How interesting that a new group of peers that we are just getting to know chose to discuss “what is an Evangelical?” the other night before a game-night ensued. The group of new friends come from all Christian backgrounds; Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopalian, Evangelical Free, and a few “none-denoms” in the mix. We agreed that it is amazing how this word conjures up so much emotion among Americans and American Christians. (I don’t think this is as true overseas. Among Christians in the global south, the term Evangelical is usually understood, to have nothing to do with anything but ones faith in Jesus Christ.)
We game-night folks dickered between the past and present viewpoints during our life-times, expressing negative feelings about the recent years when an Evangelical is associated only with the politically radical right. Not so, we argued, of the first many decades that most of us understood an evangelical to be defined by one who adhered to believing ones faith was in Jesus as the key. My hubby reminded us that the term “Evangel” must be understood first. It is defined as “the good tidings of the redemption of the world through Jesus Christ; the gospel.
I’ve thought a lot about our discussion this week. I found this article by a trusted philosopher and seminary professor that was written in 2008….some years before anyone of a far-right political persuasion decided to make the word Evangelical synomous with a more extreme political view or a voting-block. I grew up understanding and agreeing with this definition written by J.P. Moreland. See what you think!
Defining “Evangelical” in Public Discourse by J.P. Moreland
Every election period the media mention, usually in ominous terms, Evangelicals. This year is no exception. And just as frequently, Evangelicals are identified with Fundamentalists and the Religious Right. This identification is false and harmful to the spirit of civil public discourse. Since I am an Evangelical, it may be helpful for me to explain what the term means. Two preliminary points are important. First, Evangelicals, just like anyone of commonsense, reserve the right to define who they are and what they stand for and we Evangelicals resent the media’s superficial and misleading characterization of us. [I AGREE, OH YES, I DO]. Second, Evangelicalism is not primarily a social, political, or cultural movement. At its core, it is to be defined theologically.
Though this is not a definition, as a starter, a pretty good indication that someone is an Evangelical would be the fact that he or she admires Billy Graham and identifies with the truth and importance of his ministry and preaching. More to the point, as Roger Olson has noted, an Evangelical is one who satisfies five characteristics: (1) biblicism (adherence to the supreme authority of the Bible regarding everything it teaches when properly interpreted); (2) conversionism (belief in the essential importance of radical conversion to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior); (3) the centrality of the cross of Jesus and the forgiveness it provides in attempts to grow in character and spirituality; (4) persuasive, respectful evangelism and social action on behalf of the poor, oppressed, and powerless, including the unborn; (5) a respect for but not slavish dependence on the history of Christian tradition and doctrine.
Evangelicals are not Fundamentalists. While they share many beliefs in common with Evangelicals, contemporary Christian Fundamentalists differ from Evangelicals in that Fundamentalists are far more black and white, they are deeply suspicious of culture and anything that smacks of compromise with contemporary thought, they are too confrontational, narrow, rigid, judgmental, and harsh for Evangelicals. Fundamentalists tend to elevate minor areas of Christian teaching to the status of central dogmas and militantly fight all who compromise. The texture and tone of Fundamentalists differ sharply from those of Evangelicals. Fundamentalists tend to be defensive while Evangelicals tend to be more mercy-oriented towards outsiders.
Evangelicals are not the Religious Right. For one thing, there is more political diversity among Evangelicals that one finds in the Religious Right. For another, even where Evangelicals would agree with conservative political thought, they are careful to derive their views and express their allegiance to radical discipleship unto Jesus and not primarily with regard to the Constitution.
The theological beliefs of Evangelicals may not be of interest to you, but I trust you care to understand a major sub-group of Americans in terms with which they would readily identify.
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For me it is difficult to be open to “the right” these days. The actions of many Republicans continues to baffle my senses about what would attract many evangelicals to stay with the likes of those who represent the far right.
I recently found that watching and reading the PBS tribute to the deceased commentator and deeply committed believer, Michael Gerson, brought me hope. This story describes so many of my viewpoints.
This man of great heart has written his views for years. I learned that President Bush’s efforts to help Africa through its crisis years with HIV/AIDS (PEPFAR funding) was partially inspired by the compassion of Gerson as he traveled Africa with Bush. This Wheaton graduate lived his faith and inspired many of us through the speeches he wrote for President Bush, as well as his stimulating and stirring writing found in many sources.
Hope you find it inspiring and full of insight that we need today as believers in Jesus.
Susan Sperry (MS15) was a high school senior when she learned that a friend’s living situation was falling apart. Her parents opened their home to the girl, an exchange student from Croatia, a decision Sperry called “radical hospitality.”
“Living with someone from a different background and culture was an incredibly rich experience,” she says. “And it planted a seed.”
