Know Your Place: Helping White, Southern Evangelicals Cope with the End of The(ir) World by Justin Phillips

Summary: A series of essays exploring what it means to be Christian, White, and Southern in the context of the racial realities as they are.

Racism isn’t solely a Southern phenomenon, but there are some aspects to the White Southern Christian culture, and it makes sense to look at it from that perspective. I have read a lot of history and theology regarding racial realities in the United States. I have not grown up in the South, but I have lived just outside Atlanta for nearly 20 years. Because I have been here for a while, but I have not grown up here, I am both an outsider and an inside observer. I very much have witnessed quite overt racism, and the racial innocence that is well described in Know Your Place.

I am going to have three brief illustrations about racial innocence that influenced my reading of Know Your Place. About 5-6 years ago, the church I was a member of had a series of midweek meetings about race and Christianity. The meetings had a large group and small group component. My small group was facilitated by a Black pastor (not from our church). The small group was about 15 people, and as we opened the first session, we went around and introduced ourselves. One of the men introduced himself and concluded, “I was born and grew up and spent my whole life in the Atlanta area, and I do not believe that I have ever witnessed something I would call racist.” I believe that he was roughly the same age as my mother-in-law, who also grew up here; her education was segregated until her senior year of high school.

Another friend of mine is retired and grew up in rural Georgia. She privately emailed me after we were in a class together where I had talked about the racist history of Stone Mountain. She was unfamiliar with what I was referring to and wanted to know more about what I meant. We talked, and I sent her some articles about Stone Mountain being dedicated explicitly to white supremacy and being the site of the start of the second founding of the KKK. She had literally never heard of any of that history despite living in Georgia for much of her life.

Several years ago, Georgia passed a law that included a provision that says that teachers cannot teach that “the United States is a systemically racist country.” I was discussing this law and the problems of how teachers can teach the required standards, including teaching about the Dred Scott decision in 8th grade, without violating the law. The person I was talking to expressed that all history should be taught but that it was wrong to teach that the country is racist. I continued to ask questions about the history of the US. It was clear that the person both did not know anything about the Dred Scott decision (which said that the US was under no obligation to recognize citizenship or other rights of black Americans regardless of whether they were free or enslaved) or other expressly race-conscious laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act.

I give that way too long of an introduction because one of the problems of discussing race is that we have very different starting places because there is a mix of ignorance, willful blindness, and bad education. Most of the time, there is a mix of the three, but providing history to someone who is willfully blind to racial realities is unlikely to make a difference. Similarly, accusations of willful blindness when the person is simply ignorant or has had a lousy education often will create a backlash. And there is the problem of people defending their “home” because they feel like it is being attacked.

Know Your Place has good history and understands the culture, psychology and sociology of the South well. Phillips also has the theological chops to bring in theological ethics to cultural realities in a way that has grace, but tells the truth.

Early in the book this quote lays out the thesis quite directly.

“Here is the brutal truth about the people and places that I love: The dominant social imagination was, and is, a white-supremacist ideology, employed to enslave, terrorize, dehumanize, or restrict people of color, while at the same time absolving the offenders and their heirs from the guilt of any wrongdoing. These offenses were committed in order to keep people in their place and upon these shared values and stories American life was built, sustained, and defended. My social imaginary has, at its core, white supremacist foundations from which I and many others have benefitted. This is my place in our shared story.” (p31)

This thesis as I capture here is going to be too direct for some readers. That doesn’t mean he is wrong, it just means that there is a directness that will cause some to be resistant to the message of the book. Phillips quotes Hauerwas, “Courtesy forbids direct speech”, but does not practice Hauwerwas’ quote. As an outsider to the South, it isn’t my place to say whether this is the best approach for those who have grown up in the South. But I do think it is a truthful approach.

It is likely that many who grew up in the South won’t have heard quotes like the following:

Henry Holcombe Tucker, Baptist minister and former president of Mercer University and the University of Georgia, posited in an 1883 editorial four key litmus tests for racial orthodoxy: First, human races are and will be forever unequal. Second, Blacks are inferior to whites. Third, intermarriage was detrimental to all races. Fourth, free social intermingling of Blacks and whites “must have its origin in sin.” (p99)


Southern tradition, according to Lillian Smith, taught children three lessons that connected God, the body, and segregation: God loves and punishes children. We, in return, love and fear God. Parents possess a godlike quality, enforcing God’s ways, and themselves are deserving of love and fear. The second lesson concerned God’s gift of the body, which was to be kept clean and healthy. Be careful how you use this gift, for God’s morality is “based on this mysterious matter of entrances and exits, and Sin hovering over all doors.”

White skin was the most important feature of the body: This ‘gift’ gave whites status, dictated their control over space and movement, and children learned by watching their elders. The final lesson of southern tradition was that of segregation, an extension of the other two: You always obeyed authorities—“They Who Make the Rules”—and you valued and protected your white body. Even outside of the home “Custom and Church” would continue the education through words and actions. (p107)

Another important theological issue that is still ongoing is the relationship between history and guilt. The issues in the quote below are not new. (Hudson Baggett was editor of the Alabama Baptist from 1966 until his death in 1994).

Hudson Baggett, editor of the Alabama Baptist, rejected the statement, saying the convention “cannot confess the guilt or sins of all other Southern Baptists. Every person must confess his own sins, if they are confessed.” He added, “many people resist the idea of collective guilt, especially if it is connected with certain things in which people felt they have no part directly or indirectly.” Baggett’s words perfectly summarize the perspective that persists today among many whites, Christians included: In the absence of perceived guilt there is no reason to seek forgiveness. Sin works by blinding us to the realities of our failings, individually or collectively. (p145)

I think Know Your Place was well written and directly speaks to the issues of being a White Southern Christian (man) today. It isn’t going to be the best book for everyone. But I do think it can be very helpful for those with ears to hear.

Know Your Place: Helping White, Southern Evangelicals Cope with the End of The(ir) World by Justin Phillips Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

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