The Scandal of the Evangelical Witness

By Rev. Anand Veeraraj

I. White Evangelicals - An Anathema to the Gospel Proclamation

An intriguing stunner of the 2016 Presidential election was that Donald Trump got elected by the explicit support of White Evangelicals; 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. Who are these white evangelicals? Never heard of them before the election of Donald Trump! Why would they vote for Trump blinded to his moral lapses, blatant racism, deceptions, and bigotry? Bill Boyce of the Princeton campus ministries says, “The term evangelical is now a tribal rather than a creedal description.”[1] The word has become a plague, and the Evangelical Witness, a scandal. 

I always thought that I was an evangelical. Now I have serious questions as to what it means to be an evangelical. Why do I raise these questions now? Firstly, I do this for my own atonement. I realize now that I had been taken for a ride by pseudo-evangelical practitioners both here and in my home country, India. Secondly, I do this to admonish my fellow pilgrims in faith, especially my own Indian Christian communities, and about our witness in North America. Thirdly, I seek to warn the white evangelicals not to replicate the blatant idiocy of the 2016 elections. And finally, I call for a paradigm shift – a complete shift of our evangelical thoughts and witness from what we have come to hold and practice trying to be faithful to the biblical truths. 

II. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Indian “Untouchables” [Dalits]

In the winter of 1959, Martin Luther King, Jr. [MLK] and his wife Coretta visited India. For a month, they travelled to various parts of India. He wanted to learn about the so-called “untouchables” (Dalits), the lowest caste in the Indian caste system. During their time in India, King and Coretta travelled to Trivandrum city in the state of Kerala. There they visited a high school which catered to students from the “untouchables” class of the society. The principal introduced MLK to his students saying, “Young people, I would like to present you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.”[2]  King was stunned and deeply offended. Addressing the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in February 26, 1965, MLK recalled. “For a moment, I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable.” But then he thought about the reality of the 20 million black people in the US who even after centuries, “still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty,” confined to urban ghettos, exiled in their own country.[3] And MLK said to himself, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.” In that moment, he realized that the land of the free had imposed a caste system under which he had lived all his life.[4] White immigrants from Europe had concocted their own caste system based on white superiority, reinforced by their self-interest and interpretation of the Bible, and created a hierarchy of who could do what, who could own what, who was on top and who was at the bottom and who was in between.[5] The English Protestant was placed at the very top, as their guns and resources would ultimately prevail in the bloody fight for North America. “Everyone else would rank in descending order,” writes Isabel Wilkerson, “based on their proximity to those deemed most superior. The ranking would continue downward until one arrived at the very bottom: African captives transported in order to build the New World and to serve the victors for all their days, one generation after the next, for 12 generations.”[6]

Researchers working to show some semblance between the two countries’ systems of oppression and subjugation need to be mindful that the Indian caste system is millennia old, more deep-seated, insidious than the plain slavery system that formed during the last few centuries in the Western world. One factor that unites these two systems however is religion with its scriptures and rituals that sanctions segregation and oppression. But the difference is that in India, only the priestly class, [Brahmin] may read and recite Vedas, the Indian scriptures! Here in the USA both whites and blacks read the same scriptures, the Bible -- the former seeking to justify slavery and segregation, while the later reading it as a liberation manifesto that advocates social justice and equality.

III. Los Angeles Riots and the Korean Christian Community

In 1989 I came to Claremont University, California to pursue a doctoral degree in Ecology and Religion. My family joined me a year later. When we joined Claremont, we were not particularly tuned into the perennial racial unrests plaguing the south from time to time. We were jolted out of our apathy when race riots flared up close to us, in Los Angeles. On March 3, 1991, Rodney King, a 25-year-old unarmed black man was beaten severely by four Los Angeles police officers. Rodney King suffered severe injuries -- a broken leg, bruises on his face and body, and a massive burn to his chest jolted by a 50,000-volt stun gun. The four white police officers who assaulted Rodney King were charged and tried. The jury was made up of mostly white people. After a yearlong trial, the four officers were acquitted. When the verdict came over the wires on the eve of April 29, 1992, the city of Los Angeles went up in flames. The acquittal sparked outrage and mass protests. Los Angeles became a war zone. The riot lasted for six days, killing 63 people, injuring over 2,000 people; nearly 12,000 people, mostly blacks, were arrested and charged. Property damage was estimated to be over $1 billion. Much of the damage happened in Koreatown, where the bulk of rioting occurred. Korean businesses and shops were looted and burned down. The riots subsided only after the National Guard and the army provided reinforcements to re-establish control.

