As a pastor, politician and activist, the Rev. Dr. Carl Thompson has heard and answered many questions during his lifetime, but one — asked during his time at Duke Divinity School in the early 1990s — stands out in his memory.
The question, asked by his systematic theology professor Frederick Herzog at the start of every class, would sometimes draw snickers from the class.
Herzog would ask: “What’s Jesus doing now?”
Herzog died in 1995, but Thompson thinks of his classroom question often — particularly when it comes to issues of systemic racism, which he has devoted much of his life to fighting, as a minister and a Chatham County commissioner.
“In every aspect of life, wherever Christ would be and whatever side Christ would be on, that’s the side that we need to be on,” he said, noting that opinions regarding this vary starkly among American Christians. “I’ll just point here that we don’t see the white evangelical church or the traditional church on the side of Christ in some issues — mainly the issue of racism in this country.”
In recent years, many who identify as Christians have adamantly supported President Donald Trump and some have even opposed social justice movements; coverage of such beliefs often leaves out that they’re held primarily by white Christians, and that African American churches and other Christians of color have a long-established history of fighting for social justice fueled by faith.
Black Christians in Chatham continue this tradition, according to Thompson, depending on their faith in God to survive the injustices they face and, ultimately, to fight for change.
“We feel like that’s where Christ would be,” he said.
‘We see a silence, and that’s very disconcerting’
In October, polling by Pew Research Center regarding presidential voting projections reflected this divide among Christians by race: 78% of self-identified white evangelical Protestants said they would vote for Trump, while 9% of Black Protestants said they would.
Voting blocs have traditionally been separated by race, even among groups of faith, but the difference for many now is that white Christians continue supporting a president who has refused to strongly condemn white supremacy.
“I think that many of the white evangelical church and the traditional church have lost their moral authority,” Thompson said, “simply because they fail to call Donald Trump down, and to criticize him when there’s criticism that needs to be done.”
On a FaceTime call two weeks after election day, Rev. Charles Mathews of Union Grove A.M.E Zion Church in Bear Creek, echoed this sentiment and discussed the claim by some white Christians that social justice is political and therefore incompatible with faith.
Mathews disagrees; he’s long believed in speaking out about issues that impact his community. Last June, he submitted a letter to the editor to the News + Record calling for police reform in Chatham.
“Black people are just so used to this,” he said regarding current conversations about race, adding that he did feel the last four years had emboldened many in their racism.
One of Mathews’ congregants, Donna Peoples, said she’s seen more overt racism in the last four years. The inability of white Christians and friends to criticize Trump has made her second guess if she really knows the non-Black people in her life like she thinks.
“I’m strong in my faith, and I believe our God is not gonna let no more happen to us than what’s within his will,” Peoples said. “But I do not understand it … it’s only going to be more violence — and I think that is what this president has brought out, because that’s what he condones.”
On Monday night, Sam White — who owns the Pittsboro property with the towering Confederate flag on U.S. Hwy. 64, and has been charged with crimes at multiple protests over the Confederate monument — made a post on Facebook about Black Lives Matter activists.
“Just getting in the Christmas spirit. Thinking of peace on earth, good will towards men,” White, who is white, wrote. “Then thought of some of the crap that damned BLM group has pulled. Think I’ll just load my 30cal. & go sit in the dark for a while. I’m not sure where.”
White, like some others who have been critical of racial equity efforts and have taken active roles in pro-Confederate monument protests, has repeatedly claimed to be a Christian on his Facebook page.
And earlier this year, Chatham pastor Jesse Hursey was captured on video yelling, “white power” from his truck at an Alamance County Trump rally, where he’d been a speaker earlier in the day.
“First of all, I’m a Christian,” Hursey, who is white, said at the September event, The News & Observer reported. “Second of all, I’m a Republican. And in that order.”
A preacher at Bynum Baptist Church in Pittsboro at the time, Hursey repeatedly denied the allegations in an interview with the N&O, despite multiple videos of evidence. The News + Record could not reach Hursey or Bynum Baptist for comment at the time, and his social media accounts, along with the church’s, were temporarily deactivated. Hursey did not immediately respond to requests for comment regarding this story.
For Thompson, hearing about the event wasn’t all that surprising.
“Maybe he just lost himself in the moment,” Thompson said, laughing and shaking his head, growing serious. “Maybe I shouldn’t be funny about this.”
