White supremacy is a loaded term, conjuring up hooded robes, burning crosses, and Heil, Hitlers. But there is another way to understand it, and the phrase is increasingly becoming a helpful conceptual marker, helping us to understand the core of racial problems in society.
It is not foreign to Christian thought to use powerful, loaded terms in a wider meaning. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explained that committing adultery did not only include actually having intercourse with someone other than one’s spouse but included, in its broader meaning, the sin of lust. Murder included not just the literal taking of human life by violent means but also harbored hatred in one’s heart for another person (Matthew 5:21-30). And Christians today routinely preach about the sin of idolatry as referring to more than just literally bowing down to a statue but also to putting anything before God in one’s heart. The purpose of this kind of language, getting to the heart of the sin, rather than its most shocking and obvious manifestation, is to help us all to see our complicity and culpability in sin, as well as our need for a Savior.
And yet, when you try to speak to evangelical Christians today about white supremacy or white privilege, there is a knee-jerk reaction to say, “I’m not that.” The image we have of white supremacy is too frightening to consider that we may have complicity in it.
In retrospect, it’s a little surprising that many Christians wouldn’t bat an eye if their pastor preached a sermon accusing them of murderous or adulterous thoughts and pointing out that Jesus said those thoughts were the same thing before God as physical murder or adultery. And yet the same folks (probably just because the language is less familiar, honestly) are deeply adverse to the idea that they might be complicit in or have attitudes of white supremacy.
Just so nobody mistakes my meaning here, let me say this outright. I am not standing here, pointing fingers at you alone. I am here pointing the finger at me too. I am a recovering white supremacist. We are in this together. Please hear all that I have to say in this post as being a sermon to myself as well.