Now executive director of World Relief Chicagoland, Sperry helps refugees and other immigrants find homes, resources, and community in the US. She credits her master’s in learning and organizational change degree with helping her move up in a field she’s passionate about: coaching people and systems through turbulent change.
Becoming a leader
Sperry began working for World Relief as a receptionist. Later she moved into the role of director of resettlement, where she solved problems large and small for refugee families resettling in the Chicago suburbs. She was working as refugee services director, supporting and coaching managers and staff, when she began studying for her master’s degree. “I just had a hunger to learn, and I wanted to know more,” she says. “World Relief works with people going through transition; the nature of our work is fast-paced and constantly changing. And structurally the organization was also going through change.”
Of her MSLOC classes, Sperry particularly liked Designing and Executing Strategic Change, a project-based elective that helps students learn how to improve organizations through design. “I’ve always had a desire to dig into what confuses and frustrates me,” she says. “I personally don’t do well with change. Much of what I learned through MSLOC helped me figure out how to change things for the better for myself and others around me.”
Race, religion, and political realities can shape the global response to the refugee crisis, Sperry says. “For example, many people have observed different responses in Europe and even in this country toward Ukrainian refugees than there were towards Syrians when they were fleeing,” she says. “We should have open arms to people who are fleeing bombs going off in their towns, whoever they are, wherever they are. That should be the compassionate response.
World Relief volunteers are often astounded by the richness of their experiences, Sperry says. “What I often hear is that they expected to be ‘the ones helping or doing things’ but ended up gaining so much more than they gave.”
Why she does it
After decades in the field, Sperry has seen refugees who arrived as children graduate from high school and attend college or launch small businesses and build careers. She is fueled by “seeing the beauty of human resilience, helping people make a way for themselves, and seeing how relationships form across cultures,” she says.
Sperry’s work is tied to her faith. She also keeps the long game in sight. “I can talk a lot about self-care, which I’m not always good at,” she says. “But it’s important to have good relationships, build in regular rhythms of rest, and do things that I find are life-giving, like hiking and paddleboarding.”
An uncertain future
Having been through a season where the support and services for and popular opinion on immigrants and refugees have been based on who’s in power, Sperry says she’s “concerned about who’s in power next— whoever that might be. At the end of the day, it’s real people’s lives that are affected. We have the privilege to advocate with our government, to speak up, to use our voices. Advocacy is a key way to create change.”
I have not been one to take very seriously the encouragement we find in scripture to fast and pray. Yes, maybe for a day or so, but this morning I heard a strong challenge for a 21 Day Fast. Our kids’ church in Franklin, TN has a webpage with many questions answered about fasting and prayer. It’s remarkable to see this resource, as they have been doing this for years as a church of over 5000 people. It offers a guide and journal that is downloadable. It’s fascinating to see where God is leading this church. Just learning from this website is worth your time. https://cotc.com/21days/
This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.
Ayear ago last week, my father died. If anything, the one-year anniversary was even more grief inducing than the actual day of his death. I suppose that’s because, a year ago, I plunged immediately into activity—the writing of an obituary, the preparation of a eulogy, the mechanics of a funeral. And now, a year later, none of those things are before me—just the fact that he’s gone. With all the reflection over the past year, I’ve realized one thing that I never really knew before—my father taught me to love the exvangelical.
An exvangelical is the catchall term for people who have walked away, disillusioned and sometimes even traumatized by American evangelical Christianity. The word is really slippery because it can include everyone from committed orthodox churchgoers who no longer claim the word evangelical because of all the nonsense they’ve seen go under that name to those who have actually walked away from the faith altogether.
One of the most difficult days of my life was when, as a 21-year-old, I had to tell my father that I thought God was calling me into Christian ministry. It felt, I suppose, how it would feel to tell one’s parents one had been arrested or that one had decided to exercise one’s gifts at meth cooking. That was because I knew my father wouldn’t approve.
Unlike some people I’ve known, it was not because my father was against the church or religion; he was not. And it wasn’t because he was putting some sort of pressure on me to “succeed” in a way that would mean making a lot of money; he never did that. When I finally worked up the nerve to tell my father—I think the night before I told my church—he responded better than I thought he would. He said, “I wish you wouldn’t do it; I don’t want to see you hurt.”
My dad, you see, was a pastor’s son.
Over the years, the Bible Belt became a source of dismay and spiritual crisis, but the church was not. To me, my church meant home and belonging and acceptance. If I so much as smell something similar to my church foyer or a Sunday school room or those vacation Bible school cookies, I immediately calm down. And the hymns we sang together week after week after week bring to my mind, every time I hear them, whatever the opposite of trauma might be. But I had not grown up in a parsonage; my father had.
