A Response to White Supremacy and the Gospel of Grace

In 2016 81% of America’s evangelical Christians voted to place in the seat of the presidency of the United States a man who had built his political career on the utterly false and disproven claim that the nation’s first black president had been born in Kenya and therefore occupied the White House illegally, and a man who ran his presidential campaign on the promise that “we’re going to take the country back.”[1]  Most black Americans understood that phrase to mean, “We’ll take the country back for white dominance and control,” an interpretation validated by David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who said at a White Nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017, “We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.  That’s what we believed in.  That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back—and that’s what we’ve got to do.”[2]

If we are beginning to grasp the depth and breadth and power of the myth of white supremacy in American life, and if we are willing to acknowledge the failures of the church in this regard, then we now must ask, in what ways has our theology failed us?  What is it about the theology that many American Christians have embraced that has permitted—and even sanctioned—such complicity in the bigotry and racial oppression of America’s popular culture?  And the corollary question is this—how can Christian theology equip us to resist the myth of white supremacy in all its forms?  Richard Hughes

Jonathan Totty and I started a study group at the Stone Campbell Journal Conference last year and this paper is a response to the paper by prominent Church of Christ historian Richard Hughes. Richard is Scholar-in- Residence at the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University. He was Distinguished Professor of Religion, Messiah College, 2006-2014 and Distinguished Professor, Religion Division, Pepperdine University, 1994-2006. Richard is the author of some 19 books and is the key authority on the history of the Restoration Movement.  In coming weeks we will air 2 podcasts with Richard.

In my response to Richard’s paper White Supremacy and the Gospel of Grace I want to emphasize the questions he has raised, underline and emphasize key points, and fill out potential responses – some of which may go beyond what he might want to say. I conclude by summing up James Cone’s picture of the lynching tree as dependent upon a skewed understanding of the Cross. (I appeal throughout to previous blogs which have appeared in Walking Truth.)

A brief summary of the Paper White Supremacy and the Gospel of Grace:

Richard’s paper describes a white supremacy which extends into the present from the past (slavery in America) in which, intertwined with Christianity, it has had theological support. The conviction that the United States was a Christian nation was one factor in the rise of racial oppression as there seemed to be something like official religious sanction of white supremacy. He cites the election of Donald Trump and evangelical support for Trump as a living proof that white supremacy is alive and well, not in spite of, but because of evangelical Christians. He demonstrates that evangelicalism has been particularly prone to allowing the culture to shape the church in this country.

Many American Christians have read—and continue to read—the biblical text through the lens of American popular culture while they should read the culture through the lens of the biblical text.  And through that misreading, they allow the American nation, its values and its dominant culture, to take the place of the only reality to which, as Christians, they should pledge their allegiance: the biblical vision of the kingdom of God.

The privatized – “going to heaven when you die” – belief of evangelicals has given rise to a disembodied form of faith which eschews recognition of works – challenging real-world evil (as in the case of Paul Farmer’s medical work in Haiti) as being unconnected to salvation of the soul.

The problem is linked specifically to Campbell’s rationalistic approach to Scripture which caused Campbell to seldom ask about the poor and marginalized as he was focused on a rationalistic plan of salvation which did not seem to include resistance to imperial powers. His notion that the Christian age – the Church –  begins in Acts meant that the ethics of Jesus and the embodied nature of Israel were not immediately applicable to the church. Some in the Churches of Christ concluded they had succeeded in restoring the New Testament Church and that salvation depended on belonging to this one true church.

Having obscured the central themes of the biblical message, the white Churches of Christ, at the time of the Freedom Movement (of Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights activists), were wholly unprepared to embrace their brothers and sisters of color who asked for nothing more than to be treated with respect as human beings.  Indeed, they were wholly unprepared to discern in the Freedom Movement the faces of the kingdom of God.

Richard suggests there are two necessary assets necessary to a solution: We need to be able to assess our culture from a vantage, as if it were, outside of the culture and this vantage must provide an alternative which would challenge the culture.  He links this to God’s love and unmerited grace for us and the love and grace which must be extended to our neighbors. Richard claims it was a focus on works, to the exclusion of unmerited grace, which caused the Church of Christ to fail to have the two named assets above. In his conclusion, he maintains it is only through the Kingdom teaching of the New Testament, and its focus on “concern for the poor, the dispossessed, those in prison, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and all those who suffer at the hands of the world’s elites.”

