LOUISVILLE (Outlook) – In the wake of a most contentious election, what is a faithful response?
How do we begin to talk to one another?
When Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove signed on months ago to give the annual Edwards Lecture Nov. 10 at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary – speaking on the theme “Christianity, Politics and Race” – few could have imagined what the tenor of the country would turn out to be following the election of Donald Trump Nov. 8 as president.
Wilson-Hartgrove describes himself as an evangelical Christian who grew up Southern Baptist. He’s been involved in the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina with William Barber II and in the New Monasticism movement as co-founder of the Rutba House, a house of hospitality for the formerly homeless.
What he talked about at Louisville Seminary was the election – and specifically the historic connection white Christians have had with politics and with racial oppression. At the time of his speech, about 500 people were marching in downtown Louisville to protest Trump’s election.
“What happened to America on Tuesday happened in North Carolina in 2012,” when a conservative Republican-controlled legislative agenda began to take shape, Wilson-Hartgrove said. The Moral Mondays civil disobedience emerged as part of the response of people of faith who disagreed with those policies, he said.
“The church in America is in deep need of evangelization,” he said. Wilson-Hartgrove said he’d driven to Louisville through rolling country dotted with Trump signs, with “churches everywhere, and no good news to assure people they have purpose and meaning.”
The new challenge for Christian mission in this country is “rediscovering for ourselves what is the heart of the gospel, and how does it save me from my own slavery?”
During President Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House, “we saw things that no one would have imagined happening,” Wilson-Hartgrove said – including U.S. Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouting “you lie!” to the president during the 2009 State of the Union address
Some are calling Trump’s election “a whitelash against Obama’s presidency” – with exit polls showing four in five white evangelicals voted for Trump, and with Trump winning crucial support from blue collar and working-class whites in non-urban areas. “It’s absolutely the case we couldn’t have imagined Donald Trump becoming president without first having an African-American president,” Wilson-Hartgrove said.
He urged people to pay attention to the “deep legacy of racism in our society.” He said he’s learned from Barber “the pattern of American history in which every reconstruction” to expand the rights or power of people of color produces a backlash in which churches have been complicit.
The First Reconstruction
When the Civil War and slavery ended and the Reconstruction era began, “almost immediately there was a resistance to that in the South,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. On Easter Sunday in 1873 in Colfax, Louisiana, a group of whites including former Confederate soldiers, armed with a cannon, attacked and killed as many as 150 blacks (estimates of the death toll vary) at the county courthouse in Colfax in a dispute over who had won the gubernatorial election. It’s become known as the Colfax Massacre, and Smithsonian Magazine quoted historian Eric Fonor describing it this way:
“The bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era, the Colfax massacre taught many lessons, including the lengths to which some opponents of Reconstruction would go to regain their accustomed authority.”
When we ask “Where did Jim Crow come from?” the reality is “it came from that collusion between a violent reaction against African-American citizens and a political willingness to partner” with those willing to oppress the recently-freed blacks, Wilson-Hartgrove said.
And the language used to buttress that movement was theological, he said. It was called the Redemption Movement, and it was justified from the pulpit by preachers “who described the aggression of northern federal troops (used in Reconstruction) and the offense of what they called Negro rule as immorality. It was immorality that black people would be so out of their place,” and white ministers decried it as “a grand conspiracy to take over our country. … This was the last chance to take our country back. This was the language they used in sermon after sermon.”
The Second Reconstruction
When African-Americans began pushing for equal rights during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, organizing for the right to vote, the end of formal segregation, a stop to the decades of lynchings, many, both black and white, were compelled to action by their faith – willing to lay down their lives for the possibility of justice, Wilson-Hartgrove said.
“That didn’t happen without a backlash.” Evangelical white ministers responded by writing to Martin Luther King Jr. saying, “Why are you being political? Why are you calling this Christianity? Don’t you know Christianity should be about keeping peace,” not stirring up trouble?
In the years following, those resisting the civil rights gains tried to do it “without appearing to be racist,” he said – using words like forced busing, entitlement programs and redistricting, rather than overt racial slurs.
He cited the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater, who said this in a 1981 interview with a Case Western political scientist about the so-called Southern strategy:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”— that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. … “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
The Third Reconstruction
Wilson-Hartgrove contends that the U.S. is in the midst of the Third Reconstruction now – following the election of Obama in 2008. After Obama won North Carolina in that election, “the money poured in” in favor of a conservative agenda, he said. In response, Barber began organizing coalitions of environmentalists, feminists, people of color and other progressives to provide a different voice.
