.

    • tl;dr – What bare argument is presented in her speech is so fundamental theologically that no one contests it. It’s an easy argument to make. It can be summed up in just one sentence which is what IV did in their press release. All I ask is that flailing cuts and slanders be kept to a minimum on the way to saying that thing.

    • Listening to her speech again. There is this thing that happens when you give someone an inch.

      • So someone says we need to talk about “The fact that black bodies are grotesque to us” we want to come put on an event at your church because your people think this and it needs to be corrected. You know what I would say. No thank you. We do not think that. Why is it a sin disagree on this? Despite our protests and our efforts there are people like the speaker who subscribe to the White Evangelical Crypto Racist line. Yes. Justice. Yes. Equality. Yes. Diversity. After that you want to say, “but secretly when no one is looking you hate us” which is an unfounded judgement if there ever was one.

        • Nothing is slanderous like a “Crypto-X” argument because it deliberately circumvents discussion, collaboration and agency of the accused. There is no defense because no one can know your inner life. It’s an argument that says even in all your good works that the lord has set before you, you are not just sinful but deliberately, actively but stealthily hating the good you do.

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  • I’ve been thinking on this some more and I listened to her talk again. Here are some other things that are dealt with less than deftly:

    1. Offhand dismissal of liturgical churches who wouldn’t have the kind of music she opened her talk with

    2. The sins of the father argument about how I am responsible for what was done in the 1700s, 1800s, 1900s (just because voting equality was achieved 50 years ago doesn’t mean I was alive/could do anything) – as if because my demography I somehow approve/am not willing to discuss this. Even if this was put better like, “there are those who say X and they are wrong.” No mainstream evangelical voices disagree, if they do she should name names.

    3. It doesn’t help that everything is aesthetically muddled. A strident presentation like this on such a fraught topic didn’t need the sing-songy identity appeals to groups she’s not correcting. There’s a flare for confusion.

    4. Calling good things like “a college education” idols without reservation. I have a problem with the whole Idol as christian meme thing, this isn’t her fault though. Generally it’s used speaking in overstatement about ~priorities~ which can be the worst kind of moralizing. This discussion is for another time.

    5. There is probably a good critique of waspy stoicism underneath the non-defense of “shaking butts” during worship service- she must know that many cannot delineate good and bad twerking (I don’t even know what you would call what she’s talking about but this is the word nice white church ladies like my mother would know from good morning america or wherever) and throwing that out as something we should know a priori is silly

    6. “White is right” another thing no one actually says or believes. Point out actual examples! I keep harping on this.

    7. White evangelicals don’t care about education! WHAT? Nope.

    8. Blanket arguments against teaching full stop. Who is anti-teaching??? “I will teach them what my bible says according to me” like there is any other way to teach other than according to what you can best discern as the truth from the bible. Any amount of epidemiological certainty is now a sin. The worst part is she says this mockingly of missionaries in antiquity who had to contend with child sacrificing, might-makes-right societies that would just as soon scalp and slaughter as smoke a pipe, extreme poverty, long foot journeys, disease, lack of shelter etc.

    9. She calls the mission work of the last 300 years a “dirty wretched affair” as if it would have been better for people to not try to have not served God faithfully. Further she says that we’ve been hiding this. Ask any self respecting protestant. I am proud of my history because it is a history, a greater truer catholicism that includes the stories of enslaved people and minorities. You can take the good and leave the bad. You can address sins in the past. But if you didn’t do them, you needn’t repent of them. She is the one who is placing the burden. It is not there on me intrinsically. So when she says “repent” there is a double measure of insult. She puts herself as accuser, arbiter and absolver.

    10. She says “I don’t want to define justice” because she knows Jesus which is some epistemological garbage not to mention a hand wave over the whole world of hermeneutic possibilities. The ink and blood that has been spilled historically over what ‘Justice’ means governmentally, personally, biblically deserved better.

    11. Her solution to the “adoption crisis” is each church adopting a couple of kids??? First, the adoption crisis is not a finite number of children, it’s a flow of children and many Christians, many evangelical Christians are on the receiving end of that flow. Yes we think family policy will help slow that flow. Yes adoption is good.

    12. Pitting adoptive parents against pro-life activists is a mistake (and not just because there is a lot of overlap)

    13. On her “big spectacle” line. Who is the spectacle for? Who does she work with??? Because when you go into work and the people who look at you know that you think almost 1 in 3 women who use abortion as birth control are killers, infanticide apologists, it’s a bit different than the warm fuzzy feeling she must think we get.

    14. Let’s tackle the meme “be uncomfortable” which is garbage. The question is not how you feel but rather what is right. Comfort is code for people who have more means who devote resources to places she doesn’t agree with.

    15. Bringing up transgender issues and doing no one in the audience any favors. She’s all over the place.

    16. What passages is she pulling from? this is horribly structured for following what little scriptural exposition might not even be there.

    17. She keeps saying “how God defines justice” and then doesn’t present any sort of proposition as what she thinks that definition is.

    18. “Indifference is the absence of activism” NOPE. This is just a rhetorical shovel that she is beating white evangelicals over the head with. As if plodding, the work of the everyday was somehow lesser than the loud momentary outbursts that she glorifies. Work is not indifference. Thoughtfulness is not indifference. Wisdom is not indifference. You can fill the whole world with things that are not indifference and not the destructive modernist sludge called activism which at its worst is just self righteousness plus publicity.

    • hoosier_bob

      Your obsession with (mis)interpreting Higgins in the worst possible light strikes me as exhibiting the very structural racism that Higgins calls out. I don’t agree with everything she says. But we need to hear from a wider array of voices within evangelicalism. Evangelicalism has to be more than the subcultural ghetto of middle-class white people who fetishize a 1950s America where women and “blacks” knew their place.

    • Ian

      “You can address sins in the past. But if you didn’t do them, you needn’t repent of them. She is the one who is placing the burden. It is not there on me intrinsically.”
      Daniel in 9:3-19 recognizes that that is ego-defending bullocks. You and I are always already implicated in our people’s sins, not only our individual transgressions.

  • KB

    Ms. Higgins has a BA from lily white Covenant College and an M.Div from equally lily white Covenant Seminary. She works in the overwhelmingly white Presbyterian Church in America. Let me suggest to you that her comments on abortion were not poorly framed for the white evangelical audiences in which she has spent most of her life and academic and professional careers. That assertion is a disrespectful way of implying that the accomplished, highly educated Higgins is somehow incapable of speaking to white people without a white person coming along to translate her words. Rather, a white evangelical audience chose to deliberately misinterpret a statement on the pro-life movement that has been utterly uncontroversial when uttered by white progressive evangelicals because they were grasping at straws to dismiss Higgins’ message.

    As a fellow Covenant College alumnus, it would be amusing to me just how much Ms. Higgins background and experience has been mischaracterized by both her opponents and supposed allies, if not for the fact that the reaction itself demonstrates just how far the white evangelical world has to go to deal with its problems on race.

    • hoosier_bob

      Well said. The character assassination against her by the TGC types illustrates just how far we have to go.

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