Is the White Church the Anti-Christ?
“If there is any contemporary meaning of the Antichrist (or "the principalities and powers"), the white church seems to be a manifestation of it.”
That is a quote from James Cone’s 1969 work Black Theology and Black Power. I read it in 1986 while I was preparing myself for a life of ministry in a largely white church. That book, along with its companion piece also by Cone For My People convinced me that, while I was not going to leave the white church, I was going to devote my unearned privilege within it calling it to address its ongoing investment in whiteness.
Without a clear commitment to telling the truth about the impact and manifestation of white power and white privilege within the church, and within the culture because of what the white church fulminated with both sins of commission and sins of omission, what Cone wrote about it would remain true: if there is any contemporary meaning of the Antichrist, the white church seems to be a manifestation of it.
There have been attempts on the part of the white church to distance itself from its racist origins, racist legacy, racist preachers, racist ideologies, racist theologies, racist biblical texts, racist preachers, and racist practices. Current evidence suggests that those attempts are woefully inadequate.
As racism continues to infest our culture, white churches throughout the land remain fully complicit in a variety of ways: with a resounding and somewhat remarkable silence that suggests ignorance of the persistent injustice of racism; with a weariness that emerges after trying but failing to end racism; with a cynical resignation that accedes that nothing we do is going to matter anyway; or with outright, blatant racist ideologies that distort Christianity into something truly ugly and utterly abhorrent.
The latter was on full display in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend. It is not enough for white leaders like me and the church I serve to differentiate ourselves from any brand of Christianity that looks or sounds like the hatred espoused by Nazis and white nationalists and racist bigots like the ones who surrounded the church on Friday night where both Traci Blackmon and Cornell West spoke. Not enough for us to distinguish ourselves from those carrying torches and chanting “Blood and Soil!” and rendering the local police force obliged to hold the worshipers inside the church until they could secure their safety and remove them without threat of terror: no easy task this, given the mob mentality that had erupted and given the legacy of church burnings and murders that their ilk are known for.
Hell no, it is not enough for us to say “That is not what we stand for!” Because our current iteration of the Church and of the faith it espouses is replete with its own form of white supremacy that manifests itself in a myriad of offenses that include silence in face of overt acts of white terror; failure to address the epidemic of white cops killing black victims of their profiling; insufficient, inadequate and tepid responses to the continuing manifestations of American racism, which include mass incarceration, the so-called drug war, educational imbalances, gerrymandering, housing discrimination, the distribution of wealth and jobs along clearly racial lines; a lack of critical insight into the impact and manifestation of a white privilege evident at every level of the white church; and the almost universal acceptance of Jesus as a blue-eyed, blond, white man.
Every eruption or public manifestation of race hate is another invitation to the white church to put bodies on the front lines to combat a system that they clearly still benefit from being a part of. The Rodney King verdict, the OJ Simpson trial, the shooting of Trayvon Martin by a vigilante, the murders by police of Michael Brown, Kendra James, and Freddie Gray all demonstrated a clear division between the responses of black community leaders and white church leaders. Every one of these moments was an opportunity for white rage to stand in solidarity with black pain – and it didn’t. Our words, never enough to end racism, and even when on the side of justice – only serve to indict us as co-conspirators in the ongoing perpetuation of systems of injustice and oppression that we remain inextricably connected to.
Whenever racists like the ones who assembled in Charlottesville gather, they use what they believe about their distorted views of Christianity as both a weapon and a shield. They use the cover of groups like Christian Identity to justify their perverse and destructive hate speech, imagining that what they do and say is in keeping with, if not a fully obedient response to, the teachings of Christianity.
More moderate and progressive Christians deplore that, but don’t really mobilize anything close to a collective, organized, and successful effort to disown it. Brian McLaren recently wrote in a reflection on his trip to Charlottesville for the Nazi rally. In it, he writes: “We Christians, in particular, need to face the degree to which white Christianity has failed – grievously, tragically, unarguably failed – to teach its white adherents to love their non-white neighbors as themselves.” (here is the link to his blog post)
As an elected leader of an historically white denomination that has been struggling through the decades to live more fully into its declaration to become a multi-racial, multi-cultural church, I am fully and faithfully committed to eradicating our lingering addiction to white privilege and to leveraging our full capacity as an agent for racial equity. But that is an ongoing struggle: whites in America, even Christian leaders in a fairly progressive denomination, have proven either unable or unwilling to dismantle systems that oppress people of color. It is one thing to enjoin a battle to end racism.
It is one thing to march in support of Black Lives Matter.
It is one thing to read about or study the impact and manifestation of privilege.
It is one thing to rail against a racist president and government that have recreated safe space for Nazis and white nationalists to flourish in again – to crawl out of whatever caves they have been hiding in like vermin for decades now.
It is another thing entirely to actively participate in the dismantling of institutions like our schools, our churches, and our government which, as they were being built, were inculcated with racist roots so deep that there is nothing we can do to ‘fix’ them by simply washing away what remains of their racist past.
Paul Griffin, in 1999, wrote this in the introduction to his book Seeds of Racism in the Soul of America: “The old seeds of racism have been shown to be sprouting bad fruits all across present day America. Even so, many will continue to heap the bulk of the blame for the persistence of racist ideas on rednecks, white supremacists, and political conservatives. While none of these are immune from blame, racism also continues because the taproot of its early seeds has not yet been cut by white liberals.”
When James Cone wrote, in 1969, “If there is any contemporary meaning of the Antichrist (or "the principalities and powers"), the white church seems to be a manifestation of it,” he was suggesting that the extent to which the white church fails to activate itself as an agent of racial equity, the extent to which it harbors racists and tolerates bigots, the extent to which its addiction to whiteness buys its complicit silence remain the extent to which it is a manifestation of the principalities and powers in our contemporary cultural milieu.
To be sure, there were leaders from predominantly white churches and religious bodies demonstrating on the streets of Charlottesville. We are proud of all of them, among them Seth Wispelwey and Brittany Caine-Conley.
At some point, though, they have to stop being our outliers. Until they are our norm, and until the mass of resistance to white power, white privilege and white supremacy forms a collective desire among white leaders to deconstruct the very institutions that built white supremacy in the first place, we have to be open to the hard truth James Cone was calling us to face.