(RNS) — In his book, “The Coming Race Wars?,” theologian William Pannell foresees the poor and disenfranchised engaging in violent urban uprisings and revolts across the world similar to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. It will only be a matter of time, he writes, “before some cop blows it again in his or her treatment of a Black person, probably a Black man.”
Police brutality, racist and discriminatory lending practices, lack of well-paying jobs could push Black people and other marginalized communities to revolt, Pannell predicts. And the evangelical church — with all its influence, resources and its supply of missionaries across the world — is ill-equipped to address social issues at home, he argues.
Pannell, professor emeritus of preaching at Fuller Seminary, pushes back against the notion that Jesus is all people need to make it.
“I really do believe that people — all people — need Jesus,” Pannell writes. “But to make it in society, white Christians realize they need a lot more than salvation. They may expect Black people to be content with salvation in Christ. But that is not enough for the white Christians themselves.”
While the debate has been “between those committed to evangelism and those committed to justice,” Pannell writes that “what we should be striving for is a spirituality that will inform both evangelism and social transformation.”
Pannell wrote “The Coming Race Wars?” nearly 30 years ago.
“The interesting thing about this book is that it sounds so contemporary, even though it’s about 30 years old,” Pannell, 92, told Religion News Service. “Why is that? What is there about this book that makes it so painfully contemporary after so long a time?”
The book was first published in 1993, in the wake of the 1992 uprising that erupted in Los Angeles after a jury acquitted four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King. Now, in the wake of 2020’s racial justice uprisings after the killing of George Floyd, Pannell has released an updated version.
“The Coming Race Wars: A Cry for Justice, from Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter” was published in June, and features a new introduction by Jemar Tisby, author of the book “The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism,” and an afterword that Pannell began writing before COVID-19 struck the nation and prior to the police killing of Floyd that sparked protests across the country against police brutality and in support for Black Lives Matter.
In the afterword, Pannell explains that he essentially began writing it nearly 30 years ago, when Rodney King called for an end to the riots, publicly asking on television: “Can we all get along?”
“The question of the Black man from Los Angeles loomed large thirty years ago and it still throbs with meaning,” Pannell writes.
Pannell, in the new epilogue, seeks to answer the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s question, “Where do we go from here?” But the meaning of “here” is something Pannell grapples with.
He underscores the death of King and recalls the crowd leaving the March on Washington “wondering about the future.” He highlights Billy Graham’s 1970 “The Unfinished Dream” speech in front of a predominantly white crowd and how his “power and prestige legitimated the marriage of God and country.” Pannell documents Graham laying the foundation for evangelical support for conservative agendas. After his death and the “evangelical movement shattered along ideological lines,” he asks, “What’s next?”
Pannell brings readers back into the present, to the Black Lives Matter protests and to former President Donald Trump’s speech at Mount Rushmore where he “drove the dagger of division deeper into America’s heartland,” and asks again, “Where do we go from here?”
“The here, unfortunately, is pretty much what it was 30 years ago,” Pannell told RNS.
To Edward Gilbreath, vice president of strategic partnerships at Christianity Today, the expanded and new version of Pannell’s book serves as a historical reflection but “also as a statement on how far we haven’t come.”
“Dr. Pannell was not afraid to speak the truth to power in evangelical circles at that time. He was very much engaged and a part of the predominantly white evangelical community,” said Gilbreath, who in 2019 helped spearhead Pannell’s updated book when he was an executive editor at InterVarsity Press.
“This gave him a very intimate perspective in terms of being trusted and someone who is not just criticizing for criticism’s sake, but he really cared about the church and wanted to see real change because he loved the church,” Gilbreath added.
With this version of the book, Gilbreath said he hopes to introduce Pannell to a new generation, those who may know about evangelist Tom Skinner “but have not heard the name William Pannell.”
Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said it’s crucial to contextualize how the original book was published at a time when L.A. was reckoning with the aftermath of what’s been described as one of the worst race riots in American history.
“It was important to talk about the ways in which evangelicals hadn’t paid attention to race,” said Butler, author of “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America.” “He was already working on that book when the L.A. riots happened.” Butler dedicated her book to Pannell.