His father was his hero. Though my grandfather died when I was five years old, I grew up always around his reputation. He had been pastor of my home church; most of the people who taught me Sunday school or who led my youth group or who sang in our choir had been led to Christ by him or baptized by him or married by him. He was revered by all of them, and by no one more than my father. And he was the subtext of my father’s conflicted relationship with the church.
That night, talking through my call to ministry, my father said: “I’m going to say this this one time, and then I’ll never say it again. I’ll support you completely, whatever you decide to do. But I wish you wouldn’t do it. I just don’t want to see you get hurt the way they hurt my dad.”
My father’s disillusionment with the church never seemed to fit to me. My grandfather did not seem to be “hurt” by anyone. I had listened to his sermons on tape and listened to the people around me talk about him. If anything, he seemed ebullient and energetic. But my father was not talking about some big issue, but 1,001 little matters. He had observed, close up, the Darwinism and Machiavellianism that can happen in even the smallest of congregations. I’m not sure that such things even affected my grandfather. But he had a child who was watching.Article continues below
My dad kept his word. He never said another word about wishing I wouldn’t do it. Never. He was always there if I was preaching anywhere around him. He was there for my ordination. When there were multiple opportunities to say, “Didn’t I warn you?” he never did—not once.
But what I realize now is that I judged my father too much for what I saw as a deficient spirituality—because I didn’t know what it was like to experience what he had.
He would often go to church—for great stretches of time—but his attendance would often taper off and then disappear. The only time I ever argued with my father—literally the only time about anything—was when I made a snarky comment as a young adult about his spotty church attendance. Let’s just say he was not happy—and I realized that there was a reason I had never engaged my father in a debate before that (or since). But I remember in that argument his saying something along the lines of, “You haven’t seen what I’ve seen.” And indeed I hadn’t.
After I was grown, I asked my grandmother why she had insisted that I be with her at church every time the doors were open—Sunday school, worship services, Training Union, Royal Ambassadors, Wednesday night prayer meetings. She said, “I wanted you to be a Christian.” I asked why she also insisted that we would skip one Wednesday night every month, her only explanation being “No church tonight; it’s business meeting.” She said, “Because I wanted you to be a Christian.” She didn’t want me to see the sort of carnality that could break out in a Baptist congregational business meeting.
My dad, though, never had that option. The business meetings came to him. They were in his living room, at his kitchen table, and he knew that at any time a business meeting gone wrong could result in his losing his home, his friends, and his school, and ending up somewhere entirely new. Maybe even more than that, he could see a man he revered cut apart by critics while smiling through it all and then showing up to those same people’s hospital rooms and then standing over their caskets to recite words of comfort when they died. I never had to see that.
I never thought about all of that until my 15-year-old son asked my wife in early 2021 whether I had had a moral failure, given the accusations of my being a liberal for not supporting a politician I believe to be unfit; a “critical race theorist” for saying that African American people are telling the truth when they say that racial injustice is still a problem; that I must be funded by George Soros because I think that the immigration system should be fixed, etc.
I invited my son to come with me to one of those “business meetings” where they read out their grievances against me. When we walked out, I said, “What did you think?” He said, “That whole meeting was so angry and so stupid. Why do we want to be a part of that?”
I didn’t have a good answer. But what I resolved at that moment, as I looked into his eyes, included two things. The first was that my son would never have to ask again if I had failed morally because of the machinations of such people. And the second was that I was going to make sure, as much as possible, that my sons never have to see the church the way my father had to see it.
I realized, only over the past several months, how despite the fact that I loved and revered my father, on this one point I had been judgmental. I chalked up to deficient spirituality what was mostly the result of pain. It wasn’t that my father had a low view of the church; it was that he had a high view of his dad.Article continues below
Just this past week, I had multiple conversations with people who grew up in evangelical churches—some who had been very committed and devoted. And they had been hurt. They saw the church turn against them because they wouldn’t adopt as Scripture some political ideology or personality cult. Some had seen people they trusted revealed to be frauds or even predators.
Not one of them walked away because they wanted to curry favor with “elites” or because they wanted to rebel. If anything, the posture of many of these people was not that of the Prodigal Son off in the far country so much as that of his father, waiting by the road for a prodigal they loved and wanted to embrace again: their church.
My counsel to them was different than my counsel to many of you. To them, I talked about the dangers of cynicism and how to distinguish between the failure of an institution and a failure of the one worshiped by that institution.
To one I said, “If you look at Jesus and the Gospels and you decide you cannot follow him, that’s one thing. But it would be a shame to avoid even looking at the claims of the gospel because you want to avoid at all costs what a church that hurt you said they believed. That’s even more the case when your problem is that they didn’t seem to believe what they said they believed. And that’s even more the case when Jesus warned you—in Matthew 24 and Mark 13 and Revelation 1–3 and by the Spirit repeatedly in the letters of Paul and Peter and John and Jude—that such things would happen, and would happen in his name.”
