How do Christians confront the evil of white supremacy theology?

Presbyterian leaders talk about white supremacy and Christianity in light of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Shanea D. Leonard

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — White supremacy theology starts with the image of Jesus that is popular in much of the Western world.

“When we say white supremacy theology, folks have taken this system, and they also fit Jesus into this system,” said the Rev. Christian Brooks, Representative for Domestic Poverty Issues in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness (OPW). “They made Jesus into their image, they made Jesus into their likeness, they made God into their image and their likeness and moved forward and preached about it, talked about it, oppressed people on it. And we have entire denominations that are deeply embedded within this white supremacy theology, within this idea that whiteness is right. Everything that is centered around whiteness is correct. And anything outside of it is wrong.”

The popular image of Jesus as a blue-eyed, blonde-haired white man, when history says that as a first-century Jew he was probably dark skinned, was one of numerous points Brooks and the panelists on the third episode of the OPW webinar series “Where Do We Go from Here?” touched on Thursday afternoon discussing the relationship between Christian faith and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump.

While the protests were denounced by faith leaders across the country and around the world, including the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), many of the protesters carried signs with Christian slogans and imagery and even prayed in the midst of the crowd also rife with Confederate and Nazi symbols. The optics begged the question, how did the protesters square their actions with Christian faith?

To address the question, the Rev. Shanea D. Leonard, Associate for Race and Gender Justice, and the Rev. Lee Catoe, Managing Editor of Unbound: An Interactive Journal on Christian Social Justice and Associate for Young Adult Witness, took a deep dive into the history of Christianity in the United States and how it has been used to promote white supremacy and vice versa.

“Within that whole happening within the insurrection at the Capitol, it does force us to look back into that time to where ministers, both in the South and in the North, were using scripture, were using the Bible to really instill how society had to hold on to slavery,” Catoe said. “But also, it instilled this white supremacist theology to back that.”

the Rev. Lee Catoe

Catoe noted that even if a person were opposed to slavery, they could still hold white supremacist views, which have perpetuated since the abolition of slavery. He cited “A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood” by James P. Byrd for a look at how the Bible was used to justify the Confederacy during the Civil War. He also talked about ways in which white superiority was advocated in churches, school curriculum, and other institutions during the Confederacy.

Leonard brought a book recommendation in “Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty” by Dorothy Roberts, which they said provides insight into how white supremacy became married to theology.

Leonard pointed to the Southern Strategy 100 years later, which used racial grievance as a political weapon.

“It’s like, the Black folks are taking our jobs, or the Black people think they’re getting so high and mighty, and it’s up to us to maintain ‘law and order,’ which are literally words from the Southern Strategy that’s even been used by the past president,” Leonard said. “This type of wording and this type of phrasing is something that comes from a history of division in our country.

“Let’s not forget that part of this is a part of the history of why our church was divided — why there was a North and South Presbyterian Church. This is a part of who we are and our history.”

And it is a history that perpetuates to this day, Leonard and Catoe said, in ways both overt and subtle, such as the ways white, heteronormative culture is centered in academics, meetings and even worship.

All this, Leonard noted, is not an indictment of white people.

“There is a difference between white supremacy culture and white supremacy theology, and whiteness and white people,” Leonard said. “Let’s be clear about this. This is not an indictment of white people. That’s not what I’m saying, and I don’t think that’s what any of us are saying.

“This is an indictment on our framework and a way of life that we are all victims of, because white supremacy culture is causing you to believe that you are superior to another who is on a same level and is equal to you, as your sibling has caused you to have an incorrect mindset as well. There’s a clear difference between white supremacy culture, whiteness, white supremacy theology, and white folks. And there are white folks who are implicit in liberation, as much as there are white folks who are implicit and maintaining the status quo and supremacy.”

In the second half of the webinar, Brooks turned to the question of what the church can do about white supremacy in its own culture and institutions.

“The first step is admitting there’s a problem,” Leonard said, “and by God, there is a problem.”

Leonard and Catoe said it involves going through practices and institutions with a fine-tooth comb and having hard, uncomfortable conversations. But it also needs to register at a deeper level.

“As Presbyterians, we think we can think ourselves out of stuff,” Catoe said. “But this is not a brain thing. This is a soul thing. We have to start talking about it in those kinds of ways as well, because this is eating at our souls. This is killing our souls.”

Catoe said to address white supremacy, Presbyterians need to be willing to use a term he perceived as counter-intuitive to Presbyterians.

“Another stereotype of the Presbyterian Church is we don’t talk a lot about evil,” Catoe said. “We actually have to be OK with talking about evil, because the older I get, the more I’m saying it exists. There is a force in this world that is instigating and pushing for the oppression of our siblings that don’t hold up this kind of theology. And if we don’t start really talking about it in that way, and really come to terms with ‘yes, it exists, people are dying from it.’ This is terrible, this is evil, this is sinful. We have to start naming it as well.”

Catoe and Leonard said doing so is following the lead of Jesus, who was never hesitant to call out evil and invoke his power over it.

“We know we are not called to be victims. We are called to be victorious,” Leonard said. “And we are called to have power to defeat sin and say this does not have to be our final resting place, sitting in this mess. But we can get up, take up my bed and walk, and live into a new reality and beloved community that God is still calling us to.”

View the entire webinar here.

Brooks announced that the final episode of “Where Do We Go from Here?” will be a talk with pastors in Washington, D.C., about their experience on Jan. 6. It will be on Facebook Live at 3 p.m. Eastern Time on Feb. 25.

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