A Christian Response to Racism and White Supremacy

Sheryl Henderson Blunt on August 14, 2019

The Institute on Religion and Democracy hosted “A Christian Response to Racism and White Supremacy” Monday night.

The event—a discussion between The Rev. Eugene Rivers and Georgetown Professor Joshua Mitchell followed by a Q&A—focused on how a pathway to racial reconciliation might be built following Jesus Christ’s teachings on love and forgiveness, and in finding one’s ultimate identity as a child of God.

“We’re in the middle of a crisis of world historical significance,” said Rivers.  “What is required now is the best thinking, and the best, most courageous ideas to engage this crisis.”

“Fifty-one years after [Martin Luther] King, and it is almost inconceivable the depths to which the discourse in this country has descended,” said Rivers. “And everybody, in terms of the individuals who pass for adult leadership, is complicit. … The only folk that are going to be able to create the moral and political language are going to be the committed, courageous Christians.”

A Pentecostal minister and social analyst based in Boston who also pastors the Azusa Christian Community Center in inner city Dorchester, Rivers is president of The William J. Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies, co-founder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, and co-chair of the National TenPoint Leadership Foundation that addresses the impact of urban violence and poverty on African Americans.

Rivers said the evening’s event was a prelude to what will “inevitably be a national discussion” on “the intellectual, philosophical and political challenges” that America must confront.

“White supremacy constitutes a unique historical development through which there are really no parallels,” he said, citing Daniel 10:7-14 as a source for the “metaphorical framework for understanding where the United States is” and “how this country begins the conversation around white supremacy.”

In the Biblical passage, Daniel, the Old Testament prophet, recounts a vision in which an angel tells him he has been favored for seeking wisdom and for humbling himself before God. The angel then recounts spiritual warfare he’s had with “the prince of the kingdom of Persia.”

“The church needs to consider carefully what God’s word says. … You must have a dynamic reverence and fear of God,” said Rivers. “America has not done that. They’ve turned their back on God. They’ve rebelled against God; now they’re catching hell for it.”

“White supremacy is the ‘prince’ of America, and it is that principality and power that blocks the prayers of the church,” Rivers said.

According to II Chronicles 7:14, God promises to hear His people, forgive their sins, and “heal their land” if they follow His instructions. “There are four things you gotta do,” said Rivers. “You’ve got to humble yourselves, repent of your sins, clean up your ways, and seek God’s face.”

“It is the sins of the fathers that are now being visited upon the second and third generation because white supremacy is now the dynamic force that pervades every dimension of life,” he said. “You cannot, as a Christian, come to terms … with the crimes of America without a developed sense of the love of God. Because without the love of God you cannot, if you are black, resist the demonic temptation for hatred.”

On the flip side, for white Christians, there must be a deep desire to understand racism and America’s historical appalling mistreatment of blacks, Rivers said, because “the truths are so horrible” that “outside of the grace of God, and the power of God, you can’t handle it.”

“Any mature adult conversation has to begin with the church,” he said. “It has to begin with the church’s commitment to whatever the truth is, on all sides. Then there must be love and forgiveness.”

Joshua Mitchell, professor of political theory at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, who also teaches at the university’s campus in Qatar, said progress toward healing and racial reconciliation is only going to come by following a Biblical model that stops scapegoating others.

“The great big mess we’re in has only a theological resolution,” he said. “Everywhere we look, we’re thinking about transgression and innocence, purity and stain. … We’re trying to establish who’s clean and who’s dirty.”

“Of course theologically, Christianity is concerned with this,” said Mitchell, who in addition to having chaired Georgetown’s Government department and serving as acting chancellor of The American University of Iraq, has also authored several books including Not by Reason Alone: Religion, History, and Identity in Early Modern Thought. He is currently writing a book entitled, Identity Politics: An American Awakening Without God and Without Forgiveness.

“Christianly speaking, we’re all the sons of Adam,” he said. “We’re all stained. It’s only through the One who is without spot and blemish that we can find purity.”

Mitchell said his main concern is understanding how “the fundamental theological language—which alone can heal us –has somehow moved out of the churches proper” and entered politics.

“The term ‘racism’ is everywhere and it’s almost not useful,” said Mitchell. “We have to recover the theological language that’s adequate to the problem” to really understand racism and white supremacy in America.

“It strikes me that what’s going on theologically … is scapegoating, and that’s of course out of [the Old Testament book of] Leviticus,” he said. “The community, in order to be purged, in order to be cleansed, has to have a scapegoat unto which they put all the transgressions, and then they march the goat out. That’s in the Hebrew Bible.”

“The Christian formulation is that … there is a divine scapegoat who takes away the sins of the world,” said Mitchell. “And the question is, so how much of a revolution is this? I think Christianity instigates the most powerful revolution that’s ever been known.”

Mitchell said the primitive phenomenon of purging, scapegoating, and racism, is a failed group mentality that will replace the Christian response if the theological language is not asserted and modeled.

