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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Jemar Tisby joins Jared and Pete to talk about the legacy of systemic racism in the white American evangelical church, and how white Christians can practice anti-racism in their personal lives and in their communities. Join Jemar, Pete, and Jared as they ask the following questions:

  • Why are white churches in America so hesitant to acknowledge systemic racism?
  • What is the “cultural toolkit” of white evangelicals?
  • Why does an interpersonal understanding of racism fall short?
  • What fears do white people have about confronting systemic racism?
  • How does the legacy of racism within certain Christian traditions affect believers today?
  • What does it mean that there’s a religious element in pushback against Critical Race Theory? Why is it important to acknowledge it?
  • How can we initiate conversations within our own relationships about systemic racism and working toward an anti-racist faith and world, without further polarizing the people we love?
  • How can white Christians practice priestly proximity?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Jemar you can share.

  • Even among Westerners, white evangelicals tend to be even more individualistic than others. That affects how they view both theology and what they believe about God, as well as social issues such as racism. — @jemartisby 
  • For many people, racism is fundamentally an interpersonal issue. It’s one person not liking another, it’s individual prejudice—while that ignores all of the ways that racism manifests itself systemically and institutionally. — @jemartisby 
  • [Systemic racism is] not due to any one individual hiding behind a curtain and pulling levers, it’s due to the way the system is constructed to give advantages to some and disadvantages to others. And that’s the fundamental disconnect I see with many white Christians in their understanding of racism. — @jemartisby 
  • Race is a story we tell ourselves. It’s a story we tell ourselves about hierarchy, about value, about whose voices and perspectives count. — @jemartisby 
  • All of the efforts at racial justice now, and historically, are presenting a counter-narrative that, if true, would knock the pillars out from under such ideas as the United States is specially favored by God. — @jemartisby 
  • The reality is one of the most pernicious effects of segregation is creating homogenous information bubbles—such that so many people have never heard a different story, or to the extent that they have, those stories have always been dismissed and demonized. — @jemartisby 
  • We have so much more to learn from historically marginalized and oppressed people who are Christians, and the way they understand the Bible and God. — @jemartisby 
  • We think that in order to be nice to people, we have to maintain relationships with the people with whom we vehemently disagree. I don’t think so. I don’t think that a deep understanding of Christian kindness requires socialization in our free time necessarily. — @jemartisby 

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

Pete  

You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared  

And I’m Jared Byas.

Pete  

[Jaunty music begins] Thanks to those of you who gave over the course of the campaign, we reached our goal and we feel humbled by the support of our listeners.

Jared  

And here’s what this money is going to help us accomplish in the next year, in case you’ve forgotten already: New podcast Faith for Normal People launching in 2023; Continued accessibility for our courses and classes, that Pay What You Can option; A brand new website and community platform, which is a holdover from last year; more content from our Nerds-in-Residence; More Bible for Normal People books including Romans for Normal People, which is coming out later this year. Yeah, I think that’s it.

Pete  

Yeah. So folks, a sincere thank you from the bottom of our hearts. [Jaunty music fades out]

Jared  

Well welcome, everyone, to the podcast today. We are talking about acknowledging racism in the church with Jemar Tisby.

Pete  

Yeah, we’ve wanted to have Jemar on for a long time. He’s the author of The New York Times bestselling book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about The American Church’s Complicity in Racism. And he’s the co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast, he speaks all over the place on topics of racial justice, US history, and Christianity. He has a PhD in history and he works in the areas of race, religion, and social movements in the 20th century. Quite an accomplished guy.

Jared  

Yeah. All right. Well, let’s get just right into this conversation.

Jemar  

[Teaser clip of Jemar speaking over jaunty music] “It’s due to the way a system is constructed to give advantages to some and disadvantages to others. And that’s the fundamental disconnect I see with many white Christians in their understanding of racism.”

Jared  

Well, welcome, Jemar, to the podcast, it’s great to have you.

Jemar  

I have been looking forward to this for so long. Thank you for having me.

Pete  

How long?! How long, Jemar? 

Jared  

[Chuckles] You don’t have to answer that. 

