Whitewashed Christianity

As somewhat of a foreword, this topic has been heavy on my heart, and it seemed like the right time to share. I wrote this paper as part of a class in my master’s program and through the encouragement of a friend, decided it was time for a larger audience. My hope is to foster real reflection, so here it is.

This past semester, the theme at TCU Fellowship of Christian Athletes was countercultural. Each meeting Monday night consisted of a message that explained how authentic Christianity is countercultural. Topics such as drinking, partying, sexual activity, drugs, swearing, relationships and the like were covered, as these are at the forefront of the life of a college student. All were discussed through both a cultural lens as well as a Christian lens. The speaker(s) analyzed what differences existed between these lenses and why they existed. In addition, not for the first time at TCU FCA, another topic was covered. This topic was racial reconciliation. As will be explored later in this paper, some would say this topic is minor compared to the others or rather, maybe hardly necessary because racism and discrimination is on the decline. It will be presented and argued that this is far from the case. Not only is there a vast racial divide in American society, but it is deeply embedded within Christianity as well, a faith founded on the call to love both God and neighbor.

The hard truth is that Christians, American Christians in particular, have been very selective on who counts as neighbor. American Christianity is more so a type of vending machine Christianity, where individuals can pick and choose what they want when, depending on desires and circumstances. This is not a 21st century phenomenon. The roots of selective Christianity in America are deeply tied to the trajectory of the nation and the very structural foundation. This means that American Christianity has been subject to racial lines throughout history for quite a while. “Sadly, however, the practice of whitewashing has subtly crept into Christianity. Whitewashing Christianity occurs institutionally and structurally when the contributions of the African Diaspora to theology, ethics, and culture are largely ignored, and the influence of people groups of European descent are accentuated” (Grant, The Witness). Thus, Christianity in the United States has been white-washed and used as a means of covering up and furthering the desires of the white cultural majority in securing power and authority.

Christian Americanism is less about Christian values than it is white American values. As much as the United States might claim to be a Christian nation and as much as it may be a Christian nation in certain lens, the two are not the same. American values include some Christian values that have been favorable to the development and security of the nation. However, this is indeed more in the vending machine way of picking and choosing values to take advantage of depending on the state of society and the current cultural trends. These values have proven to be fluid in their definitions and ever-changing in how they are applied based on the interests of the majority. History shows that Christianity and the values inherent to the faith have been twisted and manipulated in a way to serve the desires of the white majority in power. “Christianity in America has been tied to the fallacy of white supremacy for hundreds of years. European colonists brought with them ideas of white superiority and paternalism toward darker skinned people” (Tisby 24). From the conception of the nation then, there were ingrained beliefs about people with darker skin.

The dark side of human nature, in its desire to have the authority of God and to be like God, leads to the lie that some people were created with a natural superiority to have authority over others. Entertaining this lie means the message of the Gospel must be interpreted incorrectly and manipulated to fit the desires of those believing themselves to be more fit to rule and subject others to their rule. Not only subject others to their rule, but more significantly and misguidedly, believe it to be “good” for the others to be subject to their rule, that those in authority were “helping” these others they were subjecting.

“Over time, Europeans compromised the message of Christianity to accommodate slavery while also, in their minds, satisfying the requirement to make disciples…From their earliest days in North America, colonists employed religio-cultural categories to signify that European meant ‘Christian’ and Native American or African meant ‘heathen.’ …Europeans evangelized non-Europeans with the intention not only of teaching Christianity but also of conforming them to European cultural standards” (Tisby 36).

The intermingling of Christianity with white and European means those with light skin could employ Christian principles to further European culture and lifestyle. By using Christianity, the Europeans could convince themselves that they were justified or in the right to take the land of Native Americans or the freedom, dignity and worth of African Americans because they were in turn showing them the way of the faith and a better way to live. “Europeans thought Africans, like indigenous peoples, could be ‘civilized’ through cultural conformity and conversion to Christianity” (Tisby 37). In this way then, civilizing almost becomes synonymous with evangelizing. The lie clouds the truth and the excuse becomes good intentions.

