Yesterday we watched the sentencing of a white woman, a former cop, convicted of murdering a black man named Botham Jean in his own apartment, unarmed, eating ice cream. She received the very minimal sentence of 10 years following which the brother of the murder victim gave her a big hug and said he forgave her. Many Christians applaud that hug saying it was an extraordinary act of grace on his part. Having never walked in his shoes I will not judge him. However as a white woman, also a former cop, and Christian theologian I will judge the way so many of us in the white community are so quick to applaud black people for forgiving white murderers. We did it following the Charleston nine and here we go again.
We are quick to point to the way in which Jesus forgave his own killers even as he suffered on the cross and we hold that up as the model for victims to adhere to today. But wait a minute. Is that fair? As we usually do with Bible stories we cast ourselves in the role of Jesus but really white people in the U.S. are the Romans in this story. We are the crucifiers not the crucified, the defenders of brutal empire who perhaps feel a little guilty at the scene of yet another lynching taking place in our name. As such we hear “father forgive them” as good news. Even though we have killed Jesus and brutalized his people we need not really fear hell. Even the victim himself does not hold us accountable. We are innocent. We did not know what we were doing. Good news right? Wrong.
Forgiveness without repentance is what theologian Dietrich Bonhoefer, quoting Adam Clayton Powell, called cheap grace. It lets us believe we are off the hook for our evil without demanding any real change on our part. In the case of the murder of Botham Jean cheap grace lets us white people maintain our sense of innocence and goodness without first facing up to the role we all play, knowingly or not, in maintaining systemic racism. In this case it allows us to avoid looking at the particularly brutal history of black men and white women. We don’t have to think about the thousands of lynchings, unjust crucifixions, that happened in our country due to black men being unjustly accused of raping white women. We don’t have to think about the way in which white women to this day are seen as fragile and innocent (particularly if they are or make themselves blond) while black men are perceived as threatening and dangerous even when they are in their own homes eating ice cream. In other words we do not need to see let alone repent of our sins. But is that the gospel? Is that grace?
I say no. Let’s look at the “father forgive them” scenario again. Jesus of Nazareth who lived as an oppressed Jew under Roman occupation is, like many before him, being crucified as an enemy of state. (Side note- All of you chomping at the bit to inform me that Jesus’s crucifixion/lynching was “not political” because he was “dying for our sins” need to hold off until you read some of my upcoming posts about the racist roots of Anselmian substitutionary atonement theory. All of you who likewise want to blame “the Jews” need a lesson in the history of Christian anti-Semitism. All of you who similarly want to say “we are all equally guilty as sinners regardless of race” need to read a history book. Have I covered all the loopholes? If not I will get back to them. Today we are talking history.) So Jesus has been persecuted by Romans all of his life for preaching good news for the impoverished and oppressed people of Rome now hangs on one of thousands of crosses (which Dr. James Cone rightly identified as lynching trees) designed to support Roman supremacy. Notice that in every one of the passion narratives he has very little to say to his oppressors. At this point he is done talking to them. Notice also that Jesus does not forgive them. He asks God to do so. Notice furthermore that he essentially writes them off as ignorant “for they know not what they do.”
Is that what we, as white citizens of a white supremacist nation want for ourselves? Will we be satisfied by a cheap grace that comes from being written off as ignorant? Will that restore the humanity we have lost to the false and demonic systems of racism and white supremacy? Will enforced (and it is enforced) forgiveness coming from black victims of racist violence be enough to save our souls?
I am going with no on this. I don’t know about you but I want more for myself. When I see a white woman, entrusted to “protect and serve” all people who nontheless harbored racist ideas as evidenced by her texts to co-workers, who illegally entered a black man’s castle, shot him in cold blood, told a nonsense story, played Goldilocks on the stand, and got away with the most minimum sentence, I want to do better than cling to the “but his brother forgave her bless his heart” defense.
I want to hold her and I both accountable, her for murder and me for whatever way I have, knowingly or not, contributed to the systemic racism that caused the murder. I reject cheap grace. I need justice to be done. I need the gift of true repentance for my own sins of racism. I need real soul salvation. I refuse to be written off as one of those who did not know what I was doing. I am better than that and so are you.
