The white Church is long overdue to acknowledge and repent of its theological fostering of, financial contribution to & gain from, continued complicity and silence in the face of racism.
The work of acknowledgment is, I suggest, the preliminary work that brings a white Christian and/or a white congregation to recognize that whiteness is inherent in our worldviews, in our theologies, in our experiences. Acknowledgment includes the work of understanding individual bias as part of but distinct from systemic racism. The resistance to acknowledgement often sounds like, “That was in the past” or “That’s not who America is.” The work of acknowledgment often sounds like, “We notice our white privilege (1) and how it continues to function on our behalf.”
The work of repentance is the spiritual and practical work of sitting in our white discomfort with sackcloth and ashes, digging deep to examine the racist wrongs we have done (individually and institutionally), confessing how far our whiteness has broken us apart from the Body of Christ, and inviting & inviting again white Christians/white congregations to lament the sin of racism. The resistance to repentance sometimes sounds like, “It wasn’t our fault.” The work of repentance often sounds like, “What can we do?”
But acknowledgment and repentance are only the beginning — and in fact, as Black men continue to be found hanging from trees and Black trans women continue to be pulled from rivers, “beginning” might be an overstatement.
We are long overdue to divest from the white Church — from its theology & polity, from its finances & influences, from its comforts & conveniences. And we are long overdue to defund whiteness that has cloaked itself in Christ for the sake of power and “peace.”
The baptismal waters of repentance cannot save us from our racism.
We need the Spirit’s baptism of fire (2) to burn through the disguises of whiteness, to burn down the white Church’s damaging theological constructs, and to burn to the point of drought the well of racism from which the white Church drinks. There are many wonders of God’s work and many testimonies of Christ’s restoration among us in the white Church, but these holy deeds have not brought us to repentance (3).
So bring on the Fire.
Let us divest from white Jesus. White Jesus in our picture Bibles. White Jesus in our framed artwork. White Jesus in the church gallery of past pastors, that lineup of solemn white men. White Jesus in our stained glass. Return the thirty pieces of silver (4) that first gifted these images to our churches. Remove and relocate these images to a corner of the church parlor where other precious objects collect dust because we still pay homage to the money that was given years ago with strings attached.
Let us also defund white Jesus. Defund our missional efforts to bring white Jesus into Black and brown communities (both local and global). Defund our youth group trips to Black and brown communities devastated by white colonialism & capitalism (as though the damage caused by white Jesus should also be repaired by white Jesus). Instead let us invest in Black- and brown-led community efforts — no strings attached, no creeds required, no gold star awarded.
Let us divest from personal salvation. The individualization of salvation is theological selfishness. The reduction of salvation to a personal transaction with Jesus is spiritual narcissism. Salvation — salving — healing — requires ongoing, intimate, messy relational work between one another and between communities. Seven times a day we are to go to one another (5), to admit the mess, to accept rebuke, to make amends, to release resentment, to remove ourselves from repeating the damage … and to return again to repent when we repeat the damage. Maybe Jesus is content to accept our repentance just once in exchange for salvation, but healing isn’t once-and-done work and it’s not work we can do alone — not even alone with Jesus, because if we’re not doing this work with a body, a community, then we’re not doing the work with Jesus.
Let us also defund personal salvation. Defund the social currency we whites strive to earn through performative allyship. Defund the individualist mentality of our white churches that are determined to keep their own doors open down to the last penny of their dying endowments, rather than choosing to close while there are still endowment monies that can give life elsewhere in our communities. Defund the “only one way” cocksureness of our theology, of our worship habits, of our polity protocols (side eye @ Robert’s Rules) by giving money and time and space and platform and leadership to the voices that might teach us humility and cooperation.
Let us divest from racist profits and comforts. What is the history of the indigenous people on whose land our church properties sit — and what is the present-day experience of those people’s descendants? How were those properties on which our churches were built first gained (or stolen)? In the history of our white churches and white denominations, how were endowments seeded — that is, what industries generated wealth for the white folks who became benefactors to churches and denominations? Who have we martyred, overlooked, tossed out, burned out, shouted down, gas-lit, monetized, underpaid to bring our white churches and white denominations to a comfortable place of self-professed inclusiveness?
Let us also defund racist profits and comforts. Defund our white Church survival efforts (especially if “survival” is the absorbing worry or decision at hand for a congregation) and reallocate funds to community well-being. Defund the echoing sanctuary spaces we no longer fill and the lands we hold only for profit, and reallocate monies and buildings and properties for the benefit of non-white communities as they see fit for themselves — again, no strings attached, no creeds required, no gold star awarded. Refund the value of the property to the descendants of those from whom it was stolen. Rearrange our white Church endowments away from those funds that contribute to global harm. Ask if the wider community genuinely needs our white congregation or denomination — and if so, defund the budget items earmarked for our own internal comfort and invest in the needs of the wider community.
I was raised in the white Church. I have spent my entire professional career thus far in the white Church. I also fully support my Black children’s choice to withdraw from the white Church (and from Church altogether). I cannot as easily shed the theological and cultural narrative of whiteness; I can (and often have) reframed those narratives, but as a storyteller, I’m aware of how easily narratives can be reframed to serve any desired purpose. White supremacists have their own framing of the Christian narrative. A cross can be set on fire or a cross can be bathed in blood, and they are both stories of violence that white people have been known to frame as “redemptive.”
In this season of pandemic when so many church buildings are empty, in this current swell of public outcry against racism, I increasingly wonder about the money and the energy white Christians have invested for generations in our theologies & our buildings & our collective white self-esteem — so often explicitly or implicitly centering all of it at the feet of white Jesus. To call for divestment from and defunding of the white Church is to confess, in part, how intrinsic the white Church is to my own life, my career, and my dis-ease.
But the work of divestment from and defunding of the white Church is necessarily insider work — it can only be done by those who have an investment in the white Church of which they might be convicted to let go, those who have funded the white Church through time and money and creativity and spirit that they might be persuaded to reallocate. Some will reallocate by leaving the white Church, whether in search of white comfort elsewhere or in search of sacred space that doesn’t require their death to restore its life. Some will divest of change by holding the white Church hostage to what it used to be.
Sprinkle a little baptismal water in their direction, but don’t let them delay the Fire that is coming.
And let’s throw every blond-haired-blue-eyed-Jesus picture into that Fire to fuel its flame.
(1) A Facebook post that I wrote on 5/29/2020: White folks should wash the word “privilege” from our mouths – a word that assures us of the good things we get in this racist world, a word that upholds the racist notion that the habits of our white lives are a bar for which others should yearn, a word that breezes past our culpability for & our deficiency due to systemic racism. It’s not white privilege that saves our necks from a police officer’s knee; it’s white violence. It’s not white privilege that Covid-19 cases among whites are proportionally lower than among Black and Native communities; it’s generations of white sin. It’s not white privilege to carry a massive gun in public; it’s white sickness. It’s not a privilege to be white in a racist world; it’s an open wound of our minds & bodies & spirits, and we cannot heal so long as systemic racism continues.
(2) “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11, NRSV)
(3) Then Jesus began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. (Matthew 11:20, NRSV)
(4) When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. (Matthew 27:3, NRSV)
(5) “And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” (Luke 17:4, NRSV)