What is racism? How should Christians who believe in nonviolence and in the distinction between Jesus’s Kingdom and the world’s powers respond? How do we make sense of the polarized political debates on the subject, even as they spill over into our social lives, fracturing relationships in families and communities?
In my research over the past several years, I believe that we can bring a firm conviction in Jesus’s gospel in peace to the conversations happening in the world around us, primarily as a way to engage with and our love our neighbors in the larger community.
If someone were to ask me, “What is racism?” I would respond with the following:
While prejudices and belief about the superiority of one’s group over other groups have existed throughout history, “racism” today derives from “racial science” as developed from Social Darwinism. It was a hierarchy and classification of “race” as a pseudo-scientific concept that was developed alongside and instrumental in global European colonization. A notable example of racial science was Hitler’s concept of the master, Aryan, race. We still see its effects today because colonialism took place over 450 years and affected 84% of the global landmass, which means around 75% of people today. Racial ideology is something that is made up and used to support tremendous violence. When you believe someone is not truly human, you can justify slavery, conquest, and taking power over them (you know better, after all).
“Modernity” developed alongside racism and colonialism. The Enlightenment, in particular, was a movement that ultimately asserted that believing in God and in the supernatural realm was superstition, and that observation and rational thought were supreme. Science, technology, and mastery over race would elevate superior, Enlightened, human beings who would move forward into the future and bring progress to the world. This led to the development of secularism, antagonism towards faith, and liberal theology.
Rationalism had especially devastating effects on the many people around the world who have always believed in the supernatural realm: they were thought to be, primitive, backward and inferior. Their cultures and beliefs needed to be erased to make way for human progress, and, whether as slaves or subjects, they needed to be re-trained to be useful for the project for modernity.
If you have ever felt mocked for believing in God, you may feel a little bit of what it’s like to be considered backward and superstitious. Perhaps (and this is a true story), a doctor refuses to believe clear evidence (that she cannot explain) that you were healed from cancer. This kind of prejudice comes from the ideology of modernity under which anyone who believes in a divine being is innately inferior.
Empires are never consistent. They simply use whatever ideology is useful and that enables power and expansion. This is why, even while progress, industrialization, and global conquest operated on a fundamentally anti-religious worldview, “Christianity” still played an important part in Empire, particularly in its celebrating imperial glory: the language, symbols, and imagery of Christianity as a culture remained.
How is this so? I think of the process of taxidermy, where an animal, already deceased, has all its internal organs and even skin stripped, and then its outer carcass is draped over a form. “Imperial Christianity” performs this act of taxidermy, removing living faith, the challenge of Christ’s example and call, and keeps the symbolism: a cross here and there, a hymn, a Bible verse. When Christianity is married to empire, it becomes secularized as a cultural exterior. Yes, it looks “realistic”, and may trick someone upon first glance, but it is dead. You will know a taxidermy animal because it cannot breathe, move, or interact.
One of the first most blatant examples of Christianity as a secularized cultural ornament was the cross that Constantine re-imagined and emblazoned on his military shields and banners, but it is also found in how Adolf Hitler and his appointed Reichbishop appropriated Christianity in service of his imperial aims and racial ideology. Jesus was re-imagined to be a patriotic warrior, the Sermon on the Mount re-written.
The imperial “cross” has absolutely no resemblance to Jesus’s call to the cross, to love and to be the least, lowest, and last. Being in the form of God, He humbled Himself, became a bondservant, and called us to do the same.
Nazi “Christianity” was a kind of Christian nationalism married with imperialism and racial ideology. This poisonous, threefold, ideological cocktail still exists today. In this interview, Dr. Samuel Perry, a scholar of Christian nationalism describes how the mass murderer in the Buffalo, NY, shootings referenced cultural, faithless, Christianity in his manifesto. Note how racial ideology latches onto a view of Christianity as imperial culture.
What we are finding is that white Christian nationalism really transcends religious identity. It is held by mostly Christians, that’s true. So I don’t want to just say like it’s completely devoid and only non-Christians would engage in this. Many many large proportion of folks who hold white Christian nationalist ideology are self-identified Christians. We find that being a Christian doesn’t qualify you and and and or disqualify you, like it just kind of transcends that .
Like this guy: He says, “I‘m not a Christian. I haven’t asked God for forgiveness. I haven’t confessed my sins and put my trust in Jesus. ” Which is amazing, as he is writing this as he’s about to go perpetrate his act of violence… He “tries to live out Christian values”. He says this is white culture… You have to have white culture it is it is characterized by the religion of Christianity. That it is what he thinks: white culture and white genes make you superior. It is the normative group that is supposed to be dominant in Western society.