But to you—to us—I would counsel: Let’s believe in Jesus enough to bear patiently with those who are hurt, especially those hurt by the church. Let’s not assume that, in every case, those disappointed or angry or at the verge of walking away are doing so because they hold a deficient worldview or because they want to chase immorality. There are some people for whom that is true, in every age.
But many, maybe most of them, are not Judas seeking to flee by night but are instead Simon Peter on the seashore, asking, “To whom shall we go?” (John 6:68). Many of them, like Peter himself, will conclude, “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (vv. 68–69, ESV). To many of these Jesus will say, as he did to Peter, “I have prayed for you … that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32).
Let’s not mistake hurt for rebellion, trauma for infidelity, or a broken heart for an empty soul. We can only convince people not to give up on the church if we likewise refuse to give up on them.
Jesus does not need us to do public relations for his 99 sheep still in the pasture; he needs us to go looking for the one who’s lost in the woods. At some time or another, that’s all of us. And we will count on a church loving us enough to send in someone after us—not with hectoring and shaming but with patience and love. And it might even be that the one who comes to help you, in your darkest moment, is right now an exvangelical.
In the meantime, let’s have love for the exvangelical. Let’s have the kind of community that can counteract the business meetings.
It took 50 years, but my dad taught me that.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.
This map was created a few years ago by International Association for Refugees and will help us understand the breadth of the refugee situation around the world. This issue is not unique to the U.S., to say the least. Though we have a newer situation of unaccompanied children that is horrific. It is characterized by the desperation of parents who would send their children unaccompanied to what they see as the Promised Land. We are often their last hope as parents see us as a place of hope and health for their children.
Matt Soerens, Director of the Evangelical Immigration Table, responds to this situation with a challenge for us on June 21. Please consider passing this along to your small group or friends to pray on June 21.
In May, roughly 14,000 children unaccompanied by a parent or legal guardian were apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border. While that’s down by about 25% from the number apprehended in March, it’s still an overwhelming number: 14,000.
The situation is further complicated by a recent announcement from the State of Texas that could withdraw childcare licenses from faith-based and other organizations currently hosting more than 4,000 of these unaccompanied children while they await placement with their families or other sponsors and, eventually, court dates to determine their eligibility to stay lawfully in the U.S.
I’m easily overwhelmed by these numbers. I understand why the instinct of some Americans is similar to that of Jesus’ disciples when faced with thousands of children, women and men in need: “Send the people away” (Mark 6:36).
But I’m challenged, as I heard a pastor observe in a sermon on the theme of immigration, by Jesus’ response: “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34) and he instructed His disciples, “you give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37).
The disciples, understandably, wondered how they could possibly comply with Jesus’ instructions, given their limited resources. But a boy offered up the little he had – five loaves of bread, two fish – and Jesus prayed to His Father in heaven, then made it into enough to meet the entire crowd’s needs.
I’m convinced that, if the U.S. church offers up what we have and is faithful in prayer, God can use it to compassionately provide for large numbers of vulnerable migrant children. A few weeks ago, Christians gathered in Central Florida to pray together and explore ways to respond to the plight of these kids. Judy Douglass, who helped lead a time of prayer at that gathering, has suggested a few prayer points here.
As you’re able, I’d invite you to gather virtually with me and as many others as are able to participate for a time of prayer for unaccompanied children on Monday, June 21 at 4 PM ET/3 PM CT/2 PM MT/1 PM PT. We’ll break into small groups and pray for unaccompanied children, for the elected officials setting policies that impact them and for church to respond with Christ-like compassion. You can join us at that time using this Zoom link or add the prayer time to your calendar.
Matthew Soerens National Coordinator, Evangelical Immigration Table
I have been called out on taking this political circus too seriously. Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s having to be confined to my home and having more time to read. Maybe it’s having a huge justice button (as a friend once said). Maybe it’s being very frustrated with these last political years and the Christian response to it all. Maybe it’s COVID-19…we can blame everything on COVID. So for this blog entry I will give you my favorite 4 articles written about the D.C. insurrection written by Christian authors and thinkers with the highest of integrity and whom I greatly respect. They’re not easy to read or accept for any of us. IF you choose to read them….take some days to read them. But I believe they are written by modern-day prophets (think “what if Jeremiah lived today”). Only if you want to be challenged…click, read and be open, asking God, “what can we do?”
Sojourner’s Jim Wallis (a contemporary who was at Trinity Seminary while I was at MBI…and began this journey of finding fellow-travelers who wanted America to be a more just place.
4. Last but not least, David French, David who warns of the potential dangers to the country—and the world—if we don’t summon the courage to reconcile our political differences. Two decades into the 21st Century, the U.S. is less united than at any time in our history since the Civil War. An author, lawyer, Iraq Veteran who follows Christ.