Pete  

No no no—I wanna know! It’s important to me.

Jemar  

Jemar  

Jemar  

I would say…at least 11 months and 13 days or so.

Pete  

That’s good.

Jared  

Wow. Wow.

Jemar  

[Laughs]

Pete  

Wow. Okay, you’re awesome.

Jared  

So we wanted to start with just hearing a little bit of your context and your story and how it intersects with the work that you do now.

Jemar  

I’ll start with the present. I am in the wilderness of sort of churches and denominations right now. That is to say, I don’t have or claim a permanent ecclesiastical home, like many people right now, because of a lot of different things. So most recently, I was at a predominantly white evangelical church that had some racial and ethnic diversity. But we underwent what in retrospect I would call a church split at the beginning of 2021. That was precipitated in part because of the pandemic, there were elements within the church who insisted that they should not be forced to wear a mask when and if we gathered together again in person for worship. It was also brought about by political divisions, such that there were elements within the church who thought that—I was serving as the interim pastor at that time, that’s probably important to note—and so they thought that when I preached really about justice, sometimes it would intersect with politics, per se, but they thought that I was throwing them, in particular this person, thought I was throwing them under the bus because they were outspoken Trump supporters. And what I tried to do, the Sunday before the 2020 election, I didn’t preach on politics straightforward. I preached about truth. And I said, however you vote, whatever you support, at the bare minimum, as people who follow a Savior who speaks so often of truth, and scripture that speaks so often of truth, we should be dedicated to facts. And then let the facts lead you where your convictions will take you.

Jemar  

But it was sermons like those, in addition to the urgency of talking about racial justice in our churches, particularly due to the 2020 racial justice uprisings, all of that together basically brought to the surface divisions that had long been there. Which were around far-right white Christian nationalist beliefs and the rest of us. So the white Christian nationalist element left, they had the largest families, they had the most money, and soon our church decided to dissolve the congregation and find other means of congregating and worshipping. All of that was, it sort of encapsulates my spiritual journey in many ways. Because as a Black man, I became a Christian in white evangelical circles. Not all white evangelicals are Christian nationalists, but sociologists tell us 70% to 80% would identify somewhere in terms of supporting those beliefs and stances. I learned that the long and hard way over the course of decades, being associated with evangelical churches, Reformed churches, Reformed Theological Seminary where I got my master’s in divinity, and then starting The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, where I wrote and spoke publicly about matters of race and faith. Along the way got my PhD in History at the University of Mississippi, which showed me in a whole new way what this nation has been capable of, sadly, when it comes to racism and white supremacy, and oftentimes how the church—historically white churches, in particular—were complicit and compromised with racism instead of confronting it. But throughout all of that, I found great support in the universal church, the body of believers, who may be beyond your local congregation but who confess the same faith. And so I’m very thankful that I’ve met folks along the way who don’t see a contradiction between Jesus and justice. And here we are.

Jared  

Maybe, to jump right into it, I—from a historical perspective, why are white churches in America so hesitant to acknowledge systemic racism? And…because I think some of the tension comes when there’s a request to acknowledge the racism that’s present. And that is sort of like, we’re not willing to do that. What accounts for that?

Jemar  

Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, in their classic book Divided by Faith, talk about the “cultural toolkit” of white evangelicals. And what makes up that cultural toolkit is a strong leaning toward individualism. Now, that’s a Western thing in general. If we look at the global church, it’s very different. But even among Westerners, white evangelicals tend to be even more individualistic than others. That affects how they view both theology and what they believe about God, as well as social issues such as racism. So you know, you’ll hear phrases like “just me and my Bible,” there’s this very sort of kind of anti-authoritarian bent in protestantism, where, you know, no, “no one can tell me what the Bible means, I can interpret it for myself.” And there’s something to that in terms of the priesthood of all believers and the Holy Spirit indwelling everyone. But it also sort of speaks to how very difficult it is to have some sort of common understanding, communal understanding, about certain issues—especially divisive ones like racism.

