Joining the Sinners or Resisting the Sin? American Christian Churches and Race

By: Elizabeth M. Bounds

June 16, 2020

Responding to: Religion and Racial Justice: The George Floyd Protests

Joining the Sinners or Resisting the Sin? American Christian Churches and Race

Race matters. Religion matters. And race and religion together matter crucially as areas central to the experiences of humans and the practices of institutions. All religious communities, of whatever tradition, are always contributing to what America “is,” including its racial identity. However, American national identity has been entwined in a Protestantism permeated by particular understandings of whiteness which in turn shaped understandings of blackness. As historian Judith Weisenfeld puts it, “The American nation has functioned not only as a theological concept through which a particular destiny has been articulated, but also as a profoundly racialized one in which American destiny is inextricably linked to a white national identity” [1]. Or as Richard Wright put it more simply, “The apex of white racial ideology was reached when it was assumed that white domination was a God-given right” [2]. The reality of this history means that we have not and cannot “fight racisms” in the same ways, as we are differentially located, not only by our faith heritages, but by our ethnic/racial heritages, whether we are of European or African origin, Arabic or Semitic, Asian or Indigenous. So, it is important to say that I write as someone standing within white, liberal U.S. Protestantism. 

Although resistance to the white national identity has always occurred among racially marginalized communities, there have been flashpoints which have laid bare the fault line. This moment is such a flashpoint, casting a searing light on histories of white supremacy entwined with practices of policing. The two strands of religious traditions perhaps most involved are White and Black Protestant Christianities, the very Protestantisms that have most shaped and most resisted white national identity. Their numbers may be declining, but the realities of these heritages still give practitioners of these traditions a critical place in the current protests worth highlighting at this moment. 

I would argue that there are two main forms of religious presence, which I characterize as rhetorical and institutional, that shape involvements ranging from the offer of care to the insistence on justice [3]. When I say rhetorical, I mean the stories, symbols, and frames through which we form our identities. In times of crisis, many people turn to religious language and traditions looking for meaning and hope. Not surprisingly, the Black Protestant Christian tradition is rich with meaningful narratives and symbols for resisting racism, reading Christian traditions in awareness of both African heritages and white dominant narratives. When Martin Luther King said in his last speech, “He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over and I've seen the Promised Land…. I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land,” his vision of hope drew upon centuries of Black Christian experiences, stories, and songs. 

By contrast, we white Protestants face the challenge that so many of our traditions and symbols have been shaped by white supremacy. We are reluctant to interrogate our particular Christian heritage, refusing to see its complicity in black suffering. Our theological understandings of reconciliation or the “colorblind” communion of God’s children can paper over realities of power and histories of white domination. But some white Christian leaders are trying to break open the truth by naming the specifics of racial history and rereading their Christian legacy [4].

Clerical leaders make the most visible contributions to activism for racial justice, whether leading protests, accompanying political dialogue, or simply preaching Sunday sermons. But their actions rest upon the structures and networks of their congregations. I look at the news and see members of Christian congregations in Atlanta marching against police violence. Lay Christians are participating in organizing lynching memorials in their communities or serving as members of the local chapters of the NAACP. Black and White Protestant congregations, and their members, can be critical resources for movements for racial justice, able to give concrete support, including food, meeting space, volunteer hours, and funds. This work is usually neither mainstream nor visible, but it is ongoing and patient, the work of those who, as poet Adrienne Rich put it, “age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world” [5].

  1. Forum, Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 19, no. 1 (Winter 2009): 32.
  2. Richard Wright, introduction to Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), xxi.
  3. See Leah Gunning Francis, Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2015) for an account of faith involvement (primarily Christian) in action in St. Louis in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown. 
  4. See Jennifer Harvey, Dear White Christians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014) for rethinking reconciliation, and Marcia Mount Shoop and Mary McClintock Fulkerson, A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015) for rethinking Eucharistic practices. 
  5. Adrienne Rich, The Dream of a Common Language (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978).

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