Matthew A. Benton on white evangelicals and racial justice
American social unrest after George Floyd’s death (and Breonna Taylor’s, and Ahmaud Arbery’s, and Jacob Blake’s shooting, and… and… ) reveals an awkward paralysis of many white Christians, particularly white evangelicals, concerning justice. A great many white Christians in America, including their leaders and pastors, are silent or uncomfortable with publicly denouncing or lamenting the deaths of innocent Black Americans. Yet they are overly willing to condemn the riots and looting which follow the mass protests of police brutality toward, and social oppression of, people of color.
One finds a similar pattern from white evangelicals in other areas: often vocally against abortion, but not clearly for the orphan or single mother. Or, against restrictions to certain individual freedoms (such as gun ownership rights), but not clearly for a culture of nonviolence, by failing to challenge implicit threats (as in the gun-wielding lockdown protests in Michigan in May 2020) or even explicit threats of violence from the President (“when the looting starts, the shootings start”). Or, again, they are against voter fraud, but not for equitable access to polling places or fair improvements to voter registration rules.
In short, too many white Christians somehow manage to posture against injustice without being for justice. Particularly the kind of justice which recognizes and prioritizes the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.
Narrowed attention on selective injustices is itself a kind of injustice, particularly when it reveals the self-serving nature of one’s purported concerns. Focusing on law and order rather than the long overdue protests in the streets, or on property rights rather than what is communicated through those angry enough to riot, is to signal that one’s concern is not fully for the people who need it most. This sort of response, intentional or not, contributes to an implicit silencing, and what Michigan State philosopher Kristie Dotson calls “epistemic violence,” whereby (largely white) audiences tacitly refuse to reciprocate the communicative exchange, owing to pernicious ignorance.
Similarly, moralizing critiques from white evangelicals on how such anger is counterproductive contribute to what the Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan, in her article “The Aptness of Anger,” calls “affective injustice”: the counterproductivity critique forces victims of injustice to make the invidious choice between the feelings which best fit the proper reaction to injustice in our society, and acting so as to make our society what it should be. Such critiques effectively silence the victims by shifting attention away from why they are right to be angered by injustice, to the pragmatic reasons they have to conduct themselves respectably. Yet we all lose if we do not at least first hear and learn from their reasons for anger.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” noted his deep disappointment with the silence of both the white church and the white moderate. In 1967 he recognized that riots are “the language of the unheard,” and he posed the question that we must again ask ourselves: “what is it that America has failed to hear?” White evangelicals in this particular moment must reckon with why they have not heard the experiences and cries of their brothers and sisters of color.
The injustice of our collective social condition is related to structural problems with how knowledge is shared and valued in our communities. The testimonies of pain and oppression from people of color are less heard and believed by white people in part because of our racially segregated social connections. In particular, when white individuals lack substantive relationships with very few people of color, and rarely even read their stories of their own experiences, there are few chances for what Northwestern philosopher José Medina, in The Epistemology of Resistance, calls “epistemic interaction.” And our society becomes entrenched in social circles which exacerbate what philosophers call testimonial “epistemic injustice”: when speakers are demoted by those who might hear them, due to implicit biases against their social type (e.g., as Black, or as female, etc.), such speakers are downgraded in their capacities as knowers, and their testimonial credibility is harmed. The sort of harm in play is distinctively epistemic, but also social: to be sidelined from the communal exchange of knowledge in this way is to impugn a speaker’s epistemic trustworthiness, inviting others to treat them as either incompetent or insincere. But because the capacity to share knowledge with others is central to the domains of human rationality and human value, to harm another in their capacity as a knower is to degrade someone symbolically as less than fully human. When applied to Black Americans, or other people of color, not only are their claims and narratives about even their own experiences not widely heard and understood; the patterns of ignoring and silencing them serve to render them symbolically as inferior.
Thus in our present context, people of color are not treated by white communities as knowledgeable or worth listening to, even when their speech aims to convey the reality of their own experiences of oppression and marginalization. And so their stories of mistreatment and struggle go largely unheard by the very people who are better positioned to effect change (white communities with comparative privilege, power, and voice). As Garrett theologian Brian Bantum argues in The Death of Race, “race is a way of resisting difference by violently determining which differences matter”; but to put to death what race does to us, we must embrace those differences by first valuing them. And to value them properly, racially different experiences must be heard by those who don’t know them.
The communal fragmentation characteristic of such silence is perhaps especially lamentable within Christian communities, which, given their purported commitments, should be models of building such relationships across racial, social, and even religious differences. Yet even within the broader Christian community, white Christians struggle to forge such relations. Yale theologian Willie James Jennings, in his book The Christian Imagination, recalls an episode from his youth where some white Christian men from the church down the street came to invite his family (pillars of their own church) to their church. Jennings was struck by how they were treated as strangers: “Why did these men not know us, not know the multitude of other Black Christians who filled the neighborhood that surrounded that church?” One part of Jennings’ answer details how race structures our ways of relating and imagining and even theologizing, particularly for American Christians.
These epistemic injustices are only one symptom of our social condition. Indeed, the economic, legal, and educational systems in America are themselves also implicitly structured to devalue and ignore people of color, in order to value and prioritize those who are white. But recognizing how, collectively and individually, many of us have yet fully to hear the experiences of people of color, especially when they testify concerning their own experiences of oppression, points to a route forward. For white people, listening (and reading) with empathy, and in silence, is a crucial step to caring about changing our systems into more just ones (it is only the first step, but a crucial one). Being this vulnerable does not come easily to most white people. But it is where many still have to begin.
Why have white communities failed so often to become empathetic listeners? Let us listen to Dr. King: in 1963 he had “almost reached the regrettable conclusion” that the greatest stumbling block for race relations was not the explicit white racist “or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Similarly, white cries against recent protests and rioting over Black lives reveal a desire primarily for less social tension, since their own comfort and relative security is a core part of white identity. To call for such negative peace, instead of lamenting the tense and fearful existence which Black Americans face daily, is for white Americans to value their own psychic comfort over the pain of their Black siblings. Yet white peace of mind should never take priority over Black bodily harms. White moderates instead must put others first so as to unplug their ears; only then might they begin, as Dr. King put it, “to understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race,” and further progress to seeing that “injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action.”
White Christians in particular should accept that hearing the stories of those unlike them, with empathy, is a way of loving them, particularly when their narratives are fraught with pain. For it is only by involving ourselves in their stories that we can grow in empathy, and begin to take on their concerns as our own. Listening in humility is, perhaps, a twenty-first-century version of washing another’s feet. Given our unjust social systems, it may be that loving others in this way is a condition of knowing them as they deserve to be known. Indeed, as Dr. King himself urged us to recognize, “only love can cure the disease of fear,” perhaps because, as Christians should agree, perfect love casts out fear. Thus white Christians must start to become virtuous listeners, hearing the cries of people of color. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
Matthew A. Benton is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Seattle Pacific University. Previously he also held research fellowships at the University of Notre Dame and at the University of Oxford. He writes mainly in epistemology, philosophy of language, and philosophy of religion. He is co-editor of Knowledge, Belief, and God: New Insights in Religious Epistemology (Oxford University Press, 2018), and of Religious Disagreement and Pluralism (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).