Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a spiritual writer, speaker, and moral activist. His books include The Third Reconstruction (written with William J. Barber II), Strangers at My Door, The New Monasticism, and Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (co-editor).
Wilson-Hartgrove has led several workshops on writing for social change for the Collegeville Institute — most recently Writing to Change the World in November, 2017. At the workshop, Stina Kielsmeier-Cook spoke with him for the Collegeville Institute. They discussed his forthcoming book Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion, which will be released in March 2018, why he still identifies as evangelical, and what books are changing his life right now. To read more essays and interviews in our series on evangelicals, click here.
In your new book you describe feeling split in two by the Gospel message you inherited, which, you say, is itself divided. One part is a Christianity held by slaveholders, who used the Bible to justify slavery. The other part is a Christianity held by slaves, who used the Bible to inspire both Black and white abolitionists. What led you to write this book now?
Well, I’ve talked to a lot of Christians who feel a little crazy this year. On the one hand, our faith is our anchor and our guide—our God is a “very present help in time of trouble.” And, at the same time, some of the most extreme figures in our public life claim God is on their side. In our churches the people who watch Fox News can’t talk to the people who don’t. I keep hearing the word “divisive” when I visit churches.
I wrote this book because the person who diagnosed our predicament best was an African-American in the 19th century—Frederick Douglass. “Between the Christianity of the slaveholder and the Christianity of Christ I see the widest possible difference,” he said. A lot has changed since then, but some of the basic patterns and habits and structures of our society remain very much the same. James Baldwin said in the last century, “Not everything that’s faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed without being faced.” So I wanted to face the reality that we talk too little about—that faith in America was and is shaped by our history of race, particularly slavery. I wanted to invite others to face it because I’ve found an incredible freedom on the other side of that painful truth.
Many Christians today are experiencing the divisiveness that plagues the nation as a whole, particularly those from evangelical churches, as they watch the news and see leaders who, many believe, misrepresent their faith. To what degree do you think evangelical Christianity has become synonymous with slaveholder Christianity?
One of the reasons I wanted to trace the lines of this history was to show that slaveholder Christianity has always been with us. It is not new. Some “never-Trump” type evangelicals want to point to a time in 2015 when the church sold out, but the patterns and habits run deeper than that. When you see these patterns in the 19th century, you can also begin to see how Jesus was confronting them even in the first century — and inviting his followers into a new way of seeing. So this book really is an invitation for what you might call American Pharisees to re-read the Gospels. Whiteness is the pharisaical self-righteousness that plagues us. Because racism is our birthright, we must be born again.
In Reconstructing the Gospel you describe whiteness as a religion that must be unlearned. You also describe how certain practices, drawing on the Rule of Saint Benedict, can help white people unlearn some of that religion. Can you tell us more?
You know, Rod Dreher has been talking about the “Benedict Option” for a few years. Like Rod, I grew up Southern Baptist. We’ve both learned a great deal from ancient Christian practices that most Protestants threw out with indulgences. But I’ve been clear about my objection to what Rod has done in his book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation—making Saint Benedict an avatar of reactionary conservatism. And, as I’ve told him, I think this misreading has everything to do with race and power in American Christianity.
So I wanted to offer another Benedict Option in my book. Benedict’s Rule is fundamentally about following the way of Jesus against the grain of the patterns of this world. Things like listening, staying put, and constantly reforming your life are Benedictine practices that can help white Christians unlearn the religion of whiteness. The people who can show us the way of Benedict (and Jesus) in America aren’t reactionary young white people who refuse to send their kids to the “liberal” public schools, but the black Christians who sent their daughters and sons to integrate the public schools of Alabama and Mississippi half a century ago. Any white Christian grappling with racism had best start by listening to these voices.
Do you still identify as an Evangelical? If so, why is that term important to hold onto?
