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.