The terrorist massacre of nine black Christians on June 17 in Charleston, South Carolina, has already received massive treatment online, on air, and in print. Most editorials on the subject seem to fall into two groups: many use the opportunity to call for stricter regulation of firearms, while others emphasize that the real root cause of tragedies like this is not the availability of guns, but the prevalence and non-treatment of mental illness. While both topics deserve attention (as does the question of what interests each narrative might be serving), there have been those who have instead called for a need to understand that violence of this nature has deeper structural and cultural roots. What both the gun-control and mental illness policy recommendations miss, essentially, is the primacy of the culture and ideology of white supremacy.
This topic is, unsurprisingly, treated much more frequently by people of color than by white Americans. Though this is unsurprising, it is ultimately a major blindspot in white Americans self-understanding. By responding to violence of this kind with only narrow policy proposals–as worthwhile as those may actually be in their own right–we white Americans sidestep an uncomfortable discussion about our identities, our history, and the structure of the cultural, political, and economic systems in which we operate.
White Christians have generally been no better than our secular counterparts in taking white supremacy seriously. This is, again, a major failing of white Christians’s self-awareness, for one cannot understand the history of the Church in the Americas without understanding the history and development of white supremacy. Indeed, a historical account of the rise of the complex of attitudes, ideas, and theories that constitute white supremacy is absolutely necessary to disabuse oneself of many of the convenient fictions we white Americans often like to tell ourselves. Nonetheless, for white American Christians, there is yet another level, perhaps for us even deeper still than history, that needs investigation.
If the above conversations discuss the intersection of policy, of literature, of popular culture, of history, etc. with white supremacy, here I would like to query the intersection of theology and white supremacy. This could, of course, also take a historical route: we could investigate all the ways in which white supremacists attempted to backstop their political and economic views and interests with Christian imagery and texts. But such a project would be best left to those with the historical acumen to dig into the relevant texts. I’d like to ask what white supremacy means theologically.
White supremacy stalks white Christianity today, and this can be appreciated–and regretted–without an in-depth historical analysis of the rise of white supremacy since the 1670s (though, again, such a historical understanding is unquestionably valuable!) The theological gravity of white supremacy can, I think, be summed up by a quote that James Cone employed in his 2012 The Cross and the Lynching Tree: Cone cites an older white man who, in the 1950s, said that “lynching is a part of the religion of our people” (135).
This short quote encapsulates, I believe, much of what we white Christians do not understand–or want to understand–about our past, about the formation of our culture, and about our relationship to Christ. If indeed lynching is a part of the religion of this people–white people–what does this say about white Christians? What religion, exactly, is this man talking about? And what role does it play? Half a century after the passage of seminal Civil Rights legislation, and with a black President, it would be easy for us to assuage any feelings of guilt or uneasiness on the subject of race, trusting that Progress is already delivering us from our historical sin. Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine black Christians should remind us that the devil still sits in our pews.
The Cross and the Lynching Tree is undoubtedly received differently by different readers. Its chapters are diverse and divergent: moving from an ethical critique of the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, to a cultural celebration of the achievements of the Harlem Renaissance, to a historical account of the tactics of survival employed by black Americans in the early 20th century. Cone offers a rich meditation on race and religion that lacks any unifying thesis; instead, he moves between frames, trying to draw the reader to consider the gravity of his topic. The effect of this broad presentation is to offer a book that speaks different truths to different readers. For me, as I have already made clear, one line stands out above all others. Reading this old man’s witness, that, with lynching suppressed, he feared for the survival of the religion of his (my!) people, appeared to me as a sort of revelation–or, actually, condemnation. John Macquarrie argues that God’s judgment is just the obverse of God’s grace–perhaps then, God’s condemnation is God’s revelation received by one who recognizes a horrific failing, the weight of a historical sin.
“Lynching is a part of the religion of our people.” Assuming this man identified as a Christian, this statement at first must seem only incoherent. Even the most virulent fan of Richard Dawkins would not accuse Christians of publicly defending human sacrifice or murder as a central tenet of the faith (though some pagan critics did attempt this critique of the early Church). Furthermore, the fact that many (though not all, as Cone points out) of the victims were themselves also Christians seems to exclude this interpretation. So what religion is he talking about?
Let us focus on the subject of the sentence: the act of lynching, of publicly torturing and murdering someone (after 1865, nearly always a young black man) and celebrating the event with postcards and at times even collecting body parts as souvenirs (or relics?) suggests that this act is essential to this religion, perhaps functioning as its central cultic action. In short, we seem to be describing a religion which was formed around organized white violence against black people. Historical, cultural, economic, and political forces and explanations for this behavior abound, and of course are essential in understanding the activity. But, again, interpreting via the lens of theology, and recognizing the sacrificial trappings of lynching, I believe we must admit that white supremacy functioned, and indeed functions, as a truly religious force within white America.
