The White Church Has Been a Steady Oppressor | Sojourners

The White Church Has Been a Steady Oppressor

Image via eberhard grossgasteiger/Unsplash

The introduction of ”Christianity” into what we now call ‘North America’ was genocidal by nature. The religion was offered to indigenous tribes and African slaves as the only alternative to being killed, and they were often enslaved and killed anyways.

People were bought and sold and raped and abused. Land was stolen. Countless lives were ruthlessly destroyed by people who claimed to follow the ‘Prince of Peace.’ This was how Westernized Christendom was built: violently and as a weapon to help establish white-dominated social structures of colonial rule.

Generations have passed, but our society is still cursed by these evils. The vast majority of legislators, judges, law enforcement officers, CEOs, and school teachers are white, and people of color must live within environments where white people are complicit in maintaining their dominant “status quo” and systems of supremacy.

This structural racism has resulted in perpetual wage gaps, achievement gaps, and wealth gaps. The New York Times reported that “for every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold just $5.04.” To show these disparities in even more appalling terms, Forbes quoted a The Institute for Policy Studies report that stated “between 1983 and 2013, the wealth of the median black household declined 75 percent (from $6,800 to $1,700,) and the median Latino household declined 50 percent (from $4,000 to $2,000). At the same time, wealth for the median white household increased 14 percent from $102,000 to $116,800.”

From colonial rule to present day, racism has remained a constant, and so too has the influence and presence of the American white church. Complicit in slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, the Japanese Internment, xenophobia, and bigotry, the white church has been a steady oppressor and rarely an ally for people of color.

So it should come as no surprise that nativist speeches, dog whistle politics, and racist sentiments would be largely supported by white Christians during the Trump era. According to recent polls, many white Christians believe they themselves are the victims of massive discrimination. And although the majority of black Americans (84 percent) think president Trump is racist, when Trump called Neo-Nazis and White Nationalists “very fine people...” or when he referred to “sh**hole countries” or called immigrants “rapists…,” or praises confederate generals, or uses rhetoric to disparage Muslims, the white church did what it always has done in the face of racism — nothing.

Rather than immediate and bold denunciations from the white church, there’s been either silence or even strong displays of support for the president. Plus, causes that generally affirm and empower people of color are attacked. For example, mainly white pastors and church leaders recently took aim at the concept of ‘social justice.’ Social justice is commonly defined as: justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. Essentially, these white churches are attacking the very ideology of anti-racism, claiming that justice, distribution of wealth, opportunity — equity — are actually bad things. They’re not. In a similar manner, people, institutions, and ideas that represent people of color are routinely disparaged by white Christians — Black Lives Matter, DACA recipients, refugee resettlements, Colin Kaepernick, “foreigners,” and President Obama continue to be vilified.

The idolatry of prioritizing partisan politics above the gospel of Christ has further exacerbated the white church’s racist complicity. Any dialogue, information, or action that addresses racism is often disregarded as being “liberal” or “fake news.” This makes the topic of “racism” unacceptable to accept and impossible to address in many religious communities that live within a right-wing ideology.

Forms of white Christianity have become a pseudo state-run religion, with nearly every presidential administration, along with members of the house and senate, identifying as white Christians. There’s so much crossover between white Christianity and the government they run, the two often blur together for mutually beneficial purposes — to receive votes, pass legislation, and maintain power. 

To reinforce the idea that this national control by white Christians isn’t bad, patriotism and nationalism serve as a convenient tool to maintain these systems of supremacy. White Christians thwart accusations of racism by saying “we’re all American” and counter that protestors and activists are being “un-American” (Colin Kaepernick), and “unlawful” (Black Lives Matter). This serves to co-opt the narrative of those who are marginalized. The tables are turned so the victims of systemic racism and inequitable social structures are villainized as “troublemakers” who disrespect both the law and the country.

White Christians benefit the most by being nationalistic and patriotic, because to do so upholds the methods of “law” that keep their societal privileges in place. So while America — it’s governmental machinations and economy — serves to continually bless and protect white Americans, it hasn’t done so for others. Incarceration rates, a vast history of enforced racism by the legislative, judicial, and justice branches of government, the mistreatment of people of color within the military, and the brutalization by police show just how one-sided our country has benefited particular groups of people because of race. As white Christians blissfully sing ‘God Bless America’ in their sanctuaries adorned with American flags, they look upon their country — and its many structures — with nostalgic pride, while others see betrayal, hurt, and suffering.

Beyond reaffirming patriotism and nationalism to idolatrous levels and aligning itself with white conservative politicians, racism is just as rampant among white progressives and “liberal” Christians. In her bestselling book ‘White Fragility,’ author Robin DiAngelo notes that “I believe white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the “choir,” or already “gets it.” White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual anti-racist practice. White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetrate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.”

White Christianity has holistically insulated itself from addressing racism. The educational and “missional” systems of white Christians offer a good example. From private Christian elementary schools all the way up to Seminaries, white Christian institutions have codified racism through its teachings, practices, and doctrines. Young Christians are socialized to think through a white-centric lens. Whether it’s history, art, theology, or entertainment, it’s presented from a “Christian” perspective of whiteness. White professors, with white students, reading white authors, watching movies by white directors, and listening to white guest speakers, “learn” how to view people of color — and the places where they live — as somehow less “Christian.” This is never admitted of course, but actions speak louder than words.

White missionaries and youth groups will be sent out to predominantly non-white locations in order to “save” others. Churches will send teams into the “rough parts of the city” to volunteer in homeless shelters, treating urban areas as spiritual pet projects. This white savior complex is best seen at the very highest levels of white Christian academia, where colleges offer an array of degrees within the fields of ‘Urban Missions’ and ‘Inner-City Ministry’ but simultaneously don’t offer any programs addressing Suburban Ministry’ or ‘Rural Ministry’ — reinforcing the stereotype that people of color are in more need of spiritual help.

As White Christians, we must return to Jesus and embrace His tenants of humility, sacrifice, service, and love. We must be willing to abandon our lust for political power, wealth, and comfort for the sake of fulfilling God’s command to love others. Jesus, who is a Middle-Eastern man who was wrongly arrested by law enforcement, incarcerated by the ruling class, and then given the death penalty by the world’s most powerful empire. Jesus went out of his way to call out the unjust social and political structures of his day. He empowered the Samaritans, children, women, lepers, the poor, and Gentiles. Yes, Jesus loves everyone, but he specifically took up the causes of the oppressed, and calls us to do the same. White church, we must abandon Caesar in order to follow Christ. God help us.