America is a Christian nation. This is usually touted as a badge of honor for many Americans. But, the history of Christianity will demonstrate that it has been a religion of oppression and marginalization — which has justified racial atrocities throughout history. It has been at the helm of a philosophical and psychological concept known as othering.
The idea and act of othering are when the superiority of tribal-based thinking prefers the people who are part of an in-crowd and together agree upon an enemy. This sense of traumatic alienation is experienced as a true worth of the person. The process of othering is taking someone outside of the group, focusing on elements that make them part of the out-group and then streamlining those qualities against the features of the in-group. These power dynamics could potentially last for centuries. In racism, they have.
Systematic Racism, otherwise also referred to as Institutional racism has been a part of American culture since its inception. But to truly understand why, we also have to accept the reality that America (in its Eurocentric origins, has consistently aligned itself with Christianity). So, to fully understand the scope of racism in America, we have to understand the racism in Christianity.
Racism is as American as apple pie. It’s been embedded within the psyche of Americans for centuries — to the point that White Americans don’t even recognize it, or willingly ignore it. Christianity, it can be argued is also part of a slice of that apple pie that makes up America’s historical core values. Although, for many slaves, Christianity became a safe space to air out frustrations, fears and anger — it’s origins lie in sins that still need to be forgiven.
In the word of the author, Bill Timmaus
“One of American Christian history’s great ironies is that the same religion claimed by white supremacists from the earliest colonial days to the fatal 2017 white nationalist protest march in Charlottesville, Virginia, also produced abolitionists and inspired civil rights leaders. Indeed, American Christianity in some ways has been bipolar.”
Western Christianity is riddled with its own internal struggles of loving the neighbor who was part of the ‘white in-crowd’ and hating those who were outside of it. It would justify its racism by claiming that the source, none other than God was the one who defended racism. Pastors were the mouth-pieces of God. Much like the Pharaohs in Egypt, they were (and some still are) considered by self-admission, the ‘sons of God’, pre-selected messengers of the Most High creator. But, like all human sons of god, they too have clay feet.
Pastors would go to great lengths to use the Bible to circumvent their own hypocrisy by allowing slave owners to bring their slaves to church.
“Some preachers encouraged slave owners to allow their slaves to attend worship services — though only in separate gatherings led by white proslavery preachers. They had to be seated in the back or the balcony of a segregated church. Those men of God argued that the sermons on the injunction in Ephesians and Colossians, “slaves, obey your earthly master,” would promote docility among enslaved workers.”
To fully grasp the gravity of how embedded this ideology of ‘us vs them’ is installed in Western Christianity. We have to go further back into its origins. In the first century prior to the invention of Christianity by the Apostle Paul — Judaism the major religion of Jesus’ time was a religion based on specificity — a specific relationship between Jews and their God. This specificity was built upon a relational covenant between Israel and God — God had supposedly chosen the tribe of Israel to lead the way into monotheism for the rest of the world around them.
They felt compelled to follow this new call to the letter. They created rules, they created rituals, and they tried really hard to give up polytheism – they failed quite a few times. But, eventually, monotheism became the norm. Part of this covenant, as they interpreted it, was that they were the in-group — and that everyone else was the out-group. After all, they were a tribe. The Jews in the first-century identified themselves part of 4 distinct groups, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Jesus Movement, and Essenes. Do you hear the internal schisms? This tribalism has informed the many denominations that exist today.
Over time they would soften and begin to allow others to be a part of the in-group, as long as they accepted the rituals of the covenant as their own. As long as they ‘identified’ as Jews (and eventually, they were accepted as Gentiles). So, we have the origins of supremacy within Christianity’s origins — not Christianity per se at this point, but this is what influenced the social dynamics that would eventually become Christianity.
The reality is if we are investigating the anthropology and the mechanics of the universal vs the specific, Christianity was dominated by the language of the specific (if it did not need to convert others — it would fit more into the universal religion category). The Apostle Paul tried to universalize it but just slightly. When Christianity reaches Constantine — this is when politics and religion begin to marry its relationships — and when domination and hegemony become synonymous with violence. Constantine would kill people who did not convert. If we fast-forward, Christianity was also used to jumpstart the Inquisition — which was led by the Catholic Church — an organization that wanted to also control the socio-theological narrative and justified the killing of many innocent Muslims and outsiders.
Although this a quick-overview, there are other robust articles and books that explore the historical details of Christianity and its contributions to racism. The reality is, that Christianity in its current Western manifestation has helped embed the institutionalization of racism in America. This is not to vilify the radical core of Christianity that sought to see all as equal, as divine, and all humans as participators in an emancipatory community — which did not a religious framework to guide it.
Miroslav Volf, a Croatian theologian says this about Christianity practices of violence throughout history
“Beginning at least with Constantine’s conversion, the followers of the Crucified have perpetrated gruesome acts of violence under the sign of the cross. Over the centuries, the seasons of Lent and Holy Week were, for the Jews, times of fear and trepidation. Muslims also associate the cross with violence; crusaders’ rampages were undertaken under the sign of the cross.” This extremism would race through history like a vein waiting to pop, it would inform notable event, and even help to form groups around racism.
The KKK, an extremist hate group that begins around the 1860s used Christian theology to develop a system of thought that vilified all black people, especially politically active ones. There have been anti-black groups throughout history. The systems of racism in America have deeper fibrous roots throughout the country and even its policies. One such example is redlining, a real-estate based policy that allowed federal and local government agencies to raise prices aimed at minority groups — or even build grocery stores further away from a town center to make it harder for minorities to access common goods.
There is something to be said here about how extremism has hijacked Christianity. This is not to universalize all of Christianity as being racist — but to show how Christianity has been used as a vehicle to justify atrocity – and if we are to seriously deal with racism in America, we have to accept that Christianity, in its current form, has been a large contributor – and in some ways continues to do so.
We have to look long and hard at the history that has got us here as a country. It’s not an easy introspection. It’s not a comfortable one. But, it’s a necessary one.