In short, his paper seeks to explain how to expel the myth of white supremacy and to describe, in part, the failed theology giving rise to the myth and to provide a theological resolution in an understanding of the centrality of Kingdom and the Gospel’s connection to this Kingdom.

The Key to Overcoming White Supremacy 

In my reading, the opening statement of the paper frames all else that Richard says.

If the heart of Jesus’ preaching was his concern and compassion for disenfranchised and oppressed people, then the first step toward becoming his disciple is to listen carefully and attentively to what those people wish to tell us about the contours of their lives. In America, oppressed and marginalized black people have testified almost unanimously to the twin realities of white supremacy, on the one hand, and the racial failures of white Christianity, on the other.

There are several tests which the New Testament provides to judge true religion. As James describes it, one must be a doer of the word. A religion that does not provide for widows, orphans, and the poor, is not true religion. A religion which creates widows and orphans and which impoverishes, kills, excludes, and oppresses is, by extension, “defiled and impure” (James 1:19-27).  One who denigrates the impoverished and joins the oppressor is not a Jesus follower. The Christian loves his neighbor who is by definition (according to both James and Jesus) one of the poor and oppressed (James 2). In his various tests of true religion James provides, though, a singular definitive marker for distinguishing Christianity from pure evil – the capacity, on the part of God, to hear the oppressed.

Is the problem a focus on commands over grace or a misunderstood grace?

 A question I have for Richard, is his depiction of the complicity of the Church of Christ in white supremacy because of its focus on works as opposed to grace. I wonder if this agrees with his own, earlier description, of the problem in conjunction with Campbell? It is precisely the ethics of Christ and the embodied ethics of Israel – works or doing things (not “works of the law” such as the food laws and circumcision) which is needed and which is left out of a supersessionist or a disembodied theology.  Richard wants to locate the problem in a focus on God’s “commands” as opposed to a focus on God’s “grace.”  This way of construing the problem seems to presume there is such a thing in the Bible as commands or law as over and against grace.

The error of the Lutheran reading of Paul, which I do not think Richard is making, imagines Paul pits law against grace and would presume to pit the Old Testament against the New.  Luther, Calvin, and evangelicalism, picture salvation as occurring apart from “works” but they confuse the works of the law and the works of the Catholic church – or the work of salvation which the church brings about. As a result, evangelicalism has disassociated salvation from the Church or the Kingdom.  Let me suggest the Church of Christ is not wrong in imagining it is saved by being part of the true Church – it is wrong in equating that true Church with itself or simply with orthodox “faith” (with “faith” being more akin to the empty category as it exists in evangelicalism).

We might hope that our particular expression of the faith will preserve us from systemic complicity in evil, but orthodoxy is apparently no protection. “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (James 2:19, ASB).  A small dose of history indicates near universal collusion among churches (with exceptions within any particular group) with slavery, anti-Semitism, and various forms of political evil.  Membership in a particular church will not preserve from complicity in evil and, in fact, church history teaches us that membership in any particular church has sometimes been more of a guarantee of complicity than not. (Even James is having to warn one of the first churches against denigrating the poor.)  We certainly need to study the failings of particular groups but we can also draw some generalizations.

Richard’s main point provides a corrective: Christian complicity in systemic evil, such as slavery, national socialism, white supremacy, bigotry, oppression of women and minorities, or simply the abuse, due to misshapen theology, visited upon the powerless (children, women, people of color, foreigners, the worker denied his wages in James), is a clear sign of a religion that has gone deaf – that is one that does not hear the voice of the oppressed. The danger of evil and especially of an evil religion is that the voice of the oppressors drowns out the voice of the oppressed, all in the name of orthodox Christianity.

Is it adequate to focus on unmerited grace apart from the Church as the channel of grace?

Richard imagines that a refocus on unmerited grace is a theological step in the right direction.  It seems necessary though, to connect this unmerited grace to the promise God gives to Abraham which ties grace to a particular form which precedes and explains the law and all that Israel is.  The Church is on a continuum with Israel – it is the fulfillment of Israel – and so it accomplishes the salvation promised to Israel.  But this is a socio-political-cultural salvation – an embodied salvation which is obvious in the “work” for the poor and oppressed that it accomplishes.  This is a salvation which Paul says we must “work out in fear and trembling.”  This is a practical salvation which not only shows itself in the work it does but must be equated with following Jesus, becoming true disciples, putting on and practicing the fruits of the Spirit. Salvation then, is a set of practices instituted by Christ in and through the Church and God’s grace is given to us in and through these practices modeled and learned in the Church.

