Dear White Evangelical: I Can’t Breathe by Jennifer Bell

Jun 5, 2020


This is a difficult piece to write, and I’ll acknowledge two things from the onset: it’ll contain shortcomings, and I do not represent any official opinion or position belonging to Roosevelt Community Church. Back in January, when we were resuscitating the church blog, I was kindly given permission to periodically write “political diary” entries. I had recently completed a creative nonfiction class, it was an election year, and I’m into politics: voila! But then Covid-19 hit, and other stuff slipped away . . . for a while.


But here we are. On June 2, 2020, I was privileged to participate in Arizona Churches Stand Together for Black Lives’ very peaceful, very powerful protest/rally/public prayer and lamentations event at the Arizona State Capitol. This was done in response to numerous acts of violence against People of Color, but most certainly and specifically, in response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020 which launched poignant national and global protests—some peaceful and some that turned criminal (as of this writing, we’ve just awakened after the ninth night, and cities are a mess). I could devote much space to the circumstances that resulted in the June 2 event. I could name the police officer who did the killing. I could tell you about where he is now and what happened to the other men working with him. I could tell you about Trump’s response. I could tell you about the images of Manhattan being looted and the Apple store getting ransacked in Scottsdale, about the chaos that ensued resulting in nationwide curfews and National Guard formations and threats of the U.S Army being called in to maintain “law and order.” But, for now, remember that George Floyd was unarmed, autopsies indicate that his death was homicide, and his last words to the police officer who was restraining him with his knee on Floyd’s neck and throat pressed to the ground were, I Can’t Breathe.

I Can’t Breathe.

And then Floyd died.

So I’d just like to address a few things that I hear, in my White Girl Circles, that I think need some discussion. And I’d love to hear from you too. Please feel free to email me.

I’m in a unique spot, and I’ll explain part of it a little—just a little. My views among those reading this are somewhat well-known. However, it’s less-known that my husband is considerably more conservative than I; he questions my position often enough—and he is tough! Though we often talk politics, Covid-19 stay-at-home orders afforded in-depth fine-tuning of political opinion and analysis of current events. By the time that George Floyd became famous through his death by murder, Tim and I could’ve hosted our own news show during prime-time (we agree enough to call it murder and racist). I am coming from a particular place, then, but I wouldn’t say that my ideas are untested . . . and one of the most damning things a White Evangelical can do is dismiss listening to someone because he or she is one of “those” liberals with leftist ideas. I have been dismissed A LOT as a great big liberal!

That dismissal is killer, and—of course—it is applicable here, in the context of race. Imagine, just imagine, how absolutely painful, how horribly agonizing, it might be to have your plight as a human being dismissed, blown off, or minimized by others. I am writing from a place near that spot, but my proximity is tempered. I’m white, and I am writing to White Evangelicals. I am “safe.” I’m also from Academia (a bunch of liberal secular humanists), a writer (more liberal secular humanists), and a woman (whatever that means to you). Before my White Evangelical friends dismiss this, I’d ask for a few moments of your time.

I am writing to ask you to consider views that you may not hold. I am writing to you and acknowledging my own leanings but I am offering you assurances that my thoughts and opinions are not untested, unmeasured, or based on secular ideology. I am a White Evangelical too. I write from a place of dismissal, but my white skin gives me a voice. This, right here, is something to ponder.

Here we go . . .  Please consider the following:

1.     We were in the midst of a global pandemic when this happened—and, in two seconds, this murder overshadowed Covid-19. Covid-19 is no less significant than it previously was, but this was more important. Even I, anxiety-ridden/crazy mom left the house to protest! It might seem trite—but, I promise you, this is big. And it’s big because racism is so very critical to our understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God. One must act.

2.     Sometimes I hear White Evangelicals getting miffed about using the terminology, “Black Lives Matter.” The official history and agenda of the BLM movement is deemed unsavory or too inclusive or too religiously unorthodox. I would encourage you, though, to take captive the verbiage; make it yours, ours. Use it. Provide a Christian context. I would urge you not to counter it by saying, “All Lives Matter.” It is escaping specifics by hiding in generalities; it is demeaning and it is minimalizing life by failing to recognize how God has created us uniquely. Make the words work for us in bigger and better ways. Turn these words into Sanctity of Life proclamations. In creative writing, writing profs urge individuals to be specific. Words matter. These can be our words. We can control the narrative.

3.     I would ask my White Evangelical friends to think deeply about the issue of systemic racism. One friend recently sent me an article on the dangers of calling our current landscape systemic. By using the word systemic, we are—it seems—almost committing blasphemy against, um, the Founding Fathers. The sin of blasphemy . . .

 Wait. Against whom might we commit blasphemy?

 Please reconsider this notion of systemic racism. Systemic anything suggests inherent, innate, underlying parts that are woven into the whole. Consider how sin is systemic. Consider how we discuss the Fall and Adam as the first man. We are guilty of Original Sin through imputation. This is systemic, right? Consider the very honest questioning you or unbelievers or dear friends might have had at some point: Why are we held responsible for Adam’s sin?

 To go to this place where we understand racism as systemic requires a lot from us. It requires a very complex understanding of American history. It requires a complex understanding of human nature. Can any American deny the reality that our history involved the importing of human beings from across the sea? That Americans were flesh-mongers? Does that have a short-livid effect on the American soul? Are we “over it”?