Jemar  

So the interpretation that I’ve seen from many evangelicals is really, fundamentally, an anemic understanding of what racism is. For many people, racism is fundamentally an interpersonal issue. It’s one person not liking another, it’s individual prejudice. It’s using the N word, it’s refusing to serve people at your business establishment, whatever it might be. And those are somewhat overt, of course. And so if that’s the problem, then what’s the solution? Well, “I’m nice to Black people,” or “I don’t use those kinds of words,” or “I don’t see color,” because that is my personal attitude and beliefs. And then racism is not a problem. While that ignores all of the ways that racism manifests itself systemically and institutionally. As we record this, we just got word that the warrant that was used as the basis for police officers in Louisville, Kentucky, to conduct a no-knock raid that resulted in Breonna Taylor’s death in 2020—two officers conspired to falsify information to lie to the judge to get that warrant. And so that warrant itself was illegitimate, and it resulted in the murder of this young woman. And this kind of thing is repeated over and over and over again in all kinds of law enforcement offices, in all kinds of criminal legal proceedings. And it’s not due to any one individual hiding behind a curtain and pulling levers. It’s due to the way a system is constructed to give advantages to some and disadvantages to others. And that’s the fundamental disconnect I see with many white Christians in their understanding of racism.

Jemar  

You know, I’ve been in situations where even I’m afraid to mention systemic or institutional racism, because I know I’m gonna get beat up—and not physically, but you know. So I’m wondering where, you know, the willingness to recognize racism on an individual level, and you know, most people that I know, will say “I’m not racist, I don’t want to be racist, and if I am, I want people to tell me” and all this sort of stuff. But some of those same people have a lot of energy when you talk about systemic racism, as if they take that very personally. Do you have any insights on that?

Jemar  

I’ve noticed that too. I’m like, why are y’all so mad about this? I mean, there are few things that get folks up in arms than talking about racism in general, but particularly the ways that we still need to confront racism systemically and institutionally. It is really bracing, the response I’ll get. You mentioned proverbially getting beat up. I experienced that exact same thing the day after the 2016 election, when Trump was elected. I hopped on a mic like we are doing now, and our producer for our Pass the Mic podcast interviewed me about my initial reactions. And one of the, the line that I said that got me proverbially beat up was another proverbial statement. I said that going to my predominantly—I felt unsafe going to my predominantly white evangelical church that Sunday. Again, not physically, but it felt like such a betrayal that I could be this Black Christian in their midst, my Black family in their midst, and be so misunderstood and have our concerns so overlooked. I mean, you know, there were some who were in our congregation, just celebrating, that were thankful, you know, that “Christianity was on the ascendancy again in the White House” kind of a thing. And so I said that, and for the next three weeks it was a relentless pounding online by trolls and bad faith interlocutors. And that’s just one example of why it raises the ire. Why does it raise such ire? I think it’s about identity, I really do. I think when you start to critique these things, people know, on some level, that if it’s right, they’re going to have to rethink and review almost everything they know about God as well as the way they maneuver in the world. And because it has to do with race and whiteness, they take it personally, as if to say they can’t separate white people from the ideology and the construct of whiteness, if that makes any sense. So, you know, the amount of melanin in one’s skin, we know has no bearing on who you are, or being made in the image of God or what your proclivities or prejudices are. Right? That’s it’s a, it’s a chemical in your skin. And that’s it.

Pete  

People who are quick to, let’s say, repent of personal racism—that’s sort of baked into the Christian and certainly the Protestant, when we’re talking about the American Christian political scene, it is largely Protestant that we’re dealing with here. 

Jemar  

Sure.

Pete  

That’s sort of a normal thing: you repent of your sins, and you’re sorry, and you try not to do it again. But I think what you’re saying, if I’m hearing you correctly, is that systemic racism, once you start looking into that, things get rather messy and deep. And people are afraid of, maybe I can put it this way, afraid of their narratives having to be rewritten. 

Jemar  

Oh yes.

Pete  

How they look at themselves, how they look at the world, their place in the world. I mean, nobody likes doing that. 

Jemar  

Exactly.

