My kids have this book called There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon. Its about a boy who notices a small dragon in his house. He tells his mom about the dragon and she responds, “there’s no such thing as a dragon.” The dragon grows bigger. As the dragon grows, the boy becomes more concerned but his mom continues to deny its existence. Eventually the dragon’s body fills the house with arms and legs popping out of windows. The dragon runs the house down the street. Finally, the mother admits she sees the dragon and its shrinks back to its original, small size.
The boy quips, “maybe it just wanted to be noticed.”
This book is fun for kids but profound for adults. We often have dragons in our lives that we try to ignore, hoping they go away. But this is not how problems are solved and as they are ignored, they grow bigger and bigger.
White supremacy and Nationalism are the Dragon in the room of White Christianity in America.
I’ve been wrestling with this for years but I am writing now because the fever pitch this issue seems to be reaching in our culture. White supremacists have been emboldened in recent years and according and are considered the greatest terrorist threat our nation faces, according to the DHS. The intertwining of white supremacy with Christianity as well as the overwhelming support of Donald Trump from Christian nationalists is why it is so hard for Trump to unequivocally condemn white supremacists and white nationalism, as we saw at the recent debate. The truth is, as Rick Santorum noted after the debate, the president does not like to condemn his supporters. He knows a large portion of his support comes from white nationalist groups. With an “ends-justifies-the-means” mentality, he is unable to condemn these folks.
To be fair, it is likely many good-hearted white evangelicals who make up a large portion of the president’s support are uncomfortable with the violent white supremacy of their fellow Trump supporters. Yet the sad reality is that to ignore the dragon of white supremacy in the room is not possible any longer. The dragon has always been part of white Christian faith in America. From time to time it may grow larger or smaller, but its been there from the beginning. If white Christians fail to condemn it now, it will destroy the whole house.
We who are white Christians must have the courage to refute the evil of white supremacy and explicitly demonstrate it has no place in the Church.
Of course, white supremacy did not begin in America. That said, America is unique in that there has never really been Christianity without white supremacy. When Christianity came to these shores, white supremacy came along with it. The United States began as a nation by enshrining slavery in its founding documents. All men may have been created equal, but this did not include black men (or women). By the time of the Civil War, every other Christian nation had made slavery illegal. In America alone, southern preachers taught the Bible obviously endorses slavery. White Christians in the south were not reluctant supporters of the Confederacy, but cheered it on with the Bible on their side. Historian Mark Noll’s book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis is highly informative on this subject. He demonstrates that American Christians were unique in using the Bible to support slavery:
“Nonetheless, by the mid-nineteenth century, the force of the biblical proslavery argument had weakened everywhere except in the United States. There, however, it remained strong among Bible believers in the North as well as among Bible believers in the South. It was no coincidence that the biblical defense of slavery remained strongest in the United States, a place where democratic, antitraditional, and individualistic religion was also strongest. By the nineteenth century, it was an axiom of American public thought that free people should read, think, and reason for themselves. When such a populace, committed to republican and democratic principles, was also a Bible-reading populace, the proslavery biblical case never lacked for persuasive resources.” (Noll)
American Christianity was alone in disregarding all tradition and emphasizing individualism. From this, a surface reading of scripture which any person could employ easily found plenty of verses in support of slavery.
“On the eve of the Civil War, interpretations of the Bible that made the most sense to the broadest public were those that incorporated the defining experiences ofAmerica into the hermeneutics used for interpreting what the infallible text actually meant. In this effort, those who. . . defended the legitimacy of slavery in the Bible had the easiest task. The procedure, which by 1860 had been repeated countless times, was uncomplicated. First, open the Scriptures and read, at say Leviticus 25:45, or, even better, at 1 Corinthians 7:20-21. Second, decide for yourself what these passages mean. Don’t wait for a bishop or a king or a president or a meddling Yankee to tell you what the passage means, but decide for yourself. Third, if anyone tries to convince you that you are not interpreting such passages in the natural, commonsensical, ordinary meaning of the words, look hard at what such a one believes with respect to other biblical doctrines. If you find in what he or she says about such doctrines the least hint of unorthodoxy, as inevitably you will, then you may rest assured that you are being asked to give up not only the plain meaning of Scripture, but also the entire trust in the Bible that made the country into such a great Christian civilization” (Noll)
We often hear stories of those Christians who went against the grain and fought for abolition. These folks certainly were heroic. But in their day, to be an abolitionist was seen to be on a slippery slope to liberalism. We must ask ourselves: do we celebrate those abolitionists while reading the Bible with the same methods the supporters of slavery did? Whose side would we really have been on?