So think about what he is saying: I’m not a Christian. I try to live Christian values and what I really value is whiteness, whiteness is characterized by Christianity, by this religion of Christianity, and he is about to go perpetrate this act of violence on people he feels like falls outside the boundaries of whiteness.
Such imperial racial violence claims this cultural, secularized Christianity. However, in fact, when it come to Nazi or white supremacist mass murder, it makes no difference if the victims are Christians too. Many victims of lynchings and concentration camps were Christians, and yet their murderers claimed “Christian” ideology. This is not to say that it is worse to murder Christians, but the fact is that those who claim Christianity as the basis of their violence put their ideology to the forefront and do not believe in the shared brotherhood of global Christians shows that faith means very little to them.
It may surprise you to learn that despite modern myths, Christendom was in fact never actually Christian. When the Roman Empire was Christianized, Rodney Stark notes, many became Christians by name only. He writes,
The Christianity that subsequently left most of Europe only nominally converted, at best, was an established, subsidized, state church that sought to extend itself, not through missionizing the population, but by baptizing kings (Davies 1996: 275) and then canonizing them as national saints (Vauchez 1997). That is, the Christianity that prevailed in Europe was an elaborate patchwork of state churches that settled for the allegiance of the elite and for imposing official requirements for conformity, but that made little sustained effort to Christianize the peasant masses (Duffy 1987; Greeley)… e this. The ‘Christianization” of a Norse kingdom, for example, often involved little more than the baptism of the nobility and legal recognition of the ecclesiastical sovereignty of the church.
This left the task of missionizing the masses to a “kept” clergy whose welfare was almost entirely independent of mass assent or support, with a predictable lack of result. (Stark, 1999, pp.260-261)
…this conception of a pious past is mere nostalgia; most prominent historians of medieval religion now agree that there never was an “Age of Faith”… As for the ordinary people, during the middle ages and during the Renaissance, the masses rarely entered a church, and their private worship was directed toward an array of spirits and supernatural agencies, only some of them recognizably Christian…. (Stark, 1999, p.255)
Similarly, Christian nationalists and white supremacists are not usually devoted practitioners of the faith and are likely to be profoundly Scripturally ignorant. In fact, the more sincere Christians are about reading the Bible and taking faith seriously, the less likely they are to be nationalists (Whitehead and Perry, 2020).
This is not to say, such as with Reichbishop Ludwig Muller, there aren’t theologians and powerful, influential leaders from the Christian world promoting and believing in this ideology. There are also who are driven by religious fervor, appropriating language, prayers, Scriptures, and worship songs familiar and dear to us. We must not underestimate how much nationalism has infiltrated churches, teachings, theologies, and doctrines, and how much this has been the norm for hundreds of years. Imperial Christendom has as its consort and confidante the imperial theologian, minister, preacher, influencer.
Yet, when I asked Twitter followers recently what led them out of Christian nationalism, the response was almost overwhelmingly a variant of this: “Reading the Bible. Studying Jesus’s words carefully. Relearning my faith.”
“Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.But, as it is, my kingdom is not from here’” (John 18:36).
What Jesus consistantly taught throughout His ministry on earth was that His Kingdom did not operate like that of the world’s rulers and emperors. His Kingdom is not according to the ways of His world. In fact, the way of Empire, driven by lust and pride (1 John 2:16) and manifested in the violence of stealing, killing, and destroying (John 10:10), are incompatible with His way of love. Jesus’s followers do not fight, and they do not storm palaces and fortresses demanding to instate Him as king.
This is not to say that Jesus’s kingdom is to be relegated to a future, disembodied afterlife and that we can happily rest assured in eternal inheritance while participating in the ways of the Empire. This would be akin to saying that we could spiritually and internally not throw the stone and take the life of another, being obedient to Jesus in a non-physical sense, while physically and outwardly throwing the stone and killing the woman caught in adultery. This is merely an obfuscation: attempting to claim obedience and faith occur in two different realms of existence. This is a blatant attempt to justify disobedience.
“No one can know Christ unless they follow after him in life, and no one can follow him unless they know him.” (Hans Denck)
Being in the Kingdom means following Jesus, following Jesus means discipleship, discipleship means obeying all that Jesus commands. According to Streett (2013), Jesus’s theology and practice of the communion table was an active subversion and rejection of imperial values. The Romans, he notes, enacted patronage, hierarchy, domination, and subservience at each banquet. Diners were carefully ranked, and the meal itself served to remind everyone of their place. Jesus, on the other hand, told us not to seek the most prominent seats and places of honor at any table. He called us to go to the highways and byways and call strangers, wanderers, and the very poorest to eat with us (Luke 14). As God, He knelt down and washed the feet of His disciples, performing the role of a slave. At His table, all are welcome.