Pete  

Right? Nobody likes doing that. But that’s, I guess that’s the point. That’s really what’s at stake once you start looking at our institutions, and just how we function as a society. And if you start seeing that, it’s like, it’s all a lie, you know, and that freaks people out!

Jemar  

Yeah, yeah. I’m so glad you use that word narrative, because that’s precisely right. Race is a story we tell ourselves. It’s a story we tell ourselves about hierarchy, about value, about whose voices and perspectives count. And all of the sort of efforts at racial justice now, and historically, they’re presenting a counter narrative that if true, would knock the pillars out from under such ideas as the United States is specially favored by God. You know, “that’s why we have so much wealth and the military is the strongest in the world, and that’s a divine gift.” Right? It would dispel such myths that the founding fathers were unassailably noble in their intent, and that, “yeah, the slavery thing was there, but, you know, the better angels in this nation prevailed and that’s why slavery was abolished.” No mention of civil war, which to this day is the nation’s bloodiest war, and how reluctant—Huh—slaveholders were to relinquish that. So I think all of that goes into identity, goes into narrative. And the reality is one of the most pernicious effects of segregation is creating these homogenous information bubbles such that so many people have never heard a different story, or to the extent that they have, those stories have always been dismissed and demonized. So then it becomes very, very hard when you’re dealing with people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond to present this counternarrative as something that they should consider when they’ve been told all their lives—when either they’ve never really heard it or they’ve been told all their lives such narratives are evil.

Jemar  

[Ad break]

Jared  

I want to maybe talk about some of these reasons why white evangelicals, again, I’m kind of assuming the white evangelicals have what they think are good biblical or religious reasons for being critical of systemic racism or critical race theory or these kinds of things. Maybe you can, do you know, like—can you expound on what would, what would a white evangelical say is the reason why they’re pushing back on these things? Like you said, it’s, sometimes it’s hard to wrap my mind around why there’s such anger toward just the notion that there has been, and continues to be, a systemic racism in our country. But then there seems to be this other side of it, which is like, no, it’s like, my, it’s like “biblical” to be against these kinds of things.

Jemar  

Right, right. Right, which is, which is so interesting, because the Bible speaks—A) speaks so often to entire groups of people, right? God in the Old Testament, speaking to the nation of Israel, speaking to whole families and tribes in addition to everything the Bible says particularly around unjust scales, I think is really interesting as we think about our criminal legal system, as we think about elected officials, and the way that they can help determine justice or injustice. So in spite of all that, many white Christians hone in on passages that focus on individual conversion, and so that’s how, you know, Matthew 28, “Go and make disciples,” becomes this manifesto of evangelism. And the way they interpret it is, is helping people to make individual professions of faith, which is certainly part of the Christian tradition. But it’s not what is there, it’s what’s not there, which is any sort of attention to the social dimensions of the gospel, one might say. And it’s really hard to explain just with the text. It comes down to cherry picking particular verses that they will expound, you know, and extrapolate on and use as normative for the entire Bible to the neglect of, of other verses. But it’s a real problem of understanding. And what it comes from—so there’s so much talk about white Christians and white Christianity, and I sort of frame the conversation in that way, in terms of my church experience, but we have so much more to learn from historically marginalized and oppressed people who are Christians, and the way they understand the Bible and God. And so I constantly in my work as a historian, and as just an embodied black Christian point to the black Christian tradition, as a way of an alternate way of understanding the faith that might be helpful in these times, particularly around issues like systemic racism. Never been an issue because there were legitimately whole systems—from race-based chattel slavery, to Jim Crow segregation, to ongoing forms of racialization that were systematized in order to disenfranchise us and keep us out of certain advantages in this society. So it’s not been hard for Black Christians to understand that concept, and maybe we should learn from others.

Jared  

Yeah. And what I’m, what I’m hearing you say is there’s a filter as white Christians that I know at least growing up in an evangelical tradition, I had a certain filter by which—I couldn’t see it, I didn’t even know I had a filter, but every time I looked at the text I was looking for things that confirmed my ideology. That this book is about my personal salvation and my personal relationship with Jesus. And so it’s no surprise that I found that in the text, and by listening to other people groups, especially marginalized or oppressed people groups, that they can show us that filter that, if without other diverse voices we may never see because it’s like the water we’re swimming in.