Our current culture doesn’t do nuance well. We like extremes. Black and white thought. We like labels. Tidy boxes. We like to categorize people.
How else will we know if this person is part of Us or part of Them?
We need to know are you part of The Right or The Left? Are you a Christian? What kind of Christian are you? Are you a Republican? A Democrat? A Conservative? A Liberal? We need to know. Are you one of those Snowflakes? Are you a Greedy Republican or a Bleeding Heart Democrat? Are you a Socialist? Are you one of the Sheeple? Are you for overturning Roe v. Wade or are you a baby killer?
We stick to our side, shore up our defenses, hurl our insults. We aren’t very good at listening, and we aren’t very good at looking for common ground.
This article was in Christianity Today….I think it’s a thoughtful explanation with an example that we could often miss in our whiteness. Such a summer of learning!!!
JULY 8, 2020
What is “White Privilege,” Really?
Thinking about white privilege
This week my family and I were on a bike ride through our neighborhood in the early evening in the hot Texas heat. With three young children it doesn’t matter what time of day, we ride our bikes for miles and miles. Usually my three year old daughter rides in the carriage that attaches to my bike. But on this day she decided she wanted to ride her bike. She only just learned to ride a bike with training wheels a few weeks ago. She learned quickly because our next door neighbor gave us a hand-me-down bike. It is pink and white with streamers hanging from the handlebars and a basket at the front. She loves it. She has to use the entire weight of her little body to get those wheels to turn but it is her favorite thing to do. It makes her feel like she fits in with her big brothers. On this particular day, we had gone about a mile slowly but surely, and the boys had long abandoned us for a faster pace, when she looked up at me and declared that she wasn’t going to ride her bike any further. So I took her off her bike and put her in the toddler seat that was still attached to mine and we left her bike sitting there on the sidewalk in front of a neighborhood home, planning to pick it up with the car later.
Hours later and after dark, we had returned home and put the kids in bed when my husband finally returned in the mini-van to collect the bike. Upon arrival he saw that there was a police car in front of the home where we left the bike. He learned that the home owner had called the police fearing that a child had run off and left the bike. Once my husband arrived he cleared everything up with the police offer, he loaded the bike in the car and drove the short distance to our home. As he told me this story, he reflectively said these words to me: “Kel, in interacting with the police officer and the home owner, there was not one moment where I felt un-safe.” He went on to tell me that they were joking with each other by the end of the exchange. One white man interacting with a white home owner and a white police officer turned into a perfectly friendly exchange.
My husband’s comment, and the world full of race-based violence we are living in today, has me thinking about white privilege. The reason that my husband felt completely safe is because of the reality of white privilege. Before you tune me out, consider this. White privilege is not about wealth. It is not about how hard a person works, or how lazy a person is. It not about morality, how a person behaves or doesn’t behave. You can be privileged because you are white and still be a good person, a bad person, a hard worker, an unemployed person, a poor person, or a rich person. White privilege is actually not even about individual accounts of racism exactly. You can be privileged because you are white and not be racist. You can even be an anti-racist, full blown ally and still benefit from white privilege because it is the “water that we swim in.” Asking a white person to define white privilege is like asking a fish to define water. White privilege is the ever- present, pervasive and normative experience for white people in America that puts them at an ever-present advantage over black people and people of color, based on the color of their skin.
White privilege is the reason that my husband approached that police officer at night in front of a home and felt completely safe and white privilege is the reason that my black friends Graham and Steven and Rachel would feel absolutely terrified and probably terrified to the point of not even considering picking that bike up until the next morning.
Why does white privilege matter for white Christians today? For Christians, we are called to do two things with our privilege.
To lay aside privilege and power for the sake of others as we follow the way of Jesus. (Philippians 2:7-9) Jesus set aside the greatest privilege of being God, fully Divine, to share in our human experience. He suffered and he died because he loved human kind. Any privilege that we have should be both utilized and set aside for the sake of others.
How do we do this? Here are two ideas you can try this week:
Acknowledge the existence of white privilege by interrogating your own experience. As my husband did, become gently curious and ask, “I felt this way in this setting and I wonder if others of a different race would feel the same way?”
Become a listener and a learner of someone who is not white. Ask them about white privilege, what it means to them, how they experience it, etc. Recognize that how you experience the world is not how everyone experiences the world.
Most of us ask ourselves that penetrating question. The thing I’ve read over and over these past few days is the challenge for us, white American by-standers to read and become educated and begin to really understand the racial divide and injustices that surrounds us. The articles and interviews and sincere writers are everywhere. I hope we all grow in our understanding and act upon that understanding. I feel that this is another pandemic of sorts in our midst and deserves the care and attention that we are giving to COVID-19. It will plague us longer that this health crisis if we don’t.
