Last night, a bunch of torch-wielding white supremacists marched in Charlottesville. Evidently, today they are doing more of the same. How should Christians respond?
This week, I started reading God of the Oppressed, a book written by black Christian theologian James Cone (which I happen to be reading as part of my God Project). Although Cone’s book was originally published in 1975, it is surprisingly relevant to the current Charlottesville fiasco.
Cone writes that before the Civil War, white American Christians responded to slavery in one of three ways:
- Some justified slavery on the basis of Christian faith
- Others ignored the issue (though they may have condemned the institution if pressed)
- A few openly resisted the institution
Cone suggests that even today, more than a century since the slaves were “freed,” white Christians still typically respond to racism in one of these three ways.
In Charlottesville, we see option #1 in full, disgusting display. In UVA-town, white people, many of them presumably Christians, push agendas of overt white supremacism. This is not the first time the KKK has made its presence felt in Charlottesville, nor is it likely to be the last.
A wide variety of Christians and politicians have already vocally condemned the demonstrations, thus joining the proud ranks of white Christians who think the KKK is bad. Still, merely condemning the KKK when the topic comes up is more like Cone’s Option #2 (ignoring racism) than #3 (challenging racism). Unfortunately, many white American Christians still fall into basket #2.
But what exactly counts as Option #2, and what’s the problem with it?
For starters, it’s important to note that many white people have the privilege of ignoring racism. White Christians have the luxury of ignoring racism if they feel like it because they aren’t threatened by the structures of racism. Cone says of two white Christian theologians that,
Because DeWolf and Tillich were not politically threatened in America, they did not include politics in their theological point of departure.
However, like a bystander who witnesses a crime but says and does nothing to help, we become complicit in racism when our devotion to the “God of love” allows us to tune out all but the most overt forms of racism in our country. When we only notice racism when torches and/or white hoods are involved, we are living in the cozy, complicit Option #2-land: ignoring injustice.
White Christians must resist the temptation to pat ourselves on the back for being upset about the KKK’s march in Charlottesville. (Luke 18, anyone?) If we ignore the less flashy role of racism in many public education and criminal justice systems (for example), we are bad bystanders and shallow allies to our black sisters and brothers.
Embracing option #3 is hard work. It requires listening to oppressed people rather than assuming that we white people already understand their troubles. It requires actually fighting, not merely noticing and theorizing about, injustice. But if we want to join the ranks of the Prophets, the Bible’s Wisdom Literature, and Jesus (just to name a few), we must do far more than condemn self-proclaimed white supremacy.
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