Another set of gun massacres have consumed the headlines and gripped our nation, including the senseless murder of physician John Cheng while worshipping in church in Laguna Woods, Calif., and the vicious killing of ten people in Buffalo., N.Y.: Margus D. Morrison, Andre Mackniel, Aaron Salter Jr., Geraldine Talley, Celestine Chaney, Heyward Patterson, Katherine Massey, Pearl Young, and Ruth Whitfield. Our nation should know these names as we grieve their tragic deaths and the white supremacist terrorism that motivated the teenager in Buffalo who killed them.
When I first heard the news out of Buffalo on Saturday, I felt a piercing pain and grief that quickly turned into righteous anger. In a chilling echo of other recent acts of white supremacist terror, a white 18-year-old drove halfway across his home state of New York to a predominantly Black neighborhood of Buffalo and killed 10 people at a neighborhood grocery store, wounding three others. The teen had also considered attacking a Black church and a predominantly Black elementary school in the area. His gun, an assault rifle he bought legally and then modified to hold more ammunition, had a racial slur written on the barrel. He posted a lengthy manifesto online stating his white supremacist motives for the massacre.
The killer explicitly linked his heinous act to the belief that Western elites are attempting to “replace” and disempower white people. This belief is at the core of what’s known as “the great replacement theory,” which weaponizes white fear and anger about the growing diversity in many Western nations in ways that have contributed to horrific violence against the Black, Asian, Latino, and Jewish communities.
The grief and trauma that I feel and that is being felt within these communities is compounded by the killings of nine Black worshippers at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., 2015; the 11 Jews killed inside a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018; the 23 predominantly Latino people killed at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in 2019; and the eight predominantly Asian women who were killed just over a year ago in Atlanta. This racist massacre, like those that came before, serves as a deeply painful and personal reminder that white rage is an ever-present threat to our physical safety, whether we are worshipping at church, shopping at a local grocery store, or just going about our day. These killings are another painful reminder that common sense gun safety reforms are long overdue, with Americans holding roughly half of all civilian firearms worldwide despite making up only 4 percent of the world’s population. And this massacre must be a resounding wake-up call about the real and present danger that white supremacist domestic terrorism poses to our nation.
Before the public outcry dies down — and isn’t it sad that we all know it will? — we must boldly and unequivocally denounce the great replacement theory and instead live out the great commandment. The great replacement theory draws on the worst of our nation’s history, falsely implying that nonwhite people are threats to our nation’s future. But the great commandment offers the best of our civic and religious values, reminding us that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves; it lends itself to a moral vision of multi-racial democracy in which everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, and religion, is equally valued.
To repudiate the great replacement theory, we must first disabuse ourselves of the idea that this hateful conspiracy theory is held only by an extremist fringe. According to polling by the Public Religion Research Institute, 50 percent of white evangelicals, 60 percent of Republicans, and 11 percent of Democrats agree with the statement that “Immigrants are invading our country & replacing our cultural and ethnic background.” Politicians like Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), and former President Donald Trump have appealed to great replacement theory on Twitter, Facebook, and on the campaign trail; Fox News host Tucker Carlson has relentlessly promoted the theory’s core tenets on his top-rated show. And even Christian leaders like Mark Driscoll have echoed replacement theory talking points about the supposed death of the “traditional” family, stating that Black Lives Matter was “dismantling the nuclear family.”
The great replacement theory is also not new; it’s simply the latest mutation of a series of myths that have disfigured our nation since its founding, including the myth that we are a chosen nation, an innocent nation, and a Christian nation — all of which have undergirded and justified white Christian nationalism. We see different versions of this idea show up throughout our history: the concept of Manifest Destiny which was used to justify genocide against Indigenous people, the Jim Crow regime of the segregated South, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in the 1970s, and more recently in the 2017 Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville where white supremacists chanted “you will not replace us.”
As I argue in A More Perfect Union, even the highly emotive “Make America Great Again” slogan that helped propel Trump to office was often used as a dog whistle to stoke white fears and grievance about the nation’s changing demographics. The problem is that this nostalgia for the greatness of our past painfully erases and ignores that our past has been far from “great” for Native Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian Americans. To so many people of color and others, the slogan comes across as an effort to maintain the primacy and normality of white people and culture; in other words, to make America white again.
During his visit to Buffalo on Tuesday, President Joe Biden forcefully challenged every American to repudiate the lie of white supremacy and great replacement theory saying, “I call on all Americans to reject the lie. And I condemn those who spread the lie for power, political gain, and for profit.” It is imperative that Biden continue to use his bully pulpit to name this threat and inspire and persuade Americans to reject this ideology that has seeped into our body politic, particularly within the GOP. I was also encouraged by the candor of Wyoming Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who on Monday tweeted: “The House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-semitism. History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse. @GOP leaders must renounce and reject these views and those who hold them.” It is long overdue for rest of the GOP to echo her courage and candor.
But this moment for bolder truth-telling is not reserved just to our politicians. White supremacy will have no place in U.S. politics and life once it has no place in the U.S. church. When church and religious leaders stay silent, we help accelerate the spread of this idea in both its overt and subtle forms. We must replace the great replacement theory with biblical truth.
First and foremost, the great replacement theory denies the imago dei (Genesis 1:27), the core belief that every person is made in the very image of God and possesses inherent dignity and equal worth. In contrast, replacement theory is super-charged by a belief in a hierarchy of human value that views white Americans as the “true Americans” and sees increasing racial, ethnic, and religious diversity as a threat rather than as a strength.
The great replacement theory also contradicts Jesus’ example that we must show a particular love for those who are deemed the “other” and the marginalized. Racism distorts and blinds us to who is our neighbor. If nonwhite Americans are perpetually considered as an “other,” it becomes easier to justify dehumanizing them and denying them the same rights and privileges as white Americans. A commitment to loving and seeing the full humanity in the “other” also serves as a powerful antidote to a racialized zero-sum worldview in which the advances made by any minority group must come at the expense of the majority — white Americans, in our nation's case. Finally, for Christians, the Apostle Paul’s teaching to the Galatian church that “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), serves as a necessary reminder that our shared identity in Christ must supersede every other identification and allegiance. White supremacy is a form of idolatry that must be dismantled.
It’s long past time to expunge the racist and antisemitic poison of replacement theory from our society — including the church. In particular, we need to call to account and genuine repentance faith leaders and their congregants who have been lukewarm in calling out racism and white supremacy in church and society.
Just as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. denounced the white moderate pastors who were “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” we need to call in faith leaders across the country to stop prioritizing the harmony of their congregations at the expense of a bold stance against white supremacy in all its forms, including the tenets of replacement theory. It is easy for a pastor (or for that matter a politician) to denounce an act of violent hatred like the massacre in Buffalo. What is more difficult but no less important is for pastors to preach and teach boldly against the heresy of replacement theory as it finds more and more traction in media, politics, and yes, even churches. It is imperative for all of use our voices to repudiate this theory while we also call people in to embracing the alternative vison of the Beloved Community where everyone is equally valued and our growing diversity is indeed our nation’s greatest superpower, not its greatest weakness.