Kristopher Norris is a visiting distinguished professor with the Center for Public Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He holds a Ph.D. from University of Virginia, and his research is centered on the intersection of church, race, and politics.
“I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with the pain.” - James Baldwin
A couple weeks ago Nazis came to town, and they brought with them a menagerie of hate: a torch-wielding, club-carrying, rifle-brandishing garrison of Klu Klux Klan, white supremacists, and other racist groups. They descended upon Charlottesville, a city founded by a slave owner, which struggles with that heritage while continuing to obfuscate it with a whitewashed rhetoric of progress.
After spending seven years in Charlottesville as a student, I responded to the clergy call to return and resist the hate that would fill its teeming streets. Yet, the chants these intruders sang as they attacked a group of students and held an interfaith service in lockdown—“You will not replace us”—betrayed their true motivation. Their visible hate emanated from a deeply-rooted sense of fear, a fear that their regime of domination—the subjugating power long held by white Christian males—will soon crumble amid changing population demographics, shifting religious loyalties, and a growing consciousness of systemic racial oppression. As Baldwin observed 60 years ago: “[Old orders] have always existed in relation to a force which they have to subdue. This subjugation is the key to their identity and the triumph and justification of their history.” Whether this proves to be the “death rattle” of white Christian America, as Robert Jones argues, or the emergence of a previously underground white nationalism that feels newly emboldened by the highest office, as the neo-Nazis claim, this was a violent attempt to subdue those who threaten white Christian male supremacy.
In light of these events, as teachers of religion and leaders of religious communities, simply condemning white supremacy is not enough. This emergence of visible hate, animated by a growing masculine white fragility, draws attention to the 900 hate groups in the United States that now feel empowered to emerge into public view, swastika and AK-47 in hand. We must not give into the false choice of ignoring them or resisting violently, but develop nonviolent strategies to resist and keep safe the vulnerable.
And we must also recognize the greater danger doesn’t carry a Nazi flag; it sits in our classroom or on our pew and occasionally tells racist jokes or blames immigrants for the lack of jobs or identifies problems “on many sides.” This more pressing problem is everyday racism masquerading as colorblindness. White supremacy doesn’t require displays of hatred, just the willingness to benefit from the privilege it offers, turning a blind eye to the historical and systemic factors that contribute to racial inequality. Colorblindness shields white people from seeing our own color, and the biases, assumptions, and epistemological limitations that accompany it. It obscures the ways in which whiteness infiltrates the whole of our lives: our social networks, political decisions, religious beliefs. And this allows the visible forms of white fear and hatred to thrive.
As a white Christian theologian, this means acknowledging the painful truth that white supremacy is a Christian invention. It is predicated on and endowed by Christian theological resources. As Willie Jennings argues, fortified during the period of European exploration, and based on a long history of supersessionism, white supremacy emerged as theology and became wedded to the colonial mission. Theological concepts like election and sovereignty were consecrated to the colonial agenda of comparing, and using, bodies: sorting others into insiders and outsiders, those further from and closer to the Christian norm of the white European male. This legacy continues to hold captive the modern, white Christian imagination—whether memorialized in a twisted or burning cross or a painting of a porcelain Jesus hanging in the narthex—and we have unleashed it on the world in quotidian micro-aggressions and club-carrying Confederates.
So what do we do in the aftermath of such hatred, knowing that this is not really the aftermath at all? Theologians and Christian leaders bear responsibility for white supremacy; so we also bear the responsibility to resist it. Confessing our complicity, we must recognize that our conventional strategies are often just refusals to grapple with the pain. This is not the time to appeal to our more harmonious selves and seek comfort in ethical platitudes; to make appeals to our common American values; or to suggest we look past color. These will reveal us to be no better than those the prophet Jeremiah admonished for “superficially healing the brokenness of my people by saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”
This hatred and pain demand something more difficult of us: The solution is not unity, not healing, at least not yet. These cannot come at the cost of justice and dignity. For now, then, we must sit in the tensions of disunity, and simply listen. As black theologians like James Cone have been trying to teach us, reconciliation without liberation—without repairing the obstacles to equal opportunity and promoting concrete rectifications for 400 years of social, political, and economic oppression—consigns us to repeat the mistakes of the past and continue to ignore the pain left untreated for too long.