Last summer I went to see the movie, Just Mercy. It is the story of Bryan Stevenson, who is a Harvard lawyer who worked to free black men from prison who were wrongfully accused and sentenced. This interview with The New Yorker writer, Isaac Chotiner is one among many good articles in the aftermath of George Floyd protests and the chaos that has followed. It deserves our attention. (I have underlined parts and indented what I believe are crucial to this discussion). Many personal accounts written in other articles I have linked after this article. Make it your personal goal to understand and live by your understanding.
Bryan Stevenson on the Frustration Behind the George Floyd Protests
“The past weekend saw the start of an uprising in dozens of American cities, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets for peaceful protests and violent encounters with the police. The proximate cause was the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed, handcuffed African-American man, by a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin. In Minneapolis and other cities, police in riot gear have responded aggressively to protests and looting, pushing and shoving protesters and using an arsenal of crowd-control weaponry. In Louisville, a protester was shot dead, under circumstances that remain unclear; in Brooklyn, social media captured an incident in which police officers drove into a crowd of protesters.
On Sunday, I spoke by phone with Bryan Stevenson, a civil-rights lawyer and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human-rights organization that challenges convictions, advocates for criminal-justice reform and racial justice, and created the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama, which honors the victims of lynching and other forms of racial terror during the Jim Crow era. Stevenson, who was the subject of a Profile, by Jeffrey Toobin, in 2016, is also the author of a memoir, “Just Mercy,” which was made into a feature film last year. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Stevenson and I discussed the roots of police violence in both slavery and Jim Crow, how to change the culture of policing, and the frustration and despair behind this week’s protests.
What has been your biggest takeaway from the past week?
We need to reckon with our history of racial injustice. I think everything we are seeing is a symptom of a larger disease. We have never honestly addressed all the damage that was done during the two and a half centuries that we enslaved black people. The great evil of American slavery wasn’t the involuntary servitude; it was the fiction that black people aren’t as good as white people, and aren’t the equals of white people, and are less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving than white people.
That ideology of white supremacy was necessary to justify enslavement, and it is the legacy of slavery that we haven’t acknowledged. This is why I have argued that slavery didn’t end in 1865, it evolved. Next month will be the hundred and fifty-fifth anniversary of when black people gathered to celebrate the end of slavery: Juneteenth. They believed they would receive the vote, and the protection of the law, and land, and opportunity, and have a chance to be full Americans. They were denied all of those things because this ideology of white supremacy would not allow Southern whites to accept them, to value them and to protect them, and so, immediately after 1865 and the Thirteenth Amendment, violence broke out. We are going to be releasing a report next month on the horrendous violence that took place during Reconstruction, which blocked all of the progress.
So, for me, you can’t understand these present-day issues without understanding the persistent refusal to view black people as equals. It has changed, but that history of violence, where we used terror and intimidation and lynching and then Jim Crow laws and then the police, created this presumption of dangerousness and guilt. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, how educated you are, where you go in this country—if you are black, or you are brown, you are going to have to navigate that presumption, and that makes encounters with the police just rife with the potential for these specific outcomes which we have seen.
How do you think our current era of criminal justice and policing is a continuation of that past?
I think the police have been the face of oppression in many ways. Even before the Civil War, law enforcement was complicit in sustaining enslavement. It was the police who were tasked with tracking down fugitive slaves from 1850 onwards in the north. After emancipation, it was law enforcement that stepped back and allowed black communities to be terrorized and victimized. We had an overthrow of government during Reconstruction, and law enforcement facilitated that. Then, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, it was law enforcement and police and our justice system that allowed people to be lynched by white mobs, sometimes literally on the courthouse lawn, and allowed the perpetrators of that terror and violence to engage in these acts of murder with impunity. They were even complicit in it. And, as courageous black people began to advocate for civil rights in the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties, when these older, nonviolent black Americans would literally be on their knees, praying, they were battered and bloodied by uniformed police officers. That identity of violence and oppression is not something we can ignore. We have to address it. But, rather than address it, since the nineteen-sixties, we have been trying to distract ourselves from it and not acknowledge it, and not own up to it, and all of our efforts have been compromised by this refusal to recognize that we need to radically change the culture of police.
Now, the police are an extension of our larger society, and, when we try to disconnect them from the justice system and the lawmakers and the policymakers, we don’t accurately get at it. The history of this country, when it comes to racial justice and social justice, unlike what we do in other areas, is, like, O.K., it’s 1865, we won’t enslave you and traffic you anymore, and they were forced to make that agreement. And then, after a half century of mob lynching, it’s, like, O.K., we won’t allow the mobs to pull you out of the jail and lynch you anymore. And that came after pressure. And then it was, O.K., we won’t legally block you from voting, and legally prevent you from going into restaurants and public accommodations.
