As a professor of theology and ethics at a divinity school as well as a layperson with experience in African American churches, Nigerian immigrant churches and predominantly white churches over the course of my life, I know this much to be true: there are numerous Christianities in the world that, despite their diversity, are intricately intertwined.
Those of us who are products and members of the Christian church are not as disconnected as some may think. In fact, suffice to say, church history is not necessarily about grasping doctrinal beginnings and parsing theological foundations but mainly about recognizing where people and their beliefs come from.
History is integral to a perceived Christian togetherness. Consistently recognizing the details of such history, especially the forgotten or forgettable ones, is what etches itself into a healthy church’s ecclesial memory and function.
Within the United States, a common detail many do not know what to do with, or would rather not truly grapple with, is race. Where does race fit into a church’s history, and what needs to be recognized and named for it to be accounted for properly?
Racism in U.S. churches is a problem created by whiteness. Are white churches ready to recognize and do something about this?
What is white people’s responsibility if their Christianity, knowingly or unknowingly, takes its cues from whiteness? What is their responsibility if the veins of their ecclesial rhythms are historically connected to a heart intent on doing good in the world that has instead cauterized the lifeblood of God’s creative diversity?
Only time will tell — and in this short life, the only thing we have time for is the truth.
Whiteness, the superiority complex attached to having white skin or white European ancestry, has done a fantastic job of making itself appear to be a theological category.
Whiteness has tricked too many people into mistaking white people for purity, white cultural Christianity for righteousness, a European interpretation of piety for goodness. Whiteness overvalues European-based ideology and anoints it as holy, then goes on a crusade to convince the world, through violence and force, that clinging to rigid Europeanness signals the right way of living.
Black culture knows about white ethnocentric rules: anyone who does not agree with these rules is under threat. White Christianity becomes “right Christianity.”
It is the responsibility of white Christians to stop the oppressive piety, to stop the spiritual bullying, the shutting off of their ears to “others,” or worse, the appreciation of “others” and their practices as distant ideas that have nothing to do with their white community.
Historical examination and acknowledgment are a start to taking responsibility.
White Christian churches, their leaders and parishioners, their individuals and families, their theologically progressive, moderate, and conservative minds, must never stop learning about the history of the United States from minoritized perspectives, because history is still happening!
History must become like liturgy. It must be given a permanent space in the rituals of white ecclesiology.
And it must become so because it is a burden. It is already a burden for Black and other minoritized communities to bear what white parishioners and pastors and their ancestors have historically been involved in, advocated for, benefited from or remained silent about.
It is time for white churches to carry, for the remainder of their lives, the burden they have created for others, even those whose families never owned slaves, even those who are aware of their privilege and are already doing the best they can.
Whiteness has bestowed on all white people a gift — the gift of being perceived as pure, fundamentally correct and morally right-standing. This gift that was given to a blossoming whiteness established centuries ago continues to work hard to blanket the world in the same false perceptions today.
Taking on the burden of not turning away from or denying whiteness’s historical actions forces white Christians to choose: acknowledge history and walk in truth (one completely unsteadying to what they may “know”) or downplay history as a weapon minoritized communities or political pundits wield to make white people feel bad.
Remembering this truth, all of it, incites affect, feeling. White Christianity is grounded in a foundation of positive feeling — about one’s understanding of spiritual wellness and right living in the world. If it does not feel good, white Christians are convinced it isn’t God.
Upend feeling good with a dose of historical truth, and white Christianity becomes unrecognizable and — dare I say it — unwanted. But if white Christians pay attention to the messages of how one group should live well or rightly with another in Scripture, it hardly feels good.
It feels hard. And for many, it is difficult to equate “hard” with “right.”
The call to adjust and learn a wider way of being in the world is constant throughout the scriptural text. Hardly anyone lands on feeling good; they do, however, land on learning God.
Concretizing the hard truths of history permanently into the rhythm of the white church is a critical responsibility for white churches.
They will soon learn that being changed by the truth in this way will provide enlightenment about what must come next — whether it be dismantling denominational loyalties, revising practices of ecclesial and social community, talking about the immorality of land ownership, or insisting that the undoing of whiteness requires the building up of all minoritized communities historically affected by whiteness.
White churches serious about being Christian will begin to see what whiteness has done for and meant to them and will, hopefully, be horrified into leading a different type of existence.
How do white Christians jar themselves loose from a stagnant posture and live in the uneasiness?
They concede decision making and control over their churches, their land, their money, their social ideals, their government and their schools to imaginative, forward-thinking, liberation-minded and willing Black or other minoritized women and persons. They grant them power over white spaces and, in this, gladly welcome the erosion of such spaces. White churches must be OK with, even excited about, their disintegration.
It sounds drastic because it is. Whiteness has ensured that any equitable world sounds like an impossibility.
For those of you I may have lost with my words, I invite you back in. And I invite you to dig in to what is being offered here: there is no easy way to bring in a new world if the old one stubbornly insists on the benevolent parts of itself.
Loosening the grip on “how we’ve always done it” is the best place to start.
Truth and history must make their way into the lifeblood of a church. In liturgy, litanies of truth telling and repentance can become a common practice. In a church’s financial life, permanently supporting minoritized communities on whose land and in whose lives the church’s presence has trespassed — in ways that the minoritized communities themselves designate — is a risk worth taking.
In everyday life, outside of the sacred meetings together on Sundays or Wednesdays, every soul of the church should ask: “What hard and risky action am I taking today to make right the complicated history within me?”
Then, even if it is painful, they should make that shift.
For those of you I may have lost with my words, I invite you back in.