It is important to consider the roots of how Christianity has become whitewashed to see how it plays out in the practice of the faith today. In the elevation of white culture, the contributions of African Americans in the growth of the faith almost always goes unmentioned and unnoticed. The truth is Europeans were not the first to introduce Christianity to Africans; long before the Europeans, Christians like Augustine, Tertullian, and Athanasius were spreading the good news of the Gospel (Tisby 37). Today, just like in the times Europeans were colonizing and engaging in the slave trade, “many white Americans assume that ‘being Christian’ means assuming the values and norms of the majority context, and some of the same members object when ethnic minorities seek to learn more about their own heritage and focus more of their effort on the betterment of their own people” (Grant, The Witness). Thus, reflecting on history and the state of society today, there “is a narrative of how some of America’s core values and assumptions and its reliance on market principles contradict and work against other esteemed values” (Emerson 1, 2). This contradiction plays out in the intermingling of American values with Christian values and a version of Christianity washed in the ideals of the white majority emerges.

Christianity proclaimed by leading white American political figures reflects more of an aim to gain favor in the eyes of the people or protect their status among the people and is not necessarily lived out by those individuals. All people are guilty of saying one thing and doing another. Men like to talk big and sound convincing but choosing to live in the way spoken of is often difficult and the inability to do so comes off as hypocritical. Politics and government put this on display for everyone to see. Men revered in history, though they have done much work to better the nation in many ways, also carry the stain of hypocrisy. It played out in their proclaimed Christian life and their actions or beliefs that did not always reflect it. For example, “Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, believed blacks were naturally inferior to whites…embraced the white supremacist idea that the white race was superior to the black race…Yet Jefferson is the same man who signed the Declaration of Independence, which affirmed ‘all men are created equal”  (Williams and Jones 20). Was Jefferson blinded to the hypocrisy of these two statements? It seems too obvious. Scales can sometimes be thick enough over one’s eyes to not see the contradiction of words and actions, but this does not excuse anyone.

The separation of the private sphere and the public sphere has further tailored Christianity to suit the interests of the white majority in keeping power and authority. It is especially prevalent today in multiple topics outside of whitewashed Christianity but was also prevalent in the argument white Christians had in support of slavery. It was claimed that “slavery was a civil or political issue, not a religious one…(this) argument was common in its day and endured throughout southern religion…those that defended the racialized status quo routinely used one form or another of this argument to silence the church’s witness on slavery, segregation, lynching, rape, and racial injustice…of course, what was true of these white Baptists was true more generally of this generation of white Americans” (Williams and Jones 9). White Southern Baptist Christians, in fear of losing their privileged lifestyles, divided Christianity in on itself. There are no separate spheres in the authentic Christian faith, no Christian self and the other self. However, the grips of greed were in deep and spheres were created in an effort to, again, tailor the faith to suit the interests of white Americans.

Christianity is often used by the white majority to achieve an end, which is not representative of what Christian principles are all about. God calls His people to love Him and love one another. Love is a choice and though tainted and manipulated by human sin, it is the posture people ought to live by in relation to others. A mishandling or complete disregard of love is evident in the European interactions with Native Americans and the white interactions with darker skinned people. Consider the following examples.

“The Virginia General Assembly, made up of Anglican men, had been compelled by public pressure to address whether baptism rendered slaves free. It had been longstanding custom in England that Christians, being spiritual brothers and sisters, could not enslave one another. Yet the economy of the European colonies in North America depended more and more on slave labor. So plantation owners discouraged the enslaved from hearing the Christian gospel and receiving the sacrament of baptism. They did not want to lose their unpaid labor and diminish their profits” (Tisby 25-26).

“indigenous people did not have the sophistication to develop their own religious beliefs. Europeans failed to acknowledge the longstanding, well-developed religious beliefs and practices of the people they met. Instead, they viewed indigenous men and women as blank slates on which Christian missionaries could write the gospel” (Tisby 28).

Each scenario presents a different way in which the Christian gospel and the messages of Jesus Christ are overtly dipped into the self-interests of the white culture and come out looking quite unlike love. Or the Christian gospel is disregarded altogether to secure financial power and security. Even those not directly involved in the rewriting of the Christian message to conform to the aims and interests of the white culture are complicit in its endurance. One does not have to be an Anglican man in the Virginia General Assembly or a Christian missionary in the early stages of the nation to be an accomplice in the whitewashing of Christianity. Just as the plantation owners were feeling the weight of their economic power and financial comfort on the line, so too do those of us today who are white and claim to be Christian feel the weight of our comfort or convenience on the line in specific scenarios and we fail to uphold the call to love our neighbor.

