I recently finished reading White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, by Robert P. Jones, the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute. In that book, Jones comments about recent (2018 and 2019) public opinion survey responses from white mainline Protestants, white evangelical Protestants, and white Catholics regarding racial inequity in the United States and concludes that white Christians have been “white too long,” as Black public theologian and author James Baldwin mentioned in a February 1968 New York Times op ed column. By that, Jones means white Christians hold attitudes more in line with white supremacists than with the love and justice imperatives emphasized by Jesus and other Hebrew prophets.
I am glad Jones wrote his book. I have given copies of it to several members of the congregation I serve. I also have quoted from it during a recently concluded series of sermons about reparation for racial injustice.
However, like James Baldwin a half century ago, I do not need to review public opinion survey responses by white Christians to know what Jones has reported.
Whether Black people and other people of color are affiliated with the religion of Jesus or not, we know that white supremacy — not the religion of Jesus — is the dominant religion followed by white Christians. People of color have long and painful memories about how white Christians have claimed to love God and profess that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior in deadly ways, both literally and figuratively.
Somehow, that professed faith in Jesus did not prevent white Christians from committing genocide and land theft against indigenous people.
White Christian fidelity to the gospel of Jesus did not stop white Christians from kidnapping, trafficking, enslaving, raping, maiming, lynching and stealing the labor and wages from my African ancestors.
White Christian professions about evangelism and missions did not stop them from stealing land owned and settled for generations by Latino people.
And white Christian fidelity to the gospel of Jesus did not prevent white Christians from engaging in bigotry and discrimination against immigrant workers and families from Asia.
White supremacy is the actual religion followed by white Christians. In every period of U.S. history, white Christians have dressed up their racism and devotion to white supremacy by preaching and singing about the grace of God while engaging in bigotry and blatant discrimination toward people of color in North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia.
When white Christians feign moral and ethical amnesia, ignorance, innocence and paralysis about racial injustice, they confirm what was written in Revelation 3:1 about the church at Sardis: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.” The church at Sardis had “a name of being alive” — meaning vigorous, effective — but it was “dead” — meaning ineffective and impotent to influence the culture of the city for justice. This description fits white Christianity in the United States and elsewhere across the world.
The corpse-like grip of white supremacy and religious nationalism accounts for the overwhelming support white Christians gave Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election and continue to give Trump in his 2020 re-election bid. Like the zombies in The Walking Dead television series, white Christians will flock to the polls and vote for Trump in 2020 even though his administration separated immigrant infants and other children from their parents and deliberately targeted Muslims for discrimination. White Christians are so morally and ethically dead, they will vote for Trump despite his deceitful statements and policy positions concerning the coronavirus pandemic that have led to sickness and death for almost 200,000 Americans. A disproportionate number of the sickened and dead are people of color.
“You are dead concerning love for immigrants. You are dead concerning love for women, girls and people who are LGBTQ.”
Hence, my message to white Christian America is: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.” You are dead — meaning ineffective — concerning racial justice, including reparation for 400 years of bigotry, fraud, discrimination and hypocrisy. You are dead concerning love for immigrants. You are dead concerning love for women, girls and people who are LGBTQ. You are dead concerning love for people who do not worship God as you do. You are dead when it comes to concern for people who are not white and not privileged.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about the “deadness” of white Christian America in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail. James Baldwin wrote about that deadness in the New York Times op-ed that inspired Jones to title his latest book White Too Long. Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Howard Thurman, Fannie Lou Hamer and countless other Black people mentioned the “deadness” of white Christianity.
People of color see you, white Christians. We smell the stench and see the rot of white supremacy and religious nationalism in your sermons, songs, daily actions and societal and global efforts.
We “know your works” for “you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.”
Wendell Griffen is an Arkansas circuit judge and pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark. “Pastor, judge, activist, agitator: As he strives for justice, Wendell Griffen stretches the lexicon of adjectives” is an in-depth profile in BNG’s storytelling journalism series.
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