The Toxic Gospel of White American Christianity (Part 1 – Domination and Denial)

You don’t need me to tell you that the United States finds itself in one of the most challenging moments in our history: COVID-19 killing tens of thousands, devastating our economy, isolating us, and unearthing our dangerous desire for personal freedom at the expense of the common good (wear a damn mask!). 

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic pales in comparison to the long lasting pandemic of racism, white supremacy, and domination that has plagued this country and the western world for hundreds of years.

In talking about a solution to the many challenges we are facing, you might have heard people offer something like this, “What we really need is to get back to our Christian roots…to bring prayer back into schools…to understand that God is in control…to make this country a Christian nation again.” 

I really want to believe that Christianity can be part of the solution to the monumental challenges facing this country but the more I watch and read and reflect, the more I believe there is only one way that can happen:

White American Christians and the White American church must repent of the toxic gospel of American Christianity that we have allowed to flourish.

At some point in the development of western Christianity as Constantine and then other rulers (of church and state) co-opted the Jesus movement for their own purposes, the Gospel of Jesus with an emphasis on sacrificial, self-emptying, liberating love was downplayed. Substitutionary atonement and domination and power and empire were highlighted. And while many western countries have allowed this altered Christianity to take root, nowhere in the world has it grown into such an ugly and flourishing monstrosity as in the United States.

White American Christians and the White American church must repent of the toxic gospel of American Christianity that we have allowed to flourish.

Here are some of the hallmarks of that toxic gospel of American Christianity as I see it:

  • It’s a gospel that championed colonization and domination of people and resources in an effort to build a Christian nation.
  • It’s a gospel that allowed Christians to enslave (and abuse and rape and murder) other human beings. 
  • It’s a gospel that creates followers who bash Christian artists for speaking out against injustice (read the comments in this post and this post by recording artist, Lecrae).
  • It’s a gospel that has centered itself on a story of divine wrath and violence in a way that clouds the liberating love of Jesus. 
  • It’s a gospel that praises athletes for refusing to kneel in solidarity with the oppressed. 
  • It’s a gospel that defends the sanctity of life in the womb but refuses to utter the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.” 
  • It’s a gospel that turns a blind eye to hate and bigotry in order to be close to power and privilege. 
  • It’s a gospel that has ditched Jesus’ example of love and inclusivity for judgment and exclusivity (just ask Black people, and women, and LGBTQ folks, and immigrants…) 

If you read some of the comments in the Instagram posts I’ve linked to above you’ll see the toxic gospel of American Christianity at work…dominating and denying. 

Maybe this characterization of American Christianity sounds harsh to you but I think White American Chrisitanity needs a wake-up call.

Yes, there are many wonderful Christian people who are so kind and compassionate. Yes, there are churches who are engaged in all kinds of work to serve the poor and marginalized. American Christianity is not a monolith. There are bright spots, thank God! But that doesn’t diminish the very real presence of racism and hatred and white supremacy and domination and denial in the past and present American Christianity.

Now, I hear many people respond to the claims about racism and white supremacy in American Christianity by trying to distance themselves from all of that. “My family were immigrants, we never owned slaves, I’m not racist, don’t hold me responsible for other people’s mistakes!”
In response to that sentiment, someone in a Facebook group I’m part of recently shared an incredibly helpful analogy from Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author:

We in this country are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even. Many people may rightly say: “I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked Indigenous people, never owned slaves.” And yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures in the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now. And any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands.

Isabel Wilkerson, American’s Enduring Caste System, New York Times Magazine

I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to just patch the walls any longer. 

I don’t want to keep living in a house with a crumbling foundation. 

I want to rebuild the house on a new, more humble foundation that makes space for all people to actually experience freedom and justice. 

And I think the best way for white American Christians to move that process forward is by starting with rebuilding the foundations of our individual lives and the churches we are part of. We must build our foundations on the solid rock of the Gospel of Jesus and not the consumeristic, racist, violent, exclusionary, toxic gospel of American Christianity. 

This will be incredibly painful for many of us…and extremely challenging, especially in the midst of COVID-19…but this detox work is long overdue. 

Some action steps to consider if you’re willing to join me on this journey…

  1. Learn the history and complicity of the white American church with regard to racial injustice.
  1. Confess your support, silence, or sanction of the status quo.
  1. Listen to the voices of people who are different than you (different race, orientation, background, etc.) Find some people to follow on social media who aren’t like you. Listen to what they say. Think about what they say. Don’t argue, don’t counter, don’t defend…just listen! If you are looking for ideas, here are a few people I’ve been listening to recently:
  1. Deconstruct and reconstruct your faith.
    • Listen to The [de]constructionists Podcast (maybe a starting point would be an interview they did with Brian McLaren about his 2017 book, The Great Spiritual Migration, which explores the major shifts that American Christianity needs to explore. Don’t let the old white guy fool you, he’s on to something. 
    • Get involved with Evolving Faith – a movement started by Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey and some others – seeking to be a safe haven for wanderers and misfits to experience hope and healing in regard to spirituality and faith. Their conference happens in October and they also have a podcast.
    • Read or listen to some stuff from Phil Drysdale.
    • Follow Jo Luehmann as she shines a light on abuse and white supremacy within the church and calls for a decolonizing of faith.  Her thoughts and insights have challenged and inspired me so much!

Who are you listening to? What questions do you have? What are you wrestling with?

I would love to have a conversation with you.