“Conceived in bigotry and dedicated to the proposition that my tribe is holier than thine”. With deep apologies to President Lincoln, I fear this describes the practice of Christianity among White americans in the twenty-first century. It’s really painful to admit this.
What is going on? Recently I visited a man wearing a T-shirt that said “Jesus is my savior. Trump is my president.” (He wasn’t hostile, and neither was I. Online he offered me some used training wheels for my granddaughter’s bike, which I rescued from the dump and renovated, and I went to collect them.) But still, really? I don’t get it. Jerry Falwell Jr. got fired from his family-run university for far less egregious sexual indiscretions than the current occupant of the White House. What is it about this man that makes so many White Christians believe he’s a Godsend? How is it possible to owe allegiance to Jesus crucified and risen, and also to the current president. Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot?
It’s his unswerving commitment to white power that gets him that allegiance.
A Black friend recently pointed out a Washington Post interview of a White church historian named Robert P. Jones (no relation to me). Dr. Jones recently published the book White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. The WaPo interview covered parts of the book. It persuaded me to read it. Now there’s an informative review of the same book in The New Yorker, also worth reading — especially if you find church history to be a hard slog to understand.
The book’s title is pulled from its epigraph by James Baldwin (New York Times, Feb 2, 1968)
I will flatly say that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long.
Church history often answers the question “how did we get to be the way we are?” This book is a great example of that. It’s worth your time. It covers the history (mostly 20th-century history) of monuments to Confederate generals and the display of Confederate battle flags on public buildings. It covers the irreducible tribalism of early European settlers of North America. It covers the north-south splits in various American church denominations, over the morality of chattel slavery, in the decades from 1840-1860 leading up to the Civil War. And, it describes how 21st-century white Christian denominations of all stripes (from Roman Catholic to Southern Baptist and many in between) have our theology so tangled up with white supremacy.
I guess convincing ourselves the sky is green (that is, convincing ourselves that slavery and racism are required by the Hebrew Bible, Gospels, and Epistles) for so many centuries has damaged our souls, individually and collectively. Ouch. It’s messed up our heart, mind, soul, and strength to trick ourselves into reconciling slavery with Isaiah’s words Jesus quoted to the people of his hometown. Those (Luke 4:18-19) words are
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And, Luke teaches us that Jesus’s own neighbors tried to throw him over a cliff for saying this. In 21st century America, Jesus’s words mean this.
Black Lives Matter.
We’ve inherited this situation. And we’re complicit in it. What can we do to change it? Have we indeed been White Too Long as Mr. Baldwin observed?
At the end of apartheid, the nation of South Africa had the benefit of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission operated with the strong commitment of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. Who are America’s Mr. Mandela and Bishop Tutu? How can we get past our legacy?
I have some suggestions:
- Ditch the song Amazing Grace. It’s too often a throwaway sign of cheap grace. If there’s any collective forgiveness for White american church racism, it will not cheap. We must behave as if we are not forgiven. We don’t get our tickets punched on the stairway to heaven by some magic of personal acts of devotion. If we are to have salvation, it comes from the life of the world, not the inner life of the individual. Yeah, I’m a heretic. So excommunicate me.
- Stop asking our Black acquaintances for personal absolution. Personal absolution is meaningless. It’s collective repentance and reparation that must come before absolution. And, we must no longer burden our Black acquaintances by demanding from them a meaningless duty they cannot perform and will not perform.
- Recognize that tribalism is bred into the bones of humanity. We might even admit that it’s humanity’s original sin. Give up on the idea that we can eliminate racism and instead confront it using words like the ones in 1 John.
If we say we are without racism, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we own up to our racism, God–who is faithful and just–will forgive our sin and set us free from our bondage to bigotry.
It’s not going to be easy. But right now we’re stuck, together, in the outer darkness where there’s wailing and gnashing of teeth. Let’s get going, sisters and brothers. Our lives and the life of the world are at stake.