There are so many depressing stories of evangelicals getting things wrong lately, I thought it might be nice to hear a story about a time an evangelical organization got it right.
In July, 1968, on the heels of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when many American cities were reeling from racial unrest and white Americans were insulating themselves by moving to the suburbs, the evangelical youth ministry Young Life put a photo of an African American male in sunglasses on the cover of its magazine with the words: “I’m not a problem. I’m a man.” The idea came from Young Life’s President, Bill Starr. Young Life had prided itself on reaching “every kid.” Bill Starr didn’t want any confusion about who every kid included.
Of course there was fallout. This was too much for some donors, particularly in the American South, where a few areas closed. The great majority, however, supported what Starr had done, and committed themselves to the long and difficult task of changing a white organization with roots in Texas into a truly multicultural and multiethnic ministry. That work has never been simple or easy, and at times, like when people of color walked out of a staff conference in the early 1970s, it seemed like there was no progress being made. Over the decades, though, the commitment from the top level of the organization to staying together has made a difference.
It’s easier not to try.
It’s easier not to say anything.
When four students from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina sat down at the lunch counter of a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, and asked to be served, they were told the store did not serve people of color. They stayed in their seats and ignited similar sit-ins throughout the South. What was the response from the F. W. Woolworth headquarters in New York? Silence.
Woolworth’s could have said something, but didn’t have the courage to do so. With the benefit of history, we see that Young Life is still going and Woolworth’s is gone. The lunch counter in Greensboro is now part of a Civil Rights Museum.
Woolworth’s froze in the moment because they saw what saying something could cost them. They didn’t consider what not saying something might cost them.
I appreciate that decisions to take a stand can be costly. A friend who served as a trustee at a Christian college related that as their board was discussing the presence of LGBTQ groups on campus, he did a little math and estimated by looking around the table that about $25 million was riding on how the president reacted. In biblical times, prophets like Jeremiah were thrown into cisterns. Today, they just lose donors. The way to avoid that—because there are donors to be lost on any side of any issue—is to say nothing.
Saying something can cause trouble. The most damning accusation made of Christian organizations or churches after they take a stand for justice is that they have veered into politics. “They used to be about sharing the gospel, but not anymore.” The old line, attributed to the French literary figure Charles Baudelaire, is that “Satan’s greatest trick is convincing the world he doesn’t exist.” Today’s version of that might be, “Satan’s greatest trick is convincing the church that making a statement about injustice is political.”
“Politics” is one of those words we toss around without a common agreement of what we mean. And “common agreement” is what politics is all about. Politics is how we use power and reach agreement. The Bible is very political. A better word for what’s objectionable is “partisan.” I agree the church should not be partisan. When American churches are partisan—which happens on both sides of the spectrum—there ought to be consequences, like losing an IRS exemption. But the church can’t help being political. The church cannot afford to be silent.
I admire Kyle Meyaard-Schaap’s approach to reframing the climate crisis as a Christian discipleship issue, not a partisan issue. In the introduction to Following Jesus in a Warming World, he writes, “Those of us who have come to Christian climate action have come to it circuitously, via some combination of lonely epiphany, painful deconstruction, and growing isolation from friends and family who view our Spirit-breathed conviction as political radicalization rather than Christian discipleship.” The church didn’t help Kyle get there, but the time has come for the church to help others.
In his time, Bill Starr took a prophetic stand on race and helped move a white evangelical ministry forward. Kyle Meyaard-Schaap is doing the same in relation to the climate crisis today.
What other issues are we facing that should be viewed as Christian discipleship issues instead of partisan issues? Number one in my mind is gun violence. It is time for all expressions of the church across the United States to say this has to stop. Can that be said without making it partisan? I believe it can. It’s not up to the church to figure out how to stop gun violence. I have opinions about how to stop it, but those are simply my opinions. Others have different opinions. Too often our different opinions paralyze us. Can we get together to say—as loudly and frequently as we can—that this has to stop? I’d love to see Young Life put out its magazine today with a picture of a young person on the cover with the headline, “Don’t Shoot Me.” But that burden shouldn’t fall to Young Life alone. All expressions of Christianity—indeed all expressions of religious faith—should stand up and say this has to stop.
Gun violence is political because our elected officials have the power to enact laws that will stop it. Other voices have been in their ears for decades, telling them a different message, and it’s easy (and satisfying) to fall into blame. I am asking if it is possible to get past blame and try something different? Can we come together long enough to say this isn’t right? Can we lay down our swords and shields and huge animosity and take a stand together? Doing that will take a special form of courage too often missing in our society.
Who has the courage to stand with their partisan opponents and say something?