Peter Heltzel’s Jesus and Justice traces the history of evangelicalism in America through a lens otherwise. While many evangelical histories recognize the significance of white leaders and theologians, Heltzel shows that black church life and spirituality also gave a vital witness to, and indeed preserved, the Christian gospel throughout the more treacherous moments of the American story. In this interview, Heltzel talks about his work, why such histories need to be told, and “blue-green” futures of American evangelicalism.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Peter, good to talk with you. Your latest book, Jesus and Justice, has provoked a stimulating conversation about Christianity, race, and politics at the beginning of the Obama era.1 How did you end up writing it?
Peter Heltzel (PH): The book began as a conversation between Eleanor Moody-Shepherd and me. Eleanor is an African American woman from Alabama, and I am an Anglo man from Mississippi. As Academic Dean of New York Theological Seminary, Eleanor has a strong commitment to educating students toward the work of justice. We teach a class every spring called “Going Home: Southern Religion and the Civil Rights Movement.” This April, we will lead a group of seminarians down south to walk the freedom trails of Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Throughout our journey, our class will try to embody the beloved community, which was born through the courageous southern struggle for freedom from structures of segregation. In southern evangelical religion, you have both the paradoxes and promises of the Christian religion.
TOJ: What are the chief problems with southern religion today?
PH: The Deep South was the source of the fiercest racism and most vigorous prophetic religion. I have been inspired by J. Kameron Carter’s book Race: A Theological Account to interrogate race as a theological problem.2 The transatlantic slave trade whose wake casts a tragic shadow over the South is one case in point. Slavery was not only an ethical problem, but a theological one. Christian theology in the Americas has often been deployed as a white, male, Western enterprise. Given theology’s colonial legacy, a number of theological questions are raised: how has this colonial legacy corrupted the project of theology? What accounting can Christian theology give of Christian complicity in the genocide of indigenous populations and the enslavement of Africans? What happened when Native Americans and enslaved Africans accepted the faith of a white man’s religion? And concerning the evils that they suffered, how could a just God allow such evil and suffering? How can theology today be written from the position of the excluded and also include an honest account of colonial and racist influences on theology?
TOJ: So what is the promise of southern religion?
PH: Tucked away underneath a white evangelical modernity was a prophetic black Christianity that emerged among the slaves of the antebellum South. This prophetic black Christianity would redirect Christianity’s moral energies toward a more prophetic, intercultural trajectory. In Part I of Jesus and Justice, I lay out a new genealogy of American evangelicalism. I argue that there are two primary streams of evangelical Christianity, the neo-evangelicalism of Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry, and the prophetic black Christianity of Martin Luther King Jr. When it came to racial justice, these two traditions had two different theologies and social strategies. Graham and Henry focused on personal evangelism, thinking that if people were personally converted to faith in Jesus Christ, they would act in ways that transcended racial differences; however, the problem with this individualist response to racism was that it did not deal with racism as a structural evil. In contrast, Martin Luther King Jr. saw racism as a structural evil that could only be overcome through collective action for justice.
The promise of southern religion is social transformation. Through his passionate preaching on the beloved community and his transformative organizing strategy, King galvanized a grass-roots movement for justice, drawing on the cadences and communal practices of old time southern religion. A socially engaged evangelical religion reconstituted in the civil rights movement, transforming the whole country and influencing race relations around the planet. Forty years after King’s assassination in the South, the whole world was finally ready for the Obama era.
TOJ: How do you understand race?
PH: Emile Townes in Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil argues that race signifies power relations associated with skin color.3 Thus, racism is more than personal prejudice. Racism is prejudice plus power. In the Americas, racism manifests itself in an ideology of white supremacy. While Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, in colonial America the only folks who were truly independent were white, land-owning men. White racism took on systemic forms in America’s governing, financial, education, and religious institutions. Problems of systemic white racism and classicism remain intact and deeply rooted within the evangelical world today.
TOJ: Can you give an example?
PH: The homogenous unit principle of church growth used by many megachurches is one clear example of white racism. These churches seek to reach out to unchurched white suburbanites and to design ministries, worship spaces, and liturgies that appeal to affluent whites. These churches often look like malls, and have ATMs and Starbucks in order to make white folks comfortable. While this strategy has proven effective for growing a church, we need to be honest about the ways in which this model of church lulls people into comfort at the expense of challenging them on their exclusionary and racist attitudes and structures.
TOJ: What can evangelicals do to fight racism?
PH: Evangelicals need to confess their own sinful participation in racist structures of domination. They need to be more intentional in dismantling white racist institutions, and they need to work toward building the beloved community. The civil rights movement is a parable of the kingdom of God in that people were successfully able to dismantle segregated institutions through collective social action. Prophetic evangelical politics today is maturing into a shade of blue-green. They are listening to the cries of suffering others and are beginning to engage in systemic transformation—to change the mission and the structures of social institutions so they represent the racial-ethnic diversity of world Christianity.
TOJ: With your “blue-green” theology, you’re referring to the shade of blue coming from the African American church, jazz music, the underclass, and the oppressed sectors rather than how it’s often used to refer to Democrats in the context of the Left-Right political binary, is that right?
