Category Archives: Racism
What happened in Charlottesville last month horrified many people in this country: Nazis marching alongside the KKK on the streets of America; street-fighting; terrorism. There was an outpouring of righteous indignation, much as there was after the shooting of nine black people by Dylan Roof in a Charleston church.
Debates raged over whether or not President Trump was right to draw attention to violence on the part of “both sides.” Are soviet-flag-waving, anti-fascist activists worthy of the same denunciation as Nazi-flag-waving, white supremacists? Is it legitimate to respond to violence with violence?
But now we have moved on. After all, we have been here before. This is the stuff of which PBS documentaries are made, though in the past they have usually been in black and white.
To be sure, much has changed. I am glad that overt racism receives such sharp denunciation by the media and by many Christians today. And yet, what bothers me is how eagerly we as a nation denounce overt white supremacy, even as we blissfully ignore the more subtle racism that permeates our cities, courts, and prisons. This has far more destructive consequences for black people than a hundred rallies similar to Charlottesville’s.
The sheer vitriol of our denunciation belies our own complicity in racial injustice for which we are so desperate to atone. We forget that even during the 50s and 60s many respectable white Christians, even in the South, abhorred violence and disorder.
Many white moderates love to signal our virtue by condemning violence and calling for the removal of Confederate monuments. Meanwhile, we go back to our comfortable white suburbs, built with help from federal, state, and local governments during waves of white flight. We go back to our good jobs, our safe schools, and our stable investments. All the while we forget how racial discrimination systemically prevented African Americans from building the same sorts of lives, leaving millions trapped in poverty to this day.
Read the rest of this article at the Reformed African American Network.
Reformation 21 has published the third part of my series on Presbyterians and the Political Theology of Race. It is entitled “Gospel Politics” and seeks to contrast King’s tendency to approach politics from the perspective of the gospel to the segregationists’ tendency to approach politics from the perspective of the Old Testament. At the heart of it lies King’s critique of the southern Presbyterian doctrine of the spirituality of the church, a doctrine that had a lot in common with a certain contemporary version of the two kingdoms doctrine. As King put it,
I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, ‘Follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother.’ … In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,’ and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.
What was King’s alternative? Whereas conservative southern Presbyterians tended to interpret the relevance of God’s natural moral law for society and politics through the prism of the Old Testament, King interpreted that same law in light of what he understood to be the meaning of the Gospel for the dignity of the individual human being.
In Part 1 of this series I observed that southern Presbyterian defenders of segregation emphasized the Old Testament as the authority for biblical norms regarding race over against the more New Testament oriented arguments of their opponents in the civil rights movement. The most prominent version of the southern Presbyterian argument was not the caricatured appeal to the mark of Cain, let alone to the curse of Ham, as we might like to imagine. It was much more sophisticated than that. It usually ran something like this:
In constructing the Tower of Babel human beings attempted to establish a socio-political unity in defiance of the natural law of God. God defeated this attempt by dividing human beings on linguistic and national lines. He then called Abraham out from the nations, and in his law he demanded that Israel likewise be separate. When the people of Israel intermarried with other nations, God punished them severely. The segregationists maintained that nothing in the New Testament suggests that God’s views have changed. To be sure, the Gospel is now universal; Pentecost is proof of that. But the unity of the church is purely spiritual and does not extend to temporal, social institutions. Thus the Old Testament remains a valid testimony to the natural law of God with respect to social institutions such as segregation.
To read the rest of this article please go to Reformation 21.
The primary problem with southern Presbyterian defenses of segregation was not that they assumed an individualistic view of sin but that they embraced a spiritualized, even neo-platonized, understanding of the Gospel. Like their Presbyterian forebear Thornwell, men like Gillespie, Richards and Smith insisted that the spiritual kingdom of God does not take concrete social expression. In other words, their political theology suffered from an under-realized eschatology even more than it did from some sort of American individualism. While this under-realized eschatology led them to conceive of the expression of the kingdom in this life in individualistic terms, it also led them to a greater reliance on the Old Testament as the best source of biblical insight regarding social and political life.
Lucas points out that the spirituality of the church doctrine did not lead southern churches to avoid speaking toward political matters; it simply made them selective in the issues that they addressed. I would make the point more specific by suggesting that the doctrine led them to prioritize the Old Testament over the New Testament as the source for political insight. The Old Testament rendered plausible the theological defense of a thoroughly communitarian and segregated vision of political life, while the rejection of the social and political relevance of the New Testament rendered its more radical and inclusive social ethics moot. Thus southern Presbyterians read Pentecost through Babel, and the unity of the nations in Christ through the division of the nations from Israel, rather than the other way around. Only by interpreting the Gospel through the law could they imagine that church membership, let alone justice within political society, could legitimately be constituted on the basis of race.
To read the rest of this article, please go to Reformation 21.
