William Pannell is a professor of preaching and practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Pannell sees the 1992 riots as a warning sign of things to come if we as a country, and as white evangelicals particularly, do not change.
Pannell notes first the resurgence of racial unrest in the nineties, which he attributes to frustration and lack of change. In the fifties and sixties, blacks rallied for change; in the nineties, they rally out of frustration and anger. He points to evidence all around that the black male is still considered (or at least treated as) less than human, and that white Americans, consciously or subconsciously, want to keep America “white”: “And as Gary Wills observed in the late sixties ‘Americans do not like to think of their country as being white, but they are careful to keep it that way.’ A great line, and fully applicable to the turf occupied by early-nineties evangelicals” (p. 57). This is Pannell’s main indictment: White Americans (especially evangelicals) operate in a system that vocally desires to be integrated, but subtly wishes to retain its white dominance. This is apparent in the media, in politics, in the growing incidence of violence, and in church and parachurch circles as well.
The racial segregation within church circles sometimes makes ugly appearances. For example, there were some serious reactions to Desi Arnaz Giles, a black actor, playing the part of Jesus in a passion play, focusing on the last days in the life of Jesus Christ, at the Park Theater Performing Arts Center. According to artistic director Eric Hafen, who cast Giles: “The first call I got, the woman asked me, ‘When is the white actor playing because I don’t want to see the black thing.’” Two groups canceled their reservations and rescheduled for a day when the alternate, white actor would be playing the part. There were even threats on Gile’s life. (March 1997, “Black Actor Ignores Threats, Plays Jesus,” Newark, NJ)
One reason for racial tension in our country is self-segregation, mostly due to white middle class Americans (and later black middle class Americans as well) fleeing the cities for the safety and comfort of the suburbs. Not only is this division characterized by color, but by class: “Everywhere one looks, modern evangelicalism is becoming increasingly elitist” (p. 114). This separation has forced new dynamics on urban churches, and the black urban church faces a new set of challenges:
- Needs a new style of leadership, less hierarchical.
- Better training for its leadership (“Whence this training will come is a question that ought to challenge theological centers across the land, and especially evangelical seminaries because of their more focused emphasis on evangelicalism.” [p. 119])
- Must learn how to appeal to the urban black male, who is largely absent from urban churches.
The final chapter, “Where do we go from here?” spells out the challenges to white evangelicals in response to the current racial crisis: “My [Sam Fullwood III, quoted by Pannell] generation…is so disillusioned by the persistent racism that continues to define and limit us that we are abandoning efforts to assimilate into the mainstream of society. I see no end to this trend” (p. 125). Among the suggestions:
- White evangelicals must focus more missionary efforts on this country, in balance with international evangelism.
- The church must be revived.
- More evangelization should be done by the laity.
- Spirituality must strive to inform evangelism and social transformation.
- White evangelicals need to “be reconnected with brothers and sisters downtown” (p. 143).
However, the most pressing need is for friendship: “The fact is that most Americans are people of good will. Most of us really do like other people, even those who are not like us. We prefer that they not be too close, however. We like those people in the abstract, not in the concrete. That is how black people view Koreans; how Koreans view Latinos; how Latinos view anglos; and on and on. Yet, in spite of this peculiar sociology, many Americans will admit to having a friend who is ‘one of them.’ Usually we explain, ‘but he’s different.’ At least it is a beginning. It is a good first step to have friends from these odd tribes, friends whom we often love and admire, who are concrete, who have names” (p. 135-136).
Pannell’s book is written from his heart, and is at times both biting and poignant. It is sure to stir up discussion; this is its strength. Although not everyone will agree with him, Pannell offers concrete steps toward reconciliation, the strongest and most basic of which is to become friends. This is the most powerful combatant we have against racism; the best thing we can do for youth is to let them get to know each other. This can be done informally, by kids on their own, or formally, by maybe collaborating with an area church youth group composed of a different racial background.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Pannell has a broad definition of racism; it is both conscious and subconscious. Do you agree with his understanding? If racism can be divided into individual prejudice (overt and covert) and institutional discrimination (overt and covert), what kind of racism is this?
- Would you expect racism to be decreasing or increasing today? Which do you think is happening? Why is there disagreement about this?
- If racism is only a matter of ignorance, how do you explain the holocaust in one of the most educated countries in the world and the above reactions from people who cherish the “high arts?”
- What do you think of his criticism of white evangelicals? Are whites too elitist? Racist? Separatist? How can whites change? What can you do?
- How would you respond to someone who objected to a black Jesus?
- How can friendship begin to counteract racial prejudice and segregation? Do you agree that it can?
- Comment or discuss W.E.B. Du Bois’s opening lines in The Souls of Black Folks where he asserts that the color line is the issue of the American 20th century.
- Racism is a nagging problem and a continuing weakness in American society, even within the church.
- Adult examples and teaching have a great deal to do with our possibilities of a “color-blind” society in the twenty-first century.
- Children and young people have a powerful opportunity to model for adults reconciliation and unity in their diversity.
Amy Allison Moreau with Dean Borgman
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