The Influence of Racism in Modern Christianity

As I’ve been preparing for this post, I have consistently run into a problem.

There is a lot to unpack here. A. Lot.

I found myself taking notes and writing things and reading things that are all relevant, and at the same time more than could ever be done justice in a single blog post. I was asked to share my understanding of how racism has shaped modern Christianity, and how it influences our daily conversations, actions, and theology. I wish I could answer this question fully, with every example and statistic and quote illuminating how racism in America is so irrefutable and permeating, not only in theology, but in white Americans’ own identity.

The reality is, I don’t need every piece of evidence. The work I’ve been doing to unpack racism within myself and to recognize it in the world around me has forced me to revisit my beliefs time and time again, wondering if they came from the light-skinned man I’d seen framed in my grandma’s home or the brown man that hung on a tree in Golgotha. I have seen and read more than enough to justify it. Perhaps even the desire to have all the information I can reveals my inherent bias against the stories of people other than me. Always, always learning.

To answer this question, I will be sharing what I have learned and now know, with the acknowledgment that I have so much more to learn. It requires humility, a willingness to be wrong and take correction, a conviction to speak up, and a desire to be more like Jesus. With that, I have a similar expectation of those reading. There are terms and concepts I will reference that I will not be unpacking specifically in this post because they are monumental in themselves. What I will do is link references to them, as well as directly reference any material as necessary. White brothers and sisters, I ask you to do the work, too. And if what I have learned is not enough for you, I ask you to listen. Listen to the stories of people of color. Read their work, acknowledge their feelings, recognize that their anger is righteous. Pay them. It should not be the burden of the oppressed to educate the oppressor, and those who do anti-racism work don’t choose to because it’s a good time. They choose to because it must be done, because their existence depends on it.

If you have questions and want to discuss anything further, reach out.

“Slavery ended over a hundred years ago.”

I have heard this statement more times than I can count. It is factually, correct. Slavery was abolished. White people could no longer own black people. So, they peacefully made amends, embraced their black brethren, and we all live in the “colorblind ” world where everyone is equal now, right?

More than 5,000 black men and women were lynched between 1880 and 1940 by white Christians (The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James H. Cone, 31). The 13th Amendment was passed in 1865. When black people were property, they held monetary value to their oppressors. When they could no longer be owned, they were considered threats to the Anglo-Saxon public. Much like crucifixion in Rome during Jesus’ time, lynching was reserved for the lowest of low. It was a public spectacle, with people gathering from nearby cities, and schools delaying class so children could attend. Some people were burned slowly and featured in postcards sent to family members that read, “The barbecue we had last night.” Some were tortured and mutilated, with women and children being given the first chance to do so. Genitals, toes, fingers, and ears were removed, sometimes being taken home as a keepsake (Cone, 9).

Lynching was seen as a civil duty outside of the law, to allow communities to protect themselves from “bad” people when they were beyond the law. Cole Blease, Governor of South Carolina from 1910-1912, stated lynching is a “divine right of the Caucasian race to dispose of the offending blackmoor without the benefit of a jury.” (Cone, 7). White ministers were often mob leaders, blessing the lynchings, and members of the Ku Klux Klan became vigilantes in the night (Cone, 76). The KKK began conducting violence in secret at night, wearing hoods to protect their identities. When brought to trial, they could count on their white friends and neighbors to declare them not guilty—especially since the jury was composed of white men (Cone, 5).

Lynchings were widely advertised, to the extent that today, most of the 5,000 lynching victims have been identified by name. In artist James Allen’s work Without Sanctuary, released in 2003, he highlights lynching postcards from the Jim Crow era, including information about each postcard. It wasn’t until after Without Sanctuary that the U.S. Senate issued an apology to the families of the 5,000 Americans lynched, acknowledging they failed to pass anti-lynching legislation in 1898 (Cone, 99). White legislators were aware of lynchings in 1898. The information was so clear in the advertisements historians today study that it is impossible for them to have claimed ignorance. Yet they chose ignorance. As Gloria Albrecht states, “Ignorance sustains innocence.” (Gloria Albrecht, “The Heresy of White Christianity”, 346).