“The Christian understands that there’s no group purging that can possibly make you clean … because there’s something already in us [original sin] that can only be redeemed by the sacrifice of God the Son,” said Mitchell. “So the only possible antidote to this scapegoating that we’re seeing within identity politics, on the left and the right, is recognizing that we’re always already broken, that not by purging another group can we be redeemed, but rather by recognizing that this was already done for us.”

Without Christianity “we can’t meet each other as persons,” said Mitchell. “We can only meet each other as groups; and because groups are always going to want to look for redemption by purging, it’s either a mortal kind of purging or a divine purging—those are our only two alternatives,” he said. “Christian churches have to … go back to this divine formulation, and that’s the only way out of this.”

Sheryl Henderson Blunt is a former senior writer for Christianity Today and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship Alumna whose articles and reporting have appeared in Congressional Quarterly, The Philanthropy Roundtable, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, and other publications.

  1. Comment by Mike on August 14, 2019 at 8:27 am

    “It strikes me that what’s going on theologically … is scapegoating”. Exactly. Rather than work their way out of their problems, one group has decided that another group is to blame totally, and that the other group will never escape that condemnation. Kind of hard to have any negotiation when you have already decided that the other side is one hundred percent wrong, and that they owe you. If the other side is willing to come halfway, that is not enough; they must be made to grovel in the dust. It certainly is a winning formula, isn’t it?
    You see the same thing in politics. The liberals have decided that all of our nation’s problems are the fault of the conservatives, and therefore they will brook no compromise. The conservatives must be made to heel, to surrender, to give up and let the liberals have control, despite the fact that everything the liberals try fails.
    I am sick of hearing about white supremacy.

  2. Comment by Jerry Herbert on August 14, 2019 at 10:34 am

    Thanks, Mike, for your critique of polarizing group-identity politics. I’m a Mike Gerson-type, Paul Wehner-type conservative. With a little more nuance, I’d endorse your 1st paragraph. But your second paragraph appears to me to be an example of the very problem you seem to critique in your first. Unless, of course, you can just as quickly replace “liberals” with “conservatives” in that 2nd paragraph. I’m afraid you illustrate the very dangers of polarizing group-identity politics that you rightly bemoan. What am I missing?

  3. Comment by Mike on August 14, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    I confess to being a conservative politically and spiritually. I see the liberals, in both cases, as being desirous to pushing those of us on the other side out of the picture.
    Look what happened to the latest Supreme Court nominee. The Democrats are still trying to get rid of him, to the point that they are now talking impeachment. They started talking about impeaching Donald Trump before he even took office. Remember what happened to Clarence Thomas? George Bush allowed Ted Kennedy to write the law for the senior citizen drug program, including the financial figures, and then Kennedy publicly denounced Bush for not including enough money. Name one time that Democrats have crossed the aisle to support any legislation that the Republicans have proposed. It goes the other way. So-called “Antifa” has turned out to be very fascist in the way it operates. Look at the situation in which a Democratic congressman in Pennsylvania wanted to “out” several ladies who were peacefully protesting at the site of an abortion clinic. No one on the right does this sort of thing.
    Liberals seem to think that they have a divine right to be on top, whether in government, or in religious organizations, or in schools, and that we conservatives must bow down to them . Note the persecution of those who will not bake cakes or supply flowers for their “weddings” because they believe that SSM is wrong. It seems like it is always the conservative who is expected to surrender his convictions.

  4. Comment by Charles on August 16, 2019 at 12:10 am

    Mike. Reverend and Dr. Keith Ward has famously remarked that he has nothing at all against Christian fundamentalism—except that it is WRONG. We so-called liberal Christians have nothing against conservative Christians and conservatives in general—except that they are WRONG. You cannot sit there and claim that liberal Christians and other liberals are trying to marginalize conservatives out of existence when the whole conservative enterprise is primarily focused on marginalizing liberal Christians and other liberals out of existence. You need to sit up and face facts Mike. Both sides hate each other—Jesus or no Jesus. Thirty percent of Americans hate the other 30 percent of Americans and vice versa. I do not use the word “hate” lightly. From what I see when I look around in various media on both sides, each side would gladly give its first born male child to eliminate the other side—be it by magic, holy writ, murder, or whatever else. I am not sure where that leaves our country or the universal church. However, I do know one thing. The remaining 40 percent of Americans—at some point—are going to tell both sides to shut up and solve the hate problem for us—and it will not be a result of that 40 percent being “won over” by either the conservative or liberal side. If I had to say, I suspect they will send us both packing and buy our bus tickets.

  5. Comment by Mike on August 16, 2019 at 9:42 pm

    Sorry, Charles, but history and tradition are on our side. Even the Scriptures inveigh against removing the old landmarks. It is the liberals who are trying to destroy everything that conservatives have worked for over the years and decades.
    You are living proof of the hatred that liberals have for conservatives-you admit it. We do not “hate” you-we just want you to either be changed or defeated. Is it wrong for us to defend ourselves and the institutions that we have worked so hard to build up? I see no evidence that liberals build institutions-rather, they move into those that already exist, and corrupt.
    In the end, God will be the final judge. I don’t think the conservatives will be completely blameless on that final Judgment Day, but I believe that liberals will hear those awful words, “Depart from Me. I never knew you.” I don’t wish for that, but I fear that it will be that way.

