Salvation Army Imposes Racial Wokeness Within Church’s Ranks

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The news is replete with examples of corporations and institutions going woke, from Google to Aunt Jemima. Unfortunately, now The Salvation Army is in danger of joining the ranks of Woke Inc.

In materials prepared for its more than 1.5 million members, The Salvation Army uses terms that echo both radical “anti-racism” jargon and the teachings of critical race theory, which divides people into two camps: the oppressors and the oppressed.  

And many of this trusted charitable organization’s donors and other supporters aren’t even aware of the change.

Despite being apolitical historically, The Salvation Army has begun to promote political and racial ideologies under the banner of its New York-based International Social Justice Commission since the protests and riots over George Floyd’s death in police custody began over a year ago.

The International Social Justice Commission works on issues involving human rights and justice, from human traffickers to asylum-seekers. But more recently, the commission, launched in 2007, is unhealthily mixing admirable human rights work with politically charged advocacy based in progressive politics.  

As many Americans know, The Salvation Army, founded in London in 1865, is a church organized in an “army” structure encompassing “officers,” “soldiers,” and other volunteers. Collectively called Salvationists, they serve the organization and are inspired to perform good deeds on account of their Christian faith.

Early this year, Brian Peddle, general and international leader of The Salvation Army, announced an initiative called “Let’s Talk About Racism,” a curriculum with devotionals, videos, and other materials dedicated to helping Salvationists conduct “courageous conversations about racism.”

Peddle, who is Canadian, says in the video announcement Feb. 9 that the resource would help Salvationists “overcome the damage racism has inflicted upon the world, and yes, The Salvation Army.”

The brief video, however, makes no attempt to back up or explain the bold accusation that racism has damaged The Salvation Army at any significant level.

‘Let’s Talk About Racism’

The Salvation Army has a long, storied history of meeting spiritual and physical needs around the world. Many Americans may interact with the church only around Christmastime, when its volunteers ring bells in front of grocery stores to attract cash contributions in red kettles. The organization also runs hundreds of thrift stores and shelters in over 100 countries.

Salvationists throughout the world attend church services on Sundays as part of their local chapter, and some shepherd these congregations. The first goal listed on the website of The Salvation Army International is “advancement of the Christian religion.”

Having met many Salvationists personally, I can attest to the depth of their faith and commitment to evangelism. In many ways, The Salvation Army is a prime example of what it looks like for the Christian church to be devout in both faith and deed.

But today, the Christian witness of this esteemed institution is under threat from within.

The “Let’s Talk About Racism” initiative, officially rolled out July 7, is described in five slides that outline the larger Christian church’s alleged complicity in racism and provide action plans to combat racism through what the initiative calls an “anti-racist” lens. (The resource page provides translations in Spanish and Portuguese.)

One Salvation Army captain told me that the leadership of the organization disseminated this curriculum via emails, videos, and other presentations through its four territorial commanders and down the hierarchy to field officers who serve poor communities across the United States.

In some aspects, the materials are indistinguishable from the “anti-racist” programs of any multinational corporation, or the expounding of critical race theory at a major university.

“Let’s Talk About Racism” accuses white Salvationists of being unable or unwilling to acknowledge their racism, just as Robin DiAngelo argues in her book “White Fragility” that whites are defensive about racism or race-related issues in general.

The Salvation Army initiative attacks “colorblindness” on race with the same argument used by Ibram X. Kendi, author of the book “How to Be an Antiracist,” which is to characterize it as a false neutrality that reveals a person’s inner racism.

Defining ‘Whiteness’

The initiative also includes definitions of institutional racism, systemic racism, and “Whiteness” that identify real or perceived differences in life outcomes (“inequities”) as attributable not to individual effort and other circumstances, but to discrimination.

As such, the materials starkly resemble the radical “anti-racist” programs such as Coca-Cola’s “Be Less White” program, or The Smithsonian Institution’s own “anti-racism” materials.

The Salvation Army’s materials include sections on police brutality, health care, and black unemployment that assign blame to “racism” and “racial inequity.” This race-based lens informs the curriculum’s explanation of related statistics, stating that disparities are evidence of deep-rooted structural racism while betraying Salvationists’ historical commitment to staying out of partisan politics.

According to its official manual, “Chosen to Be a Soldier,” The Salvation Army doesn’t get involved in partisan politics or political fads of the day. 

The “Let’s Talk About Racism” document flirts with accusing The Salvation Army itself of being complicit in systemic racism. For example, while mentioning the organization’s “progressive” view on the subject, it asserts there is “little doubt as to whether racism has impacted The Salvation Army in policy and practice.”  

One study question asks: “How would The Salvation Army at the corporate level be strengthened by taking an active stance for racial equity and unity?”

This question implies that the church so far has been passively complicit. And notice that it uses the word “equity” instead of “equality.”

The biggest attack on Salvationists, however, is an admonition that they “repent” and offer “a sincere apology” for racism. In Section Four—called “Describe and Plan: How Then Shall We Live?”—the authors tell members that “the need to receive a sincere apology is necessary.”

“Please take time to write out or think about how you can repent and apologize,” they write.

Another study questions ask: “Who are those who deserve an apology/those who need to give an apology?”

This lesson never outright says it, but everything else in the document suggests that non-black Salvationists need to apologize to blacks. The same section cites the “many things the Black community in America continues to grieve about and experience,” from “police brutality” to “discrimination in health care,” to “mass incarceration.”