Jemar  

That’s right! It’s wild, you know? Maybe, maybe there’s something to that imagery that the Bible frequently uses of the church being a body and how each part needs each other and how no part is more important than the other, and we all need to work together to function. To me, that—we have to read the Bible in community. Like that should be basic. That’s why even in evangelical churches you have a small group, you have a Bible study group. Why? Because it’s not even in that tradition, which is highly individualistic, it’s not even just one person and their Bible. There is some level of understanding that as we get together and unpack Scripture together and try to understand God together, that there’s a new level of understanding. Now can we actually take that principle and extrapolate it to other races and ethnicities and cultures and all of these different beautiful people groups?

Jemar  

This is random, but—and I don’t know if this flies—but this is how it struck me. I was, I was endlessly scrolling through TikTok because they’ve got the algorithm down. They know how our brains work. They’ve got us trapped on these things. So I was scrolling in TikTok. 

Pete  

Amen.

Jemar  

They’re winning, they’re winning.

Pete  

They won.

Jemar  

Unfortunately, yes, yes. So um, there’s this one account, I’d never seen it before. I don’t even know the name of it. But it’s a woman of Indian descent (from India). And what she does is, she’ll take like, hip-hop songs or pop songs from the United States, and her or someone else will basically remix those songs into their native language. And at the same time you’re hearing the music, she’s also changing from, like, traditional, like hoodie and sweatshirt kind of thing into formal Indian dance apparel, and doing a dance to this remix song. And what I saw with that, talking about the beauty of cultures, is like—that’s a picture of eternity, how we can mix and match and blend and adapt and remix in beautiful ways, different cultures. And how that is actually baked into God’s creation as a good thing. It absolutely baffles and frustrates me why we would resist that beauty. Because what they came up with, this blending, this, this mixing this, this, I’ll take the strengths from your area and the strengths from my area, and we’ll put them together in conversation and see what we come up with. That was beautiful. And that’s what we’re missing, even in simple biblical interpretation, when we refuse to learn from people who come from other traditions and cultures, and maybe have different views of the Bible than we do.

Jared  

Well, it goes back to, it sounds like too, that sermon you gave on truth, where I, in my experience, people are afraid to acknowledge the validity of other interpretations, because that then relativizes my interpretation. It’s not—

Jemar  

Watch out, watch out!

Jared  

—one truth for all time, absolute fact, which is really, the more I dig, is really an element of control.

Jemar  

Oh! Now we’re getting into it. So this element of authoritarian-ism. So it’s very hard in many US Christian traditions to have “an authority” right? Some person who can absolutely tell you what the Bible means. You know, we look to, unfortunately, put many pastors on pedestals and things like that. But there’s still this rebellious threat I think, in US Christianity, that “you can’t tell me what to believe or how to believe it” kind of a thing. But also there is this tendency toward authoritarian-ism. And one sort of element of that I think is, is this very rigid, right/wrong, no gray area in between, view of not only the Bible, but I dare say how some folks look at the Constitution of the United States as an almost divinely ordained document that you can’t mess with and would really rather do away with pretty much every amendment except the Second Amendment

Pete  

Wasn’t there a recent pastor Jemar, who at some conference basically said that? I saw this on TikTok, by the way, as I was scrolling, during the scroll of death I came across this. 

Jemar  

There you go! So I’m not the only one.

Pete  

But the guy said that the Constitution was written by God. Now he wanted to qualify that and say something like God inspired people to write it. But that’s not much better in my opinion. 

Pete  

[Laughs] Right.

Pete  

But yeah, that’s, that’s out there.