Yes. I’m an evangelical because I’ve entrusted my life to Jesus. The Bible is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path. I want to proclaim the good news Jesus came preaching to the poor. And I want the people who loved and raised me within the evangelical subculture to know freedom from slaveholder religion.
What gives you hope in the Evangelical church?
Faith that goes beyond calculated self-interest. It’s there, and I’ve seen it. I could tell you stories all day of people who, when Jesus called them to do something, left everything to do it. Sold their home, put the kids in the car, and said, “Here I am. Send me.” Those are people who can change the world. And there are lots of them among evangelicals. I’ve met them elsewhere, too, but evangelicalism has a lot of true believers. That kind of faith in the midst of so much cynical realism gives me hope.
In one of your presentations during the writing workshop you led for the Collegeville Institute in November, Writing to Change the World, you quoted theologian Willie Jennings as saying: “If you want to change the world, don’t try to win an election, or amass a lot money. Try to be the one who tells the story.” How can telling stories, or being the one to control the narrative, change the world?
Because stories tell us who we are. They make us. Genesis says God spoke us into existence in the beginning, and I don’t think we often comprehend the power of story to determine even what we think the options are. You come to the ocean with your enemy at your back, and it looks like you’ve got two options: surrender or commit suicide. Unless you know the story of Israel coming out of Egypt. Then maybe you walk into the water and God parts the sea.
The power of telling stories is that you get to step inside someone’s imagination and say, “Look! There’s another option.” Not by arguing with them, but by reminding people of what they once knew but have since forgotten, thus helping them see who they really are.
In that same workshop you encouraged participants to share songs at the beginning and end of each session. Why is singing important for social change? Why is singing important for writing for social change?
These stories we live—they have a rhythm. And it’s so easy to get out of rhythm. That’s what liturgy is always about—getting us back into rhythm. It’s the work of the people—what we’re always to be about in the world. I don’t just mean the order of worship in a church service. I’m talking about something that reorients our lives—that connects us with people we wouldn’t be part of otherwise. Whether I’m with other people or not, I sing with the communion of saints to find my rhythm. It’s the soundtrack for everything I write.
Coming to awareness of where you stand and how you will speak—your distinct voice—is essential for a writer who hopes to be part of a social movement. How did you find your voice as a white, southern man in the movements you support?
First, by listening. When I write as part of the Movement, I’m joining a conversation. If I haven’t listened to Jesus and Gandhi, to Ella Baker and Dorothy Day, I don’t know my place. But I am not them. I have to know where I’m coming from—to be honest about all the tensions involved in that. I feel some of those tensions in my gut. And some people feel them in theirs because of who I am. So I’ve got to own all of that when I write.
I’ve found my voice as a gift from others—mentors and leaders in the freedom movement who’ve looked at me and said, “You need to say that. Only you can speak that truth to your people.”
Have you ever read a book that changed your life? If so, what?
I’m a writer because I read Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain when I was studying theology. And something clicked in my soul. I’ve tried to describe it before, but I don’t know that I’ve done it justice. I just know that book made me a writer. It made me the particular kind of writer I am.
What books are changing your life right now?
I read so much history to write Reconstructing the Gospel. A lot of it was written by scholars, who get formed in a particular style of documentation. It’s precise, but it usually doesn’t sing. There are some historians who could have just as well been poets, though. And I’ve come to really love their voices. Tim Tyson is one. His The Blood of Emmett Till was a finalist for the National Book Award. I don’t know what all goes into those decisions, but if beauty alone were the measure, he should have won. Dostoyevsky is right: “the world will be saved by beauty.”
It’s beauty that draws me back again and again to James Baldwin—everything he wrote, but especially his essays and poems. In spiritual memoir, I don’t get to read everything, but I remember the beautiful voices I get to read: Fr. Gregory Boyle, D.L. Mayfield, Kelley Nikondeha, and Austin Channing’s voices are the ones that have grabbed me over the past several months. I know because their books are on my nightstand right now, with Baldwin and Mary Oliver.