In his classic short story “Jesus Christ in Texas” (1920) W.E.B. DuBois explored what it might have looked like if Jesus had reappeared incarnate in the early twentieth century South. In the story a stranger, who a white pastor senses he has known long ago but can’t determine just where or when, secretly exchanges places and clothing with a black convict on the run from police. Falsely charged with attacking a white woman, the stranger is viciously lynched by a white mob.
DuBois describes the closing scene from the perspective of the white woman:
She shuddered as she heard the creaking of the limb where the body hung… she saw the dead man writhe. He stretched his arms out like a cross, looking upward. She gasped and clung to the window sill. Behind the swaying body, and down where the little, half-ruined cabin lay, a single flame flashed up amid the far-off shout and cry of the mob. A fierce joy sobbed up through the terror in her soul and then sank abashed as she watched the flame rise. Suddenly whirling into one great crimson column it shot to the top of the sky and threw great arms athwart the gloom until above the world and behind the roped and swaying form below hung quivering and burning a great crimson cross.
She hid her dizzy, aching head in an agony of tears, and dared not look, for she knew. Her dry lips moved: “Despised and rejected of men.”
She knew, and the very horror of it lifted her dull and shrinking eyelids. There, heaven-tall, earth-wide, hung the stranger on the crimson cross, riven and blood-stained, with thorn-crowned head and pierced hands. She stretched her arms and shrieked.
He did not hear. He did not see. His calm dark eyes, all sorrowful, were fastened on the writhing, twisting body of the thief, and a voice came out of the winds of the night, saying: “This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise!”
DuBois’s story is fiction, of course, albeit fiction that speaks a powerful truth. But in the events of this past week, beginning with the horrifying tragedy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, this story was played out in the truest way possible.
A deeply disturbed young man, filled with self-righteousness and hate, was determined to do what he could to spawn violence in return for perceived injustice. He was welcomed with open arms by Christians meeting for prayer. He was given the special seat just next to the pastor.
Near the end of the time of prayer he opened fire, murdering nine of the black worshipers in cold blood, and then turning his gun on himself. Only because his suicide attempt failed did he flee, to be captured later by police.
Those nine Christian women and men had taken up Christ’s story as their own, paying the ultimate price because they were willing to welcome a stranger. Like Jesus, they were betrayed by an enemy they had treated as a friend.
Immediately the national media and the politicians took up the appropriate battle cries, exploring the significance of the shooting for matters of race, gun control, or South Carolina’s Confederate flag. The public, liberals and conservatives alike, joined in the free for all on Facebook, Twitter, and other public fora. Evangelical leaders called for justice.
Some conservatives went so far as to bemoan the fact that the worshipers at Emanuel were not permitted to have and use guns to defend themselves. This is a completely understandable reaction. Jesus’ disciples also wanted to use the sword to defend their Lord when he was confronted by his enemies during that prayer meeting in Gethsemane. It is sobering that Jesus’ final act of healing before his death was in just this instance, on behalf of one of his enemies, a member of the armed mob who had been wounded due to Peter’s act of self-defense.
The family members of the victims at Emanuel also spurned the call to respond to hatred and violence with hatred and violence. They took up Jesus’ narrative further, speaking to the murderer himself in court:
Ethel Lance’s daughter:
I just want everyone to know, to you, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul. You’ve hurt me. You’ve hurt a lot of people But God forgive you, and I forgive you.
Myra Thompson’s husband:
You know I forgive you and my family forgive you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that he can change it, can change your ways no matter what happened to you. And You’ll be OK.
Tywanza Sanders’s mother:
We welcomed you Wednesday night at our Bible Study with open arms. You have killed some of the most prettyfullest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same… But as we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you.
How many of us would be capable of taking up Christ’s story in these ways? How many of us could offer such testimony and forgiveness?
Many of us are prepared to purchase a gun, to respond to hatred and violence with more violence, defending ourselves and the ones we love. And from an earthly standpoint the refusal to do defend oneself seems downright foolish. Jesus’ murderers laughed at him publicly because he claimed the power to defend himself but refused to do so. His response was simple: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
These brave Christian men and women of Charleston are enacting Jesus’ life and death in the most breathtaking way. Pray for them. Learn from them. This is the Gospel in action. This is Christian ethics in its purest form.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)
At the Huffington Post my friend Jimmy McCarty offers a thoughtful contrast between Egypt, which has seen its effort at democracy collapse in violence and chaos, and South Africa, which almost miraculously emerged from generations of racism, division and strife to become a democratic, multiracial, and relatively stable society.
At least one key difference, he suggests, is the role of South Africa’s first ever black president Nelson Mandela, who at age 95, has been in the hospital for the past two months. McCarty writes,
As the world watches the unfolding events in the streets of Egypt with a nervous gaze and watches the events in a South African hospital room with mournful admiration it is easy forget that it was not too long ago that South Africa was a country that political pundits were sure was going to devolve into a horribly bloody civil war (not unlike the concerns many have about Egypt today).