In the typical evangelical Protestant understanding “grace” amounts to an empty category as far as human action is concerned.  Unmerited grace needs to be combined with an ecclesiology which gives substance to this grace as it is at work in the world. So, Campbell’s rationalistic notions of how to restore the New Testament Church may have been inadequate but his focus on what is sometimes called the sacraments of the Church – baptism and the Lord’s Supper – inasmuch as these tie us to an understanding that redemption is through the Kingdom is a step in the right direction.

An understanding that the Church is distinctive from culture could have only developed in a Movement in which there was focus on the distinctive role of the Church. Alexander Campbell himself had objected to the Evangelical Alliance’s faith statement in 1846 in regard to matters of conversion and faith (the perennial divide over the issue of baptism connected to both the work of the Church and the Spirit). He objected to the notion of total depravity, statements in regard to the Trinity, and the formulations surrounding Christ. The broad differences were over centrality of the Church and its direct role in salvation, which is not to claim his theology was adequate. However, Campbell’s ecclesiology, in its essence, was directly linked to his soteriology and it is in uncoupling these two that evangelicalism is unhinged.

Campbell and the early disciples were careful to negotiate the parachurch question and with it evangelical faith and practice. Faith could not float free of the embodied practices of the local church (baptism, communion, discipleship, preaching).  The concern had been to make the local congregation central and this was reflected in a theology which required entry into the Church through baptism and fellowship in weekly communion, so that salvation was in and through the Church. D. L. Moody’s biographer, James Findlay, by way of contrast, claimed Moody had no doctrine of the Church whatsoever.  This lack of focus on the Church typifies the evangelicalism absorbed by the Restoration Movement.

Richard asks,

What kind of theology would allow self-professed followers of Jesus to hold membership in the Klan?  What kind of theology would allow a disciple of Jesus to practice racial discrimination and then say with a straight face, “We were not prejudiced against the Negroes”?  And what kind of theology would allow Christians to refuse to worship with other believers, even to call the police if those “others” didn’t leave?

He answers, “a theology that offers believers no means of resistance against the bigotry and failures of the popular culture.”  Evangelicalism leaves itself wide open the culture as it has no vantage of resistance and white supremacy in churches is proof that they have been completely co-opted by the culture. 

At what point is the church no longer the Church?

As the quotations from Frederick Douglas indicate – the question is if what is being described as Christianity has anything to do with the teaching of Jesus. Is a Christianity complicit in and supportive of evil still worthy of the name?  If salvation is primarily concerned with souls going to heaven it may be impossible to say what is or is not Christianity but if salvation has to do with a real-world deliverance from evil there is no great mystery as to when the faith has been abandoned.

Frederick Douglas claimed there was a difference so wide between the Christianity of Christ and the Christianity of this land “that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other.” Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.”

Here Frederick Douglas and James Cone hit a very similar tone. James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, views the lynching tree in light of the Cross (and vice versa). His Black Liberation Theology concludes, “Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism.” We must accept, according to Cone, “that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering” and that He identifies with the oppressed and suffering. The “very essence of divine activity” as revealed in the Cross enables us to align the lynching tree with the Cross.2 When we make this alignment, we recognize God and his children are not the cultivators of this strange fruit (the fruit of the lynching tree) – Christ and Christians are that fruit. Christ was himself hung from a tree and his followers identify, not with those who put him there, but with the one on the lynching tree.

Cone maintains that God is not the God of all people as he is against the oppressor and is the God of the oppressed. He concludes, “So-called Christianity, as commonly practiced in the United States, is actually the racist Antichrist.” This “false Christianity . . . of the oppressor must be replaced by an authentic Christianity fully identified with the poor and oppressed.”

