Why Christianity Cannot Fix Racism

As protests against the murder of George Floyd have spread across the country, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick recently appeared on Fox News to propose his own solution for ending racism. While stating that Floyd’s death and the resulting unrest break his heart, Patrick was quick to attribute the problems facing the nation to a lack of religious devotion, along with the predictable insinuation that this absence is particularly strong with the political left. He went on to explain:

You cannot love your fellow man if you don’t love God. And we have a country where we’ve been working really hard, particularly on the left, to kick God out. We need a culture change to address this racism. You cannot change the culture of a country until you change the character of mankind. And you can’t change that unless you change the heart, and for billions of us on the planet, we believe you can’t do that unless you accept Jesus Christ or unless you accept God. God has been left out of this equation through all of this and we need tremendous healing.1

Patrick’s words undoubtedly echo the sentiments of many American Evangelical Christians. Those that believe they have been born again often closely associate their salvation with a transformative life experience, and a number of those on the more conservative or evangelical side of this spectrum take this transformation to be unique to their faith. Thus, the logic becomes that if it takes accepting Christ to really become (or want to become) a good or righteous person, then the world as a whole will be unable to find a common good while a large number of its inhabitants are yet to accept Christ.

There are several reasons for seeing this view as misguided, however, and in this piece we will focus on three. History does not support the notion that professing Christians have all been anti-racists, racism is not just a matter of the heart, and this understanding of Christianity has its scriptural and theological issues as well.

Know Them By Their Fruits

Dan Patrick has openly stated that he believes the United States is a Christian nation, and he has minced no words in declaring that “To deny that we were founded on Christian principles is to deny history.”2

In fact, there is quite a lot of history disputing precisely this point, whether it’s Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter regarding a wall of separation between church and state, or the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by John Adams and ratified by the Senate with Article XI explicitly stating that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”3 But even if the U.S. was not founded on Christian principles per se, it would be denying history to deny that some of the men who founded this nation were indeed Christians.

Like many Republican Evangelicals, Patrick very likely believes the founders were upstanding Christians and model citizens. How he reconciles this admiration with the reality that many of these same Christians were slave owners who defended a Constitution that denied enslaved peoples a voice in government is something worth pondering. If they are to be admired for their faith but not for their involvement in slavery and oppression, then here is an example of Christians whose faith did not change their hearts in the way Patrick imagines.

Sikivu Hutchinson explains in her book Moral Combat that white supremacy has had a long history tied to religious identity.

Being an authentic American, an authentic white American, is deeply connected to being Christian… Thus, in the 17th century, there was intense debate about whether or not blacks could be redeemed from heathenry even if they did convert to Christianity. Both Southern and New England slave owners routinely invoked biblical scripture (with references to Africans as the accursed descendants of Ham) to justify the brutalization and exploitation of African slaves.4

Reminders of “our Christian heritage” are more than just reminders of shared religious faith when they ask us to recall or return to a time when many black converts to Christianity were distinguished from white Christians on the basis of biblical justifications like the curse of Ham. Many who owned enslaved persons, who fought to uphold slavery during the Civil War, and who defended segregation have proudly considered themselves Christians, offering similar rationalizations for their views.

One does not have to go far to find specific examples like the above, which is why a long list of names and examples will not be included in this article. There is also an all-too-familiar response to hear to this from many Evangelical Christians. Numerous instances of this can be seen on a Quora post from 2016 asking Are many Christians racist? The top three replies to this question all imply that racist attitudes and behaviors signify that someone is not a “true” or “real” Christian.

It’s often noted that this reasoning commits the No true Scotsman fallacy, where one tries to protect a generalization by defining it in such a way that it admits no counter-examples. Rather than giving a serious consideration to the information presented, the person committing this fallacy falls back insistently on their original definition, denying what they’re presented with.