What he’s more disappointed by aren’t the words shouted by people who, like Hursey, say and do openly racist things. He’s disappointed by all the people who remain silent — particularly Christians.
During a protest in D.C. meant to protest Biden’s victory on Dec. 12, people affiliated with the hate group Proud Boys tore down and burned Black Lives Matter signs belonging to historic Black churches in D.C.
The next morning, Asbury United Methodist Church in D.C. — founded in 1836 and one of the attacked churches — released a public statement likening the assault to cross burnings.
“As horrible and disturbing as this is for us now — it doesn’t compare with the challenges and fears the men and women who started Asbury, 184 years ago, faced,” Asbury’s senior pastor, Rev. Dr. Ianther Mills, said in the statement. “So, we will move forward, undaunted in our assurance that Black Lives Matter and we are obligated to continue to shout that truth without ceasing.”
Throughout that day — a Sunday — many Black Christians inquired on Twitter whether predominantly white churches would pray over the attacks against Black churches the night before, or mention it at all. Many assumed they would not.
Thompson had spoken about such apathy, too. He said many African Americans are disappointed that many white people, especially those who are Christians, have not been moved to action — not with police brutality, not with systemic inequalities and not with Trump.
“It’s a big disappointment, because that’s not inclusive of every denomination, every church,” he said. “But on the whole, though, we see a silence, and that’s very disconcerting.”
‘I’m asking the white church to speak up’
The African American church has an established history of fighting for justice from a Christian perspective, extending back to the time of slavery, when many enslavers used the Christian Bible to justify slavery. Even then, Black Christians historically claimed God as a liberator.
Mathews said current divides in biblical interpretation between many white and Black Christians — along with other Christians of color — finds its roots even before slavery, during North American colonization in the 16th century.
But he believes God has always sought justice and equity, and therefore, that Christians should be the first people to “love their neighbors” by counteracting forms of injustice.
“I would ask a faith community or white people to counteract those norms,” Mathews said. “And not only to say, ‘I’m not racist,’ but train and really be intentional about what it means to be a non-racist.”
For Annie McCrimmon, a lifetime member of Taylor’s Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, a Black church in Chatham, the church has been a grounding force in her life, always encouraging her to pursue justice. Her ancestors founded the church in 1879; she’s attended her whole life, even after moving to Lee County five years ago.
McCrimmon’s family founded Taylor’s Chapel from what was a predominately white church at the time. Many African American churches were founded because segregation laws (official and de facto) in force at the time prevented Black people from worshiping with white people.
“The Black church has been involved in social justice, and just trying to stay alive all of its existence,” she said. “When we get there on Wednesday nights and on Sundays, you’re coming to shed some baggage, you’re coming to shed those hurts you’ve endured, those inequalities you’ve experienced, those things you want to do, those dreams that are still dreams and just look like they’ll never become a reality.”
She’s seen a lot of change take place in her 71 years, but she is encouraged by young people, who are not waiting for further change but creating it.
Thompson and Mathews hope to see more white Christians speak up — both citing the anti-racism work done by The Local Church, based in Pittsboro, as an example. The Local Church created an Anti-Racism Task Force this year and hosted a virtual anti-racism event, of which Mathews was a part.
“The church can be a good training ground, and I’m asking the white church to speak up,” Mathews said.
Still, Thompson said speaking up is just the first step. Referencing the biblical story of Zaccheus, a wealthy and corrupt tax collector who gave away half of his possessions and returned four times what he had stolen after meeting Jesus, Thompson said that true reconciliation involves speaking truth and righting wrongs.
That is why Thompson advocates for reparations, a topic he wrote about in an October News + Record special report — writing “there can be no reconciliation without the payment of reparations to the millions of African American descendants of slaves.”
Still, he believes Christians should be the first to do reconciliation work.
“It’s gonna come through the body of Christ — not the Black body of Christ, the white body of Christ, Latino body of Christ — it’s gonna come through the body of Christ.”
Thompson doesn’t think that means the work will be easy, though, or that all people who call themselves Christians will see it that way. Still, he’s grounded in the truth his professor’s old question reminded him of so many years ago — that Jesus is on the side of justice.
“Is it going to be that you came together and you defeated systemic racism and that people are walking together in love?” he asked. “Or is it going to be that you took sides on political issues and because of that, we’ve inherited more race hatred and bigotry than ever before?”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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