When the riots ended, a team of students and teachers from the Claremont School drove over to Los Angeles to undertake street cleanup projects in the riot-torn neighborhoods. I joined in the street cleanup. It was a traumatic experience to witness firsthand the damage caused by the riots. One of the intriguing ironies of the riots was the huge loss suffered by the local Korean community. White folks’ business establishments were left unscathed. 

Why the Korean community? These Koreans dared to run many mom-and-pop owned shops in the gang-infested neighborhoods of South-Central Los Angeles. Other communities would not dare to step into these neighborhoods. Koreans were soft-spoken, devout Christians of evangelical persuasion. But all that these Koreans could be concerned about was their own economic survival and advancement at the expense of the black folks who lived in these poor neighborhoods. Koreans did not employ any blacks in their shops. The troubles of the black community were not the focus of the Korean Christian presence and witness.

Since I had personally experienced the Los Angeles riots, I often applied this anecdote to challenge my Indian community through my sermons and writings.[7] We Indians find ourselves in similar situations to those of our Korean brethren in Los Angeles. Most of us are economically and socially mobile upward. But our self-centeredness shuts us off from the plight of the vulnerable people in our society. We Indians are one of the most racist societies in the world. India’s caste system is the world’s largest systemic violation of human rights. Our caste system denies dignity and justice to over 201 million Dalits, the most discriminated sections of the society.[8] Indian caste system endures because we justify it as divine fiat prescribed in our sacred texts as presumed laws of nature and passed down through generations. Strangely, we Indians generally consider blacks as Dalits, the untouchable caste.  We dare not take anything for granted. The next attack coming down the pike will be on us. 

IV. Rescuing the terms: “Evangelism, Evangelicals, Evangelicalism”

Who is an evangelical?  An evangelical -- says John Cobb,[9] my mentor and teacher at Claremont -- is one who tries to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus said, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). The Greek word, evangelion means “good news” – the gospel. The question before us is: Should we renounce the word and remove it from our theological jargon or attempt to redeem and rehabilitate it from the Trumpian evangelicals? 

However, these words -- evangelical, evangelism, evangelicalism -- are ubiquitous elsewhere around the world, especially in the Two-Thirds World. Besides, these are biblical terms, code words, loaded dynamites, not just in the New Testament, but also in the Old Testament. These concepts stem originally from the Messianic aspirations of the Hebrew prophetic traditions. (See Isaiah 52:7-9; 61:1-3; Leviticus 25:10). Jesus followed in the traditions of the Hebrew prophets.

As envisaged by Hebrew prophets, we need to address three simple questions squarely if we are going to rescue this term “evangelicals” from the Trumpian voters. 

  1. What is the good news we are called to proclaim and witness to? The gospel, its contents and potency?
  2. What is the medium? And who is the messenger?
  3. To whom is the good news addressed? Who are the legatees of the good news?

Answering these questions fully and satisfactorily will be a project by itself. Once answered to the satisfaction of the biblical vision, they will surely lead to remedial actions and strategies for new directions. This is the paradigm shift -- the shift in our Evangelical Witness and thoughts that I had called for earlier in this article. Not all is lost; there is hope still; change is coming. The recovery and transformation will nevertheless be painful and labored. The present political and religious crisis offers us a teachable moment. We need to seize the moment and learn from it so that we do not repeat the follies of the past.

Author:

ANAND VEERARAJ is an ordained minister in the Church of South India and serves as the Pastor/Organist of the New Jersey Indian Church/Trinity Community Church [UCC & PC-USA], Princeton, New Jersey. He is the author of the books Green History of Religion and Earthen Vessels: The Paradox of Christian Leadership. He and his wife live near Princeton, New Jersey, USA.

[1]          Peter Wehner, “Why I Can No Longer Call myself an Evangelical Republican,” New York Times, December 9, 2017.

[2]          Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, Hollywood Palladium, February 26, 1965. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLNAq1fBKPg.

[3]          King.

[4]          King.

[5]          Isabel Wilkerson, “America’s Untouchables: The Silent Power of the Caste System,” The Guardian, July 28, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/28/untouchables-caste-system-us-race-martin...  Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents [New York: Random House, 2020].

[6]          Wilkerson.

[7]          Anand Veeraraj, Earthen Vessels: The Paradox of Christian Leadership (Bangalore, India: Centre for Contemporary Christianity, 2010), 109-114.

[8]              Deenabandhu Manchala, “From Afar, Yet Together in Struggle and Hope” https://www.globalministries.org/from_afar_yet_together_instruggle_and_hope?recruiter...

[9]         John B. Cobb, Jr., Theological Reminiscences (Claremont, California: Process Century Press, 2014). 


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