What Does Repentance Look Like For the White Church?: A Conversation with Lisa Sharon Harper

We are four months and counting into the administration of one of the least qualified people ever to assume the presidency—and the key demographic that ushered him into the White House, white evangelicals, has shown few signs of buyers’ remorse. In this Q&A with Lisa Sharon Harper, RD senior correspondent Deborah Jian Lee continues her work of asking how evangelicals of color have been responding to this betrayal at the polls.

Harper is the chief church engagement officer at Sojourners, the author of the recent book, The Very Good Gospel, and travels internationally to train clergy and community leaders in racial justice work. In this conversation Lee and Harper delve into how evangelicals of color operate within white spaces and ask how, or if, evangelicalism can be redeemed.

This interview is the first of a series.


Deborah Jian Lee: Donald Trump recently passed his 100-day mark in office, and already a lot has happened. How have you been coping over the past few months?

Lisa Sharon Harper: [The onslaught of executive orders and budget proposals that target people of color and poor people] is like being in a boxing ring, having your hands tied behind your back, your feet planted to the floor and having multiple people take punches. You just have to stand there and take it because there’s nothing you can do, as much as you try to bob and weave. You can’t even hit back because you don’t have the political power to hit back.

SPECIAL REPORT: Divest or Dive In? Evangelicals of Color Face a Reckoning

Let’s go back to the election results. Exit polls showed that 81 percent of white evangelicals supported Trump. How did that figure hit you?

What we can say is that people who consider themselves religiously evangelical also have as high or higher allegiance to white supremacy. That is a fact. It was born out and manifest through the vote in the election.

[Some people may] come back and say, “Well, no, we didn’t vote for Trump because he said Mexicans are rapists, or because he threw out dog whistles about the violence of black bodies. We didn’t vote for him because of his Muslim ban. No, we voted for him because he was for working-class workers.” Okay. I will let them have that.

But then add to that the reality that he boasted about grabbing a woman’s vagina and kissing girls without their permission. Yet all of this was not enough to make white evangelicals not vote for him.

At the very least, we can agree that the white church across the board in America, and especially the white evangelical church, is not anti-racist. What’s more is they can live with policies crafted by racism on a national level. It’s okay. They can live with it.

I’m talking to a lot of evangelicals of color in white spaces about how widespread white evangelical support for Trump impacts them. I’m hearing different reactions.

Many folks feel pain, exhaustion and the sense that the racial justice work they’ve been doing for years in white evangelical spaces was a waste of time. Some people want to stay and keep fighting, while others wonder, what’s the point?

Given its history and this past election, is white evangelicalism redeemable?

It’s beyond evangelicalism. Evangelicals have taken the brunt of this. Yes, 81 percent, but also 60 percent of white Catholics and 58 percent of white historic Protestants in America voted for Trump. The majority of white women voted for Trump.

Basically white people voted for Trump. The entire white church, the majority, voted for Trump. There is no portion, there’s not one portion of the white church that can dodge this bullet. So yes, 81 percent of evangelicals did, the vast majority. But Protestants and Catholics are not far behind them.

I think the struggle within white evangelicalism is one of core identity. That struggle is taking place because white evangelicalism was hijacked in the 1980s by politics—politics that were initially defined by a racist agenda, as documented by historian Randall Balmer.

That’s at the root of the religious right that fully, completely captured the identity of evangelical America for almost 40 years. You have a situation where people have two or three generations in families that have grown up saying “I’m Republican, I’m Republican, I’m Republican.” Many of those people voted Republican even though they couldn’t stand Donald Trump—because it is an identity issue.

So many of my white evangelical friends are really struggling right now—not with their faith, but with their communities who are so captured by a political identity. They are witnessing a disconnect between their community’s vote for a president who wants to ban immigrants, who says black people are to be feared and locked up, and Jesus who says “Welcome the stranger” and “I’ve come to set the prisoners free.”

What’s your advice to people of color in white evangelical spaces?

We have done two things for too long.

One, we have centered white people in our conversations around race and power. We have placed at the center of the conversation the question of whether or not white people will accept the message.

We have held back the reality of the impact of their public actions on our private lives, families and communities. We have soft-pedaled conversations on race. We’ve made them about reconciling individuals and communities, rather than about justice.

Justice is what happens when things are as they should be. We have allowed justice to be confused with compassion. We need to own that, and we need to repent, and we need to call for justice.

Second, we have spent too much time centering our attention on winning the hearts and minds of white people rather than focusing on our own communities. Not in a way that gives charity or exercises compassionate ministries, but in a way that changes the power equations in our districts, our municipalities, our cities, our states and our nations. We have not done the work that is needed in order to free our own people. We must repent.

That is not to say that we just need to wipe our hands of white folks. But white folks need to be de-centered. This world is not about them, and quite honestly, racial justice should not depend on them. Justice is authored by God, not white people.

What does repentance look like for the white church when it comes to pursuing justice?

First and fundamentally, it looks like the renouncing of the political construct of whiteness, the lie that they are created with a unique call and capacity to rule.

It is looking at the bodies of black and brown, Asian and native people, indigenous people, looking into their eyes and seeing the image of God.

Then, it looks like confronting all of the different ways that the white church—its institutions, its theology, its cultural practices—has been telling lies about the supremacy of whiteness and the divine subjugation of people of color in this world.

It looks like a process. It’s not an event. It’s not going to happen even over a week, a month, a year. It took 500 years for us to get here. It’ll probably take us a thousand years to get out of it, but we will never get out of it if we don’t stop walking in the wrong direction.

It is the work of the white church to deal with their own faith, to confront the reality of what it is to repent, and to maybe even turn—for the first time in their lives—to that Palestinian Jesus and bow to him.