What was absolutely clear to a run-away slave and the voice we continue to hear from the oppressed, is a truth obscured by economics, national and regional loyalty, and what amounted to a way of life.  The “slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” did not have the perspective to understand it was an abomination to the name of Christ. “Isn’t this the purest form of deceit,” to call evil good in the name of Christ? The question which Richard’s paper raises (though he does not press the question) but he quotes King as raising: “Some one hundred years later, many white churches were still complicit in racial oppression, leading Martin Luther King Jr. to ask regarding those churches, ‘What kind of people worship here?  Who is their God?’”[3]  

Isn’t the instinct to silence the aggrieved the evil that put Christ on the Cross (arrested at night, illegally tried).  Douglas says, “I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which everywhere surround me.” To paraphrase Douglas, we still have vile oppressors for ministers and women denigrators for religious professors. “The man who wields the blood-clotted whip during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus.” The man who has robbed me and my family of my earnings “meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation.” James warns, however, that the enrichment of some at the expense of others creates the wealth that “will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire” (James 5:3).

James seems to know of only one form of wealth; ill-gotten gain obtained by oppressing the poor, the cry of which passes by the deaf ear of the oppressors and falls on the ear of God. If you cannot hear the oppressed, this marks you out as one who has “fattened his heart in a day of slaughter” (James 5:5).  The religion which Douglas condemns is precisely the unjust religion James condemns and both appear to parallel contemporary forms of the faith.

One wonders, in this present time of Christian support of a politics of hate, if the predominant religion of this land should be called Christianity? Is a faith that requires oppression and exclusion, which explicitly tolerates and promotes white supremacy, “Christianity.” Isn’t this, as Douglas would have it, “the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.” Isn’t this precisely the false religion which James warns should not be confused with authentic forms of the Faith? This sort of religion makes distinctions among people. It says to the poor man, the foreigner, the person of color, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool” (James 2:3). In dishonoring the poor man and favoring the rich, James explains, you have dishonored Christ.

As Douglas asks, is this not the same one of whom Jesus speaks, the one who “loves the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.” Is this a Christian or one of the Pharisees and hypocrites who make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but within, is full of extortion and excess. Do we have here one of the whited sepulchers, which appear beautiful outwardly, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness? Jesus seems to be targeting religion gone bad – and this religion is marked out by its excessive display, arrogance, and extortion. Douglas concludes, “Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. Could anything be more true of our churches?”

Salvation is an active living out of a grace received

Richard draws together ecclesiology and soteriology in his picture of the Kingdom:

Put another way, the “gospel of the kingdom of God” is the corollary to the “gospel of grace.”  It tells us that just as God has said “yes” to us in spite of our failures, so we must say “yes” to others in spite of their failures.  Or, in the words of John, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (I John 3:16)

What I have suggested is that we need to draw them even tighter – to directly correlate God’s grace and our reception of that grace. One cannot fail to love his brother and still count himself as a recipient of God’s grace.  One cannot be among the oppressors and count himself among the saved. One cannot be an evil, orthodox, Christian.  One cannot stand at the foot of the lynching tree and claim the grace of the Cross.

We must recover the fact that the Cross addresses the lynching tree and it addresses white supremacy. The same evil accounts for both but the Cross addresses and overcomes this evil. The Cross is meant to expose and stop the sort of evil involved in lynching, racism, and oppression of the stranger. Yet, there is a form of Christianity which has been rendered ineffective and complicit in evil. How is it that the Cross is emblazoned on battle shields and lawns (as with the KKK) as the emblem of violence and racism? As Richard asks, “What kind of theology would allow self-professed followers of Jesus to hold membership in the Klan?”

Richard recognizes that the Kingdom of God is opposed to the kingdoms of Caesar and one might imply that he is arguing against every form of Constantinian Christianity.

In the context of imperial Rome, the angel’s proclamation was both revolutionary and seditious, for its two key words—Savior and Lord—were titles routinely applied to the emperor Caesar Augustus.  Indeed, Caesar’s titles included “Divine,” “Son of God,” “God,” “God from God,” “Redeemer,” “Liberator,” “Lord,” and “Savior of the World.”

“[Early] Christians must have understood,” John Dominic Crossan concludes, “that to proclaim Jesus as Son of God was deliberately denying Caesar his highest title and that to announce Jesus as Lord and Savior was calculated treason.”

Richard is clearly describing a Christianity which needs to make a departure from the predominant culture – American culture in our case.  Let me suggest that a full embrace of an alternative soteriology – an alternative doctrine of the Cross would complete the picture Richard is tracing for us.