Now that it is September 13 let me say that, yes, the bombings of 9/11/2001 were horrible. I was there. I know it. People I love still suffer from related illnesses. The equivalent violence many people around the world experience on a daily basis including that which is perpetrated on US soil and elsewhere in our name is just as horrible. I have witnessed some of that too. The only difference is attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon elicited global sympathy. The rest goes unnoticed not because it is less severe but because it happens to people whose oppression goes unnoticed. Yes I suffered as a New Yorker and a first responder but nothing about my suffering was or is unique in any way. It is part of what everyone in the world goes through, some more than others, due to our fallen human condition. Therefore I will not participate in any efforts to turn “911” into a bigger deal than the global violence and oppression of which it is merely a symptom. The US did not change on that day, although we could have, and neither did the world. Bombs still drop. Death squads still operate. People still disappear. Torture still happens. People still starve. People still needlessly die. Voices still go unheard. Hope is still hard to come by. If I manage to contribute one drop of hope to this hurting world sometime before I die it will mean immensely more to me than all the “thank you for your service” messages I ever received for just doing my job on a lousy day.
Although Christianity’s Afro-Asiatic roots cannot be denied, much of what is now practiced and taught throughout the world is a westernized version of the faith that came much later and was designed in whole or in part to promote global white supremacy. This is obviously not the teachings of Jesus. A faith that began with the teachings of a brown skinned, Afro-Asiatic, Jew whose own people were colonized by and suffered under Roman occupation, became a religion whose now dominant form supports similar forms of oppression. As such it is not a message of hope and liberation for this life and the next but a tool of racism, white supremacy, and empire. There are historical reasons why this came about. Fortunately, there are also ways of de-colonizing this thinking in a way that better reflects the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and brings us all closer to justice, reconciliation, and faithful Christian communion with God and one another. White supremacy is not the gospel. We can do better.
In this chapter, I will provide some context regarding my own social location and what brings me to these questions, define white supremacy, outline some of the history behind the way the teachings of Jesus became distorted by the interests of white supremacy, describe how slavery and systemic racism in the United States affected the preaching and teaching of the gospel, and summarize the ways in which this version of Christianity was spread to West Africa and elsewhere as part of western colonization. Finally I will make some constructive proposals about how theological educators of all nations can help to correct this false narrative and move forward to a decolonization of theological education in West Africa and across the globe.
Who Am I?
In any theological discourse, social perspective matters. It is therefore important to identify the social location of the speaker/ author. This is mine. I am a white woman, an American Baptist theologian and theological educator from the United States. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to teach on a global level in various places in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. I currently serve, in alternating years, as visiting professor of theology at the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary in Paynesville, Liberia and at the Pwo Karen Theological Seminary in Yangon, Myanmar under the auspices of the American Baptist Churches International Ministries. The observations in this chapter are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the American Baptist Churches at large. That said, I am not alone in my thinking that slavery and white supremacy compromised western theology. After all, our own denomination came about because of a debate Baptists had about whether or not slave-owners could be commissioned as missionaries. That this was ever a real question speaks to the way in which systemic racism impacted our tradition. Let me describe how I see this operating today.
What Have I Experienced and Observed?
While teaching systematic theology in Liberia, I had occasion to teach about the work of my mentor, the late Dr. James H. Cone and his theological claim that God is black. I shared with the class my conviction that Cone was correct. God is black. A student asked “How can you as a white missionary say that God is black?” Another student asked “Does that mean you hate yourself?” These questions deserve a response. First let’s be clear, blackness in the sense of Cone’s ontological blackness is not only about skin color. It is a state of being or, as Cone himself put it, Being black in America has very little to do with skin color. To be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are. […] Therefore, being reconciled to God does not mean that one’s skin is physically black. It essentially depends on the color of your heart, soul, and mind. “
When I say God hates white supremacy I am not saying God hates me as a fair skinned person. I am saying God hates the system of white supremacy I was born into, often benefit from and serves to separate me from most of humanity. God is calling me to turn away from ontological whiteness and to be converted to solidarity with black people and all others who struggle for liberation, and to reclaim my own humanity. In other words, I believe that only a black Jesus can save white people just like only black Jesus can save all people.
What is White Supremacy?