How did South Africa’s miracle happen? It was not by accident. And, though there may have been divine intervention, it was not “out of nowhere.” South Africa avoided civil war and established a stable, though always tenuous and in-process, democracy because its leaders, especially Mandela, were able to cast a vision of social life capable of sustaining a lasting peace. That vision can be summed up in the phrase, “We are each other’s keepers.”
McCarty goes on to outline the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, the first murder in recorded history. When God confronted Cain about Abel’s whereabouts, Cain responded with the famous dismissal, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Though not explicitly stated, we are taught in this story that we are, indeed, to be one another’s keepers. We are responsible for our fellow humans. Our own well-being is intimately tied to the well-being of our siblings, our neighbors, and even our enemies. We diminish our very own humanity when we do not act as each other’s “keepers.”
Nelson Mandela understood this, McCarty, points out. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes,
Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me. It was during those long and lonely years [in the struggle against apartheid and in the 27 years he was imprisoned at Robben Island] that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed … I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity … For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
It was based on this conviction that Mandela led South Africa in a process of forgiveness and reconciliation that is unparalleled in the events of the 20th Century.
One of the most prominent German theologians who used the two kingdoms doctrine to justify the church’s support for Hitler was Paul Althaus. Althaus was a leading critic of the Barmen Declaration because he believed that it rejected the orthodox Christian teaching on general revelation. He publicly supported the Nazi regime at least through 1937, at which point he became silent. Though he never turned publicly against Hitler, in private comments during the war he condemned Germany’s genocide of the Jews. Later he admitted that Germany had fallen under the judgment of God.
As most scholars recognize, Althaus significantly revised Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine in order to justify the church’s support for Hitler. The orthodox two kingdoms doctrine had declared that the state is called to use its authority to preserve basic justice and to uphold the created order, including the institutions of family and church. When the volkisch movement (ethnic and cultural German nationalism) began to gain influence during the early 20th Century, a 1905 regional synod of Protestant pastors declared, on the basis of the two kingdoms doctrine, that the church may not place its authority behind such ideas.
The pastor … has to place himself above nationalities. He is not a politician but a pastor of souls. His task is neither Germanization or Polandization, but the faithful proclamation of the gospel, in which he must as far as possible do justice to each nationality. (Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich, 100)
This statement approximated the appropriate interpretation of a political movement from the perspective of the classic two kingdoms doctrine: healthy distance from a political trend, accompanied by a clear affirmation of the truth of the Word of God in relation to that political trend.
Based on his experience of the volkisch movement during World War I, which had a radical impact on him, Althaus began to challenge the statement of the 1905 synod in lectures during 1916. He argued that the church could no longer be indifferent to the volkisch question because such neutrality was damaging the relationship between German pastors and their communities. In 1919 Althaus called the church publicly to reject the Treaty of Versailles. In the following years he revised the two kingdoms doctrine so as to make it conducive of church support for the great political movement of the day.
Althaus revised the two kingdoms doctrine in two crucial ways. First he argued that the Volk (ethnic and national culture) is a law of God, part of the created order, revealed in history. Indeed, Althaus insisted that the Volk was the primary law of God for modern Germany, the loyalty that trumped all other earthly loyalties. As he put it in a lecture of 1937,
The belief that God has created me includes also my Volk. Whatever I am and have, God has given me out of the wellspring of my Volk: the inheritance of blood, the corporeality, the soul, the spirit. God has determined my life from its outermost to its innermost elements through my Volk, through its blood, through its spiritual style, which above all endows and stamps me in the language, and through its history… The special style of a Volk is his creation, and as such it is for us holy…. We are unconditionally bound to faithfulness, to responsibility, so that the life of the Volk as it has come down to us not be contaminated or weakened through our fault. (Ericksen, Theologians Under Hitler, 103)
Second, Althaus carefully revised Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine in order to justify a greater political role on the part of the church, in support of the Volk. As he argued in 1935,
As a Christian church we bestow no political report card. But in knowledge of the mandate of the state, we may express our thanks to God and our joyful preparedness when we see a state which after a time of depletion and paralysis has broken through to a new knowledge of sovereign authority, of service to the life of the Volk, of responsibility for the freedom, legitimacy, and justice of volkisch existence…. We Christians know ourselves bound by God’s will to the promotion of National Socialism. (Ericksen, 86)
Althaus feared that the classic Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine rendered the church too passive in the context of the political malaise of the Weimar years. That the Weimar government was so contrary to God’s will, and that the volkisch political movements were in accord with that will, was obvious to him. He therefore argued that while Paul and Luther may not have been aware of the volkisch principle, it was now the task of theologians to revise the relation of church and state in its light. A crucial part of the church’s responsibility was to provide the Volk with leadership, organization, education, and spiritual consciousness, in close cooperation with the state. In taking this position, Robert P. Ericksen argues, Althaus turned the classic Lutheran view of the state on its head.