  6. Comment by G on October 31, 2019 at 9:19 am

    History is on our side?? Which one? Historically the Bible Belt was pro slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Now it has transformed into political idolatry.

  7. Comment by Gus on October 31, 2019 at 9:11 am

    You said they started talking about impeaching Donald Trump before he even took office? You forgot the comment that the goal was to make Obama fail before he even took office?

    White supremacy is not a love for who Jesus called the least of these and Jesus also said hatred is the same as murder so yes this can block ones prayers. One cannot fix a problem until first admitting it exist. I will pray for all my Christians in the church who have not overcome the sin of pride and prejudice. Also Jesus was a man of color not a white European but a Middle Eastern Hebrew Jew straight out of the Tribe of Judah.
    Trump is losing us converts not gaining them is a fact. Wake up.

  8. Comment by Steve on August 14, 2019 at 12:52 pm

    What you may missing: the part that says conservatives must be brought to heel, etc, is supposed to be liberals’ thought process, and self evidently bad.
    Note that this event was sponsored by IRD, the sponsors of this site; as much as I concur that I also am more than tired of the white supremacy trope, we should cut our host some slack.

  9. Comment by Diane on August 14, 2019 at 1:10 pm

    A couple of thoughts concerning the article: Rivers, in his list of needs for a national discussion mentions the “intellectual, philosophical and political challenges,” but leaves out where people live, the social challenges. Rivers and Mitchell say many good things, but both talk like academics. On the other hand, white supremacists live far from academia; they are about slogans and action, not discussions. Until Christians leave the pews and rise up to help meet the social challenges that reign in their neighborhoods, only creeping solutions to racial problems will continue to exist, and the white supremacists will continue to grow through their action, recruitment and financial support.

  10. Comment by Dan W on August 14, 2019 at 10:54 pm

    “We’re in the middle of a crisis of world historical significance,” said Rivers. “What is required now is the best thinking, and the best, most courageous ideas to engage this crisis.”

    White supremacy ranks way down the list of problems the U.S. is facing. #1 turning away from God? #2 dissolution of the family? #3 Way too much violence in our society?

    Politicians, preachers and professors try to put us in groups, and play the groups against each other. Didn’t Jesus say (paraphrasing MT 22:36-40) “Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself” when asked what was the greatest commandment? The article didn’t mention it, but did anyone suggest this at the IRD event?

  11. Comment by Ted on August 16, 2019 at 12:33 pm

    The Rev. Rivers and Professor Mitchell lament the divisions in the church and society and then exacerbate it with their anti-white rhetoric. In doing so they are perpetuating the greatest lie of our generation: that black people are the victims of relentless white racism and that explains everything. If these gentlemen want to blame white people for all the problems that black people face then the “courageous conversation” is over now.

  12. Comment by Linda Cebrian on August 16, 2019 at 5:46 pm

    Thank you, Ted, for speaking my thoughts after me. When I saw the title of this article I thought I would be thankful to read something level-headed and rational. It was just a bunch of gobbledygook

  13. Comment by Tony Heine on August 16, 2019 at 11:59 pm

    IRD, you are better than this.
    The title alone shows that you have accepted the Cultural Marxist talking points.
    “White supremacy is the ‘prince’ of America, and it is that principality and power that blocks the prayers of the church…”
    One can only hope he is not preaching this to his congregation. The last thing the black community needs is another voice added to the race-hustlers who tell them that all their problems, in this case spiritual problems, are due to white people.
    The church in America has real problems. “White supremacy” is not one of them.
    As C.S. Lewis pointed out, Satan loves making Christians chase the wrong problem.
    When the ship’s hull is breached and filling with seawater, Satan will convince you that the ship is on fire. Spraying water around does nothing to fix the flooding and actually makes it worse.
    Satan is having a grand time watching us get out our fire hoses to put out “white supremacy” while the church is sinking in a sea of false gospels, unrepentant sin, pursuit of comfort and the rest of the laundry list of real problems that is way too long.
    I know you guys are mostly about the mainline denominations in the U.S., but you might want to sneak a peek at what is happening with the evangelicals:
    Cultural Marxism is becoming Satan’s new attack vector on the church. Don’t be deceived.

  14. Comment by Brandon Blake on November 6, 2021 at 2:56 am

    Definitely not one of IRD’s better articles. Churches have never been “unified” and Jesus prayer for unity in John 17 is not really about unity in the sense that Christians and others think of today. That is a part of multiculturalism and ideological diversity infecting the Church universal. Because it essentially ignores the many reasons for the different churches that actually exist. People are inherently tribalistic and the more progressive or liberal among us cannot deal with that. They have to have some utopian dream to reach for but it will forever remain elusive. Just accept reality in all of its distinctions and colors for what they are.

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