It’s a measure of how morally depraved the church has become that a Southern Baptist Convention resolution condemning overt racism and fascism is considered a major victory. The “alt-right” presents conservative evangelicalism with an easy target, but white supremacy is a lot bigger than the alt-right and pretending that it has been addressed by condemning the alt-right will only serve to perpetuate it. White supremacy is thoroughly embedded in every aspect of a theology that has been distorted for the past five centuries by the need to justify colonialism, genocide, and slavery in Jesus’ name.
The mistake that Al Mohler and his Southern Baptist buddies make is assuming that white supremacy is fully encompassed in a sense of “racial superiority,” as though the modern racial distinctions of white and black are analogous to ethnic distinctions like Athenians and Spartans or French and English. But that’s not the way race functions. White identity is built upon the myth of a universal humanity which transcends cultural particularity.
White people are not people who belong to a particular culture, but people who have successfully assimilated into the imaginary universal humanity. What makes people of color “inferior” under white supremacy is not a comparison between their culture and another culture, but rather their inability to assimilate into the universal “colorblind” humanity of whiteness. So the logic of universal humanity that Al Mohler uses to condemn “racial superiority” is actually the logic that underwrites white supremacy.
It is the idea that “born again” Christians no longer have distinct cultural identities that creates a racial hierarchy; the racial superiority of whiteness is its lack of cultural particularity. The original hierarchy was between the “new humanity” (European Christians) whose baptism into Christ put them above culture and ethnicity and the “old humanity” (heathens in Africa, the Americas, and Asia) who needed to be rescued from their cultures in order to be saved. The brutality of European colonialism was justified as the Christianization of heathen cultures throughout the world. And indeed the most honest conservative evangelicals today are those like Doug Wilson who recognize that their theology compels them to call slavery an eternally beneficial necessary evil for evangelizing African people.
One of the most important early colonial theologians Juan Gines de Sepulveda used the Great Commission as the basis for justifying the Christian Spanish king’s divinely appointed authority to enslave the natives of the Americas. The infamous Catholic doctrine of discovery established by the papal bull Romanus Pontifex is likewise based on a sense that God has appointed European conquistadors to create a “single divine fold” of humanity by conquering the “infidels”:
The Roman pontiff, successor of the key-bearer of the heavenly kingdom and vicar of Jesus Christ, contemplating with a father’s mind all the several climes of the world and the characteristics of all the nations dwelling in them and seeking and desiring the salvation of all, wholesomely ordains and disposes upon careful deliberation those things which he sees will be agreeable to the Divine Majesty and by which he may bring the sheep entrusted to him by God into the single divine fold, and may acquire for them the reward of eternal felicity, and obtain pardon for their souls. This we believe will more certainly come to pass, through the aid of the Lord, if we bestow suitable favors and special graces on those Catholic kings and princes, who, like athletes and intrepid champions of the Christian faith, as we know by the evidence of facts, not only restrain the savage excesses of the Saracens and of other infidels, enemies of the Christian name, but also for the defense and increase of the faith vanquish them and their kingdoms and habitations.
If the “single divine fold” of humanity consists in generic, equally sinful individuals whose cultural context and social location are irrelevant, then it makes sense for white supremacist theology to cultivate a generic, ahistorical account of Christian salvation. Instead of the collective healing and restoration proclaimed by Mary’s Magnificat, Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, and throughout Paul’s epistles, the generic individualist salvation of white supremacy consists in Jesus convincing God not to torture some people forever provided they are officially “justified” by “accepting him as Lord and savior.”
The critical move that white supremacist theology makes in order to erase its own sin is to turn sin into a set of abstract individualized demerits against God which must be “paid back” by Jesus’ blood rather than a demonic, oppressive ordering of humanity which Jesus’ movement of cross-bearing martyrs is established to destroy. There are no plaintiffs in the heavenly courtroom of white supremacist Christianity, only generic, equally sinful defendants. There is no restoration, only retribution. It is a theology forged by the need to erase history. Rather than bringing us into solidarity with the crucified, Jesus’ cross functions as a giant eraser.
In such a theology, Jesus’ cross is an abstract, ahistorical formula that applies mathematically to the generic sin of ahistorical everymen rather than being the disempowerment of Roman imperial terror by the nonviolent love of a Jewish messiah. Only a theology that had already erased the terror of the cross and made it into an abstraction could produce a movement that used a burning cross as the symbol of its racist terror. The cross had to be emptied of its bloody brown messiah before it could be appropriated as the self-justifying stamp of white terrorism. You don’t have to burn a cross to be a white supremacist; you just have to wipe the blood off and use it as an eraser.
It’s all good and well to condemn alt-right terrorist ideology and indeed we all should, but that’s like plucking leaves off of a hideous weed whose roots extend miles beneath the surface of our garden. Until white evangelical theology is decolonized, it will continue to produce white supremacy however vehemently it condemns it.
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