“And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” – John 17:11, ESV
The relationship between Christianity and people of color in the United States has been characterized by injustice. In his classic Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass described the Christianity of his day as a “corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity.” Writing about the way that Christianity has been deployed in North America, Douglass reflects:
The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families, – sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, – leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate.
Douglass’ words are a scathing indictment of Christianity that might rankle our “post-racial” sensibilities. An immediate objection could be raised: “Yes, this is a sad part of our tragic history. Christianity has been complicit in the degradation and brutal mistreatment of people of color. However, we’ve moved past that. The church has acknowledged its racist deeds, and we now live in a world in which Christianity is at the forefront in promoting anti-racist practices.” There is an element of truth to this – today there are a variety of movements and individuals within Christianity championing racial justice: from the evangelical Promise Keepers movement in the 1990s, which made racial justice one of its main pillars, to Pax Christi, a Catholic organization devoted to peace and racial justice, to the variety of groups among Reformed churches that are devoted to anti-racism work. North American culture and its Christianity have made great strides against racism. And yet, I contend, something is wrong: Christian theology still operates from the normativity of whiteness. By this I mean that the way many Christians articulate their understanding and experience of God is through a lens that privileges white culture, white authors and white institutions. Whiteness, in this regard, is not an ontological descriptor of particular people. Rather, it is a trajectory, a movement toward a telos that aims to unjustly deprive some and unfairly enrich others.
Christian theology still operates from a normativity of whiteness.
Though there are many modes in which this could be discussed, in this essay I will attend to just one: the aesthetic. Conceiving of representation broadly, what representations of Christ and/or God (whether material, mental or descriptive) are deemed more authentic or normative than others? And how is this racialized symbolism rooted in Christianity?
IMAGINING GOD AS WHITE
On December 11, 2013, Fox News host Megyn Kelly was leading a discussion on her show about an article on Slate titled “Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore.” The author, Aisha Harris, discussed her upbringing and the confusion she felt when viewing the dark-skinned images of Santa that populated her home. Santa, her father told her, was “every color … magically turn[ing] into the likeness of the family that lived” at the homes he visited on Christmas Eve. Despite these comforting and inclusive words, Harris still felt shame at the idea that the black Santa was somehow inauthentic, a notion reinforced by popular media portrayals of Santa that always depicted him as a white male. Therefore, in an effort to combat the cultural normativity of whiteness, especially among children, Harris suggested that we “ditch Santa the old white man altogether, and embrace Penguin Claus – who will join the Easter Bunny in the pantheon of friendly, secular visitors from the animal kingdom who come to us as the representatives of ostensibly religious holidays.” Kelly began the discussion by saying her reaction to reading the headline was to laugh, finding it ridiculous. And then (lest children watching be harmed by the possibility of a nonwhite Santa), Kelly reassured her young viewers that Santa was white. After one of Kelly’s guests expressed sympathy and agreement with Harris, Kelly then said, “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change. You know … I mean … Jesus was a white man, too. He was a historical figure, I mean, that’s verifiable fact, as is Santa … I just want the kids watching to know that. But my point is, how do you just revise it, you know, in the middle of the legacy, of the story, and change Santa from white to black?”
Race, in many ways, is a Christian invention.
As an aside, Harris did not advocate making Santa black. In fact, she explicitly and clearly advocated that we move to a nonhuman (and, presumably, nonracial) Santa that could be embraced by all races and ethnicities without the negative consequence of a beloved, quasireligious figure (inextricably associated with the birth of Christ) inhabiting and therefore endorsing one epidermal reality.
Kelly’s response comports with the visceral reactions I have witnessed from my students when I display Afrocentric images of Jesus that originated in mid-20th-century black churches as a response to pictures of a blond-haired and blue-eyed Jesus common in some circles. Even when I explain the laudable intent of such images in combating notions of inferiority and pictorially depicting a Jesus who can relate to marginalized communities, I have often experienced laughter, dismissal or outright hostility at the presumably audacious notion that Jesus (God?) is not white. One is reminded here of Mayotte Capécia’s work, I Am a Martinican Woman, where she reflects upon The Green Pastures, a 1936 Hollywood film that presented Old Testament stories and featured an all-black cast. Capécia, a mixed-race woman herself, is scandalized by the film, stating, “How can God be conceived with Negro features? That’s not my idea of Paradise.”
What must be asked is the following: In these responses, what is at stake? What is it about whiteness in general and the whiteness of Christ/Christianity in particular that is so vital that even the very hint of a challenge engenders such stern opposition?
RACE AS A THEOLOGICAL PROBLEM
One of the reasons why the church finds racism to be a perennially intractable problem despite our best efforts is that the modern concept of race itself finds its origins in a theological articulation of human difference. Race, in many ways, is a Christian invention. In the late 15th century, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I conquered the last Muslim outpost on the Iberian Peninsula and inaugurated the Spanish Inquisition. Jews and Moors (North African Muslims) were forced to convert under threat of tribunal or expulsion. Many conversions occurred, but in the eyes of Spanish Christians the new converts from Judaism and Islam, though Christian in allegiance, still deviated from the normative purity of Spanish Christianity. Thus a term was needed for people who were Christians but not “normal” Christians. Raza was already a term in Spanish culture that denoted distinctions among breeds of dogs and horses. By the time the first Spanish dictionary was published in 1611 (the Tesoro de la Lengua Castellano o Española), raza had come to describe Moors and Jews as well (see Paul C. Taylor, Race: A Philosophical Introduction, 2013). Over time, raza departed from its connection to the animal kingdom and became a designating term for human difference that went beyond mere social variance. To be a different raza meant that you were, almost genetically or biologically, impure. After traversing through English and French, raza (race) came to be known as a way of distinguishing human people groups. These distinctions were not because of national origins but – in line with the idea that difference was a departure from pure blood lines – were considered to be reflected in morphological features that were epiphenomenal on an underlying biology. Thus the eventual deployment of the racial designators “blackness” and “whiteness” (as an outgrowth of colonial expansion, slavery and the need for cheap labor) was first a theological move necessitated by a demand for a way to classify those who were similar and yet inferior. In such a context, it becomes easy to understand how European symbols, products and people became the standard bearers of the image of God. For, if non-European Christians were deviations from the ideal, then the divine ideal must be European.
TOWARD A MORE PERFECT CHURCH
In his prophetic “Letter From Birmingham City Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. reflected on the subordinate role the church often takes with regard to justice. We have become, King laments, taillights that follow and no longer headlights that lead, thermometers who measure the temperature of the culture and no longer thermostats who determine it. Nevertheless there is hope. In a world reeling daily from the effects of racial divide and ethnic conflict, the church can once again reclaim its position as those who “do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, (and) plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17, NRSV).
What resources can the church summon to fight the scourge of racism still prevalent in the 21st century? Theologian David K. Clark, in To Know and Love God, highlights six theological themes that should “fuel in Christian believers a delight in cultural diversity”: the diverse creation of God, the image of God in all of humanity, the universal connectedness of all humanity, the universal offer of salvation to all of humanity, God’s desire for unity in covenant communities and the command to love God and others. Clark says the Christian worldview, rightly understood, “grounds in a variety of significant ways the ethical command that the church be the diverse and reconciled body of those in union with Christ” and affirms “all people in their cultural identity.”
Against a culture that believes true justice can only occur when one frees oneself from the dogmatic slumber of faith, perhaps the way forward for the church is to dig deeper into our rich tradition, mining it for resources that point us back to a God who created all of us different and yet one.
Duane T. Loynes Sr. teaches theology at Western Theological Seminary.
Photo: Adam Rozanas/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license