My prior post focused on the perspective of race and the Roman Catholic Church. In this post I’ll explore race from a perspective that would apply to any Christian, while also offering this as grist for reflection for any reader, regardless of your belief system.
I began my research for this post with the illusion that I might be able to keep politics out of it. But the evidence is simply overwhelming: historically, and perhaps especially now, Christianity, race and politics are intricately enmeshed in America. More on that later.
Jesus was not a white man.
Rev. Billy Graham acknowledged this. Jesus was almost certainly either black- or brown-skinned. Past attempts to prove his whiteness have long been discredited, while the preponderance of credible studies have upheld the fact that he was surely not white.
This is an inconvenient truth for many Christians. So much so that, in the face of clear evidence to the contrary, it is a white Jesus we see portrayed almost universally – from stained glass windows to Hallmark cards. What does this persistent misrepresentation suggest about the operative Christian view of race?
One other item of historical note: Christian churches, particularly in the South, were home to stridently racist beliefs and practices. Racism permeated the congregations, including of course Ku Klux Klan members. Between 1882 and 1968, 4,743 Black people were lynched in the U.S.. Many of those occurred on Sundays after services, when families were already gathered. Two birds, you know. Postcards depicting the lynching were sold; souvenirs including body parts were also hawked. And the cognitive dissonance required to attend these events back-to-back was ignored.
When wealthy plantation owners began to cast enslaved Africans as “Other,” this synced readily with the centuries-old Christian tradition of branding any non-Christians as “Other,” particularly in the racialization of Jews and Muslims.
There is copious additional evidence about the historical intertwining of religion and racism in this country, but our time here is brief! (See Resources below, particularly James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree)
A suggested litmus test:
For a Christian, any world view must be solidly rooted in the person and the teachings of Jesus Christ. The most salient evidence for understanding this foundation must be the “new” testament which includes his story and his lessons. The whole of these scriptures testifies to a way of being with one another: not mere tolerance, not a saccharine niceness, not arms-length charity, but whole-hearted, unconditional love. No exceptions noted. This is especially true of the “red words” in many bibles – that is, the words actually attributed to Jesus himself – in effect, his quotes. They should provide the most stringent litmus test.
I sought to apply this “red word” test to Christianity today, and this is where I continually encountered politics. Let me summarize the path that emerged from my research:
Donald Trump has a history of court-proven racial discrimination in his business dealings prior to his presidency. He is widely criticized for intentionally stirring racial animus among his followers, and for policies that negatively impact racial minorities most severely. Even a Fox News poll (which would typically skew in Trump’s favor) showed him at a 75% disapproval rating among Black voters. A sampling of numerous polls show that the vast majority of Americans consider him racist.
Donald Trump has extremely strong support among fundamentalist Christians (e.g., 70% of evangelicals who regularly attend church support Trump). Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr., founder of ultra-theologically-and-politically conservative Liberty University, is a very outspoken supporter. Many evangelicals view Trump as a divine gift, sent to promote the corrections God intends for American society. Some fear that if he is not re-elected, America is doomed.
When I attempted to apply the “red words” litmus test here, I discovered a consistent, virtually unbroken pattern: In any articles or videos in which a Christian was supportive of Donald Trump, I did not once see “red words” quoted. On the other hand, when I came across articles or videos by Christians who were critical of Trump, “red words” abounded. The Beatitudes (Matthew 25) are frequently referenced.
Where does this lead? What to conclude?
We have a leader widely considered to be a racist, implementing policies that many consider racist, enthusiastically backed by a significant number of Christians who see him as God-sent. Can this be the same God who sent Jesus Christ? Or can it be that these Christians who worship a white Jesus are finding a hero who allows them to proclaim their Christianity and at the same time preserve their racial bile, be it conscious or unconscious?
Are we back to the same cognitive dissonance that allowed worship to be followed closely by lynching?
Regardless of intentions, their sincerity aside, the impact of Christians who think and act this way is to reinforce systemic and institutional racism, primarily through the election of politicians with racist attitudes and racially biased policies. The true litmus test then, is not just beliefs, but ACTIONS that promote racial equity.
Complicity of this sort is – well, sinful.
Comments? Observations? Experience? Push-back?
Resources (a small sample of sources consulted):
“Jesus is black. Get over it” Premier Christianity (1/30/17).
“5 Responses from Billy Graham on Race, Social Inequality” Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (1/21/19).
The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone.
“The Klan, White Christianity, and the Past and Present” Religion and Culture Forum (6/26/17).
“Gospel According to the Klan” Cold Takes by Kelly J. Baker.
Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith (2001).
The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby and Lecrae Moore (2019).
“Why Black Lives Haven’t Mattered: The Origins of Western Racism in Christian Hegemony” Challenging Christian Hegemony (2/5/15).
“Evangelicals support of Trump remains high but other religious groups are less supportive.” Pew Research Center (3/18/19).
“The Belief that Trump is a messiah is rampant and dangerous” Psychology Today (5/28/19).
Annual Banquet for United Christian Leadership Ministries; Saturday September 28, 5:30 pm, Diplomat Party House. Guest speakers: Loretta Scott, City Council President, and Joseph Morelle, US. Rep. for NYS 25th Congressional District. UCLM ANNUAL BANQUET FLYER
Racial Equity Advocacy Leadership (REAL) Team meeting, Tuesday October 8, 6:00 – 8:00. Open to the public. Rochester City School District, 131 W. Broad St.
On Friday night, October 18, at 8:00pm, Reggie Harris and Greg Greenway will perform their “Deeper Than The Skin” show at Greece Baptist Church. In this moving presentation, Reggie and Greg share stories and songs, and explore attitudes and emotions around issues of race. More info here.
United Christian Leadership Ministries and the Grater Rochester Police Community Partnership will host a Police Summit on November 9, 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.: Exploring NYS Diversion Programs and how they impact communities of color – arrests and mass incarceration. Details here.
On Monday November 18, Ibram X. Kendi, author of the best-seller “Stamped from the Beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in America” will present on his new book: “How to be an Anti-Racist”. Details here.
Assumption Parish in Fairport is conducting a series focused on the US Catholic Bishops’ Letter on Racism, six Wednesdays beginning October 2. Details: COTA Program and COTA, COR Racism Program — Speaker Bios.
Check out the array of events including workshops offered by 540WMain.
10 thoughts on “Christians and Race Part II: A Litmus Test”
GREAT ARTICLE FRANK! Very enlightening!
A great read, Frank. I hear your voice on the page. Your example of the hypocrisy of Sunday services followed by Sunday racist murder is particularly notable. Can’t think I’ve ever come across that connection in the Christian media. So thanks for the research references.
And thank you, Bob. Appreciation coming from you means a lot!
Perhaps we might remind our evangelical friends that history is rife with false messiahs, that prey (pray on?) the vulnerabilities of a community and may frequently exploit those vulnerabilities for his or her own gain. Powerful essay, Frank. Charlie Kantor
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Very true Charlie, thanks.
For partnership with kindred spirits, check out the group “Red Letter Christians”, https://www.redletterchristians.org/what-is-rlc. “Taking the Words of Jesus Seriously.”
Thank you for that, Rebecca – I wasn’t familiar with it.
Your best yet, Frank. Will be hard to forget the dichotomy of attending both church and a lynching on the same day and also the use or lack of use of the “red words”.
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I can’t forget it either.