Jemar  

That’s precisely right. And I think they’re applying that same interpretive lens from how they view the Bible to how they view and interpret the Constitution. These are the “originalists,” many of them, and you’ll see parallels in many Christian churches in the United States, in terms of how they view the Bible and the Constitution. So I think you’re right on. And you speak to another factor, which is folks are trying to embrace that label of Christian nationalist. Notice they’ll never say “white Christian nationalist,” but that’s part of it. It’s constitutive of it. And they’re trying to sort of flip it. They’re trying to do this kind of judo thing and use this momentum against it, and make it into a good term. And it’s not. It’s irredeemable. It’s not a good thing. It is loaded with baggage that is negative. And don’t let them do that as much as they try to use that term in a positive way.

Pete  

Yeah, one question here, and I think we touched on it briefly, but I’d like to maybe focus a little bit more on it. You mentioned elsewhere that the media is missing the religious dimension of the pushback on CRT. 

Jemar  

Mhmm.

Pete  

Explain that. What does that mean? And why is that important?

Jemar  

So I was front row seat to the emergence of critical race theory as what I call a “junk drawer” for anything, any term or concept around race that makes a certain kind of person feel uncomfortable. That is to say, critical race theory entered, I would say, the broader public consciousness as this boogeyman, probably late 2020, somewhere around there. There was this guy, Chris Rufo, went on Fox News, Tucker Carlson asked him, “What would you tell the President right now about critical race theory?” And he said, “I would tell the President to sign an executive order right now today, banning critical race theory in any federal government training or literature, anything.” Sure enough, a few weeks later, that executive order came down. But that wasn’t the first time people had brought that up. The religious elements of this are number one, that you start seeing the inklings of this in the church. So there’s something called the conservative Baptist network right now, which is within the SBC—it’s a splinter group within the Southern Baptist Convention, which is already conservative by any account. These folks are saying, the Southern Baptist Convention has lost its way, it’s looking at folks like Russell Moore and Beth Moore, who’s no longer with the SBC, as signs that they are drifting away. And so they have a whole declaration that you can go to their website and you can sign on, but it’s essentially decrying any sort of modern diversity, equity, inclusion, kind of language or approach to race. Then you have, I just call on the SBC, because they’re the biggest and we tend to get their news. The SBC seminary presidents signed a statement, all six of them, saying critical race theory had no place in their Christian institutions, which upset and disappointed many people, especially the Black people in their midst. You have other folks like “discernment bloggers” as they call them, whose whole mission is to find stuff they disagree with and then write an article or do a podcast about it in order to get clicks.

Pete  

So professional trolls.

Jemar  

Professional trolls! Man! Boy, they effective. They got big followings. They were talking about it. And it has taken different forms, so it wasn’t always critical race theory. There was “Cultural Marxism” at some point, there’s always been the “Marxist/Communist” connection. There’s been “social justice warrior,” “Liberal,” all of those things are in the church. And the way I, I sort of use an analogy to the Civil War. You saw the Baptists and the Presbyterians and the Methodists split before the Civil War, and they were sort of bellwethers of the political divide that was present and widening. And so look to the church if you want to see sort of the state of race relations today.

Pete  

Yeah. Um, you know, you mentioned those splits, so that reminds me of something else that your, your background, you have background in the Reformed tradition.

Jemar  

We all got a testimony! [Laughs]

Pete  

Well we do, we do too.

Jared  

Mhmm.

Pete  

You know, we were part of the tradition for a number of years, you know, I taught at a Reformed seminary for 14 years. So, you know, I sort of cut my teeth on Reformed theology. But your experiences led you to conclude that that tradition is not adequate to address social injustices.

Jemar  

At least the way they hold the tradition. So the Reformed—there, there are different branches of even Reformed theology, right? But in general, you know, the systems of theology coming out of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, centuries, 500 years ago, the strain I was in was southern Presbyterian, which I didn’t really know at the time I was getting into it. The way I got into it, somebody in college gave me a book by John Piper called Desiring God. I had no idea. I’d never heard of Piper, never heard of Reformed theology. I was just like, oh, there’s a lot of Scripture. 

Pete  

[Joking] Okay, well that’s the end of this episode! Thanks so much for being here, Jemar!

Jemar  

[Laughing heartily]

Jared  

[Chuckling]

Pete  

Anyway. Just kidding. Just kidding, everybody! Laugh a little bit! Go ahead Jemar. Keep going.

