Rev. Lenny Duncan is pastor of Jubilee Collective in Vancouver, Washington, where he also lives. His books include Dear Church and United States of Grace. Rev. Duncan is board chaplain for Reconciling Works, and his work has been featured on Code Switch and NPR's Morning Edition. For more of his work, follow Lenny at unitedstatesofgrace.com or on social media @lennyaduncan.
“The future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people whether or not they're going to try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a n----- in the first place.” — James Baldwin, Black queer thinker, scholar, poet, and American prophet
The state of the struggle for Black liberation has always been the canary in the coal mine for liberty and justice in this republic. It is the defining struggle that will either make or break this nation. I say this knowing it will be hard for certain audiences to hear out loud. This is a spiritual truth. It is rendered so not by the virtues of who we are as a people, who we have become as a result of the crucible of the last 400 years in this land. Nor is this owing to the sacred pouring-out of our blood on the streets of this republic, as if the grateful sower were enacting some macabre parody of the parable. It is the defining battle for the sickened soul of this republic simply by the numbers.
The state of the struggle for Black liberation has always been the canary in the coal mine for liberty and justice in this republic. It is the defining struggle that will either make or break this nation.
Our masters brought too many of us over to kill, so they have had to learn to live with us instead. We were the labor force whose home they had already invaded, sickening the local populace, and losing millions of us in transit to this stolen land. By labor, of course, I mean chattel slavery. By lost in transit, I’m referring to the nation of screaming souls that cry out from under the Atlantic, who were murdered to increase profits. These are the historical facts that weigh this nation down, enormous lode stones tied to our necks. I say our necks because the other ramification of the James Baldwin quote from above is that my fate is now tied to this wicked nation that would rather tear gas me than listen to me. What does it say about a nation when its so-called priestly class and leaders are entangled in the same heretical sin patterns and beholden to the radical evil of systemic racism as the state? What does it say when they conspire with the state?
So, I say to you: The future of evangelicalism is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of Black liberation. It is entirely up to the evangelical church whether or not they're going to try to understand in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a n----- in the first place.
The future of evangelicalism is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of Black liberation.
The evangelical church’s attack against critical race theory is one in a long line of attacks against anything that invites the same sort of power analysis of the world that Jesus demands of us in the Gospels. It is indicative of a church that has lost its center and can no longer identify the story of the incarnation with all that is good.
A poor, itinerant preacher was charged with sedition and blasphemy after having a street theater style protest that mocked the state and robbed a bank. The problem with the evangelical church is that it would put that man to death. They wouldn’t understand his struggle or why he was leading crowds through Jerusalem and disrupting business on the busiest day of the year. They wouldn’t understand his title, Son of Man, wasn’t playing coy with prophecy but with the emperor’s audacious title. They wouldn’t understand why he was outraged by greed in the temple or why he derided their faith leaders who stood with Herod and Rome. They wouldn’t understand Jesus then because they don’t understand him now.
Make no mistake: If you are looking for the cries of a broken Christ screaming out why he was forsaken, look no further than the cries of the despised coming out of Ferguson or the roar of the Holy Spirit out of the Twin Cities as it screams, I can’t breathe. Just like the temple leaders of old, the evangelical church—and thus, in the modern public psyche, all churches—turns ancient scripture for solace rather than acknowledging the suffering right in front of their eyes. Jesus sought solace in the pain of the people. He drowned himself in sorrows and walked among them. Who among any modern denominations can claim our leaders have done that in the last six years? I know my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, can’t.
If you are looking for the cries of a broken Christ screaming out why he was forsaken, look no further than the cries of the despised coming out of Ferguson or the roar of the Holy Spirit out of the Twin Cities as it screams, I can’t breathe.
Make no mistake: The American church writ large has failed the world during a critical juncture of salvation history. We are not rendered holy by our cold and clinical examination of our evangelical siblings’ slow death across the theological divide. Our witness has been pitiful at best, and when I find myself looking deeply into the future of evangelicalism as a mainline pastor, I see a mirror. In the final analysis, at least, my reflection is more honest than my lived reality. At least the evangelical church says the quiet parts out loud. As a Black queer man in a country where my existence can be a death sentence, I appreciate an enemy that actually spits the venom in its heart.
And, make no mistake, our siblings have joined themselves wholeheartedly to the death cult that is the modern American nationalist ideology they allowed to be peddled from their pulpits and conferences. It’s funny to watch the American church try to confront white supremacy—it’s like watching a fish looking for water. It also seems suspiciously like the corporate doublespeak the American church, and in particular the evangelical church, has traded for the words of life. They act like they’ve just discovered the cancer that is running rampant through the body of Christ. They offer feigned shock, talks at conferences, and equity training. They lament loudly for a few weeks, then they shall arise declaring the problem solved.
Is the American evangelical church the Jesus we deserve? A church built on stolen land that has more smallpox in its foundation than any biblical principles?
The current medicine that the evangelical church has prescribed itself is creating an entirely separate reality shaped by an almost 60-year narrative based on a victim complex, first framed as opposition to integration, and now morphed into the culture war Moloch we have all come to know and revile. I can’t help but wonder: Is the American evangelical church the Jesus we deserve? A church built on stolen land that has more smallpox in its foundation than any biblical principles? A country that tried to turn the story of Onesimus into one of bondage and Philemon into a hero? A people who can’t stop terrorizing the children of Abraham the world over? A republic so far from the cross that we can’t tell a lynching from justice or the crucified from the centurions?
The future of the evangelical church is the future we deserve—we who have turned our back as God cried out, Abba, Abba: I can’t breathe.