The first time I taught about race in the classroom, I arranged the course around two historical protests: Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s crusade against lynching and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Nazis. The course’s main goal was to articulate the connection between the way of Jesus and justice as a means to live faithfully into the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Historically, Christians who see the connection between Jesus and justice are different than Christians who do not. Christians who miss, or deny, the connection between Jesus and justice are vulnerable to misunderstanding Christianity as a pursuit of righteousness, understood as individual piety. They may even use theology to justify practices of cruelty, or their apathy, about the suffering of others.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a Christian who made the connection between Jesus and justice. She argued that faithfulness to Christ is made evident in our social interaction with one another. Hence, Christians should be appalled by the experience of blacks in America, especially with lynching. Her opposition was primarily white Christians who described black people as immoral and deserving of the treatment they received from whites. Her white Christian opposition understood humanity and community to be calibrated according to an interpretation of Jesus as the template of ideal human beings. Accordingly, Christian communities get romanticized as places populated with ideal human beings who reflect a pursuit of individual morality in a community of righteous individuals. Yet, in a society organized by race, ideal humanity is always white. Race has calibrated dominant streams of Christianity according to the goals of white supremacy rather than allowing the gospel to calibrate human social interaction toward justice. Christianity scrubbed of justice turned Jesus into a white man, and the gospel into a message of individual morality, calibrated to the language of virtue derived from Jesus as a fetish of idealized white masculinity.
Many students came to that class shaped by a pursuit of Christian community derived from the fetishized white Christ. They were mostly white evangelicals and they struggled to understand why Christians should talk about race. By the time we turned to Bonhoeffer, the students couldn’t recover from their anxiety that was stirred by focus on a black woman who made an explicit connection between Christian faith and racial justice.
I learned to begin the semester with Bonhoeffer in order to navigate white Christian anxiety over race. Bonhoeffer was white, which helped mitigate their anxiety, but he also connected Jesus and justice. Bonhoeffer talked about the dangers of a politically idealized humanity and community in Life Together when he said, “God hates visionary dreaming. It makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself.” He was referring to Hitler’s goal of a national community based on an idealized Aryan human. Bonhoeffer recognized the pursuit of ideals as a problem that faithful Christians must address. The alternative to ideals is recognition of the needs real neighbors have for justice, and acknowledgement of co-humanity in concrete social interaction where we are called to love one another as Christ has loved us — not ideal people, but real people as co-humanity, in daily social interaction.
Racism is a historical construct of idealized humanity. It deforms Christian understanding of Christ, of co-humanity, and of community. If the church is to be faithful to Christ, to teach and practice love of one another in a society still sick with racism, it (we) must be un-done by the gospel. We must be re-calibrated to healthier norms that speak the language of Jesus and justice.