A Black and White Issue

Elijah Mvundura May/June 2021

I was 15 years of age (growing up in White-ruled and racially segregated Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe) when I read in Time magazine about the Bible Belt of the southern United States. I still recall my disbelief and puzzlement. How could the “Bible Belt” be the most Christian region in the United States and also be the most segregated and racist? 

To me there was a clear-cut difference between Whites who were Christians and those who were not. I had seen the difference in the love and kindness of Father Mangan, the Catholic priest who was my high school headmaster. I had seen the difference in the empathy and love of Elder Norman Doss, an American Seventh-day Adventist pastor, who with his wife used to visit our family in the Black township.

Indeed, I used to think that if all the White people were like Father Mangan and Elder Doss there would be no “color bar” (segregation by race) in Rhodesia. And this wasn’t a naive youthful imagination. I was deeply impressed that Elder Doss and his missionary associates challenged the “color bar” after my father was refused the permit to build the regional headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (projects of that size were reserved for White building contractors). As a result, my father got the contract, which made him one of the wealthier Blacks in Salisbury (now Harare) in the late 1950s. 

As it is, such was the impression of Father Mangan and Elder Doss on my youthful sensibilities that in my teens whenever I was called “kaffir” (a derogatory equivalent of “nigger” in Rhodesia and South Africa) or racially victimized, I used to say to myself, “That White person is mean and hateful because he/she isn’t a Christian like Father Mangan and Elder Doss.” Again because of their influence, I didn’t accept the facile popular view (in preindependence Zimbabwe) that the Bible justified White superiority, Black inferiority, and slavery, or that Christianity was an accomplice of colonialism and racism.

These unarticulated childhood memories and views came to mind recently as I read White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity (2020), by Robert P. Jones, the CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). That Jones, a White American Christian from the Deep South—Mississippi—can clearly see and forthrightly expose and condemn as unbiblical and unchristian “the unholy relationship between American Christianity and white supremacy,” confirmed my childhood intuition that there is a clear difference between Whites who are Christians and those who are not.

And to be sure, there must be a clear difference between a Christian and the non-Christian members of his/her race, tribe, or nation, and even his/her family. For at the foundation of the Christian faith is the call to break with familial or natural relations—a break so radical that Jesus expressed it as “hatred” of one’s family members and even one’s own life (see Luke 14:26). Natural relations must be “hated” because they are tainted with self-interest, hypocrisy, and betrayals. They are not based on genuine love because they are not based on God, and God is love. In the case of racial, ethnic, or national relations, they are actually based on hatred and the demonization of the other. 

To put it differently in the words of Søren Kierkegaard: “There is genuine conflict between what God and the world understand by love. . . . Purely human conception of love can never go further than mutuality.” But far different from mutuality is what God’s love is and does. Unconditional and universal, it embraces everyone, even the vile. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).* “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. . . . Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10, 11). Or in Jesus’ own words: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). 

Jesus made love the mark of Christian identity. “By this everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13:35). And Jesus Himself exemplified this love on the cross. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). If the Christian life is an imitation of Christ’s self-sacrificing love, the standard is painfully too high—indeed, it’s humanly impossible. This impossibility is what is expressed in the Protestant doctrine of sola gratia, by grace alone. For God’s grace alone can enable us to imitate Christ’s self-sacrificing love

But even with divine grace, self-sacrificing love is still painful and repulsive. Early Christians shrunk from it, and sought to diminish the self-denial and humility it demanded. That’s why Paul called it “the offense of the cross” in Galatians 5:11. As a matter of fact, the history of Christianity is a history of diminishing, or eliminating outright, “the offense of the cross.” And this elimination of “the offense of the cross,” or the imitation of Christ, as the sine qua non of Christian life is what deformed the gospel into religious ideas, traditions, and rituals that could be used as cultural artifacts for building Western civilization and for justifying racism and White supremacy. 

Note must be taken, however, that the New Testament predicted and warned about the corruption of the gospel by self-seeking false prophets and false christs: Matthew 24:4, 5, 11, 23, 24; Mark 13:5, 6; Luke 21:8; John 15:2; Acts 20:28-31; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10; 1 Timothy 4:1, 2; 2 Timothy 4:3, 4; 2 Peter 2:1-3; 1 John 4:1-3. Yet curiously, all these predictions and warnings are overlooked in the narratives of the historical crimes blamed on Christianity—the Crusades, Inquisition, anti-Semitism, colonialism, racism, slavery, oppression, White supremacy, and so on. But by overlooking them, we have the supreme irony of Christianity being criticized and condemned for crimes it foresaw and condemned as the work of the antichrist. 

To return to “the unholy relationship between American Christianity and white supremacy,” it must be seen as the predicted corruption of the gospel, a species of the “spirit of the antichrist” (1 John 4:3). For against Christ’s explicit commandment, it set up a master/slave relationship in the church, the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). Yet Jesus Himself said, “All ye are brethren. . . . Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:8-11, KJV). Again, “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

On this reading, if Whites are “superior,” as White supremacists claim, then they are to serve, be slaves, of the “inferior” Blacks. Their “attitude” should the same as that of Christ Jesus: “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:6, 7). If the idea of “superior” Whites being willing “slaves” of “inferior” Blacks is incongruously inconceivable, scandalous to racial sensibilities, that’s the “offense of the cross,” the radical implication of Christ’s servanthood, which inscribed, as Phillips Brooks put it, “the right of the weaker over the stronger as part of the moral structure of the universe.” 