From the standpoint of history, this is a difficult generalization to defend, too. In his “Letter From a Region in My Mind,” James Baldwin describes some of the complex reality of Christianity’s historical role with respect to power:

In the realm of power, Christianity has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty — necessarily, since a religion ordinarily imposes on those who have discovered the true faith the spiritual duty of liberating the infidels. This particular true faith, moreover, is more deeply concerned about the soul than it is about the body, to which fact the flesh (and the corpses) of countless infidels bears witness. It goes without saying, then, that whoever questions the authority of the true faith also contests the right of the nations that hold this faith to rule over him — contests, in short, their title to his land…

…in the realm of morals the role of Christianity has been, at best, ambivalent. Even leaving out of account the remarkable arrogance that assumed that the ways and morals of others were inferior to those of Christians, and that they therefore had every right, and could use any means, to change them, the collision between cultures — and the schizophrenia in the mind of Christendom — had rendered the domain of morals as chartless as the sea once was, and as treacherous as the sea still is. It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible; I think we must believe that it is possible) must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving.5

Of course, it’s true that there have been many Christians who have resisted oppression and fought to end inequality throughout history, but this has never been the full picture of Christianity in our world. This is a sanitized picture arguably preferred most by those believers, churches, and denominations who have similar influence and power still. And what hope is there really of confronting and ending corruption from within when we refuse to acknowledge that such a thing can exist in the first place?

As a former Evangelical myself, I know that there are those who will readily agree that even the truly saved are not perfect, and being a Christian doesn’t make you better than anyone else. That is the point, though — anyone else, an imperfect anyone, does include those with prejudice, bigotry, and racist attitudes and behavior. Why act as if someone can be saved and yet lie, cheat, steal, exhibit arrogance, selfishness, etc. but here is the exception? Jesus may have promised eternal life, redemption, and forgiveness of sin, according to Christian doctrine, but where is it promised or taught that the sincere believer is incapable of participating in or rationalizing racism?

A Bible Divided Against Itself

When trying to teach how Christians ought to respond to racism, Galatians 3:26–29 is one of the most popular passages to find cited by pastors, apologists, and religious leaders. Verse 28 declares, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This scripture frequently seems to be given as indication that Christians can’t be racist, but further context suggests that this may be a flawed reading.

Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians is concerned primarily with a controversy in the early church at Galatia that questioned how Gentiles could convert to Christianity and whether Christians should practice Mosaic Law. Galatians 3:26–29 can be read best, I would contend, as an admonishment or reminder to the church that Christians should not discriminate against their fellow Christians on the basis of who they are individually, as Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. This is about encouraging religious unity as Christians, rather than serving as a denial that Christians have the capacity to make these sorts of distinctions and discriminate on their basis.

Another passage typically quoted is 1 John 4:20, which reads:

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

It’s somewhat more understandable why many would see this verse as affirming that those who harbor racist attitudes cannot be true Christians. However, there is some theological nuance to it in how it speaks of loving God. One might wonder how you can really be a Christian if you don’t love God, but in verse 10 of the very same chapter, the author states plainly: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” This would seem to suggest that loving God is not a precondition for being saved, in apparent accordance with other scripture like Ephesians 2:8–9.

Note also that 1 John 4:20 is an interesting inversion of Dan Patrick’s comments. Patrick says you can’t love your fellow man if you don’t love God, while the author of 1 John says you can’t love God unless you love your brother and sister. In my view, the latter is a stronger statement of love because it is not conditional on accepting and loving a particular idea of God. It speaks to a faith that teaches us to “Love one another” (John 13:34) first, as we are loved, not because our salvation hangs on it but because this is what we are called to do.

Unfortunately, this is not the full picture of what the Bible has to say on acceptance and oppression. The same Bible that encourages us to love each other has many passages that have been used in defense of slavery for centuries. Deuteronomy 20:10–15 is one example of where the Bible practically commands enslavement of captured peoples:

When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

Exodus 21:1–11 discusses how enslaved persons are to be bought and sold, including making provision for a man to sell his own daughter into slavery. Passages like these often are glossed over in preference for the New Testament and the changes allegedly brought about by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Yet even there we find commands for servants to obey their masters in Ephesians 6:5–7, Colossians 3:22, 1 Timothy 6:1–4, and other scriptures. The Epistle to Philemon is a letter written by Paul to an early Christian church leader, wherein he explains that he is returning Philemon’s escaped slave Onesimus to him, along with encouragement to treat his slave more kindly.

It’s been well-documented how scriptures like these were used by American slave owners and anti-abolitionists.6 I bring them out here not to bash on Christians or anything of the sort, but to make the following point. A great number of believing Christians look at the use of these passages by anti-abolitionists and say they are cherry picking their Bibles. This is true, and yet the other side of things is much less recognized. When the focus is placed entirely or heavily on passages that teach acceptance, love, kindness, and tolerance, there is still cherry picking going on.