Imperialism is the lust for power and glory taken to an incredible scale. Yet, Jesus knew that the pursuit of power and glory for oneself is not confined to the highest echelons of human society but found deep within our hearts. It is this heart that God makes anew, into which the gospel of peace begins a work of transformation.
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Corinthians 2:21-29)
Much confusion exists on the question of racism today. Young (2015, pp.46-50, emphasis added) provides a clear history of the connection between racism, slavery, imperialism, and modernity, which I hope will show that the fundamental root of the problem is, and has always been, that very lust that Jesus put to shame on the cross. It is important that we understand and identify this monstrosity for what it is.
The ideology of race, which formalized racial prejudice into a system of thought and cultural value, was a colonial invention designed to justify slavery and authorize colonial rule. Although Hannah Arendt characterized only the Nazis with the term “race imperialism” (Young‐Bruehl 2004), the phrase could justly be applied to all European and Japanese empires, for race provided the underlying ideological basis for imperial domination: in this way, modern empires differed from all those that had gone before them. Any attempt to compare positive and negative effects of modern colonialism must always begin by acknowledging that the system operated on a principle of racial prejudice. Modern colonialism was racist to the core, subjecting colonized peoples to the daily
humiliation not just of subjugation, but of being treated as inferior beings.
Before Hitler, those who invented the discourse of race were not so up‐front or even self‐conscious about the aims of their project. In the context of slavery, however, they were: in the United States, Southern anthropologists writing before the Civil War such as Samuel George Morton, Josiah Nott, and George Gliddon, sought to defend the South’s “peculiar institution” by developing an extensive racial ideology of the inferiority of non‐white races, drawing on anthropological and anatomical arguments about race and culture from American and European doctors, anatomists, anthropologists, linguists, and historians. American racialists were most concerned with defining a hierarchy of races and racial abilities: they sought to prove the basis of racial distinction by comparing skull sizes, as well as claiming the inability of Africans ever to create a civilization, arguing that just as in nineteenth‐century America, Africans had been slaves in every society since ancient Egypt (Young 1995).
The scientific study of race and racial difference, which began in Europe toward the end of the eighteenth century, offered a new way for Europeans to justify both slavery and European rule of non‐Europeans. This discourse of race emerged fully in the mid‐nineteenth century, a little before the onset of the period of high imperialism. In earlier times, the term “race” had been used in a different context: a race was identified with the genealogical line of an individual aristocratic family… At that time, as the very fact of slavery suggests, what we would now call racism or racial prejudice certainly existed toward darker people (“moors,” “gypsies”) or Jews, but the focus for the grounds of their difference was placed not just on their physical differences but on their not being Christian. Neither was, or is, racism exclusively western, even institutionalized racism: the existence of caste systems in India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Japan, Korea, and Nepal, ensuring social stratification enforced by strict restrictions, very much suggests otherwise. In the course of the eighteenth century, as trading and colonizing Europeans encountered many different peoples around the world, anatomists began to devote more and more attention to the topic of “comparative anatomy,” that is, analysis of the physical anatomical difference between different peoples. While some anthropologists studied human diversity from the point of view of the variety of languages spoken, anatomists developed a classification system of the races of the world according to the characteristics of their bodies. In such accounts, they did not stop at describing physical difference, but associated anatomical classification with characteristics of moral and cultural difference in the manner of the tradition of books of comparative cultural anthropology… As a result, races were not only classified on the basis of physical traits, but also put in a hierarchy in relation to cultural attainment, arranged according to their deviance from European civilization. So, broadly, the European was at the top of the hierarchy, Arabs, Indians, and Chinese somewhere lower down, Africans lower down still, and Australian aboriginals at the bottom. The knowledge that was invoked about these people was based on hearsay, reports from missionaries, sailors, and travelers, and not subject to anything like modern standard verification procedures. Derived from a relatively random and unsubstantiated set of evidence about the different peoples of the world whose authority grew as it was repeated from book to book, each racial theorist tried to make his (all racial theorists were male) mark by producing a different system of classification, for example in the overall number of races. The major topic of dispute was between the idea that all humans were one species (monogenesis), which correlated with the biblical account, and what was regarded as the progressive, scientific position that the different human races were in fact different species (polygenesis).
