Last December I wrote about a letter Dietrich Bonhoeffer sent to his friend Erwin Sutz in 1934 as the German church was succumbing to National Socialism and Hitler’s regime. In it, Bonhoeffer considered the struggle for the church against the forces of nationalism and ethnic purity.
And while I’m working with the church opposition with all my might, it’s perfectly clear to me that this opposition is only a very temporary transitional phase on the way to an opposition of a very different kind, and that very few of those involved in this preliminary skirmish are going to be there for that second struggle.
I’ve thought a lot about these sentences over the past year, about how Bonhoeffer remains prescient for this decisive moment faced by white Christians in this country. We too have entered a “second struggle” for our Christian witness and it must look different than the initial resistance to White Christianity’s support for Donald Trump and his policies. Before we can imagine the second struggle, I should explain what I mean by White Christianity.
In the appendix to the biography Frederick Douglass wrote in 1845 he described the differences between White Christianity – what he called “slaveholding religion” – and the “pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ.” Because he loved the latter, Douglass hated “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” He went on:
Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Could any thing be more true of our churches? They would be shocked at the proposition of fellowshipping with a sheep-stealer; and at the same time they hug to their communion a man-stealer, and brand me with being an infidel, if I find fault with them for it. They attend with Pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgement, mercy, and faith. They are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy. They are they who are represented as professing to love God whom they have not seen, whilst they hate their brother whom they have seen.
Douglass reminds us that the instinct by white Christians to ignore and distrust those who share their faith but not their race – a dynamic hideously displayed during last year’s presidential election – has a long and contemptible history.
We shouldn’t imagine White Christianity simply as every congregation comprised of white people; it is, rather, heir to the slaveholding religion Douglass so accurately described. The attributes of that deviant Christianity have been passed down through generations: White Christianity chooses its gate-keeping sins while, in practice, tolerating the destruction of People of Color and their communities; it is expert about intricate nuances of particular theologies while remaining ignorant of the lived realities of Christian neighbors who cannot or will not assimilate to whiteness; it organizes itself powerfully around partisan issues while ignoring its ongoing complicity in the oppression of its neighbors, including those who confess Christ from outside the bounds of whiteness. White Christianity is grotesquely displayed when its adherents trust their preferred media more than the testimonies of racially diverse saints. White Christianity is the legitimate decedent of Douglass’ slaveholding religion precisely because it finds its ultimate authority and identity in whiteness rather than Christianity.
This malicious distortion of Christian faith centers on, in theologian Kelly Brown Douglas’ words, “the White Christ” who, “allowed for (1) the justification of slavery, (2) Christians to be slaves, and (3) the compatibility of Christianity with the extreme cruelty of slavery.” In truth, this anti-Christ has never been unveiled and rejected by the recipients of that old slaveholding religion and so his blinding influence continues unabated with disastrous effect.
That white Christians continues to support a president who is claimed by white nationalists, supremacists, and nazis should be all the evidence anyone needs that White Christianity places racial solidarity far above ecclesial unity. Time and again its spokesmen excuse the president’s sinful rhetoric and oppressive policies while simultaneously discounting the fears and suffering of other Christians: Native Americans whose lands continue to be stolen, who are killed by police as often as are African Americans; immigrants from the Middle East, Mexico and Central America who are profiled for harassment and deportation in ever more frightening ways; black communities targeted for unaccountable and militarized policing, disenfranchised from voting yet again; Americans of Asian descent whose cultural and ethnic particularities are rendered invisible to a gaze that sees only perpetual foreignness. White Christianity is willfully blind to those who suffer under the president about whom they believe, as one of its leaders has said, that “God’s hand intervened… to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control of our country.”
But the vulgarities of this past year could obscure something important about White Christianity which is that it is possible to forcefully oppose this presidency and its increasingly visible instances of white supremacy and still fit comfortably within its boundaries. There are forms of White Christianity which protest the most obvious expressions of racism while quietly benefitting from the racial hierarchy. It’s possible, likely even, that one can fiercely resist this presidential administration – self-consciously as a Christian – while tacitly contributing to public school segregation, community displacement, income inequality, and a skyrocketing racial wealth gap- each a symptom of a racial caste system that, regardless of one’s enlightened politics, advances the aims of this nation’s ancient slaveholding religion. By some measures progressive white denominations are even more segregated than the Evangelical ones most associated with our racist president. As an inoculation, liberal Christianity is far too weak for this hereditary sickness.
White Christianity cannot be contained by denominations or ideologies; it is rampant wherever majorities of white Christians of all theological persuasions and partisan perspectives are found.