PH: Yes, blue symbolizes the tragedy of black suffering in the Americas, as embodied in the blue notes of jazz and the African American musical tradition that sings of trials and tribulations. Green symbolizes the spring-like hope of a prophetic evangelical engagement with poverty, AIDS, and the environment. Resonating with the blue note of slavery, suffering, and segregation, the prophetic black Christian underside transformed evangelicalism from within. And today, in addition to the struggle for racial justice, we’re witnessing evangelicals working together to address a number of social issues.
One example of where the blue and green need to come together is in the evangelical creation care movement. The environmental justice movement is a concrete expression of how race and poverty are co-extensive. Evangelical’s interested in caring for the environment need to foster a deeper analysis of how environmental racism works: people of color are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards and suffer the most from environmental injustice. For example, in the Bronx, many children of color suffer from asthma because of the high rates of pollution caused by the factories, landfills, and highways that are built in minority communities. Christian leaders like Lisa Sharon Harper of New York Faith and Justice and Alexie Torres-Fleming of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice are organizing people in the community to clean up the South Bronx.4 I sense hope and promise in an emerging blue-green theological activism.
TOJ: Where are other places you see blue-green theology emerging?
PH: Out of the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. I see it especially in the work of Jim Wallis of Sojourners and John Perkins of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA). While Wallis has roots in the intentional community movement, in the 1980s he turned his focus to political advocacy. Beginning in 1996, Wallis courageously led the Call to Renewal Campaign to end extreme poverty. Since 2008, he has served on President Obama’s Faith-Based Advisory Council to strategically partner with governments to advocate for just policies and create civil society innovations that empower the poor. Wallis has sought to be a consistent advocate for a blue people in the capital city.
TOJ: What about John Perkins? What is distinct about his approach to blue-green politics?
PH: With a faith forged in the fires of the civil rights movement in a segregated Mississippi, John Perkins has courageously mediated King’s theology of beloved community to the broader evangelical world. Perkins has had a laser-like focus on community development. His ministry in Mendenhall, Mississippi, has grown into a major organization, CCDA, which is an extensive network of evangelical churches and community organizations working in America’s poorest communities. He has inspired an emerging generation of young evangelicals through his three Rs: relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. The three Rs become a three-point game plan for building the beloved community. CCDA is really like a community revolution on the ground in cities all around the country.
One important part of anti-racist work is building racially diverse leadership teams. Bicultural and multi-ethnic leaders play a pivotal role in helping the church navigate difference, heralding a transnational global evangelicalism that boldly embraces our intercultural future. For example, as Soong-Chan Rah argues in The Next Evangelicalism, the double- and triple-consciousness of second-generation Hispanic and Asian immigrants provides essential insights into the collective construction of a prophetic, intercultural evangelical theology.5
TOJ: Can you give an example of this prophetic model of ministry?
PH: In New York City, I think of a growing cadre of prophetic Hispanic evangelicals. Building on the foundation laid by Ray Rivera’s Latino Pastoral Action Center (LPAC) in the Bronx, New York, a new generation of Latino and Latina leaders are emerging with new models of ministry: Jeremy del Rio is leading the 20-20 campaign for educational justice among low-income communities; David Ramos is leading the Latino Leadership Circle, offering a new space for emerging Latino and Latina leaders to collaborate with other Christian leaders for social justice and culture making; Gabriel Salguero, pastor of the Lamb’s Church, is organizing Christian leaders for immigration reform, most recently in the March to Washington on March 21. These bicultural theologians and activists are organically embodying a new form of prophetic evangelical theology.
TOJ: As I was reading your book, I was struck by the particular way in which you were telling the history of evangelicalism. So I am interested in asking you about history as a discipline, and specifically history as a discipline within evangelicalism. Who are the gatekeepers of these histories?
PH: My book is a critical conversation with the historians of evangelicalism. Recently the historiography of evangelicalism has been dominated by what has come to be known as the “evangelical mafia.” Here’s the short story: Martin Marty comes up with this two-party Christianity paradigm where you’ve got evangelicals and mainliners in opposition to each other. Marty told this story valorizing the public-church vision of the Protestant mainline, embodied in figures like the brothers Niebuhr. Yet, American religion and culture in the 1950s and 1960s was shifting. In addition to the civil rights movement and women’s movement, we witnessed the explosive growth of conservative evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Discontent with this mainline Protestant rendering of history, the evangelical mafia organized to begin a new approach to the study of American religion. Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, and Mark Noll met together every year at the annual American Historical Association meeting to discuss this new vision of American religious history. They were not just intellectuals, but also strategic planners, securing funding from the Lilly Endowment and the Pew Charitable Trusts to facilitate more meetings to build a network of younger scholars committed to a new approach to the field. But they didn’t just talk and plan, they wrote! And write they did—a number of paradigmatic books that stimulated a new conversation, like George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture, 1875-1925, Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity, and Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.6 These texts, and many others, offered a retelling of the story of American religion from this narrative of revivalism, fundamentalism, and evangelicalism. Because the revivalist evangelical story had been repressed, its recovery sparked a new conversation in history and theology, but it still reinforced the mainline Protestant/evangelical divide and left people of color out of the story.
