Most Christians would agree that racism is bad. Many would also say that theology, our ideas about who God is and how God relates to the world, should have something to say about this. Sometimes, though, our theological anti-racism is weaker than it should be because of a limited definition of what racism is.
Approach #1 to Anti-Racist Theology
On the surface, racism can be simply defined. Racism involves the view that 1) race exists as biological reality (it doesn’t) and that 2) there is some hierarchy of superior and inferior races. This two-part view expresses itself in feelings such as hatred and practices such as segregation.
Against this racist mythology, many Christians point to biblical reasons not to believe these that some groups are superior to others. In the first creation story in Genesis, humanity as a whole was created in God’s image or likeness. That implies equality among human beings and sacredness as an inherent aspect of each person.
In the story of the prophet Jonah, we find another condemnation of ethnic superiority. The prophet’s prideful refusal to bring his message to the Ninevites and his sulking once they listen to him show that his god is smaller than the biblical God he is supposed to be representing.
Another prophet, Jesus himself, undercut ethnic or racial superiority by treating Samaritans, Romans, and Canaanites as human beings worthy of respect and healing.
A bit later on, St. Paul informs us that in Christ Jesus there is “neither Jew nor Greek.” Beyond just words, his life as the “apostle to the Gentiles” is a witness to his belief that the crucifixion of the body of Jesus meant the destruction of the ethnic barrier that separated Jew from Gentile.
These are just some of the ways that Christians can theologically argue against the idea that a) there are separate races among human beings and b) some are superior over others. But that is not enough, because racism isn’t just a feeling of hatred and a desire for separation.
What If Racism Isn’t What We Thought?
Racism isn’t mainly about hatred of others and separation between people. As historian Barbara Fields points out, racism is about social and economic relations:
Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations—as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco. One historian has gone so far as to call slavery ‘the ultimate segregator’. He does not ask why Europeans seeking the ‘ultimate’ method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose, when they could have achieved the same end so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa.
In the United States, we have gotten so used to thinking about the segregation and hatred that have resulted from racism that we often think that racism simply is those things. But racism is more than it. It is the justification for unequal power and wealth, for kidnapping, murder, rape, and theft (those things that slavery and imperialism really were and are).
Racism is about bodies and their relations to each other. Racism can put those bodies in proximity to each other so long as hierarchy is maintained. One must be over the other, able to exploit the other. They never meet on level ground.
Even if there is no biological basis for one group being preferred over the other, racist social and economic relations demand there must be some other reason, a practical or a moral one. In a racist society, we can never admit that, as Ibram Kendi points out, “The only thing wrong with black people is that we think there is something wrong with black people.” There must be some excuse for the inequality that exists, something wrong with the group that lacks power.
(And inequality does exist: “Without the family car, the middle black family has a net worth of $4,160. The middle white American family in contrast is still worth $140,600.”)
If the limited definition of racism as merely an idea or a feeling isn’t accurate, it’s because it doesn’t take account of power. Stokely Carmichael [pictured above] expressed this quite simply:
“If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power.”
In other words, racism sometimes involves attitudes of hatred, but they are just a symptom of the power imbalance that racism is at its core.
Approach #2 to Anti-Racist Theology
The limitations of much anti-racist theology often come from the fact that such theology is developed in light of the perspectives and feelings of perpetrators of racism. In other words, the important thing is a heart attitude, not the more tangible consequences of racism. If the attitude is fixed and if cross-racial friendships are formed, “racial reconciliation” has happened, and all is well.
But things aren’t really fixed if someone from one racial group has the power to lynch someone from another racial group without facing the demands of justice for doing so. And things haven’t really changed if astonishing wealth inequality persists with some sort of alleged inferiority being used as its justification.
So where can we look for a theological answer that gets at what racism is about at its core, at the use of power to perpetuate inequality?
One place we might look is at the language of wicked “powers and principalities” that, even though they are invisible, visibly rule over the world (Ephesians 6:12). White supremacy, an ideology that rarely has to be stated or affirmed to continue being the way things simply are, is surely such an evil ruler of the present age.
We could also turn to Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), her prophecy that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,” speaking of the God who has humbled the Pharaoh and taken the side of enslaved people. In his persistent condemnations of those who held power and his preference for the victims of oppression, Jesus worked along the same lines as his mother. He consistently confronted and drove out oppressive forces, including abusive religious leaders, profiteering money-changers, and tormenting demons. That provides a context for theologically addressing racism.
What does that look like in practice, though?
It looks like a theology that is not afraid to challenge those who sit on thrones, not timid about freeing the captives (Luke 4:18) in an age of unprecedented mass incarceration, not hesitant to say that the problem isn’t just that we can’t be nice.
The fundamental reality of racism is an imbalance of power, and the God revealed in Jesus faced that sort of problem head-on. If we want to talk about that God and act as if we believe that such a God is real, then we have to live accordingly. There is no neutral position for followers of a rabbi who was lynched by the police. The existence of an evil power that oppresses people demands that we take a side.