Jemar  

That’s how I got into it. And you know, this is, this is 20 years ago. So not everything that we know now did we know then. But it was high—it was very conservative, right? But in its original forms coming out of Westminster in England, you know, so, far removed from our contemporary racial scene. And to this day, if you look at the Westminster catechism and their explication of the Ten Commandments, I think not only is it very rich material, it also indicts people who adhere to Reformed theology but oppose racial justice efforts. It’s embedded in there if they understand their own tradition deeply enough, which is really interesting. But I did find the way folks practiced Reformed theology to be very lacking in all the ways that we’re talking about, particularly around racial justice. And beyond that, what happened was I started getting exposed more deeply to the Black Christian tradition. And so again, I was in predominantly white Christian circles. And these were not the conversations I’m hearing, these were not the preachers that were platformed, these were not the books that were shared. So I really got into that as a student in my doctoral program. And I’m reading secular history, but it’s also leading me down these pathways of discovering, okay, who are the people that resisted racism? Who are the people who stood up for justice? Yeah, they, many of them were Black because they experienced so much injustice, but almost universally—almost—they had some connection to the church. So I said, there’s more to this than I’ve been taught. And so that put me on a journey to really look into, you know, more deeply into, you know, Martin Luther King and the beloved community, really looking deeply into folks like Fannie Lou Hamer, and what I call her Afro-Christian realism coming from the Mississippi Delta. And that has really reshaped my understanding of the faith. 

Jared  

So speaking of that, you know, kind of these traditions and how it is affecting, you know, your faith and others. I, I want to get maybe practical for just a minute about there’s this growing, there is, continues to be, I don’t know if there’s a growing, it just continues to be this divide amongst people. How do we do that without just being vanilla, middle-of-the-road, third-way kind of folks? How do we start to influence the people in our lives? You know, we just have—we have many people in our network, in our community here at the Bible for Normal People, who are wrestling with parents and siblings, like the relationships. And how do we, you know, we keep trying to talk about this in a way that brings understanding of systemic racism. What we’re talking about, what we’re not talking about. How, you know, have you found a way that people can start having these conversations that doesn’t just shut things down or polarize?

Jemar  

Look, new wineskins for new wine. We’ve got to theologize today. One of the things that we need is a richer, more robust theology of kindness. Why do I say that? Because I think that many Christians, myself included, oftentimes mistake kindness for niceness. And we think that in order to be nice to people, which every good Christian should be nice, that we have to maintain relationships and have cups of coffee and be BFFs with everyone, even the people with whom we vehemently disagree. I don’t think so. I don’t think that a deep understanding of Christian kindness requires socialization in our free time necessarily, however you want to term it. So part of the issue, I think, as we’re thinking about taking action, is to say that there are people who, as the Bible would say, are hard hearted, who don’t want to listen to truth, who are inoculated against any conversation around justice. And Mark chapter six says, you know, go to every village, preach the gospel, if they won’t receive you, shake the dust off your sandals and move on. In other words, what I want people to know is, if you are saying these things, if you’re trying to stand up for racial justice, people aren’t vibing with it—your job, your responsibility is to speak the truth as honestly, as tenderly as you can,but ultimately, it’s up to them. And think about this: while you’re spending so much time with people who absolutely don’t want to be persuaded, what work are you not doing? What is the work that is waiting for you? If you would turn your attention and energy, can you actually begin to do the work of justice, and not just try to spend your energy convincing people that the work of justice needs to be done? So that’s one thing.