To be sure, Christ servanthood’s “transvaluation of values” is what revolted Friedrich Nietzsche, the self-described antichrist, because, as he argued, “a higher culture can come into existence only where there are two different castes in society.” He derisively called the gospel “slave morality.” For by elevating the weak it destroyed the “master morality,” pagan aristocratic values, and culturally the consequence was—mediocrity and degeneration. “We must all agree to the truth, which sounds cruel,” wrote Nietzsche, “that slavery is essential to culture,” and a strong, healthy society. That’s why democracy and equality, “Christianity made natural,” as he called them, are a cultural catastrophe, an “abolition of society.” 

White American Christianity, to be sure, was not influenced by Nietzsche, but judged by its justification of slavery, embrace of White supremacy, its cruelty and violence—it’s not Christian but Nietzschean. It “covers [its] infernal business with a garb of Christianity,” to cite Frederick Douglass. Indeed, below the garb is a “will to power,” Nietzsche’s countergospel of the Superman and the elite, which sacrifices the weak to the gods of culture and aristocratic way of life. It’s pagan, all too pagan. It reflects the dictum of Tacitus, the Roman historian that “the gods are on the side of the stronger.” Essentially, like Nietzsche, White American Christianity is a revolt against the fundamental message of the Hebrew prophets and of Jesus, that God is on the side of the weak, the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.

Indeed, in the final judgment our eternal destiny will turn on one point:—whatever we did for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). “Why do you judge your brother or sister? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (Romans 14:10). So “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Again, “honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). Christianity recognizes the reality of human distinctions or hierarchies, but completely eliminates them. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). And it is “by winning the victory over the temptation of distinctions [that one] becomes a Christian,” as Kierkegaard wrote in Works of Love. 

Victory over the temptation of distinctions is really victory over pride, which has been rightly called the root of all sin, for it’s the self playing God. It’s the divisive force that incites envy and rivalry, hatred and discord, in all areas of human relationships in a futile bid to realize or actualize an imagined godlike self. White supremacy is collective pride. As a cultural phenomenon it’s not unique. All ethnic, tribal, cultural, and national identities are rooted in collective pride or egoism. The scandal of White supremacy is its unholy relationship with White American Christianity—a relationship that replaces Christian core values with their very opposites: humility with pride, love with hatred, peace with violence, equality with hierarchy, and inclusion with exclusion. 

White supremacy converts Christianity into a tribal religion. But “is it not written,” said Jesus in Mark 11:17, citing Isaiah 56:7, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’?” To be sure, White Americans are not the only ones guilty of converting Christianity into a tribal religion. If we want to be honest with ourselves, all Christians are guilty. Very few Christians are able to rise above tribal, racial, national, or cultural prejudices, and truly see, in the different other, a child of God, and love sincerely, sacrificially as Christ commanded. For the majority of Christians their faith is mere familiarity or assent to some biblical stories, theological doctrines, or rituals—modified, to be sure—to suit personal whims and cultural tastes. 

In other words, many who call themselves Christians are completely ignorant, and I suspect willfully, of the fact that the acid test of Christian faith is an imitation of Christ’s self-sacrificing, all-embracing love, commanded by Christ Himself. This willful ignorance goes back to the early Church, to be sure. That is what occasioned the writing of the First Epistle of John: false prophets interpreting the gospel intellectually denied the reality of the Incarnation, that Jesus came in the flesh. They shifted the gospel from the context of love to the context of knowledge (gnosis). As William Barclay rightly noted, this “produced a spiritual aristocracy who looked with contempt and even hatred on lesser men.” 

John opposed them by insisting that imitation of Christ’s self-sacrificing love is the true test of Christian faith. “Whoever says, ‘I know him [Jesus],’ but does not do what he commands [love] is a liar, and the truth is not in that person” (1 John 2:4). Again, “whoever claims to love God yet hates his brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). 

In the Bible the term antichrist first appears in First John to describe false prophets who interpreted the gospel intellectually to evade imitating Christ’s self-sacrificing love. They set up a counterfeit gospel for people to call themselves Christian, while living in sin. And that’s what White American theologians did. By interpretating the gospel racially and culturally to protect White economic interests and social status, they set up a counterfeit gospel for White Americans to call themselves Christian, while harboring pride, prejudice, hatred, and racism. To this, Jesus would certainly say: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules” (Mark 7:6, 7). 

In the conclusion to White Too Long, Jones wrote that “reckoning with white supremacy, for us, is now an avoidable moral choice,” and asked White Christians to awaken and see what White supremacy has done to them and their relationship with their fellow citizens and even with God. Indeed. But if White Christians are to awaken, they must see that behind White supremacy is “the spirit of the antichrist,” which John traced to the devil himself. “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who doesn’t do what is right is not God’s child; nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister” (1 John 3:10). In other words, reckoning with White supremacy is a choice between hatred and love, God and the devil. 

White American Christians must learn from Paul. About his ethnic pride and privileges as “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5) he wrote: “Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss. . . . I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ” (verse 8). Paul considered them garbage because he grasped that in Christ God had “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,” between Jews and Gentiles, and created a single new humanity (Ephesians 2:14, 15). This single new humanity, said Paul, is God’s household “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (verse 19). And it’s “a dwelling in which God himself lives by his Spirit” (verse 22). 

This dwelling of God in the single new humanity is what renders ethnic pride and privileges garbage. And as Paul emphasized again and again, it’s the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless all peoples of the earth through Abraham. This single new humanity is not a homogenized, undifferentiated mass. The eternal gospel preached by the first angel of Revelation 14 fully recognizes difference, the particular identities of “every nation, tribe, language and people.” The difference about the new humanity is that animated by Christ’s love and united in worship of God, differences do not make a difference.

*Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Article Author: Elijah Mvundura

Elijah Mvundura writes from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has graduate degrees in economic history, European history, and education.