Althaus insisted that a biblical antisemitism was compatible with this new Christian mission. True, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female. Christians must therefore treat the Jewish Volk in accord with love. But the church has always recognized distinctions in terms of male and female, and therefore there is nothing inconsistent with the gospel about recognizing distinctions of race as well, while at the same time affirming equality in Christ.
Like many German Christians, Althaus came to see that Nazi antisemitism went far beyond the sort of “biblical antisemitism” he thought was appropriate. But by that point it was too late. The politicization of the church in its seduction by the volkisch movement, which entailed the rejection of the orthodox Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine, rendered the church incapable of maintaining its prophetic perspective towards the state until it was too late.
It’s important to emphasize that it was by revising the two kingdoms doctrine so as to enable the church to take a position on the most important political movement of the day that Althaus and others made the church vulnerable to this politicization. Despite the fears of its critics, it is precisely because the two kingdoms doctrine distinguishes the nature and mission of the church from that of the state that the church can maintain a prophetic stance towards the state. This is why Barth’s Barmen Declaration remains a fundamentally two kingdoms document.
To be sure, two kingdoms advocates should not be smug, as some contemporary Christians appear genuinely to believe that the doctrine requires pastors to be silent on any matter that has been deemed by others to be political. It is urgent that we emphasize that the church must preach the Word of God in all faithfulness regardless of what its critics may say. But that was not Althaus’s mistake. Althaus’s mistake was to believe that the church had to get more involved in politics. And it was by getting more involved that the church surrendered its allegiance to Christ.
My friend and colleague Jimmy McCarty writes a very insightful piece on why Christians with identical theological beliefs come to some very different political positions, and why quite often lived experience, and specifically race, is the reason. Jimmy has been deeply involved in churches and social circles across the political spectrum, and he tends to understand the people he is describing. He writes,
As much as many want to deny it, race greatly influences the ways that people experience life in America. Of course, it is not only race which leads to these political differences (inner-city LA is quite different from Tacoma and its suburbs in a variety of ways), but race is a strong contributing factor to these differences.
Indeed, the Pew Research Center has demonstrated that race is a consistent factor in how abortion is viewed politically and morally, even among Protestants. White Protestants view it as morally wrong and believe it should be made illegal at significantly greater percentages than black Protestants. Based on the voting patters of white Protestants, especially Evangelicals, and black Protestants, it is safe to assume that these racial disparities continue across a range of political issues.
There are a variety of reasons for these disparities, but one (in the case of abortion) is surely the history of black women not being able to control their bodies throughout slavery and Jim Crow. It should be no surprise, and is totally understandable, that many black women in America don’t trust others (especially white men) to determine in advance what should be done with their bodies. White men have raped, killed, abused, and degraded their bodies for centuries, and many black women have not forgotten it even as most white people have.
In short, race impacts the experience of every American Christian. And these experiences directly influence the politics of many of the Christians in our churches. There is no straightforward way to translate the vast majority of Christian beliefs into political policy and to hold any political position as a sign of theological orthodoxy, as is increasingly becoming the case among many white Evangelicals, is a grave mistake. And, though many would not say it in this way, there are many Christians who write off a significant portion of other Christians who are racially different than them because of their politics.
In general I agree with Jimmy, as he knows. (Indeed, kudos to Jimmy on his embrace of the two kingdoms doctrine!) There is indeed “no straightforward way to translate the vast majority of Christian beliefs into political policy.” On the other hand, does Jimmy go too far when he says that “to hold any political position as a sign of theological orthodoxy … is a grave mistake”? To be sure, orthodox Christians fell on both sides of the antebellum debates over slavery, and they also fell on both sides of the battle over civil rights for African Americans. There were orthodox Christians, such as Confessing Church founder Martin Niemoller, who voted for Hitler. There are no doubt orthodox Christians on both sides of the abortion debate too. And I wholeheartedly agree with Jimmy that we should be much more careful about judging the faith of others on the basis of their political commitments. But that doesn’t mean that on any of those political issues there wasn’t a basic orthodox Christian position.
I’m currently working on a lecture and paper on the response of the German church to the Holocaust, and it seems to me that there must be lines, there must be principles, that Christians simply will not compromise. Otherwise we simply give credibility to those who, like the “German Christian” movement, want to claim the compatibility of Christianity with blatantly evil politics. Granted, most political debates are not like this. But what if one line that we cannot cross, one principle that we cannot yield, is the obligation of the state to protect innocent life? What if those Evangelical Christians (whether white or, as in the case of the elders of my church, black) who make the pro-life position the Christian position, are right?