… So prevalent was the extremist view that races were inherently different species and that the current hierarchy would never change, that the only liberal response in the nineteenth century was to argue that education would allow other races to rise to the level of the European, as in the work of E. B. Tylor. The developmental schema was, in more than one sense, progressive. It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that some anthropologists, notably Franz Boas, began to challenge the idea of race altogether (according to modern genetic science, the idea of race has no relation to the diverse DNA of different peoples). The science of race as it was developed in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries involved simple racial prejudice justified by what was accepted at that time as science. Such writings formed a closely knit branch of academic study, and were probably not read by many. But Europeans nevertheless came to know of them, so that the belief that ideas about racial difference were substantiated by scientific knowledge became widespread by the mid‐nineteenth century. This occurred at the same time that European powers were increasingly colonizing and ruling lands occupied by “inferior” races, European colonial administrators were dealing directly with such people, and European governments legislating about the governance of their lives according to ideas which interweaved race with sexuality (Stoler 1995; Young 1995). Ideas
of racial hierarchy, and the assumption that Europeans were superior to all other humans, fed conveniently into the European practice of appropriating the territory of others around the world, and subjecting the indigenous populations to various forms of treatment from extermination to political submission.
… Race was a particularly useful category for the Germans, who always had a problem in defining their nation by territory (no natural borders) or religion (Catholic and Protestant), or even language (hugely diverse in its various forms across Europe). Racial theory allowed the claim that all Germans belonged to the same Teutonic, later Aryan, race. One factor that complicated this national racial self‐identification was the existence of a very substantial Jewish population in Europe, many of whom were also German or spoke a Yiddish that contained a strong Germanic element, particularly in its vocabulary and morphology: in response to Russian pogroms, and the relatively liberal policies of the Hapsburg Empire toward Jews in the nineteenth century, large numbers immigrated into Western Europe during this period. After the defeat of Germany in World War I, punished by reparations for alleged war guilt and the removal of its colonies, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party blamed the presence of Jews in particular for Germany’s ills. Employing a version of the racial theories that had been developed by anthropologists in the nineteenth century, Germany applied the principles of colonial rule to Europeans and became the first fully racialized state in Europe (Burleigh and Wippermann 1991). With industrial efficiency, Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and other “deviants” were first expelled and then exterminated under the plan of the “Final Solution,” either in the death camps or by direct assassination by the Einsatzgruppen. After the invasion of Russia other races such as Slavs were starved to death, although the “Hunger Plan” for engineered famine was never coordinated or put into practice systematically. Similar policies based on a claimed racial typology were employed by the Japanese toward non‐Japanese during the years of Japanese colonial expansion and invasion of Southeast Asia. After the defeat of Germany in 1945, and the discovery of the Nazi death camps, the idea of race was discredited by the international community through the United Nations and UNESCO (UNESCO 1969). What had been hitherto regarded as racial difference was reformulated as ethnicity, a loose word that gives more weight to cultural identity, though it may include factors such as physical similarity. Nations were encouraged to define themselves by other common factors, such as language and culture.
With the exception of South Africa, which put a racialized system of apartheid into place after World War II, the assumption of a hierarchy of races was gradually challenged at the legal and cultural levels. While Euro‐American theories of race provided justification for empire, therefore, it was not until such theories of race were developed into extreme forms and consequences by the Nazis and applied to Europeans themselves that the whole edifice would be discredited Authors such as Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt suggested that fascism was in fact nothing more than the methods of colonialism brought home and deployed on Europe itself.
Let’s conclude this study by highlighting how Christians today can respond.
- Is Christianity an inherently imperial, racist, and violent religion?
From a secular perspective, social constructionist theory tells us that people make the meaning they want to make. “Christianity”, just like any religion or ideology, can and has been made into a imperial and violent religion such by Constantine, Hitler, the Ku Klux Klan and various mass murderers in history. This has, historically, involved appropriation and revisionism, whether in completely going against the doctrines of the church and early church pacifism in the case of Constantine, or completely re-writing the Gospels in the case of Nazism.
Jesus told us that we will know His disciples by their fruit, differentiating between sheep and wolves in sheep’s clothing. The parable of the wheat and the tares tells us that there will always be tares who are deceptively wheat-like. It is up to us as Christians to bear the fruit of the gospel. If we believe that Jesus is true and that His gospel is a gospel of peace, we would seek to glorify our Father in heaven, opposing the works of darkness by doing the work of the light. Knowing that social Darwinianism, racial science, progressivism, and rationalism are all inherently opposed to the ways of God, even if they are pervasive in “Christian culture”, we need to take a stand.