Jemar  

Another thing is, I have these T-shirts, because I want this message to be spread, that says, “Justice takes sides.” If you look at the historical record, especially at the people of faith who we now look up to and admire, they took a stand and it was unpopular! King at his, at the end of his life, was one of the most reviled people in the nation despite how people want to misuse his teachings now. He took a stand and so many others took a stand and said right is right and wrong is wrong. And I think we have been conditioned to the both-sides-isms and the false equivalencies so much that we refuse to simply say, “No, this is wrong. And it might put me at odds with people in my own community. But that’s what I’m called to do as a follower of Jesus,” who by the way, did the same thing. So those are a couple of things. The last thing I’ll say is simply start. You know, it’s like anything. Any habit that you want to form, whether it’s eating better, or exercising, or spending more time in the Bible, whatever it is, you just take a step. And that leads to more and more and more. So don’t sit back and try to figure out the whole plan! You’re not going to know. You’re going to take one step, you’re gonna, you’re gonna turn, you’re gonna take another step, you’re gonna take a backward step, you’re gonna go forward—that’s how it is. You’re not doing it wrong because you can’t figure it all out from your, you know, armchair while you’re reading a book. You’re not supposed to. It’s a lived theology, right?

Jemar  

And then the last thing. I said that was the last thing, but this is the last thing. Get around people who are experiencing some sort of suffering, or marginalization. What I call priestly proximity. That’s what shaped me. I am recording this from the Mississippi Delta on the Arkansas side. According to median income this is the fourth poorest county in the nation. I’m surrounded by material poverty, which is very, very closely linked to racism, because it’s the Delta. This is cotton country, it’s linked to sharecropping and then race-based chattel slavery before it. And so being around this community—and the reason I got here, I was a teacher, I was a sixth grade teacher, so every day, all the issues associated with material poverty would walk into my classroom on two feet. They were the beautiful, vibrant, astounding kids made in God’s image, but with so much stacked against them because there’s so little material wealth here. And I saw that upfront, up close and face to face. And it forced me to start asking, what does my faith say about this? And so I say priestly proximity, getting around people, whether that’s volunteering, or going to a meeting, or befriending folks who are in a different life situation from you, is going to be extremely illuminating in terms of what actions you need to take.

Jared  

I really appreciate that. And you know, that tying that last piece into the first piece, which I think sometimes we feel like we’re doing the work of justice by arguing with people about it, rather than taking those kinds of steps. Even just that proximity, like you’re saying, of building those relationships with people who are not in our demographic.

Jemar  

Let me give one action step.

Jared  

Yeah.

Jemar  

Start essentially a pen pal relationship with someone who’s incarcerated. Like if you want to have really practical stuff—I’ll have to contact you after, there’s an organization that facilitates these things, but you can also—one of my favorite answers to these questions is two words: Google it! You can Google it! Write letters to incarcerated people. I taught in Parchman penitentiary, which is also known as Parchman farm. It was started as a convict lease farm in Mississippi. Recent data says it has the highest incarceration rate, not just in the country, but in the world, per capita. So I taught in the prisons, and also Marshall County Correctional Facility. And it changed me, man. It changed my view of incarceration, because I got close to, in this case, the men who were behind bars. And if you want to know where to start, and what action to take, start communicating with folks on the inside. Hopefully, that leads to other even more meaningful communication. It may lead you to Criminal Justice, criminal legal system reform, or some other issue. But when you get in that proximity, even if it’s just through a letter, with folks who are, who are facing dire situations, anybody who’s got a heart can’t help but have their perspective shifted—and hopefully their actions too.

Pete  

Well thank you for that, Jemar. And thank you for spending some time with us here today to talk about this very important issue. One, one final thing—the t-shirt, I take an extra large.

Jemar  

Haha! Very good. I’m getting the next order in now, so.

Jared  

Thanks so much, Jemar, for joining us.

Jemar  

I appreciate it. Thanks for the conversation.

Outro  

You’ve just made it through another episode of the Bible for Normal People! Thanks to our listeners who support us each week by rating the podcast, leaving a review, and telling others about our show. We couldn’t have made this amazing episode without the help of our Producers Group: Jonathan Chambers, Donna Goetz, Camille Arneberg, Corey Kinsman, Tina Sidener, Paul Beauchamp, Mary Sanders, Diana Dworin, Sandy Broad, and William D Heizer! As always, you can support the podcast at patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. This episode was brought to you by The Bible for Normal People team: Brittany Prescott, Savannah Locke, Stephanie Speight, Tessa Stultz, Nick Striegel, Haley Warren, Jessica Shao, and Natalie Weyand!

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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