White supremacy is the belief that the white race is superior to other races and therefore, white people should have power over all other people. There is a deep-seated and complex system of ideologies that serve to justify this position, beginning with the ideological construction of race itself. The roots of white supremacy are quite ancient but it’s most blatant theological expressions come from 18th and 19th century Europe and the United States. It is codified in institutions sadly including much of the Christian church which serve to perpetuate and maintain the social, political, and historical dominance of white people. Because white supremacy is systemic, it is not the same as mere personal prejudice. As Critical Race Theory reminds us, all racism is prejudice plus power. Often this means institutional power. One form of institutional power is the power of religion, specifically religious doctrine that is used by those with the most influence to affect laws and social institutions in ways that benefit them.
Because it is so deeply embedded and so wide spread, white supremacy is not confined to what are usually thought of as more “extremist” groups who openly state their belief that the white race is superior to others, although they do exist and sadly appear to be growing in numbers. White supremacy also operates in less blatant or visible ways within social institutions. In fact, people can perpetrate white supremacy without even being aware of it.
That means well meaning white missionaries and theologians like me could teach a theology we learned in the states that, unbeknownst to us, was developed to support slavery and may not be a faithful depiction of the good news of the gospel. That is why critical thinking is so important. We need to not only know what doctrines are out there. We must also have an idea where they came from. Only then can we make an informed decision about whether we should pass them on. Let’s look at some examples.
How Has White Supremacy Affected Western Christianity?
If the idea that white people are superior to others can somehow be coded into the belief system of a dominant religion then not only is the system of white supremacy generally supported, but the oppression and dehumanization of non-white people is guaranteed. Sadly that is exactly what happened. The United States was founded as a predominantly Christian slave state. Think about that for one minute – a predominantly Christian slave state. One might think such an enormous contradiction could not be reconciled but it was. Numerous theologies were developed in order to do so. Some examples include the Myth of Ham or the belief that Noah cursed Ham (Actually the Bible states Noah cursed Canaan, but we are not exactly talking about careful exegesis here.) and that Ham represents the black race that is forever destined to serve the white race. Another example is the teaching of the mark of Cain as black skin.
Needless to say, these doctrines require a very selective and questionable interpretation of the Bible. Aside from the problematic exegesis behind the material used to justify white supremacy, all of the social justice teachings in the Bible that might make enslaved people want to demand their freedom and claim their humanity, had to be ignored or removed, sometimes literally. “Slave Bibles” were published for the exclusive use of enslaved Africans. In order to try and avoid rebellions, pro-slavery Bible publishers carefully removed all mention of God acting in history to liberate oppressed people, not only from personal sin, but also from systemic social injustice. Doing that meant taking out about 90% of the Old Testament and 50% of the New Testament. In other words, more than half of the Bible is about some form of social justice.
In a similar manner Christian preaching was adjusted (to say the least!) to permit and promote white supremacy. At first Christian leaders argued that enslaved Africans should not be baptized because, if they were, they might get the idea that they had souls and should not be enslaved. Others argued that Christianity could actually be used as a tool of power and control over enslaved Africans. Preaching on the plantation by white preachers and black preachers who were being watched by white slave-owners, invariably emphasized texts about obedience like Ephesians 6:5 “Slaves obey your earthly masters” and anything pertaining to the virtues of subservience. Salvation was depicted as a strictly individual and other worldly affair. Freedom in Christ had nothing to do with freedom in this world.
Of course this is not how enslaved Africans saw themselves. They experienced God as one who could help them in this world as they struggled for liberation from earthly oppression, not only in the life to come but here and now. As scholar of religious history, Dr. Albert J. Raboteau described it, “It is not surprising that the uses to which slaveholders had put the Bible would leave some slaves to distinguish their own experiential Christianity from the ‘Bible Christianity’ of their masters.” Nonetheless, as foreign as white supremacist theology may have seemed to oppressed people, it became very wide spread among the white majority. As theologian Jeannine Fletcher-Hill puts it, “No group has done more in defining public meaning of the gospel than white scholars. And no group has done more to corrupt its meaning, making Christianity seem compatible with white supremacy.”
In like manner, the imaging of Jesus in artwork as almost exclusively white that began in Europe and continued in the U.S. was not innocent. It was not simply a way of wanting a Jesus to look “more like us.” It was a deliberate effort to associate divinity with the white race and, conversely, evil with all non-white races. As put it, “The image of the white Jesus affirms for white people that whiteness is God and it teaches everyone else that they should submit to whiteness as if it were divine. White images of Jesus have been used repeatedly to subject nonwhite populations to the system of white supremacy. The white Jesus engenders spiritual colonialism which is often the precursor to the literal colonialism of land, resources, and labor.” In fact, that is exactly what happened.