White Christianity, then, is any expression of Christianity which, in practice, places fidelity to the aims and assumptions of whiteness above solidarity to the Body of Christ. And because whiteness disguises itself as the country’s neutral foundation, to renounce White Christianity white congregations must explicitly proclaim that Jesus is Lord and that whiteness is not. And, because white supremacy is woven into this nation’s systems and psychology, white Christians must work out their salvation with fear and trembling by disavowing our illegitimate inheritance of power, wealth, and – by every possible metric – supremacy.
Bonhoeffer wrote his letter to Sutz believing the struggle for the German church had been lost. It wasn’t that the church was no longer worth fighting for; neither did he walk away from his faith as some American Christians have been tempted to do this year. If anything, the coming years would show how far the young theologian was willing to go to prepare the church for a future devoted to Jesus alone as Lord, a seemingly impossible task that was fueled by his restless faith. But the German church was lost to Bonhoeffer and he would no longer fight to save it. The swastika would soon be added to the German church’s symbols and the aryan paragraph barred any Jewish person from a position of authority in the churches. Church leaders were lining up in support of the Nazi regime and its charismatic leader. There was, in Bonhoeffer’s view, nothing within those corrupted ecclesiastical paradigms worth contending for. In hindsight the decision seems obvious but to most of his contemporaries there was nothing predetermined about Bonhoeffer’s trajectory. In the slow boil to crisis, his response was the exception.
A similarly pivotal moment has arrived for white Christians. In the past it was possible – if not truthful – for many of us to gloss over our tendencies toward nationalism, the inaccuracies we embrace about this country’s history of racial inequity and white supremacy, our partisan priorities that always held racist underpinnings, the schools we founded to separate our children from public (integrated) ones, and the missionary priorities which sent people around the world while ignoring – or, as Douglass’ contemporary Ida B. Wells pointed out, lynching – our African American neighbors. But this president has made it impossible to excuse these actions as having been acceptable within their times. Because those times are now our times and it is clear that the underlying ideology of supremacy and racial hierarchy remains as deeply entrenched now as it was then.
The struggle for White Christianity must be abandoned. The president has embraced white nationalism as his god and White Christianity has supported him at every step and tweet. As long at its countless representatives will not renounce their primary racial allegiance there is no reason to expend time or energy within its sanctuaries, seminaries, conferences, publishing houses, or anywhere else its presence overwhelms all others.
This doesn’t mean that White Christianity can be ignored. When compared with Frederick Douglass’ “pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ,” this deviant form of the faith has amassed immeasurable wealth and cultural power. Black churches, for example, have long known that interacting with White Christianity and its representatives is an inevitable part of existence in this country. Especially for those of us who are white, interacting skillfully with white Christian culture and institutions is perhaps one of the roles we play for our sisters and brothers who’ve long suffered its malevolence. A friend of mine, a white pastor, says he continues to show up in these spaces not with any hope of rescuing White Christianity but to do his best to mitigate the damage it inflicts on those he serves. This, I think, is exactly the right posture. We struggle not to save White Christianity but to blunt its violence.
If, as Bonhoeffer did with the German church, we concede the irreparable status of White Christianity – something many American Christians did a long time ago – where then is our second struggle? For Bonhoeffer, this struggle would be characterized by suffering.
Simply suffering is what it will be about, not parries, blows, or thrusts such as may still be allowed and possible in the preliminary battles; the real struggle that perhaps lies ahead must be one of simply suffering through in faith. Then, perhaps then God will acknowledge his church again with his word, but until then a great deal must be believed, and prayed, and suffered.
Suffering, through unblinking obedience to the commands of Christ as found in the Sermon on the Mount, is what Bonhoeffer anticipated after the struggle for the German church was abandoned. If we are willing to consider it, this form of suffering – induced by discipleship to the crucified Jesus – may provide a lens through which to reckon our coming struggle. I can’t pretend to know how this second, suffering struggle will be experienced by those who accept its invitation, but I can imagine some possibilities.
A person who awakens to her place within White Christianity must choose between regressing to its destructive lie or stating her opposition. The latter is surprisingly difficult. This past year I’ve watched many white pastors and Christian leaders voice their opposition to the racism latent within their churches and organizations only to withdraw to vague spiritual truisms upon being reprimanded by this president’s Christian supporters. I’m sympathetic to their decision, yet we need to be clear about their decisions: They have placed the comfort of their fellow white Christians over the well-being of the Body of Christ. I’ve been there and can testify that this is one of White Christianity’s powers, the pressure to grant racial whiteness superiority over shared eucharistic fellowship across race and ethnicity. I’ve retreated more often that I care to admit.