This means that we as a church need to be sanctified. We need to reject any and all works of empire, theologies of empire, and the fruit of empire. Where we know there has been a wolf masquerading in sheep’s clothing, causing harm and leading other Christians astray, we cannot equivocate, confusticate, compromise, or idle. If we care about the truth of the gospel and the name of Jesus, we will respond – just as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corrie Ten Boom, and so many others responded when evil showed up on their doorstep.
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. (1 Corinthians 3:11-13)
2. How should a Christian respond when racism is a topic of conversation today?
On a trip to Austria in 2019, our family stopped by Matthausen concentration camp. It was in early winter, and so the memorial was deathly quiet, cold, and somber. I looked at the walls and barracks, and I could not imagine that only several decades ago tremendous horrors were carried out. We came up close to the crematorium.
The mission of these memorials and museums are often to preserve the memory of the incredible violence that occurred so that we never forget, and so that we learn.
Where are the museums for the 2/3s of lives lost on the Atlantic slave trade? Where are the memorials for the indigenous peoples whose lives and land were taken from them in order to expand settler colonies? We are still uncovering hundreds and thousands of bodies of Native American and First Nations children killed and buried in “missionary” residential schools. There is so much that society would rather forget than remember, and in forgetting, justify imperialism and racism by claiming they were ultimately “good”. The fact that these justifications continue today is one proof that racism is still alive. You would be surprised by how many Christians desperately try to justify imperialism, even slavery.
Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity. Because of its dominantly patriarchal character, it was a relationship between mutual affection and confidence. There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world. The credit for this must go to the predominance of Christianity…. (Wilkins and Wilson, 1996)
Nicholas Wolterstorff tells of an eye-opening experience in South Africa. In a dialogue between Afrikaners and blacks and coloreds, the blacks and coloreds spoke of their experiences of being humiliated and demeaned, and asked for justice. In response, the Afrikaners did not argue that apartheid was just. Instead, they insisted that justice was not relevant to the discussion; that the relevant category was love, charity, benevolence. They saw their actions as being characterized by charity and by protection of the blacks and coloreds in their country, and were puzzled when the expected gratitude was not forthcoming. Wolterstorff says, “Scales fell off my eyes. What I saw, as I had never seen before, was benevolence being used as an instrument of oppression.” (Lewis Hall, 2017)
As Roman imperialism laid the foundations of modern civilization, and led the wild barbarians of these islands [Britain] along the path of progress, so in Africa today we are repaying the debt, and bringing to the dark places of the earth, the abode of barbarism and cruelty, the torch of culture and progress, while ministering to the material needs of our own civilization. In this task the nations of Europe have pledged themselves to cooperation by a solemn covenant. Towards the common goal each will advance by the methods most consonant with its national genius. British methods have not perhaps in all cases produced ideal results, but I am profoundly convinced that there can be no question but that British rule has promoted the happiness and welfare of the primitive races. Let those who question it examine the results impartially. If there is unrest, and a desire for independence, as in India and Egypt, it is because we have taught the value of liberty and freedom, which for centuries these peoples had not known. Their very discontent is a measure of their progress.
(Lugard, 1922, cited by Young, 2012, emphasis added)
Quijano (2000) notes that the very concept of whiteness was made up during early colonization of the Americas. Yet, just like Hitler’s “Aryan Race” imaginary, racial ideology was and is devastating. A common misunderstanding is that someone is inherently “born” racist or evil. This is not so, and in fact is a strawman based on the same “biological” argument racism is based on. No one is born racist or guilty of racism, yet one may be born into a world that categorizes, socializes, and indoctrinates innocent children. Settler colonial states, for example, are inherently built on supercession, genocide, and replacement.
Just as the Holocaust and the Second World War are not only memories but continue to have far-reaching effects on those living today, racial ideology continues to cause violence and harm. It is myth that racism has disappeared: evil does not simply go away, it takes new (yet familiar) forms such as that expressed by the Buffalo, NY mass murderer. To say that there is no racism today is as ludicrous as saying that there is no imperialism, slavery, or war. Social segregation enables racism, allowing those who can ignore its reality to live in a shielded bubble – out of sight, out of mind. Political ideologies feed into minds and hearts , blinding and immunizing us as we go about “peaceful” daily lives completely unaware of and even strongly opposed to the idea that our neighbors are suffering. Those who have conversations about racism are those who are living in the midst of this reality, and those who choose not to look away and ignore this reality. Jesus did not look away, but instead actively made even His disciples uncomfortable with his revolutionary way of eating, drinking, living, and loving.
He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14)
He will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. ‘ (Matthew 25:45)