Religion and Race

This spring, when inflammatory comments by Rev. Jere­miah Wright—Sen. Ba­rack Obama’s retiring pastor—dominated talk radio, TV, and the blogo­sphere, race once again surfaced as a front-burner issue in the 2008 run for the presidency. From slavery to segregation, America’s tragic past demands a robust theological ac­count. As we reflect on race in the 21st century, it is vital that we turn once again to a great prophet of racial justice of the early 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois. Edward Blum’s thoughtful and readable W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet is vital to not only thinking, but theologizing, through our current moment, where we are witnessing the advent of an anti-racist/pro-reconciliation pro­phetic Christianity in North Ameri­ca.

While the Civil War solved the problem of slavery in the United States, the problem of racism rages on in American public life. In his earlier work, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and Amer­i­can Nationalism, 1865-1898, Blum argued that after the Civil War the country reconstituted itself in whiteness. This led to the cultures of segregation and lynching that Du Bois critiqued in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Born and raised in rural Massachusetts after the Civil War, Du Bois went on to become the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He lived for more than 90 years and was a prominent editor, professor, civil rights activist, and author, best known for his 1903 work The Souls of Black Folk. Blum’s book presents Du Bois anew, not just as a poet or politician but as a Christian prophet. Du Bois was deeply spiritual; he wrote prayers for his students, he attended Congre­gational, Methodist, and Episcopal churches, and readers of his works frequently felt moved spiritually. Working in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, Du Bois spoke out courageously with a clear moral vision through his books and on the pages of his magazine, Crisis. The lynching tree became the site of his most strident criticism and most creative theologizing.

For white racists the lynching tree was a place to legitimate and consolidate their white privilege. White racist Christians often saw themselves as agents of God’s action, redeeming the South and sanctifying the nation. Demonizing the black man was critical to maintaining a white supremacist mythology. Sadly, this mythology captured the religious imagination of many evangelicals in postbellum America.

AT PRECISELY THE moment that the white mob sought to experience collective regeneration through violence, it was sowing the seeds of its own death. The pure evil of these extra-legal lynchings began to turn the stomachs of white moderates with a conscience, often through reading Du Bois’ columns in Crisis. Southern whites who wanted to claim the mantle of evangelicalism through their participation in the lynching of blacks were instead transformed into the imperial Ro­mans—they became Pon­tius Pilate and the Roman centurions who crucified Christ, changing themselves from Christ’s disciples into Christ’s killers.

While the white mob read lynchings as texts of black sacrifice for the sake of a white Christian nation, blacks read them as persecution narratives of an oppressed people. Blum writes, “By associating black victims with the biblical Christ, black writers turned the white supremacist cosmology on its head. They sought to reveal lynchings for what they really were—evil mob murders committed against innocent African Americans by bloodthirsty and unchristian whites.” Seeing Jesus Christ as a black messiah who was killed in a manner similar to lynching, hanging on a cross, prophetic black thinkers sought to unmask the logic of violence that provided Christological structure to this supremacist regime.

Du Bois placed lynchings within another Christo-drama, where Jesus the messiah is black. In his Crisis articles “The Gospel According to Mary Brown” (1919) and “The Son of God” (1933), as well as the short stories in Darkwater, Du Bois discusses the cross and Christ to present a message that in the midst of suffering, violence, and inhumanity, African Americans can mediate salvation. Du Bois is not seeking to bless or sanctify redemptive violence; rather he is attempting to find a theological way out of the problem of suffering.

In another short story, “The Crucifixion of God,” Du Bois de­scribes humanity’s journey into the wilderness and eventual death, ending the story with an unfulfilled crucifixion in the heart of God: “Wherefore God called his Son and sent him forth to writhe in the Almighty forest to be crucified and commanded him saying, ‘Thou shalt be crucified and may not die—behold thy crown of thorns.’” In connecting God’s suffering to the suffering of black Americans, Du Bois anticipated the rise of black theology in the late 20th century. Yet Du Bois’ subversive readings of lynchings would only find true life through their embodiment in the political movement to end lynching.

With roots in the line of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Du Bois, and Ida B. Wells, a prophetic tradition of black Christianity embodied a third option to the split between liberals and fundamentalists that plagued an early 20th-century white Protestant modernity. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement would emerge as a radically Christian public theology, permanently disrupting the white theological hegemony that sought to suppress and repress its deepest prophetic impulses.

White evangelicalism, which saw a defense of the nation and redemption of the South in the lynching of black men, mistakenly identified the polis with Christianity. As a result, white evangelicals read Christian imagery racially. In contrast, black Christianity saw living into the equal and reconciled relations of the gospel as the primary task of Christianity. The close identification of the life and death of Christ with that of the black lynching victim was made not to justify suffering, but rather to inspire Christians to live out their ideals in a world that is filled with God’s love and justice and knows no violence and suffering.

Which one of these models is more evangelical? If we really want to understand the evangelical display of faith in our midst, in which of these two trajectories do we find it? n

Peter Heltzel is an assistant professor of systematic theology at New York Theological Seminary.

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