I won’t disagree that this form of cherry picking is at least preferable to the other kind, but surely it wouldn’t be enough to leave things there. A theology that is actually concerned with resisting oppression and fighting racism cannot ignore or whitewash these parts of scripture or the historical impact they have had on the development of our beliefs and institutions in the U.S. In an article on womanist theology, Delores S. Williams writes:

The question must be asked: “How does this source portray blackness/darkness, women and economic justice for nonruling-class people?” A negative portrayal will demand omission of the source or its radical reformation by the black church. The Bible, a major source in black church liturgy, must also be subjected to the scrutiny of justice principles.7

Whether scripture is central to one’s theology or not, it can raise many questions about the use of theology in response to racism. For Evangelical Christians like Patrick, the Bible finds a high place of importance, coinciding with the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, which regards scripture as the sole authority in a Christian’s faith and religious practice. The issue with this is that, as noted above, scripture by itself provides little insight into racial justice or guidance for “fixing” racism. This is partly because the Bible is not a uniform text that agrees with itself — having been written by dozens of different authors, living at different times and in different parts of the world. But it is also because racism is more than just a matter of conscience.

Racism Beyond the Individual

In her book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor gives the following definition of institutionalized racism.

Institutional racism, or structural racism, can be defined as the policies, programs, and practices of public and private institutions that result in greater rates of poverty, dispossession, criminalization, illness, and ultimately mortality of African Americans. Most importantly, it is the outcome that matters, not the intentions of the individuals involved.8

The evidence for institutionalized racism is all around us. Michelle Alexander has covered its manifestation in the Drug War and mass incarceration in her book The New Jim Crow. Mehrsa Baradaran documents the history of economic hardship in The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap. Richard Rothstein describes the multitude ways the U.S. enforced segregation and fought integration in his book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. In Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi provides a broad and thorough history on racism and how it has persisted in the U.S. down to modern times.

These resources are there for those willing to look and understand. A point-by-point debate over statistics is beyond the scope of this article, and often misses broader points about the extent of racism in societies, as well as the explanatory strengths a structuralist view has over a view that treats racism as exclusive to individuals.

In his 1997 paper, “Rethinking Racism: Towards a Structural Interpretation,” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva puts forward several arguments for why a purely individualistic or psychological view of racism is inadequate for explaining the full range of phenomena we see associated with racism.9

One of these arguments is that a structural view of racism allows us to make better sense of the various ways in which racism does manifest in the overt and covert behavior of individuals. Rather than being a universal phenomenon, racist behavior takes a variety of forms that are better explained in relation to the society and culture one lives in than by positing unique psychological characteristics for individual people. This is one reason why, for instance, historians and sociologists have written entire works focusing around things like anti-semitism in pre-war Germany, 19th century British colonialism in India, or segregation in the American South. These forms of discrimination, prejudice, and racism often have important differences between them that are worth studying and learning of, and these differences stand to be lost and obscured on a perspective that treats racism as exclusively psychological. This historically situates racist behavior in a way that doesn’t just paint in broad strokes of irrational thinking, but specifically draws out the harms caused by this kind of behavior to the people most immediately affected by it.

Bonilla-Silva argues that a systemic view of racism also explains how racial and ethnic stereotypes emerge, are transformed, and disappear. Such stereotypes can come out of the material conditions endured by the group, from ignorance of the group, or distorted views on the nature of the group. But once they emerge, they are related to the social position of said group, and these stereotypes disappear when that group’s status comes to more closely mirror the status of the dominant racial or ethnic group in society. The example given here is how stereotypes of the Polish, Irish, and other groups have changed over time in the U.S., to the point they have almost completely disappeared. In viewing racism as a problem of strictly irrational thinking, an individually-oriented perspective on racism struggles to explain the social nature of racial/ethnic stereotypes.

Finally, a third argument Bonilla-Silva puts forward is that a structural understanding of racism accounts better for the contemporary reproduction of racial phenomena. Where racism is taken as a matter of personal belief, racial phenomena are often explained in reference to a distant past, and the proposed “solution” is education. Yet in spite of increased efforts at this, through decades of what some would term social progress, racial phenomena persist in contemporary societies. A systemic view of racism looks instead at the real hierarchies and relations among racial groups in society as its point of reference. This not only allows us to make better sense of the contemporary nature of racial phenomena, but explains why education has not proven to be the solution many have believed it would be. On a structuralist interpretation of racism, the only “solution” is to eliminate racism’s systemic roots.