 I guess, quite honestly, I think it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me; I have never thoroughly understood the zeal to dismiss systemic as part of my understanding of racism. I suppose it’s a dread of failure, a fear that this human construction—a real masterpiece that we call the U.S. Constitution—might be fragile? Is that fragility the dangerous part? Is it a kind of “treasuring” of U.S. history, the Founding Fathers, the documents upon which our nation is built?

 There truly in a place to believe that the U.S. Constitution is great and that systemic racism exists.

 I would urge my White Evangelical friends to put the Bible first, note the nature of sin, ward off any mythologizing surrounding our Founding Fathers, and keep in mind some things . . .

 Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves in 1863. This was a legal revolution. The laws of the land.

 Martin Luther King, Jr. defined the Civil Rights Movement, and led another kind of legal revolution in the sixties. Laws also changed. He did, radically, indicate that minds and hearts needed changing too. He knew well of the need to change hearts.

 It’s not easy to change hearts.

Here we are in 2020. Resisting ideas of systemic racism. Claiming that we have the documents that we need, the right laws in place. Pointing to the beauty of our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, etc. The legal revolution was largely successful.

Let’s not debate that, White Evangelicals. Laws are necessary; legal revolution was the first step.  

Let’s affirm that!

But let me suggest that we are not strictly after a legal revolution. We need a Revolution of the Heart. Hearts need to radically change. If the legal precedent is there—as my White Evangelical friends like to say—then what?

 Um, to fix a systemic problem, we need to fix it systemically!

 Body, soul.

Heart, mind.

Legal/doctrinal, practice/belief.

It’s a heart thing. Hearts need to change. If I have not love, I am nothing . . ..

Listen. More personal stuff. I grew up in an atmosphere in which the head (and not the heart) was everything. Everything. So chilly that you could practically keep your ice-cream in your chest cavity next to your heart. The idea was that if the head (logic/reason) led, the heart (feeling) would follow. Head first, no matter what. I still do believe this (mostly), but it resulted in cold/unemotional detachment. Law and doctrine are key! The laws to abolish slavery and to end Jim Crow were absolutely necessary. (As I write this, I’d still assert that there is a need for some critical legal reform, particularly in the area of incarceration.)

However, I also believe that we are deeply flawed and hearts need serious work. Laws are great. Laws are necessary. Laws are first.

But we need a Heart Revolution. We need hearts to radically change. How is this done? More laws? Training cops? How are hearts altered?

It is not uncommon to hear White Evangelicals agreeing with me on this heart-thing; we’ll hear, People need the Lord. We need the Gospel.

Most recently, I heard a litany of systemic issues: systemic pride, systemic greed, systemic hypocrisy, systemic anger . . .


But let that not be an excuse to do nothing! Let that not be a way of dismissing responsibility! God acts in history! He works through His people! Our lives can reveal the truth of the Gospel! Faith without works is dead!

 I’ll humbly suggest that it’s time . . . brace yourself . . . for an Aesthetic Revolution! It’s our time! It’s time for the Artists to step in! Art affects hearts. Part of me now wonders, in middle-aged retrospect, if I ended up abandoning the legalism of my childhood church because it failed to speak to the Aesthetics of the Heart.

 Is that too mushy?

 Um, when was the last time you read a really good book?

 We have, indeed, come a long way in terms of racism. I really do believe this . . . because I see my children, mostly.

 But it’s time for White Evangelicals to get their hearts fully on board. I do not know how to usher in an artistic revolution—but I know that (here I go), as a college prof and writer, I see increasing artlessness among everyone BUT ESPECIALLY CHRISTIANS. White Evangelicals, get into the Arts. I’m serious.

 We had legal revolutions with Lincoln and MLK. These were necessary, but our whole beings need to change—we are not done. We need to be wholly affected. Systemically affected.

Here’s a goofy challenge. I wrote this for a different audience altogether. Read five of these books and tell me your thoughts on whether or not racism is systemic: Reading Against Racism Book Bingo. Read more and ask yourself if you’ve been changed. I’d also challenge individuals to take the effect and necessity of reading more seriously.

Furthermore, in order to embrace the notion of systemic racism, we need to abandon unhelpful non-sequiturs. It is unnecessary and unhelpful to couple any discussion of racism with “enabling” or “victimization.” Those are pre-conceived and misplaced notions.

 Finally, to reconsider systemic racism, corporate repentance is required! Can. You. Even. Imagine? Please listen to Pastor Tyler Johnson discuss how “the heart of God is wounded.”

 4.     I would urge my White Evangelical friends to make the fight against racism non-partisan. You know what I mean.

5.      I would urge my White Evangelical friends to abandon outdated talk about being “colorblind.” Well-meaning Christians (and others) often say things like, “I don’t see color.” We do see color; we want to see color; color is good—please remember that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. More can and should be said about this.

6.     In conclusion, I know that many of my White Evangelical friends started off as sympathetic to the public outcry over Floyd’s death, but they lost steam and resorted to calls for—well—“Law and Order.” With a great big caveat, I’m going to suggest that you listen to Trevor Noah discuss systemic racism here. Noah might seem shockingly dismissive of the looting. He echoes ideas about how our morality, and our sense of law and order, are directly connected to a social contract that is at the foundation of society (famously articulated by Rousseau). Noah offers interesting ideas, worth listening to. I might argue that our morality, and sense of law and order, derive from the fact that the Law of God is written on our hearts. Glean from Noah, then, a morality connected to the Law of God written on our hearts.

White Evangelicals, we need to act.

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