Butler juxtaposes “The Coming Race Wars?” with Pannell’s 1968 book, “My Friend, the Enemy,” where he seeks to explain how white people, including those Pannell knew and loved, could “at once be both friend and foe.” In it, he centers his experience as an evangelical Black man among Christians who seldom challenged white supremacy.
“That book was trying to address back in 1968 the same kind of issues that he was addressing in 1993, and here we are in 2021 with the updated version, and evangelicals still haven’t gotten it yet,” Butler said.
Pannell recognizes that a majority of evangelicals supported Trump and his administration. “It has become clear that this segment of the church is deeply divided and segregated not only by theology but by political ideology,” he writes.
The race wars may still be coming, Pannell writes, but he also highlights how the “command of the risen Christ to his followers was that they go into all the world and make disciples of the nations. Not build churches; not make converts. Make disciples.”
“It seems fairly clear today that we have far more churches and Christians than we have disciples,” Pannell writes.
In his afterword, Pannell poses the question: “What, after all, does it mean to be the people of God today?
“Moving forward from here will require a greater investment in discipleship, a deeper commitment to beloved community, and a reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit,” Pannell writes. “In other words, we’ll need to be the church.”
That people of the cloth are at the forefront of the current protests over police brutality should not be a surprise.
From the earliest times of the United States’ history, religious leaders have led the struggle for liberation and racial justice for Black Americans. As an ordained minister and a historian, I see it as a common thread running through the history of the United States, from Black resistance in the earliest periods of slavery in the antebellum South, through the civil rights movement of the 1960s and up to the Black Lives Matter movement today.
As Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matters, says: “The fight to save your life is a spiritual fight.”
Sojourner Truth was driven to anti-slavery activism by spiritual visions. GHI Vintage/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
For many Black religious leaders in the United States, civil rights and social justice are central to their spiritual calling. Informed by their respective faith traditions, it places religion within the Black American experience while also being informed by African culture and the traumatic experience of the Transatlantic trade of African people.
We see this in Malcolm X’s 1964 exhortation that Black Americans should form bonds with African nations and “migrate to Africa culturally, philosophically and spiritually.” Malcolm X’s desire to internationalize the struggle in the U.S. after his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca also speaks to the role he saw Islam having in the civil rights movement.
“America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem,” he wrote in a letter during his visit to Saudi Arabia. The struggle of Black Americans informed Malcolm X’s reading of the Quran.
Similarly, the interaction between religious text and real-world struggle informed earlier Black civil rights and anti-slavery leaders. Slave revolt leader Nat Turner, for example, saw rebellion as the work of God, and drew upon biblical texts to inspire his actions.
As the historian and Turner biographer Patrick Breen noted in an article for Smithsonian Magazine, “Turner readily placed his revolt in a biblical context, comparing himself at some times to the Old Testament prophets, at another point to Jesus Christ.” In his “Confessions,” dictated to a white lawyer after his 1831 arrest, Turner quoted the Gospel of Luke and alluded to numerous other passages from the Bible.
Turner had visions he interpreted as signs from God encouraging him to revolt.
Such prophetic visions were not uncommon to early anti-slavery leaders – Sojourner Truth and Jarena Lee were both spurred to action after God revealed himself to them. Lee’s anti-slavery preaching is also an early example of the important role that black religious female leaders would have in the civil rights struggle.
In arguing for her right to spread God’s message, Lee asked: “If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? Seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one?”
These early anti-slavery activists rejected the “otherworld” theology taught to enslaved Africans by their white captors, which sought to deflect attention away from their condition in “this world” with promises of a better afterlife.
Instead, they affirmed God’s intention for freedom and liberation in both this world and the next, identifying strongly with biblical stories of freedom, such as the exodus of the Hebrew community from Egyptian enslavement and Jesus’ proclamation to “set the oppressed free.”
Incorporating religion into the Black anti-slavery movement sowed the seeds for faith being central to the struggle for racial justice to come. As the church historian James Washingtonobserved, the “very disorientation of their slavery and the persistent impact of systemic racism and other forms of oppression provided the opportunity – indeed the necessity – of a new religious synthesis.”
At heart, a preacher
The synthesis continued into the 20th century, with religious civil rights leaders who clearly felt compelled to make the struggle for justice central part of the role of a spiritual leader.