“Given this undeniable history, surely we White Christians have to ask ourselves, is it true? Has white Christianity in America become so inured by unquestioned norms, habits, unconscious assumptions, stereotypes, and the taken-for-granted behaviors of social institutions—that is, by our culture called whiteness—that we are unable to see that vast injustices it inflicts on other groups?”

Gloria Albrecht, 347.

White supremacy is not the work of the individual. It is the work of a dominant group establishing themselves as benefactors over and at the expense of every other group, and even those who do not actively seek that power benefit from it. Being a beneficiary of white supremacy is called white privilege. White privilege establishes white Americans above every other racial group systemically. Being a part of a different minority does not disqualify someone from benefiting from white privilege, which is made clear in the tears of white women.

White fragility is a tool use by us to excuse ourselves from actively engaging in anti-racist work. If you’re white and feeling personally attacked right now, pause for a moment and unpack your feelings. If you’re feeling defensive, what are you defending? Are you more concerned with being considered a racist or fighting racism?

Being “non-racist” is not enough. Being “non-racist” is being aware of the racism around you and opting to not participate. It’s seeing suffering and turning a blind eye. To not participate in the alleviation of the oppressed is anti-Gospel, plain and simple. The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed (Ps. 9:9), who sees the suffering of those mistreated (Gen. 16:13). The Son of God and the Last Adam was killed like a criminal and hung from a tree to save even those who yelled, “Crucify Him!” Nearly 2,000 years later, we were still crucifying innocent people. America isn’t done yet.

Today, more African American men are in jail, prison, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850 (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander, 180). Out-right racism became cloaked in subtle nuances, and lynching was replaced with today’s criminal justice system. In 1988, the CIA admitted that the guerilla armies it supported in Nicaragua were smuggling drugs in the U.S., which made their way into inner-city black neighborhoods. Furthermore, they admitted during the War on Drugs that they prevented law enforcement from investigating illegal drug networks because they were funding its efforts in Nicaragua. It is especially incriminating how the War on Drugs was declared at a time when illegal drug use was on decline, and it was after the fact that black communities were facing a “drug crisis”. Because the race issue has been transformed into a criminal justice issue, it is even easier for whites to deny (Alexander, 6). As of 2012, 75 percent of White Protestants said that racial inequalities are not due to racial discrimination (Albrecht, 349).

Alexander claims, “Racial violence has been rationalized, legitimized, and channeled through our criminal justice system; it is expressed as police brutality, solitary confinement, and the discriminatory and arbitrary imposition of the death penalty” (Alexander, 202). Rather than white Christians rallying for the sake of the marginalized and oppressed, half of us believe that race relations in our nation would improve if we were to stop talking about it (Albrecht, 350).

“I have reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection… We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Letter from Birmingham Jail

There are times when white Christians fail to minister, and there are times when we fail in ministry. One of the most intense concepts I have had to unpack within myself is the white savior complex. In my opinion, this is one of the most damaging forms of white supremacy within the Church. I witnessed it first-hand on my first-ever missions trip to Guatemala, both within myself and others, though it took me years to find the right words for it. It is rampant within many participants within both YWAM and The World Race. One of my dearest friends is a World Racer, and as I’ve supported him we’ve had serious conversations about the white savior complex within American missionaries.

A well-known example of this is the story of Renee Bach. Recently, human rights charges were filed against Renee Bach and her organization, Serving His Children, in the High Courts of Jinja, Uganda for the deaths of over 100 children. Bach moved to Uganda and performed medical procedures on Ugandan children without a medical license or medical training. If we would not allow anyone to perform medical procedures without a license on our children in the States, but support sending that same person to do so on Ugandans, we are choosing which lives matter more to us—and they’re white lives. I feel insane having to say this, but if God calls you to be a doctor… go to school to be a doctor first. Could God reveal to you all the secrets of healing the human body via prayer? He absolutely could. But this case reminds me that death is not a fruit of the Spirit.

Lack of concern for social justice has been a major factor in Millennials leaving the Church, and a factor as to why Gen Z is unlikely to return (“This is how you lose them: Why Generation Z won’t be flocking to churches anytime soon,” Anita Little; “Why Millennials are leaving the church”, Rachel Held Evans). Generation Z is the first generation to grow up in post-Christian America, and over half identify as non-white (Little).