But at no point was there an acknowledgement that we were wrong and we are sorry. It was always compelled, by the Union Army, by international pressure, by the federal courts, and that dynamic has meant that there is no more remorse or regret or consciousness of wrongdoing. The police don’t think they did anything wrong over the past fifty or sixty years. And so, in that respect, we have created a culture that allows our police departments to see themselves as agents of control, and that culture has to shift. And this goes beyond the dynamics of race. We have created a culture where police officers think of themselves as warriors, not guardians.
Do you think this situation with the policy today has a specific purpose, and what is it?
It does. But the purpose was possible because of our unwillingness to recognize the wrongfulness of this racial hierarchy. Even the abolitionists, many of whom fought to end slavery, didn’t believe in racial equality. So, if you embrace white supremacy, then you are going to use black people and exploit black people and deny black people opportunities, because it advances that purpose. And a lot of white supremacy wasn’t even “purposeful.” What was the purpose of banning interracial marriage? What was the purpose of banning black people from coming into restaurants? It was about maintaining racial hierarchy, and that presumption or narrative that black people are dangerous, that black people can’t be trusted, that black people have to be controlled. And if it didn’t have an economic value, that didn’t mean that it wasn’t purposeful. The purpose was to sustain that hierarchy.
So you take a history like that, and then you combine it with a culture like the culture of policing that we have created, where people are taught to fight and to shoot like soldiers. When the government equips police departments like they’re equipping the military, we undermine healthy relationships between the police and the community. We don’t train them to deëscalate, or deal with people suffering from mental illness or the complexities and anger and frustrations of poverty. And then we bring them in, often to places where they don’t live. We view the police as an occupying military force. That kind of culture gives rise to the violence that we see.
It is possible to create a police department where people think of themselves as guardians. Their commitment is to protect and serve even the people they are arresting. The best police officers will tell you that their job is to make sure that the person who may have just committed a crime is safely encountered, that they keep that person safe, but that is not the way most police officers are trained. And we facilitate it by protecting the whole institution, so no one in this country can tell you how many people were killed by the police last year, because we don’t require that data. People have been trying for two decades to mandate the disclosure of that kind of information, and there is this institutional resistance. And that’s a larger problem—the way we have insulated these institutions from reform.
Should the protests be oriented toward a specific agenda, and, if so, what should that agenda be?
I don’t think it would be fair to ask protesters to solve the problems created by this long history. In many ways, protests are a reaction of frustration and anger to the unwillingness of elected officials to engage in the kind of reforms that need to happen. The protests are a symbol of frustration and despair. I think the answers have to come from elected officials. We can change the culture of institutions in this country. We have done it time and time again.
In the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, if you look at the laws, there was hardly any punishment for people convicted of driving while drunk. We tolerated it. Even though it was catastrophic, it wasn’t something we saw as a priority. Then Mothers Against Drunk Driving began lifting up new narratives, and all of a sudden the political will shifted. We created a new culture, and we now take stronger steps.
Regardless of the wealth or affluence of the offender, we do more. That is a cultural shift that has made death from drunk driving much less frequent than it was fifty years ago.
With domestic violence, it is the same story. In the nineteen-sixties, a woman who called the police could not expect that her spouse would be arrested. The police would come and pull him outside and tell jokes. There was a sympathy for the frustration that led to violence. And then we began changing that narrative. Women and victims of domestic violence started lifting their voices, and the political will changed. And today we have a radically different view of people who engage in domestic violence. Even our most prominent athletes and celebrities, if accused credibly, are going to be held accountable in ways that weren’t true even ten years ago. That is a cultural shift. And we are in the midst of a cultural shift about sexual harassment in the workplace. There is a different tolerance level. In New York, people need to take tests to make sure they can recognize sexual harassment.
We have not engaged in that kind of cultural transformation when it comes to policing. Now, we have the tools. We know how to do it. I spent several months on President Obama’s task force on policing, in 2015, after we had a period of riots. We have forty pages of recommendations. That can change the culture of policing. It begins with training. It begins with procedural justice, and policies, and changing the way police officers are viewed and opening up communities.
Do you think the Obama Administration did enough on this issue, especially before 2015?
No one has done enough. But this is not a federal problem alone. I am critical of the current Administration shelving all of those recommendations, withdrawing from lawsuits where police departments had been sued, and signalling that we do not care about this anymore. But I also don’t believe that excuses what mayors and governors and local officials have failed to do. You don’t need a White House to engage in culture change at your police department. That can be done in cities and communities and states. These reforms need to happen locally. The federal government can and should be playing a bigger role in incentivizing these changes. But anyone looking to the White House and the Presidency exclusively is not going to get it. I also think that, if we allow another five years to go by with no meaningful reform, then we have to stop talking about Washington. Every mayor and governor in this country has a blueprint for changing culture in policing and making things better. Whether they do it or not is the harder question.