But the decision to publicly renounce White Christianity is necessary because one’s silence will always be interpreted as acceptance. This moment, and the long and peculiar history behind it, has left us no neutral ground. If white Christians are going to reject White Christianity for the good of the Body of Christ, it will come with the instinctive cost exacted by a defensive dominant system. The betrayal will provoke varying levels of opposition, suffering even. It won’t be the severity of suffering we have inflicted on others of course. I imagine, instead, Jesus’ sobering promise to his followers in Luke 12 that discipleship to him will lead to painful divisions, “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” We shouldn’t search out such painful divisions but they will become increasingly inevitable in spite of our attempts to live peaceful lives. After all, the peace pursued by the political and cultural allies of White Christianity is one that exacts a wicked cost upon the psyches and flesh of Christians of color. Those who reject this false peace will themselves be rejected.
The second struggle will be one in which white Christians who have been discipled into a racialized stupor come to identify with the suffering Christ and their suffering ecclesial family. Theologian James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, points out that many American Christians, accustomed to suffering this nation’s scorn, have always known that “white Christianity was fraudulent.”
I and other blacks knew that the Christian identity of whites was not a true expression of what it meant to follow Jesus. Nothing their theologians and preachers could say would convince us otherwise. We wondered how whites could lie with their hypocrisy – such a blatant contradiction of the man from Nazareth. (I am still wondering about that!) White conservative Christianity’s blatant endorsement of lynching as part of its religion, and white liberal Christians’ silence about lynching placed both on the outside of Christian identity.
Like Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells before him, Cone argues that because White Christianity worships the “White Christ” it cannot be identified with the historic, suffering Jesus. The indictment cuts through religious conservatives and liberals alike. Any expression of the faith that places race above fellowship with Christ’s Body must be abandoned by those who willfully enter this second, suffering struggle. The white Christians who do so are not making a unique or prophetic claim; we are very simply aligning with sisters and brothers who’ve always understood the heretical nature of White Christianity.
“Whites today,” writes Cone, “cannot separate themselves from the culture that lynched blacks, unless they confront their history and expose the sin of white supremacy.” This is where our struggle lies, along the repenting road where we finally confess our ancestral sin. Here we find a company of saints who’ve never been deluded by White Christianity’s strange promise that faith can be built on plunder and exploitation. Within this company we encounter the crucified Christ.
Claiming, as I’ve done, that white Christians must choose between White Christianity or the Body of Christ is not unique. Neither is it especially insightful. As long as there has been a United States there have been those like Wells and Douglass who have made this case courageously. The Reverend Francis J. Grimke is another. In 1898, as lynching and Jim Crow laws terrorized African American citizens in the south, he preached a sermon from his Washington D.C. pulpit, “The Negro Will Never Acquiesce As Long As He Lives.” In it he lamented that, despite these well-known acts of terrorism, in white churches “the pulpits of the land are silent on these great wrongs.” He went on:
This is the charge which I make against the Anglo American pulpit today; its silence has been interpreted as an approval of these horrible outrages. Bad men have been encouraged to continue in their acts of lawlessness and brutality. As long as the pulpits are silent on these wrongs it is in vain to expect the people to do any better than they are doing.
Despite the plain truth spoken by countless women and men like Rev. Grimke, White Christianity has hurtled forward, unabated in its perverse disregard for most of the church. When given the choice to renounce racial idolatry for genuine fellowship, white Christians have almost always chosen the former. But now, in the form of our demagogue-like president and the white supremacy churned up in his wake, we are being offered the choice again. Yet despite the bleak light of the moment, the likelihood of some kind of suffering will compel most of us to return to our blindness. Some will find theologically twisted ways to acquiesce to – if not support – the political forces exacerbating and exploiting racial segregation and oppression. Others of us will find comfort in our loud ideological opposition to the president and his policies while continuing to benefit from the status quo.
If there is anything at all distinct about my argument it is simply this: White Christianity cannot be redeemed. It must be renounced. This is the painful but necessary aim of the struggle for those who, having been stirred from slumber, refuse to close their eyes. I fear this suffering struggle, fraught with tender divisions and uncertain futures, will prove to be a bridge too far and that, as Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend, “very few of those involved in this preliminary skirmish are going to be there for that second struggle.”
Even so, the choice remains and despite our long history of selfish and destructive decisions, our responses have not been determined for us. The suffering Christ and his prevailing church remain open to all who disavow false gods, including the racial idols and ideologies that have poisoned our hearts for as long as we’ve imagined ourselves to be white.
Header image: Sunday School in Harlan County, Kentucky, 1946.