Thursday, June 21, 2012

Christianity and Whiteness

In doing some reading this summer, I came across the works of antiracist activist Tim Wise.  I haven’t actually read his books yet, but I have listened to a few of his lectures on YouTube.   My first impression was pure awe.  I totally agree with his antiracist message, which he delivers with humor and selective profanity.  I found him helpful in clarifying otherwise muddied arguments regarding race and racism.  He inspired me to have the courage to speak out against racism. However, two things coincided for me.  

First, many of the people in my sphere of influence seem to dislike liberals, feminists, socialists, etc, a detail that has caused conflict between me and these same people at times. These friends cannot reconcile their worldview with these ideologies so as to even sympathize with the aforementioned groups.  This is supremely frustrating to me most of the time, and I have been known to express said frustration.  On the other hand, as Tim Wise pointed out, it's kind of like talking about "my momma."  I can do it, but don't you dare.  So when Wise starts "conservative bashing" on Twitter, it's not like I haven't done it before, but it hits me the wrong way coming from him.  And then he went there—he started insulting Jesus and Christians. 

I found myself slightly defensive, to say the least.  I argued, “I mean,  I understand there is hypocrisy in the Christian church, I get that there have been abuses, but for me, these have not been a correct representation or interpretation of my faith."  I find it supremely intolerant and hypocritical for Tim Wise to defend Islam and denounce stereotyping of Muslims for the acts of just a few, and then proceed to lambast Christianity and stereotype Christians.  Both religions have been potentially misinterpreted by groups of extremists.  Further, both religions have historically and currently do maintain hegemony in various parts of the world.  According to his own moral code, if it's not okay for him to stereotype Muslims or insult Islam, it should not be okay for him to do the same towards Christians and Christianity.

However, as I reflected on my reaction I suddenly had an "aha" moment regarding Christianity and its role in the U.S.  I suddenly saw the parallel between White privilege and "Christian privilege," between White supremacy and role of Christianity (or a distorted interpretation of it) since the before colonies were established by White settlers.   I'm not trying to gloss over the entire history of Christianity, and it's important to note that I’m locating my discussion in the U.S. 

All this to say, I realize there are reasons why Tim Wise and others would be angry at Christians, and specifically White Christians.  I also realized that I had used the same type of logic that I have heard other White people use when talking about "race," but this time applied it to religion.  The argument goes something like, "Well, there is racism in other countries.  Look at what [insert oppressive people group] did to [insert oppressed people group]."  At which point, I want to say, "Right, but we're in this country, and we have to deal with our mess, not theirs."  So in saying, "Islam maintains hegemony in other countries, oppresses people, etc." I should follow my own logic, "Right, but it doesn't here, whereas Christianity has and does."  

In this country, Christianity has a complex and problematic relationship with "Whiteness."  (This first and foremost evidenced by the fact that when I or other White Christians talk about Christianity, we are thinking about White people.) This dual identity, often seen as one and the same, maintained institutionalized slavery based on a hierarchical racial order.  This ideology continues to dictate life in the U.S. and has real psychological and material consequencesWhite Christians cannot separate themselves from this history, nor from the present reality of segregation and racial inequality.  It must be acknowledged first before continuing in any public or community relations.  

My new stance is that Christianity may have earned a good number of the insults dealt out by Tim Wise, although I can't fully stand behind his type of activism.  We [White Christians] have marginalized and oppressed people of color, and we continue to maintain a segregated order (see Emerson's study, "Divided by Faith").  Secondly, as a Christian I am supposed to follow Christ, who "while being reviled, did not revile in return," and he was blameless—I am not.  Finally, I started to wonder how much of White Christian’s outrage at being "persecuted" in the U.S. is really just masked rage at losing privilege?  Rage at being perceived as anything but the norm?  Fear at losing power?  And anyway, how do Christians justify fear and rage?  Do we recognize it as such, or do we call it “righteous indignation”?  This is one of the reasons why we need truly diverse churches.  As Christians, we need the perspective of people from other racial groups to reveal our pride, indignation, fear, privilege and oppression for the purpose of repentance and reconciliation.

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