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor stated in the quote at the beginning of this section, with institutional or structural racism it is the outcome that matters, not individual intentions. This doesn’t seem to be denying that individuals have played some role in shaping the policies, programs, and practices in our institutions. What is rejected is that addressing racism at the level of individuals and their beliefs will have much, if any, impact on what has already been enshrined in and proliferates in our institutions. Treating it in this way also seems woefully neglectful of the reality that our beliefs are shaped in the cultures and societies we live in.

Faith in Practice

Is Christianity able to ‘fix’ systemic racism?

I would say Dan Patrick’s brand of Evangelical Christianity is not, for the historical and scriptural reasons given above, and because his faith so clearly centers its concerns on the heart and the individual. Not to be dramatic about it, but institutions do not have hearts, they do not have consciences, and — Supreme Court rulings aside — they are not people. It would be frankly naive to assume that even if changing the hearts and minds of everyone that works in an institution was possible, that it would fundamentally change the functioning of the institution itself. This is simply not the way institutional change occurs. Often those changes are fought hard for, even in the wake of overwhelming support, and decisions made today can have consequences that ripple out for years to come.

However, we need to take Sikivu Hutchinson’s words into serious consideration, too, along with the wider history of Christianity and the church. In America specifically, Christianity has long been the dominant religious faith. It has occupied a position of influence and power while black men and women have been enslaved, segregated, denied their rights, unjustly incarcerated, and murdered. This same influence and power was likely part of what made it possible for Christian abolitionism to become the force it was in ending slavery. Yet this is not and never was the full picture of Christianity’s role during these times. Hutchinson reminds us that American Christianity has long been part of the system and has played its own part in upholding systemic racism.

Again, this does not mean all Christians are racist, nor does it mean that Christianity itself is inherently racist. But I share Hutchinson’s skepticism about Christianity — even liberal varieties — serving as any kind of effective antidote to structural racism in the U.S. You don’t solve systemic problems by pledging devotion to what is not hyperbolically called one of the pillars of the system. While that may be obvious to some in the case of Patrick’s white Evangelical Christianity, it can be much harder to disentangle American Christianity from its systemic roots than many probably realize. Assuming that disentangling might not be hopelessly fraught with problems to begin with.

This is only to speak of Christianity as a belief system, a tradition, and an institution, though. It’s not to say that Christians themselves don’t have a voice to give or a role to play in resisting oppression and combating systemic racism. It is to say that this is very different from waiting on or praying for God/Jesus to touch the hearts of racists in our world, however. It is to say that a fight often looks very different from a revival.

Is it possible to find that voice and play that role in a way that supports racial justice in America only by turning first to God, as Patrick surmises, or is the way of doing that more in keeping with the instruction to love our brothers and sisters first, as in 1 John 4:20? One of those usually requires accepting, if not focusing on, a divine being and its commands, a religious text and its doctrines, and so forth. The other puts community first, implies that we first listen to how others want and need to be loved, and participate in that with them. The pivotal issue for most of us is going to be what we choose to do, as opposed to what we say we believe, and for American Christians this may come to a question of how one understands and lives by their faith.

 


 

Sources:

1. Ed Mazza, Texas Lt. Gov Dan Patrick: Racism Won’t Stop Until We ‘Accept Jesus Christ,’ Huffington Post (June 4, 2020). Retrieved July 27th, 2020.
2. Ross Ramsey, At Festival Opener, Patrick Makes a Spirited Conservative Pitch, Texas Tribune (October 16, 2015). Retrieved July 27th, 2020.
3. Steve Mount, Treaty Between the United States and Tripoli, USConstitution.net (January 24, 2010). Retrieved July 27th, 2020.
4. Sikivu Hutchinson, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, (Infidel Books, 2011), p. 8.
5. James Baldwin, Letter From a Region in My Mind, New Yorker (November 10, 1962). Retrieved July 27th, 2020.
6. Noel Rae, How Christian Slaveholders Used the Bible to Justify Slavery, Time (February 23, 2018). Retrieved July 27th, 2020.
7. Delores S. Williams, Womanist Theology: Black Women’s Voices, Religion-Online.org. Retrieved July 27th, 2020.
8. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, (Haymarket Books, 2016), p. 8.
9. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Rethinking Racism: Towards a Structural Interpretation, American Sociological Review, Vol. 62 No. 3 (June 1997):  465-480.

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