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White Supremacy and Western Christianity

It's one thing to make a formal declaration opposing white supremacy. But, Morgan Guyton points out, the words are meaningless if we are unable to recognize just how deeply white supremacy is embedded in Western culture, and particularly in Western Christianity.

The “alt-right” presents conservative evangelicalism with an easy target, but white supremacy is a lot bigger than the alt-right and pretending that it has been addressed by condemning the alt-right will only serve to perpetuate it. White supremacy is thoroughly embedded in every aspect of a theology that has been distorted for the past five centuries by the need to justify colonialism, genocide, and slavery in Jesus’ name.

Western Christianity is white Christianity, just as Western culture is white culture. The myth of America the great melting pot always meant more in the abstract than in actual practice. It was a land where all peoples was welcome, except the most recent to arrive.

Many immigrants—especially those with Italian and Irish roots—were plainly seen as inferior and depicted as ape-like in the media of that era. For these immigrants, gaining acceptance often required them to ostracize the next wave of immigrants; you became white by opposing those who weren’t.

The next wave after Italians and Irish were Chinese, who were targeted and demonized by the legal code.

The Page Act of 1875 specifically targeted Asian laborers, convicts and prostitutes by denying them entry to the United States, though its primary mission was to make immigration harder for all Asians.

Notice how the law casually lumps Asians with convicts and prostitutes—as if these are morally equivalent categories. The roots of American white supremacy run deep.

These roots, Guyton says, are the reason condemnation of overt racism doesn't begin to address the problem.

The mistake that Al Mohler and his Southern Baptist buddies make is assuming that white supremacy is fully encompassed in a sense of "racial superiority," as though the modern racial distinctions of white and black are analogous to ethnic distinctions like Athenians and Spartans or French and English. But that’s not the way race functions. White identity is built upon the myth of a universal humanity which transcends cultural particularity.

White people are not people who belong to a particular culture, but people who have successfully assimilated into the imaginary universal humanity. What makes people of color "inferior" under white supremacy is not a comparison between their culture and another culture, but rather their inability to assimilate into the universal "colorblind" humanity of whiteness. So the logic of universal humanity that Al Mohler uses to condemn "racial superiority" is actually the logic that underwrites white supremacy.

This failure to see American culture as a culture and not a generic humanity lies behind the colonialist impulses of some 19th century Christian missionaries.

Missionaries came with the attitude that all things European were superior to all things African. Most missionaries like David Livingstone and Fabri of the German Missionary Society in Namibia believed that once Africans were colonized by European countries they would be more likely to seek after Western Education and Christianity which the missionaries controlled. It was their mission to do anything necessary to convert Africans who were viewed as uncivilized and barbaric. Missionaries often failed to distinguish between Christian principles and those of the colonialists.

This attitude turned the gospel on its head. When Jesus spoke of a kingdom that was "not of this world," he meant something very specific, something his early hearers—Jews and Romans alikewould have understood. Jesus lived and taught in a nation under the control of the occupying Roman army. Many of his fellow countrymen were looking for a leader to rise up and drive out the oppressors. But Jesus had a different idea.

Had Jesus stopped after saying that “my kingdom is not of this world,” as we so often do in quoting him, that “of" would be utterly ambiguous. “Not of this world” could mean: never on earth, but always in heaven; not now in present time, but off in imminent or distant future; not a matter of the exterior world, but of the interior life alone. Jesus spoiled all those possible misinterpretations by continuing with this: “if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered” up to execution. Your soldiers hold me, Pilate, but my companions will not attack you even to save me from death. Your Roman Empire, Pilate, is based on the injustice of violence, but my divine kingdom is based on the justice of non-violence.

The concept of refusing to meet violence with violence was ingrained in the teaching of the early Christians, to the extent that many willingly chose to give up their lives rather than fight. But somewhere along the line, the balance of power turned. Today, too often, modern Western Christianity is the empireand the theology of nonviolent resistance in the face of oppressors has been replaced with something less challenging.

The critical move that white supremacist theology makes in order to erase its own sin is to turn sin into a set of abstract individualized demerits against God which must be “paid back” by Jesus’ blood rather than a demonic, oppressive ordering of humanity which Jesus’ movement of cross-bearing martyrs is established to destroy—It is a theology forged by the need to erase history. Rather than bringing us into solidarity with the crucified, Jesus’ cross functions as a giant eraser.

Guyton pull no punches as he connects today's empire theology with the overt racism of the KKK.

Only a theology that had already erased the terror of the cross and made it into an abstraction could produce a movement that used a burning cross as the symbol of its racist terror. The cross had to be emptied of its bloody brown messiah before it could be appropriated as the self-justifying stamp of white terrorism. You don’t have to burn a cross to be a white supremacist; you just have to wipe the blood off and use it as an eraser.

The difficulty the Southern Baptists had last week in condemning even an abstract notion of racism should be an alarm bell warning of grave danger for Western Christians. A Christianity that fails to take a stand against oppression is weak and insincere. A Christianity that stands with the empire is toxic.

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