Only by understanding white supremacy as a religion can we understand the old man’s statement, and having understood it as such, the full importance and effect of lynching, too, becomes clearer. This was not only an act meant to discipline and terrorize black folks, it was also an event which solidified the white community, reminding its members of their identities, their shared interests, and reinforcing the racial ideology that formed the backbone and glue to their political and social culture. To understand lynching in this way is, basically, to apply fundamental anthropological tools to the phenomenon.
The work of Emile Durkheim or Mary Douglas could be leveraged here, but I think an even more powerful analytic tool might be the work of Rene Girard. In his books The Scapegoat and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard outlines a simple but powerful idea: human religiosity is always founded on an initial act of violence, in which the stresses, dangers, and uncertainties of a community are symbolically (that is: actually, psychologically) loaded onto a single person, who is then killed. Not infrequently, either the real set of problems happens to dissipate after this violence, or the act of violence effects sociological and psychological changes that result in the community feeling as if the problem has been solved or at least has temporarily abated. For this reason, Girard argues, some of those killed are posthumously deified, and a religious cultus develops around their memory. So, if there is an attack of the plague in some settlement in prehistory, and some man, who is perhaps targeted because he is marked with plague scars, is “scapegoated” and then killed, and then (for, of course, biologically unrelated reasons) the plague dissipates, or a number of sick people get better, some members of the community will interpret the scapegoat’s presence as that of a divinity, and his exit (via murder) as a divine act. The person becomes seen as both the source of as well as the solution to the threat the community faced. It is critical to remember that Girard understands this act of killing and the subsequent deifications as real events that actually happened in the past. Some real person was really killed in the past, and the community who murdered them deified them–Girard sees this as the actual genesis for the vast majority of human religions, including the deities of the Greek and Norse pantheons.
Whether one buys Girard’s argument that this sacrificial behavior can explain the genesis of human religiosity (and if you are curious, I definitely recommend both texts, especially I See Satan…), I believe the general mechanism he outlines can be usefully employed to the theological question we have been meditating on. Lynching, seen through this Girardian lens, is the sacrificial cult that continually reinscribes the religion of white supremacy. Black others are essential to this religion precisely because they come to symbolize threat, danger, and degeneration for white people: the very human bodies that formed the foundation for the American economy were, nonetheless, religiously and culturally perceived as only liminally human, a nuisance to be controlled. The occasional lynching could then function as a sacrificial rite, reminding white people of their whiteness and thereby reinscribing white supremacy, and insulating white people from realizing the obvious: that much of their culture and economy was predicated on exploiting and torturing fellow human beings–indeed, quite often, fellow Christians and, after 1865, fellow citizens. Lynching was not, then, a spontaneous and unfortunate event that occurred in an otherwise healthy society progressing smoothly to a democratic future. Lynching was a necessary and predictable manifestation of an ingrained culture.
Theologically, lynching must be seen as a sacrificial cult of a clearly non-Christian religion which, nonetheless, took up residency within much of the white Church in the US. Lynching is the cultic activity of a widespread apostasy, manifesting the failure of the Church to actually live its teachings, to live the Gospel. White supremacy set up the ideal of the White Race in the place of God, and consumed the flesh of black persons–many of them Christians–in order to reproduce itself. If any extant, popular religion approaches the depravity Christians have historically feared lurked in what we generally call Satanism, surely, white supremacy fits the bill. White Supremacy is worship at the alter of the idealized (white) self: it is Satanism. This connection between murder, religiosity, and the objectification of evil as Satan is something that Girard himself makes clear.
Only if we understand white supremacy through this theological lens, understand it as an idolatrous parasite on the body of the Church in America, only if we come to terms with the extent to which white theology has been warped by its influence, only then can white Christians face the historical sin that lies at the heart of our culture. As Emmanuel Levinas reminds us, when we recognize who we really are and the Infinite who stands before us, we are responsible even for what we have not done. White supremacy is not the work of a few gun nuts or pitiable crazy people; it is a central and highly influential cultural, social, psychological, and indeed religious force still at work in our society. To apply a biological rather than a theological metaphor for a moment, if white supremacy is a virus, Dylann Roof is just the latest outbreak of the infection: not a one-off loon, but the manifestation of a deep evil that lies buried in our culture.
The promise of the Gospel is not easy perfection; obedience to the Gospel is not marked by assumptions of election. God’s revelation, God’s graceful call, falls on those mired in sin as condemnation; grace reads as judgment when we fall short of emulating God’s love. To take the history, the culture, and the idolatry of white supremacy seriously will be deeply painful for us white Christians. It will not be easy, it will not be popular, it will not sell well to Nones, it won’t attract young families. Talking about white supremacy in the Church may make the collection plate lighter on following Sundays; nothing clears a room like an honest sermon. But unless we can be honest about the sin that is white supremacy, we cannot follow Christ. And it really is that simple: will we serve God in Christ or our own convenience and power? Jesus has warned us that we cannot serve both God and Mammon.
May God help us make the right choice, and forgive us for centuries of refusing to.