Text from the “Repentance” section of “Let’s Talk About Racism.”

Lure of Grandstanding

Here’s the difference: A Salvationist may be sorrowful for the history of racism in America without having to repent for it. Repentanceimplies that you, the repenter, have done something wrong, and faithful Salvationists are overwhelmingly unlikely to be the ones in need of repentingand apologizingfor racism. 

The document’s authors cite zero primary evidence of any systemic failure on The Salvation Army’s part on the subject of race and racism. As the basis for this damning claim, they only quote one retired officer recalling that a fellow Salvation Army cadet “had a doll hanging in his room that he called by my name.”

Today’s so-called anti-racists like to gain power by goading and guilting white people into admitting shame for crimes they did not commit. Nikole Hannah-Jones, founder of The New York Times’ debunked 1619 Project, calls slavery America’s “original sin,” implying the need to repent. Some in the Black Lives Matter movement also have goaded whites into kneeling and asking for forgiveness from the black community for racism.

Self-styled anti-racists have seen some success with other Christian organizations by demanding “apologies” for racism. Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy recently asked his employees to “have an apologetic heart” on racism.

The Salvation Army is at risk of caving to the same grandstanding. 

Yet in practice, The Salvation Army confronted racism aggressively long before the rest of America, and the church should be proud of it. In 1898, at least five decades before the U.S. civil rights movement, the organization’s Orders of Regulations for Social Officers stated clearly that “none shall be debarred from any of its benefits … because they are of any particular nationality, race or color.”  

The Salvation Army has been a leader in appointing black Americans to national leadership positions. Among them was Israel Gaither, a former national commander who I suppose must have misspoken when he said that “the future is absolutely wide open to African-American Salvationists who would be available for God’s use as officer.”  

The organization was a trailblazer on racial equality. Yet these documents, directed at members, at best misrepresent The Salvation Army as weak on confronting issues of race throughout its history. This misrepresentation only will inflame tensions, rather than offer hope for racial healing. 

Prescribed ‘Action Steps’

The action steps presented in “Let’s Talk About Racism” are similarly unlikely to create real racial reconciliation. They call on “White culture” to quit denying racism and admit its responsibility for racism. They call upon whites to quit trying to be colorblind on race.

Finally, the action steps encourage whites to read books such as DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” and Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist.”

Generally imposed from above, such ideas are deeply unpopular. Ordinary Americans increasingly are tired of being accused of racism simply for existing.

A 2018 poll by Public Religion Research Institute found that 83% of Americans agree that the nation is “somewhat or very divided by race and ethnicity.” Racially divisive woke initiatives, of course, are a strong reason why, but many are scared to speak out against such initiatives.

For the typical American, the social (and even financial) pressure to conform to anti-racist directives can be overwhelming.

The case appears to be particularly dire within The Salvation Army. Yet after countless hours of charity work over the past century and a half, it has one of the cleanest historical records of any major organization.

The vast majority of Salvationists alive today played no role in advancing any “historical” racism that parts of the wider Christian church in America may have sanctioned at one time.  

And although reflection on individuals’ past sins related to race within the Christian church is a good thing, “repenting” individually for the church’s past sins on race goes too far. It unfairly characterizes the history of the Christian church as racist, when the faith actually built organizations such as The Salvation Army to assist people of all races.

Speaking Out

To state the obvious, these new admonitions that Salvationists stop trying to be colorblind are unnecessary. The Gospel itself is colorblind. As the Bible says in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Greek nor Jew, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

The entire point of the faith at the root of The Salvation Army is that Jesus Christ came to save all of humanity, showing no favoritism to any race or group. Faithful Salvationists recognize this.

And despite what the church’s International Social Justice Commission says, ordinary members of The Salvation Army are committed to a colorblind perspective, and admirably so.

I’ve seen this perspective firsthand in speaking with five Salvationists in recent weeks. Across the board, they agreed that The Salvation Army ought to be a colorblind organization that treats everyone equally without regard to race.

Most said they were unaware of the “Let’s Talk About Racism” initiative, and were taken aback when I said it called upon all white Salvationists to repent for complicity in historical racism.

A week ago, I emailed two Salvation Army officials to ask why leadership decided to distribute this material with the expectation that Salvationists would participate in “conversations” about it. Neither responded.

The Daily Signal on Thursday sought comment via email from David Jolley, director of communications for The Salvation Army’s national headquarters in Washington. He had not replied as of Sunday afternoon.

Salvationists have begun to speak out about The Salvation Army’s apparent shift in direction. A petition recently organized by Color Us United (an organization that I lead) and co-written by Salvation Army captains so far has attracted 5,000 signatures from members and long-time donors who oppose this woke script.

Fundamentally, intentional racial division conflicts with the core message of The Salvation Army. And the stakes here are incredibly high.

The Salvation Army has done an incalculable amount of good since its inception. This descent into wokeness threatens its Christian witness and credibility.

As Benjamin Franklin said: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”

Ordinary Americans, including Salvationists, don’t want their communities to be divided on the basis of race. They don’t want to be compelled to apologize for sins in which they played no part.

So much good work remains to be done. The Salvation Army should reject the modern, secular temptation of caving to wokeness if this worthy organization is to protect itself and continue providing for those in spiritual and physical need.

The Daily Signal publishes a variety of perspectives. Nothing written here is to be construed as representing the views of The Heritage Foundation. 

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