TOJ: And given the current guardians of these histories, how is this configuration problematic? How do you see your historical account as varied or different from these voices?
PH: Most of the historians of evangelicalism have not adequately addressed the role of prophetic black Christianity in the Americas. We must push beyond both mainline and evangelical histories, through interpreting Christianity from its encounter with enslaved Africans. On the underside of modern white evangelicalism was another form of evangelical religion: prophetic black Christianity. With roots in slave religion and the great awakenings, black Christianity in the Americas is a form of prophetic evangelicalism that is Afrocentric, pietistic, and socially engaged. Albert Raboteau’s Slave Religion opened up a new horizon for the study of American religion, both broadening and deepening our understanding of black antebellum religion.7 In Jesus and Justice, I seek to tell a story of evangelicalism through the encounter between black and white Christians, drawing on perspectives from the historians of evangelicalism and the black church. As a theologian, I am interested in the ways that black Christians made theological interventions that redirected and transformed the white evangelical experience. I’m not only trying to talk about African Americans as historical agents, but also as theological subjects. Anybody can say, OK, this is a white story, let’s just add color, and add a few African American characters to the drama, to achieve some sort of rainbow of diversity. That’s not what I’m trying to do. What I’m trying to do is not tell a more diverse story—I’m actually trying to rethink evangelical theology from its prophetic black Christian roots.
TOJ: What are your hopes and goals coming out of an ongoing project like this? As a white male academic theologian trying to rewrite evangelical history with an eye toward giving voice to the African American side of that history, what impact do you hope will come out of this project? What words would you have for other white evangelical theologians in that place? And what is your methodology in that project?
PH: I think we are experiencing a paradigm shift within the evangelical church. Dave, even when I was teaching you at Mars Hill Graduate School, I saw you swinging from the neo-evangelical theology of Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry toward the theological visions of N. T. Wright and Brian McLaren. A person can write progressive evangelical theology, but then, where do they account for the hopeless and hurting on the underside of history? What and where is the underside of modernity? Where is liberation? Where are the people of color? My contention is that we need to collaboratively create a prophetic theology for the excluded. This entails a naming of white racism, the construction of collaborative tables, and the use of a prophetic, feminist intercultural hermeneutic. Because people of color will lead the evangelicalism of the future, I agree with Soong-Chan Rah that we need to be more proactive in working for leaders and institutional structures that reflect the new evangelicalism.8
I think Soong-Chan is right: evangelicalism is increasingly culturally diverse. Furthermore, as the field of world Christianity shows us, it’s not that Christianity has changed—it’s always been an intercultural, worldwide phenomena—it’s just that the way history was written, the way that theology was written, it was written as a white Western man’s religion. I think that Christian theology has got to be busted open. Donald W. Dayton has sought to forward a Pentecostal paradigm of history, in contrast to a Presbyterian paradigm.9 And now I’m weighing into the debate with focused attention to the prophetic black Christian struggle from slavery to civil rights. This has led me to more recent research on Native Americans, women, and the new immigrant churches in the cities. This is an exciting time to be writing theology, given its global, urban, and intercultural context.
TOJ: What is your theological vision for the future?
PH: Jesus and Justice is just an initial salvo of a new historical and theological agenda. We need to collectively embody a prophetic theology from the underside of history. Theology today needs to be collaborative, feminist, intercultural, jazz-like, and forward-thinking. When I say jazz-like, the blues is about the suffering of the past, but jazz is about the hope of the future. We need our blue-green theology to be improvisational. Like in the rhythm section of a jazz ensemble—the stand-up bass, the drummer, and the keys—where all three musicians play together, in the same groove; we, too, need to find our groove today. Once you have the rhythm down, then you bring in the horns, like the trumpet and the trombone. But everybody plays. Everybody solos. Everybody rolls together. You know there are principles of music there, but improvisation is all about creative collaboration. In prophetic ministry, once you’ve done your disciplines of prayer, scripture study, small groups, and service to the poor, then you start to move out in ministry together as a prophetic multitude, where everybody uses their gifts. We need to rethink the church. Instead of thinking of the church as an institution, we need to begin to embody a prophetic, intercultural Christianity that is an improvisational movement for love and justice in and for the world.
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1. See Peter Goodwin Heltzel, Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race, and American Politics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009). See a review of Jesus and Justice in the previous issue of The Other Journal: https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=907.
2. See J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 200?).
3. See Emile Townes, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (New York, NY: Palgrave, 2006).
4. See the following two articles from this issue of The Other Journal: Mark Russell, “Social Justice in the Inner City: An Interview with Lisa Sharon Harper, Part I,” The Other Journal 17 (2009), https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=897&header=praxis and Mark Russell, “Social Justice in the Inner City: An Interview with Lisa Sharon Harper, Part II,” The Other Journal 17 (2009), https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=898&header=praxis.
5. See Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).
6. See George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 1875-1925 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1980); Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989); and Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).
7. See Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1978).
8. See Rah, The Next Evangelicalism.
9. See, for example, Donald W. Dayton, Theological Roots of Pentecostalism (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987).