“In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in a 1965 article for Ebony Magazine.
Racial justice remains integral to Black Christian leadership in the 21st century. In an interview earlier this year, Rev. Barber said: “There is not some separation between Jesus and justice; to be Christian is to be concerned with what’s going on in the world.”
Recognizing the rich legacy of Black religious leadership in the struggle of racial justice in the United States in no way diminishes the role of historic and contemporary secular leadership. From W.E.B. DuBois to A. Philip Randolph, who helped organize 1963’s March on Washington, and up to the current day the civil rights movement has also benefited from those who would classify themselves as freethinkers or atheists.
Before he was a Democratic congressman and before he was a civil rights activist, Rep. John Lewis preached to the chickens on his family’s farm as a young boy.
It’s a story staffers of Lewis can repeat by heart because they’ve heard it so many times.
“They would bow their heads; they would shake their heads,” he recounts in footage from an appearance at a Houston church in the new documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble.”
“They never quite said ‘Amen,’ but they tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues on the other side listen to me today in the Congress.”
The documentary, presented through a partnership including Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films, traces the journey of Lewis, now 80, from the fields of Alabama to the halls of Congress. The film portrays how Lewis was shaped by his faith and guided by religious leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. James Lawson, two advocates for nonviolent civil rights action.
“Faith is an integral part of Mr. Lewis’ life but also part of his activism,” said Dawn Porter, director of the documentary, who filmed the congressman for more than a year starting shortly before the 2018 election.
Though he is a politician rather than a preacher per se, Lewis considers politics to be his calling, she said.
“He started preaching to chickens and now in many ways even though he’s a layperson he preaches to us,” she said of the man with a seminary degree as well as a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy. “That is part of the reason why people find it so motivating and so comforting when he speaks.”
The 96-minute documentary, which is to be released on demand and in select theaters on Friday (July 3), includes what has become Lewis’ mantra in its title.
“My philosophy is very simple,” he says in the film, which is also expected to air on CNN in late September. “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”
The documentary’s producers have created a “Good Trouble Sunday” promotion for the movie, encouraging houses of worship to host a digital screening starting this Sunday,for which they can keep a portion of ticket sales.
Faith leaders on a mid-June conference call promoting the documentary expressed appreciation for Lewis, who was diagnosed with cancer late last year, and his long service as a role model.
The Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church outside Atlanta, recalled seeking advice from Lewis in the 1990s, when as the NAACP’s youth director Bryant received pushback for suggesting the civil rights organization reach out to the hip-hop generation.
“He said to me: ‘Jamal, change is never politically correct,’” Bryant recalled. “‘If everybody is in agreement, it’s not that radical.”
In the documentary, Lewis, a member of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, recalled his last meal in downtown Washington just before embarking on a trip as a Freedom Rider seeking equal access to accommodations for Black Southerners.
“Growing up in rural Alabama, I never had Chinese food before,” he recalled. “But someone that evening said, ‘You should eat well because this might be like the Last Supper.’”
American civil rights activist John Lewis on April 16, 1964. Photo by Marion S. Trikosko/LOC/Creative Commons
Porter said those comments showed how Lewis and other young civil rights activists did not take their work lightly as they prepared for rides on segregated buses or sit-ins at segregated lunch counters.
“You’ll see in the movie that Rev. Jim Lawson, who was coaching and guiding the students, had them rehearse,” she said of Lewis and his fellow activists. “And I do think he decided that life under a segregated system was not the life that he wanted to live.”
Archival footage — some of which the congressman says he’d never seen before — reviews landmark, as well as lesser-known, moments in Lewis’ history. He was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On his first attempt on “Bloody Sunday” to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, he was beaten by Alabama state troopers and thought he would die as he protested for voting rights.
The film’s crew followed him as he supported fellow Democrats in the recent election and traveled with a bipartisan group of politicians and faith leaders on the annual pilgrimage to Alabama with the Faith and Politics Institute.
“Congressman Lewis has conveyed to all of us over the course of his lifetime that (the) fundamental right to vote is a foundational right,” said Joan Mooney, CEO of the institute, on the recent conference call. “So more than the transactional act of voting, Congressman Lewis talks about its sacredness, and voter participation in a democracy is the active expression of the values of all human beings.”