Before folk start issuing calls for racial reconciliation… Again. No.
Reconciliation is the culmination of a process that begins with conviction and leads to confession and contrition, public and private, followed by individual and communal repentance. Much like the stages of grief, these steps are not rigidly sequential, though some more easily presage others. Persons and institutions may move from one to another and back again. Some like repentance may occur repeatedly, for example repentance may (and should) both lead to and follow confession.
We haven’t been through that process, as a nation or as the Church in the US or in the West. It is a process and none of the steps are optional. Services of reconciliation without confession, liturgical litanies of confession without conviction, the language of repentance without conviction, all of these are theater, none of these are healing and the multiplication of these kinds of programs squander whatever ethical capital and good will the white church and white Christians have.
It is well past time to talk about whiteness in the church–which is white people’s work–but because white people are not doing it adequately or sufficiently it falls to people of color. It is not easy. It is not nice. It is work. It is difficult work. Which perhaps is why it is often left to people of color who can then be blamed and dismissed for the feelings it generates.
Whiteness is the unspoken norm against which everyone else is defined. The categories of race and ethnicity were invented to articulate how other people differ from the persons constructed as the standard, normative, default or base model of humanity. Whiteness has been equated with Christianity and civilization so that to be Christian was to be civilized when the only Christianity that was recognized was white Christianity.
Our religious language in and out of the scriptures is used to reify whiteness. Christ is the light of the world. The light that overcomes darkness. Light and dark are antithetical, one vanquishes the other. It does not matter that light is not white and dark is not black. There are light and dark shades of human flesh so the struggle of light against darkness has been mapped onto human bodies and provided the rhetoric for civilizing the dark heart of Africa with slavery and the light of Christianity, conveniently ignoring the most ancient Christian tradition, Egyptian Coptic Christianity. We can’t escape that language in our scriptures but we can take care how we use it, how we preach it. The mechanism that enforces whiteness as the norm in and out of the church is white supremacy.
The doctrine of white supremacy is for me best articulated by philosopher David Hume in his Essays: Moral, Political and Literary:
I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ‘tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.
This is the ideology that is in the White House in there person of the president who welcomed and cultivated the support of white supremacist groups from the Klu Klux Klan to neo-Nazis and appointed some of them as his advisors. This is the ideology that worships at the altar of the Confederate treason and will kill to protect its icons. This is the ideology that has murdered—crucified, lynched—castrated and raped black children, women, and men, and Jews and Latinos, and the occasional white folk labeled race traitors. This is the ideology held by the folk who beat protestors and clergy and murdered a man and injured others in a domestic terror attack in Charlottesville. White supremacy are the words the president refuses to say while he governs because of its voting power.
The role of white supremacy in the church is neither accidental nor incidental. The role of the Church in the carving up and colonization of Africa, Asia and the Americas is history many white folk and churches don’t bother teaching or learning. That is white privilege. I won’t spoon feed it here. The Church is also implicated in the settling of this continent articulated in the language of the settlement of Canaan providing divine sanction for the genocide of its inhabitants just like Joshua alleges happened to the peoples of Canaan. And then there is the way the church and every other American institution has profited materially from slave labor and the exploitation and plundering of black wealth. (Google 15 major corporations you never knew benefitted from slave labor; look up medical experimentation on black people.)
White supremacy in the church doesn’t always wear a white sheet but can regularly be found in the sanctuary. Unexamined whiteness endures in the sanctuary, in the halls, on the walls, and yes even on the altar in the sacraments of the Church, in biblical interpretation, understandings of God, Jesus and ultimately effects Christian identity and its expressions: theology, liturgy and iconography. When the images of God, Christ, the angels, the saints and the faithful are white, and only white, white supremacy is at work. When those images are all that children see, even when their Sunday school and vacation bible school curricula include pictures of black and brown children – because Jesus loves us all – but maintains an unchallenged white norm for Jesus and biblical characters, white supremacy is successfully passed down to another generation. White supremacy blinds, distorts, cripples. It obscures the image of God in the scriptures, in the church, in the world and particularly in black and brown bodies. Jesus is Jesus. But Black Jesus is extra.
Historically, the whitening of the holy served to identify the holy with whiteness against all others explicitly and intentionally. Some of what is at stake in talking about the biblical world as “the Middle East” and not the confluence of Africa and Asia, is claiming ancient Israel and its theological significance and ancient Egypt and its cultural significance as white. Ancient Israel and its peoples, like its languages are Afro-Asiatic. The African and Syrian tectonic plates come together in the Great Rift Valley in which the Jordan River lies. The valley runs from the Nile River Valley in Egypt—which is in Africa—to the Zambezi River Valley in Zimbabwe. Ancient Israel straddled the Jordan with the bulk on the cis-Jordan, African side, i.e. Galilee and Jerusalem, and only the territorial holdings of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh on the trans-Jordan, Syrian side. Contemporarily the Jordan is the boundary between Israel and Jordan and the West Bank and Jordan so that Israel and the Palestinian territories are all on the African side.
Contemporarily white iconography continues the work of whitening the scriptures (as did its classical forbears), without the active reflection of those whom it shapes. It is of course, not a sin to see the holy in yourself and those like you. Seeing God in your image and only in your image makes it hard to see those who are not like you in the image of God; it is even harder when nothing in your experience has every portrayed God unlike you.
In many churches the Blessed Sacrament is white and only white. Is it any wonder everyone else is other? Of course some churches use dark bread, and have multicultural art and icons whether their people are people of color or people of pallor. I’m talking about the dominant construction of God in the Church, in our nation and in the Western dominated world, those places where Christianity coincided happily, prosperously and intentionally with slavery and colonization and in which the cry of Black Lives Matter is all too often muted to All Lives Matter or combatted with Blue Lives Matter.
There is a direct line from whiteness to domination in and out of the Church. Decentering whiteness requires centering black and brown iconography – not adding a piece or two or more, but dethroning white jesus and casting him out as the idol of white supremacy that he is.
[The text of this post was adapted from two of my prior public lectures at predominantly white churches.]