“Jesus is neither a conservative nor a liberal,” but American history reveals “a basic American fear that is deeply racial,” he said.
“The fact that an African-American man was in the highest office in the land, it stirred something deep.” And people of faith haven’t learned to talk about that, or “deal with this deep wound that goes all the way back to the beginning or the founding of this country,” Wilson-Hartgrove said.
His own journey
Wilson-Hartgrove grew up in rural North Carolina. “I understand this culture,” he said. “I grew up in Trump country. I grew up in the Southern Baptist church.”
He came of age in the time when the Southern Baptists were requiring missionaries to affirm the Baptist Faith and Message document stating that “a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ.”
Unsure about that, he began to read – including the passage from the 3rd chapter of Colossians instructing “wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting to the Lord” and, a few lines later, “slaves, obey your earthly masters.”
He discovered the writings of Thornton Stringfellow, a Baptist minister who laid out his theological case for slavery not only being good for whites and the country but for the enslaved blacks too, Wilson-Hartgrove said. “He explained to them how it was better for people who had been in pagan Africa to be brought here as slaves so they could hear the gospel,” become Christian and maybe return someday to Africa so that “even Ethiopia may one day be evangelized.”
As a high school student, Wilson-Hartgrove went to work as a page in the office of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, a U.S. senator from South Carolina who opposed the civil rights movement and supported segregation. “When I saw up close what was really happening” – how the wheels of power worked among conservative Republicans in the religious right – “I was disillusioned,” he said.
Wilson-Hartgrove determined that while the Southern Baptist Convention had officially rejected slavery, “what we didn’t leave behind was that way of reading the Bible” so that “you can preach the Good News to someone but not have any obligation to them. … This was a deep wound, a hidden wound inside of people. It made us in a sense spiritually sick.”
After his stint in Washington, Wilson-Hartgrove returned to North Carolina, where he heard Barber – a black Disciples of Christ minister – preach, and impulsively asked Barber to preach at his home church. Barber agreed, showing up at the white rural Baptist church with his brother. Barber told him “I was glad to come, but I wasn’t coming alone. … This is Klan country.”
Wilson-Hartgrove found Barber, through his preaching, “was introducing me to Jesus in a new way. … He said ‘you’re my brother. You’re my brother because we worship the same Jesus. We need to figure out what it means to be brothers together’ ”
Through Barber, Wilson-Hartgrove came to an understanding of faith that “Jesus has broken down what divides us in this world.”
The current divisions
During a question-and-answer session, a woman said she was struggling with how to talk to family members in Alabama, all of whom had voted for Trump, and with whom she felt both kinship and a deep sense of division. “I would love to hear pretty much anything” to heal the divide, she said.
Wilson-Hartgrove replied that his family too was split in this election. “I don’t think talking does that much” for those with such deep political differences, he said.
“I completely understand the nones,” he said – those who are skeptical or even antagonistic towards organized religion. “I’m not a none because my mama loved Jesus” – she taught him Bible stories and prayed with him every day. So “as pissed off as I get about what Christians do in Jesus’ name, I could never not love Jesus,” he said. “That’s just who I am.”
So he’s become less interested in converting people either to his religious or political views, “and a lot more interested in showing up” and trying to be in relationship. “People know you love them if you show up for them,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. “That’s the primary call of Christian mission.”
He takes his adopted son, who is African-American, to see his brother, who flies the Confederate flag.
He doesn’t argue with his brother about homosexuality, but “if I can get him to have lunch with one of my friends, maybe before he even realizes they’re gay,” the relationship starts.
He doesn’t worry so much about labels – evangelical, conservative, liberal, whatever.
“I’m sticking with Jesus,” Wilson-Hartgrove said.
Felicia Howell LaBoy, associate dean of black church studies and advanced learning at Louisville Seminary, asked about the concerns of people of color – those who can’t back out of conversations about race because “we are in spaces where we are stuck” confronting racism and hatred daily at work, at school, on the streets. In the days since the election, reports of acts of hatred towards people of color, immigrants, gays and Muslims have flooded social media.
“We don’t have the opportunity to exit out,” LaBoy said. So how can white allies of people of color begin to understand that they need to be “wiling to risk their privilege … in order to save people’s lives and their self-esteem?”
Wilson-Hartgrove told of a man he had met, a white Methodist from southern Alabama, who was surprised as a young college student in the early 1960s to find himself caught up in the civil rights movement after he went to interview King for a paper he was writing for a class. The man told Wilson-Hartgrove that he joined the Freedom Movement when he realized “I had to be part of it for my own freedom.”