How Did White Supremacist Christianity Affect the Mission Field and the Colonization of Africa?
The nineteenth century saw an enormous colonial occupation of West Africa by both England and the United States. Along with this colonization project came a missionary effort. As Guyanese Scholar of African history, Dr. Walter Rodney stated in his groundbreaking work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa “The Christian missionaries were as much part of the colonizing forces as were the explorers, traders and soldiers… missionaries were agents of colonialism in the practical sense, whether or not they saw themselves in that light” (Rodney,1972: 277). In a similar vein, a famous quotation often attributed to Jomo Kenyatta reads, “When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”
To be clear, I am not claiming that every single western missionary to West Africa in the nineteenth century was there for a consciously colonialist reason. What I am saying is that they were trained in a theology that came about as a way of justifying white supremacy, whether overtly or covertly. Therefore it is important to think critically about what they taught and decide what to keep and what not to keep as we seek to decolonize theological education.
Moving forward: How Can We As Theological Educators Work Toward Decolonizing Theological Education in West Africa and Elsewhere?
So how can we as theological educators help with this decolonization process? I have several suggestions. Firstly, let us educate ourselves about the history of theological ideas, particularly those associated with the perpetration of white supremacy and make sure this information is included in our teaching whether in the academy or the local church. Secondly let us re-examine all the biblical social justice teachings that were literally ripped out of the slave Bibles and subsequently de-emphasized or ignored, (Exodus, the Hebrew prophets, the gospels, and Revelation and more.) Thirdly let us re-consider the way we teach and preach the virtues of “obedience and submission” in social context. Of course obedience and submission to God is a Christian virtue. Obedience to oppressive earthly “masters” is not. Finally, let us think about the nature of salvation. Jesus of Nazareth taught about salvation in both other worldly terms, namely hope for eternal life with God, and earthly terms, namely a call to practice justice for the “last and the least” among us. (Matthew 25 ) In other words, salvation has both a personal and a social dimension. White supremacist and related colonialist theology will never address this social dimension, but it is fundamental to the gospel and needs to be taught.
Some questions for discernment and discussion:
1. Do you generally agree that much of Christianity has turned away from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth? If so, in what way(s)?
2. Do you generally agree that over the centuries Christianity has come to represent the interests of the powerful over the weak? Why or why not?
3. Do you generally agree that global white supremacy has impacted Christianity? Why or why not?
4. How can we distinguish between the genuine good news of the gospel and false doctrines designed to protect power and privilege?
5. How can we adapt our teaching methods to facilitate the “decolonization of the mind?”
Let’s clear something up shall we? I am a Christian and an ordained American Baptist pastor and I have earned a PhD in systematic theology and I teach the same and I support equal rights for LGBTQIA+ people including marriage equality and yes I have read the Bible. It is tragic to me that, when many people see the Christian part of my profile their first thought is I must be anti-gay like they are and right off start sending me homophobic propaganda in my inbox. They don’t think “oh she is Christian. She must be a compassionate person. Let us talk about how to be kind to others.” No. The first thing that comes to mind is “oh. She is Christian. She must hate ‘homosexuality’ (the sin, of course, not the sinner, heaven forbid) so let me send this little ‘God hates gays. Tell all your contacts.’ ” message.
Is it me? Have I been less than transparent about my beliefs and loyalties or is there something more basic happening, namely a major hijacking of the Christian faith on a massive scale?
How sad is it that the good news of a man named Jesus of Nazareth who sided with the poor and oppressed and the outcast and gave them hope – never once mentioning “homosexuality” has come to this? It is times like this I question even calling myself Christian anymore, not for the reasons my enemies would give, namely my departure from their understanding of orthodoxy, but because Jesus’ message has been lost in the institutionalization of religion and turned into the exact opposite of what it was meant to be. His promise of heaven became a “get out of hell” card for those who continue to create hell on earth for others.
He was crucified by the Romans as an enemy of state and is now being re-crucified by Christians who want to use his name to render his message irrelevant.
This is why I stay mad.