A defective understanding of the Cross gives us the lynching tree 

Cone’s claim is that our theology of the Cross has numbed us to the evil which the Cross is meant to expose. In Cone’s estimate, the Anselmian doctrine of Divine Satisfaction (and by extension, Calvin’s penal substitution), has so twisted the meaning of the Cross that we fail to identify the lynching tree and the Cross. As Denny Weaver points out, Anselm’s doctrine is developed under a Constantinian Christianity which needed to accommodate Christian’s wielding the sword. Cone notes that it also accommodated slavery and racism. Anselm’s doctrine, the received understanding among the majority, accommodates the sword, racism, and oppression of women, so that Cone (from a black perspective), feminist and womanist theologians (from the perspective of female oppression), and Anabaptists such as Weaver (from a pacifist perspective) have converged upon critique of Anselm’s atonement theory. As Weaver describes it, they “have challenged any understanding of atonement that presumes salvation or reconciliation to God that would understand the killing of Jesus as an act required in order to satisfy divine justice.” 

Anselm’s doctrine, in serving a Constantinian Christianity, has done harm in several directions. It abstracts the evil of the Cross into a theory of justice in which God enacts violence so as to meet his standard of righteousness. The death of Christ, rather than being a murder carried out by Rome and the Jewish authorities, is an act of violence for which God is ultimately responsible. Rather than uncovering scapegoating of an innocent victim, scapegoating seems to be encouraged and required – even God does it. This violent picture of the atonement projects the violence back onto God, which is something on the order of an originary violence – as opposed to an originary peace. Where the New Testament would have us identify with the victim – the scapegoat (e.g. the woman taken in adultery, the parable of the vineyard, the passion story itself) under Divine Satisfaction we are made to identify with the necessity of having a victim. Christ died so that we do not have to. His death is not thought of as a model in which we would take up our cross and follow him; rather it is a onetime event which allows us to escape the same fate.

There is a great deal wrong with Divine Satisfaction (or its derivative – Penal Substitution) but the greater harm may arise, for many, from the displacement of biblical atonement in which the Cross of Christ is defeating a real-world evil. To get rid of Christian complicity in evil it is necessary to identify it and understand how the Cross opposes it. It is necessary to equate racism, oppression of the poor the foreigner and the stranger, oppression of women, and violence, with the sin Christ overcomes. This is so simplistic as to be tautological, yet as with the lynching tree and the cross, there is a disconnect produced by a turn from Christ’s exposure of evil. As Rene Girard puts it, “We are aware that the Gospels reject persecution. What we do not realize is that, by doing so, they release its mechanism and demolish the entire human religion and the resulting cultures.”

Conclusion: Richard draws out the pervasive nature of the problem.

I am speaking, rather, of virtually all white Americans, including myself, for the myth of white supremacy is the air we breathe, the water in which we swim, an ideology that is so deeply embedded in our common culture that we can escape the power it wields over our minds and emotions with great difficulty, if at all.

The pervasive problem of a culture given over to white supremacy calls for a pervasive answer in a counter-cultural Church.  How might we test if we have ear for the cry of the oppressed.

Douglas, on his arrival in the British Isles said, he experienced “an absence, a perfect absence, of everything like that disgusting hate with which we are pursued” in America. Living, as I do, in “Little Dixie” I cannot imagine that the relief Douglas felt on escaping this country in 1845, as a fugitive slave, is much different than the relief young black men feel after having escaped portions of my State and country. The test of an authentic Christianity, at a minimum, may be the realization of “an absence, a perfect absence, of everything like that disgusting hate with which we are pursued” among our black brothers and sisters.

[1] “Trump: We’re Going to Take the Country Back,” Fox News Insider, July 12, 2015: http://insider.foxnews.com/2015/07/12/donald-trump-phoenix-speech-were-going-take-country-back, accessed January 15, 2017.

[2] Libby Nelson, “’Why we voted for Donald Trump’: David Duke explains the white supremacist Charlottesville protests,” Vox, April 12, 2017, at https://www.vox.com/2017/8/12/16138358/charlottesville-protests-david-duke-kkk, accessed August 13, 2017.

[3] Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in James Melvin Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986), 299.