Racial Christian America

Ward Holder
Theology Department, Saint Anselm College

16 August 2017

America’s particular sin is racism.  Some of our most thoughtful and celebrated figures have stumbled on this – Jefferson comes to mind, with his trumpeting words that “all men are created equal,” juxtaposed with his slave ownership, and exploitation of Sally Hemings.  The Civil War was fought over slavery, no matter how white supremacists and alt-right news sources pretend that it was over some other matter.

So perhaps it was fitting that the spectacle of an alt-right, white supremacist, racist demonstration was set in Charlottesville, Virginia, the town so closely aligned with Jefferson.  The protests turned particularly deadly, with a lethal attack on counterprotesters unleashed by one of the white supremacists.  President Trump spoke to the media asking for a return to order, and asking that the egregious violence from all sides be reversed, a statement he would have to strengthen as time passed and his view of the moral equivalency of protesting for neo-Nazis and for American values drew sharper and sharper criticism, even from Republicans.

Abraham Lincoln took up the issue in his second inaugural address, in which he set out the cause of the war as the issue of slavery, and then wrote, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”  Lincoln understood that reparations would be paid, even should it be in a heavenly court.

While the protests have quieted to some degree, sorting through the events and their meaning for American culturedemocracy, and Christianity will take some time.  All three were under some form of attack over the weekend.  American culture faces the question of what to do about racism and alt-right power.  American democracy confronts the question of speech – are there stricter limits which should be exercised on hate speech?  Finally, American Christianity must tackle its own questions – posed by a variety of thinkers – does Christianity require a prophetic condemnation against racism?¹

This last question is one that Christian churches across America will need to confront.  Several pastors and theologians addressed the issue in their sermons on August 13th.²  But the fog of the weekend’s events tended to obscure two issues that the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr helps to clarify.  The first was the claimed Christianity of many of the alt-right, white supremacist protesters.  Much like the original Ku Klux Klan members, there was a strong identification of the protesters with (Protestant) Christianity.  The alt-right protesters chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”  Niebuhr reminds us that there is little that is more self-righteous than religious bigotry.  In his consideration of sin in The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr pointed out that the worst form of class domination is religious class domination.  He argued that:

“The worst form of intolerance is religious intolerance, in which the particular interests of the contestants hide behind religious absolutes.” ³

It would be hard to find a more particularly apposite consideration of the facts of the Charlottesville case.  Time after time, the zealousness of the white supremacists sought the cover of their “values,” and that they were simply protecting their culture, their way of life, and their religion.  The religious tinge to the race-baiting continued throughout the weekend in Charlottesville, and lasted into the next week in social media and on the web.  

Any historian of Christianity, or any religious historian for that matter, knows the awesome and deadly power that resides in the words, “God wills it!”  Whether Crusaders marching on Jerusalem, or Islam’s march to the gates of Vienna, or the oh-so-lightly-secularized American form of Manifest Destiny, all of these give the power to the actors to do horrible things while baptizing them in the name of God’s will.  We know that.  But Niebuhr’s insight points out that this is a cover, that the real issues at work are self-interest.

We saw this time and again.  Identified through their pictures that were widely dispersed through traditional and social media, the white supremacists denied that they were angry racists, but merely trying to protect their culture and right to free speech.⁴ One claimed that as a “white nationalist,” he cared for all people. Somehow, he missed that his desire to maintain all privileges for white people would come at a cost that would be paid by others.  

While it is tempting to accuse such people as liars, that does not help understanding.  If they are obvious liars, why are they not ashamed?  If they are clearly prevaricating, why do others accept their lies?  Again, Niebuhr’s insight into the psychology of sin helps.  Niebuhr pointed out that amidst the self-love at the root of sin, humanity was always also constantly caught up in deception. Yes, deception of others, but primarily in deception of the self – to maintain the false notion of the virtue and integrity of the self.  We lie to ourselves to believe that our selfish way through the world is our right, and our due.

Faced with this, what should the church in America do?  When a lawyer came to Jesus to ask him about the greatest commandment, Matthew records that Jesus replied, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22.37-40) The church must take responsibility to speak prophetically, both to the culture, and to itself.  Whether Catholic or Protestant, high church or low, the church is called to this task.  America’s particular and peculiar sin has been racial injustice, and that has hidden under the churches’ veneer of religiosity.  The church must step forth as a prophetic voice, both to the culture and to itself.  To do any less is to accept the lie we tell, while we reject the truth Christ told.

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