“White men and women have used tools like money, politics, and terrorism to consolidate their power and protect their comfort at the expense of black people. Christians participated in this system of white supremacy- a concept that identifies white people and white culture as normal and superior- even if they claim people of color as their brothers and sisters in Christ” (Tisby 16).

For authentic white Christians, being complicit in furthering a system of white supremacy should feel like a direct assault on the one loving and good God because it is. It discredits His image in his creatures and undermines the love He is and offers freely to every individual. Whitewashed Christianity operates in achieving an end not reflective of the love of God and the message of the gospel.

Americans like the sound of Christian values as a foundation for morality, but when it comes to making hard or unpopular decisions, adherence is based on or highly influenced by the current cultural trends. It is not easy nor is it promised to be easy to swim against the current. American core values, some esteemed core Christian principles and some not, end up working against each other when the conditions call for a choice. The paradox is presented under pressure.

“…just read the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) resolutions on race relations from 1845 to the 1900s and compare the numerous positive statements about treating African-Americans in a respectful and dignified way with what many Southern Baptists actually did to terrorize African-Americans simply because their bodies were not white” (Jones and Williams xxiii).

The choice was presented to white Christians pre and post-Civil War eras, during the Civil Rights Movement, today, and every moment in between. The popular position was not the one standing behind and next to African Americans in their pursuit of the same claimed American values afforded to every American citizen. However, Christianity has never laid claim to the popular cultural position. Jesus during his time on earth was certainly not a conformist. He loved those deemed unlovable and smashed cultural divides by eating with those deemed lesser. Christianity becomes whitewashed when it stops being counter cultural, when the selfish interests of a group of people take precedent over loving God and neighbor in the name of comfort or convenience.

As a way of concluding, I would like to add a note of caution as well as a personal story from a dear friend of mine. First, the note of caution is on the feeling of white guilt. In no way does the discussion on whitewashed Christianity mean to foster guilt, and I would argue that the intent and fruit of the discussion gets left in the shadows when the focus becomes on the feelings of the individual. It is indeed not about an “I” but a “we.” The purpose of the discussion is about awareness, reflection and reconciliation. It creates some unraveling of structures to better understand how we think and why we think the way we do. We can then go on to more authentically love all of our brothers and sisters in the faith and those outside of it as well, as many Christians have been doing and provide an example to us of how to do so. Let us not indulge self-righteousness by considering that guilt means we do not suffer from being complicit in whitewashing Christianity.

Lastly, a personal story…

“When I was younger, in my early teens, I started going to a Southern Baptist church that was all white, myself being the only black person. As we would learn about the different Bible stories and characters, I noticed that they were always white in the pictures. Additionally, every picture I saw of Jesus in that church, and several other churches I attended throughout my life, depicted Jesus as a white man. This affected me in two major ways. First, I assumed that that’s why white people ‘had better lives’ than most black people because I assumed Jesus was white, and I was indoctrinated through depictions of a white Jesus being the savior of the world. Secondly, as a young teenager, I got upset with my grandma because she had a picture of a black Jesus hanging up on her wall. Because of all the other pictures and stain-glass windows of a white version of Jesus, I assumed that the picture my grandma had was wrong. In a nutshell, this was an experience that I personally had with being indoctrinated by a whitewashed version of Christianity.”

Works Cited

Emerson, Michael O., and Christian Smith. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Ernest Cleo Grant IIErnest Cleo Grant, Jerome Gay, Norman Dowe, Benjamen S. Long, Angela, and Benjamen S. Long. “Whitewashed Christianity.” The Witness. October 25, 2016. Accessed May 02, 2019. https://thewitnessbcc.com/whitewashed-christianity/.

Jones, Kevin M., and Jarvis J. Williams. Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention: Diverse African American and White Perspectives. Nasvhille, TN: B & H Academic, 2017.

Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Churchs Complicity in Racism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019.

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