One more quote from Noll is helpful to fill out this picture (its a long one, feel free to skip to the bottom if you like):
“Explaining how a common trust in the one Bible led to such different conclusions gets further by referring to the broader social, cultural, and religious circumstances that shaped interpretations of Scripture. Four observations may be helpful. First, outside the United States, traditional orthodox Christianity was much more likely to be a- or antirepublican than Christianity in the United States; it was also more likely to be governed by inherited communities of interpretation and to be wary of claims for autonomous and freshly proposed understandings of the Gospel. Consequently, biblical interpretation outside the United States was more often a corporate exercise, which respected the developmental traditions of Christian communities more than the individual’s own grasp of Scripture. If that corporate consciousness condemned slavery, it could easily overrule what looked like individualistic or eccentric appeals to the Bible.
Second, outside the United States, traditional orthodox Christianity was not particularly democratic. Thus it did not matter as much how self-selected individuals, whether populist or learned, interpreted the Scriptures compared to how the traditional churches interpreted the Bible. As in the United States, the Bible in Canada and Europe was foundational for Protestants. The contrast was that while prime contexts for interpreting Scripture were provided for these foreigners by history, tradition, and respect for formal learning, the prime American context was the interpretive will of the people.
Third, outside the United States, antislavery was not linked to heterodox theology or to the rejection of Christianity. Whereas in America a noticeable connection existed between ardent abolitionism and a willingness to abandon the Bible, in Britain and on the European continent the strongest opponents of slavery usually came from the more evangelical or more orthodox segments of the religious community. . .
Fourth, in Britain, both traditionalist and evangelical varieties of Christianity leaned against the literalist exegesis of Scripture that provided the greatest strength for biblical proslavery. In particular, British High Church and evangelical believers distrusted the principle that each and every Bible verse had a simple meaning to be extracted only by attending to just the words in that verse. . .
In sum, viewed from outside the United States, the issue of the Bible and slavery did not pose the difficulties that it did within. Trust in the Bible was virtually the same. But because trust in the people at large to interpret any part of the Bible by relying on republican and democratic common sense was much weaker abroad, foreign Protestant Bible believers easily turned aside the proslavery arguments that seemed so much stronger in the United States” (Noll).
Noll’s book strongly demonstrates the support of slavery by White American Christians was deeply rooted in the American experience and way of thinking. From this we can again see that white supremacy is intricately tied in with American Christianity. This is why slavery ended, as we know, not with Christians changing their minds due to their faith but with a bloody war. It is also why white supremacy persevered. White Christians built a system in the south that kept their higher status. Over the years, white Christians worshipped on Sunday mornings while attending KKK rallies and lynchings Sunday afternoons. White Christians supported a revisionist history of a glorious “Lost Cause” and a south where black people were better off as slaves, enjoying the kind patronage of genteel masters. White Christians opposed the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps we naively thought white supremacy was over, but the last few years have reminded us that the dragon is still in the room.
Of course, our black Christian brothers and sisters have always known we have a dragon in our room. Black Christians also knew slavery was wrong and knew that white Christians had a deeply compromised faith. But white Christians had power and power tends not to listen to voices from beneath challenging the status quo. America was God’s chosen nation, after all, and if we’re already the greatest, any voice that challenges this is just being divisive.
This brings us back to the original questions: why is it so hard for the president to condemn white supremacy? Why is it so hard for white Christians to admit our complicity in it and benefit from it? Why is it so easy to just ignore it and go about our days?
Because its our heritage and our tradition. Its who we are. Jesus said if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. And who wants to do that?
In the next few weeks, I am going to wrestle with these questions. I’ve read a lot over the years, though I make no claim to be an expert. I think I am pretty well versed in theology and know a good bit of history. When it comes to the specifics of politics, I recognize my relative ignorance, though when it comes to faith and politics I believe I have some wisdom.
There is a lot to say and think about. Its uncomfortable to talk about. I am not sure if I have any answers beyond “confess and repent.” But we have to talk about it, as Christians. We have to ask if we are Christians or Christian nationalists? We have to ask if we have created a bastardized Americanized Jesus that fits our preconceived notions of who God is. We have to have the courage to allow the God revealed in Jesus to shape all our ideas of who God is and what our role in any nation ought to be.
As theologian David Bentley Hart says, Christianity never truly came to America.
But I believe there is hope for us still. I have to be hopeful or I will despair. For this hope to become reality, those of us living today naming the Dragon for what it is. We must do what our predecessors have mostly failed to do – provide a Christian faith not rooted in nationalism and the American experience, but rooted in the Trinitarian God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. I believe it is the duty of white Christians to refute the white supremacy in white Christians and offer them a choice: Christianity or white supremacy.
Jesus says no one can serve two masters. Will we take up our cross and follow Jesus or take up our guns and defend white supremacy? You can’t be prepping for violence if you’re carrying a cross
*For further reading, in addition to Mark Noll’s Civil War as a Theological Crisis, I recommend Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise and Robert Jones’ White Too Long. James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree is also a phenomenal book.