You are saying this can’t come from the top alone—but, having someone at the top of the system who talks about shooting people and tells police to get tough, how much does that worry you about the future, even knowing how bad the past has been?
Yeah, I think any time we reinforce this idea that police officers are there to control and dominate and menace, that they should be unapologetic and feared and ready for battle, we are reinforcing the culture and the dynamic that has given rise to so much distrust. It’s not good for public safety. It is not even good for officer safety, and it is certainly not good for creating the kinds of healthy communities that most of us want to live in. It’s the wrong model. It’s like someone coming along and saying, “Doctors don’t need to care for their patients, or talk to their patients, or be polite, or be respectful, or show any interest. They have skills and knowledge, and their job is to treat, and anybody who is asking for more than that is too much.” That mind-set will cause a lot of people to die. They will not get the health care that they need, and doctors will not be successful because it’s the wrong culture for helping people get the cure and treatment that they need.
The same is true for public safety. You can go to other places in the world and see evidence of this everywhere. And we have even done it here. There are police departments in this country that have radically changed their relationship to the community. Camden, New Jersey, fifty years ago, was just a boiling pot, and things would blow up all the time, and relationships between police and community leaders were fraught with tension and conflict. And that has changed radically because of leadership and engagement.
Many of these protests this week have had more white people than the protests five years ago. How do you think that is or is not likely to change the movement?
To be honest, it’s not that hard to protest. It’s not that hard to go someplace. And it doesn’t mean that it’s not important. It doesn’t mean that it’s not critical. But that’s not the hard thing we need from people who care about these issues. We need people to vote, we need people to engage in policy reform and political reform, we need people to not tolerate the rhetoric of fear and anger that so many of our elected officials use to sustain power. We need the cultural environments in the workplace to shift.
Black people in this country have to live this very complex existence when they live and go to work and go to school in these spaces which are largely controlled by white people. They can’t really be their authentic selves. That means that there is this tension and there is this challenge, and at some point you get overwhelmed by that. And when these incidents of police violence take place, and people are killed, literally, on video, right in front of you, and the perpetrators are staring at you, you get angry and you want to express that anger.
It’s not just anger over what happened to George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery. It is anger about continuing to live in a world where there is this presumption of dangerousness and guilt wherever you go. I’m sixty years old and have been practicing law for thirty-five years. I have a lot of honorary degrees and went to Harvard. And I still go places where I am presumed dangerous. I have been told to leave courtrooms because the presumption was that I was the defendant and not the lawyer. I have been pulled out of my car by police who pointed a gun on me. And I can just tell you that, when you have to navigate this presumption of guilt, day in and day out, and when the burden is on you to make the people around you see you as fully human and equal, you get exhausted. You are tired. And I would argue that the black people in the streets are expressing their fatigue, their anger, and their frustration at having to live this menaced life in America. And that is not the same thing for white people who are supporting them. It doesn’t mean that white people shouldn’t be supporting them, but I don’t think it’s the proper focus of what many of us are trying to give voice to.
Criminal-justice reform has become a bipartisan issue, but it often seems to be spoken of as being distinct from police brutality and police reform. How important is it to bring police reform into the broader context of criminal-justice reform?
I think, for many of us, it has always been at the center of it. Changing the way we police, prosecute, judge, and punish is the essence of criminal-justice reform.
I think people use the phrase “criminal-justice reform” in a pretty lazy way. Modifying the federal sentencing parameters at the edges, so a very small percentage of people in federal prisons might get reduced sentences, is not meaningful criminal-justice reform. Ninety per cent of the prisoners in the United States are in the state system. That is not impacted by what the White House or any President has done. [The Obama Administration amended federal sentencing guidelines in order to reduce the sentences of people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. In 2017, Jeff Sessions, who was then the Attorney General, overturned those reforms.] The real meaningful reform would have been implementing the task force’s recommendations, changing the way we think about police and prosecutorial accountability, mandating the data disclosure that would allow us to evaluate the nature of this problem. And, when you don’t do those things, everything else you do is going to be compromised.
We had the so-called War on Drugs that was carried out against black and brown people, because the law-enforcement agents that were the people carrying out that war saw black and brown people differently. That’s a policing and prosecutorial problem. The immunity we have created to shield people from accountability is a barrier to shield people from any effective reform. That includes sentencing and all these others things, because, if prosecutors can withhold evidence and wrongly convict people, and police can abuse people and coerce confessions, then nothing else we do at the sentencing or policy level is going to be effective. And that has to change.”
Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with major public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.
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