There are those of the younger generations who have left traditional religious backgrounds and pursued progressive churches and theologies. However, neither “progressive” nor “liberal” mean “safe for people of color.” In fact, the sheer privilege and elitism of many white liberals is just as dangerous as the blatant racism found in many white conservatives. Currently living in the Pacific Northwest, I have heard countless snide comments about the southern states and the racism that abides there.

These comments are coming from people who live in one of the whitest cities in America, love the city’s “culture” (a very white culture indeed), and are often unaware of its racist roots. This includes how the local university was an all-white school historically, how minority groups were forced out of the city, and how generations later they are being forced out of their homes by redlining and gentrification. Or if they are aware, they still buy a house on the North side because it’s a good deal.

To borrow a Southern accent for a moment, all y’all’re racist.

If you’re white and claim to be not racist, I’m going to challenge you. When you have been raised in a culture that historically was built on the backs of minorities, perpetuates violence against people of color, and has subliminally taught you from day one that your white perspective is the dominant one,

Can you really believe you aren’t racist?

[Insert defensiveness, tokenizing of a black friend, examples of how you’re a good person and you try to do good things, etc.]

Racism is ingrained into white American culture. We massacred native peoples, turned black people into property, and have a GoFundMe to build a wall to keep the Mexicans out. Racism in the States is not a past problem; it is one of the foundations of the U.S. Those same founders were Christians, too. Can we truly believe this has not been a factor in American theology? To quote Gloria Albrecht again, “Ignorance sustains innocence.” White Americans, whether they want to be or not, are inherently racist.

To be anti-racism is to actively work to dismantle and rebuild the systems that oppress others. Inactivism is part of the white moderate, which includes doing work that focuses on other things and ignores racial issues all together. In this world of intersecting identities, the Church must be intersectional. All can be grafted in, and God can cut branches from His tree (Rom. 11:17-24). The injustices against people of color in this country are not new. They are systemic, cyclical, and upheld by the white majority.

If your theology does not address race, then your theology upholds white supremacy. If your theology does not spur action towards dismantling racism, then it upholds white supremacy. If your theology says “least of these” and automatically makes you think of brown people in other countries, then it upholds white supremacy. This theology makes us responsible for those who use it for both subtle and blatant forms of violence.

This is how racism influences modern day Christianity. It is modern and present in America. It is present elsewhere, yes, but I can only speak to what I have learned so far. I also recognize what I have learned so far is predominantly from black scholars and theologians, but systemic racism is present in the U.S. for all POC.

Feeling as though racial issues do not affect your life is white privilege. But if we love the Bride of Christ, we know it belongs to everyone. The wildness of the Gospel is that throughout all of history, we can all know the same God, not because of how we fail to know Him but because of how deeply He knows us. If we truly want to diversify white churches, we must deconstruct the racism within them. As Rachel Cargle said, “Unless the racism is addressed and eradicated in the places you are looking to make ‘diverse’ you are simply bringing people of color into violent and unsafe spaces.” (@rachel.cargle on Instagram).

Missions should support local organizations already developed. Missionaries should be educated before being sent. Churches and church-goers must recognize, address, and deconstruct racism within each other. We must listen. Most of all, listen. Pass the mic and recognize that not everything is for white consumption. It will probably make you uncomfortable. Good. You, not POC, are responsible for educating yourself. Read writers of color, listen to speakers of color, support businesses owned by people of color.

Even with this long blog post, I have only skimmed the surface. There is so much more that I have missed and could be said, but I know this is plenty. This is enough for anyone to choose to dive deeper or reject this information altogether. If you want to dive deeper and need some help on where to start, please reach out.

With humility,

K.G.

On an ending note, I would like to say that it is #BecauseofRHE that I continue to write. To the woman who wrestled with her faith openly, challenged tradition for the sake of Gospel, and continually encouraged me into spaces I thought were not meant for me.

I always thought I would meet you someday. I guess I am going to have to wait a little longer than I had hoped. Thank you for your influence in my faith and my life. Rest in peace, eshet chayil.

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