An Open Letter to White American Christians

My fellow white American Christians:

On the soil of indigenous people’s nations, our forebears planted a version of Christianity, and they planted the rhizome of racism.

They  brought that rhizome to America and planted it along with all the wonderful aspirations expressed in the opening of the Declaration and the Preamble to the Constitution. That rhizome has crowded out and stunted the growth of the national aspirations.

Bamboo with rhizome

Racism is like a bamboo rhizome. Once planted, its roots grow and grow and grow and take over the landscape. Over the past 400 years, white Christianity and racism intertwined. Like a couple married for more than half a century, they have become one twisted branch, so that it is no longer possible at times to know for certain where one ends and the other begins.

As so many Christians have said so eloquently, from centuries ago to the past few days, racism is sin. It is the antithesis of the Way of Jesus. But alongside the doctrine that racism is sin, white Christianity planted racism, cultivated racism, benefits from racism.

The work of eradicating racism, the work of separating Christianity from racism, is centuries overdue. Centuries. And we white Christians have a vital role to play in digging up this root our white forebears planted and from which people of color continue to suffer.

For the sake of explanation and brevity, I’m going to shorthand some history. The following is not the whole story, but we all need to know this outline.

Jesus of Nazareth was a Palestinian Jew who led a small group of followers within Judaism to live according to God’s law as summed in the commandments to love God and neighbor and as refracted through the justice messages of prophets such as Isaiah, Amos, and Micah. Jesus prayed for the Empire of God which would disrupt and supplant the Empire of Caesar. Jesus was murdered by the Roman authorities for insurrection, for the Reign of God was an enemy of the Reign of Caesar. After his death, his followers claimed God resurrected Jesus. His followers kept alive Jesus’ counter-imperial message, which grew into a movement that in a short while had spread throughout the Empire.

In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity as the imperial religion, and the course of Christianity in world history was flipped. The message meant to subvert the Empire and its ways became an element, and then an essential expression and ally, of the Empire. The work of social justice in a grossly unequal and unfree empire was transformed into a divine mandate for social order and the support of hierarchy in church and society.

That alliance between the secular and spiritual “swords” held, more or less, well into the Reformation and the 17th century settlement of religious wars in Europe. That alliance was critical during the so-called Age of Discovery, from Columbus to the English colonists, when imperial Christianity was exported to and planted in the Americas. A late 15th century pope divided the world between Spain and Portugal and declared that all newly discovered lands without Christian populations shall be conquered in Jesus’ name. This act is known as the Doctrine of Discovery and was one of the reasons used, even by Protestants, to take the land of indigenous nations as their own.

While not all colonists sailed to the New World with holy causes, many did. None came with holy aspirations more than English Puritans who fled to the “howling wilderness” to conquer souls and lands in the name of Jesus. They were joined by Anglicans who settled in Virginia, the Carolinas, and the Caribbean.

Despite regional differences among the colonies, uniting characteristic across the miles included white Christian people claiming a right to the land, believing they were doing something new (enlightenment and holy commonwealths in New England, re-founding an Athenian, slave-labor based republic in the South), participating in the slave trade, and benefiting from slave labor.

And they, the white leaders of the colonies, thought they were developing a nation primarily for white people, especially Anglo-Saxons—and male ones, at that. And Christian. They set up laws and social systems, and utilized the Christian religion, as tools to create a white Christian nation. All this was a new kind of Constantinian establishment, certainly a Constantinian alliance between Christianity, whiteness, social hierarchy, and good order. The energy and mandates of white Christian establishment religion is embedded in the dogmas of American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny.

Some of the white Founders knew slavery was wrong. But they wrote about the injustice of slavery while holding slaves and white supremacist views. One argument was that slavery would die a “natural” death if we just gave it time. But many preachers taught that alleged racial differences and even the institution of slavery were God-ordained rather than social constructs. It took a Civil War over two centuries after slavery was introduced to end chattel slavery, but racism found new and, in some ways, even more powerful expressions. Black codes. Jim Crow. Then there was the construction of whiteness per se, including hyper-Anglo presentations of Jesus in church and society. And largely segregated churches.

Time per se will not reduce racism. When Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his brilliant “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963, he was responding to white “moderate” clergy who claimed they agreed with the ends of the movement but that King was moving too fast. “More time” was the white mantra. Dr. King politely said, “Hell, no.” Today, I’m often reading younger activists voicing an updated version of “justice postponed is justice denied.” That update says: “I’ve lost hope in the ability of white people to work for freedom and equality. They want to keep their privilege, keep the system rigged for them and against us. As it has always been in America, so shall it be. Time to enact a different strategy from the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s.”

Maybe we are finally at a different moment. God, I hope so. I hope we are at the moment when the majority of us white Christians do see that gross inequality drains the potential of America’s promises, that Christianity used by the government as a tool of division and of white evangelical Christian supremacy is dangerous for the country and disastrous for Christianity, that we the American people do have better angels than the ones currently on display, that we can be more of Dr. King’s “beloved community” and less a republic of white America-first bullies.

Here is what I think is required of white Christians today. This is a list of our work, in order to be decent allies with people of color.

  • Claiming “I am not a racist” is a non-starter. Are you actively participating in anti-racism efforts? By way of confession, it has taken me a good while to realize that “being one of the good ones” is not the same as engaging anti-racism work. This bamboo root will not dig itself up.
  • Have you been involved in an intentional deep-learning process to understand your own whiteness and the privileges that whiteness conveys in American culture?
  • Learn and change our narratives about what Christianity is and what this nation is. If you’re testifying that Christianity is primarily about claiming Jesus as Lord and Savior as the end rather than the beginning of faith, and that America is exceptional in God’s eye, please learn more of the story. Just like all the Tulsans who say “No one taught about the 1921 Race Massacre when I was in school,” there were many darker motivations, behaviors, and events in American history that were not taught when I was a child. I’ve had to re-learn American history. Maybe take a strategy from Christian nationalists: don’t rely on public schools to teach all that needs to be taught about American history. Teach it in church, too—the whole story, including angels and demons.
  • What is the state of the conversation about race in the church you attend, and who is participating in that conversation? We can’t neutralize the toxin and heal the soil without doing the hard-ground shovel-work of talking.
  • Is your congregation involved in issues such as mass incarceration, policing, environmental justice, food deserts, ZIP code disparities in life expectancy, health care access, equity in community development, public schools, or reparations? If not, what is the anti-racism work you’re doing?

Sometimes we white people have acted as if we don’t know the bamboo root is in the ground and as if we don’t see the stalks growing among our most valued values.

Sometimes the root is exposed and no one with a heart and soul can miss the invasive plant that is choking the better crops we could be harvesting, like justice, equity, peace, and well-being. Today is one of those latter times. It is time—past time, way past time—to chop down the plant, dig up the roots, compost Constantinian white supremacist Christianity, and plant something more healthy and Godly. For the sake of Christianity. For the sake of the nation. For the sake of our neighbors. And for the sake of our own souls.

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If you’re interested in reading book-length treatments of the subjects I mention above, here are a few starters:

Edward Blum and Paul Harvey, The Color of Christ

Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground

Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth

Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America

Jill Lepore, These Truths

Cornel West, Democracy Matters

Image credit: XIIIfromTOKYO / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

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