Have We Been White Too Long?

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A number of years ago I had done something, I don’t recall what, and the good Christian and often generous man who was with me said, “That was mighty white of you.” 

I had never heard the phrase before and wasn’t sure what he meant by it. But reflecting on it in the days to come it was clear that he meant that the good thing I had done reflected a white positive character trait versus a character trait missing in a person of color.

Robert P. Jones, in his recent book White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, digs into the history of the idea that to be living out white values is the supreme life. Jones takes us on both a personal and statistical journey (Jones is head of the research firm Public Religion Research Institute) into the ways that white supremely has firmly rooted itself in the white church (evangelical, mainline and catholic). But not only has it rooted itself in the white church according to Jones, the white church passes on ideas and attitudes that keeps white supremacy alive and well in the U.S.

In telling the story of white supremacy, Jones touches on some extremely painful pictures and chapters of the intersection of the white church and people of color. Some of the most heart wrenching are of people leaving church services and joining in lynchings and black members of the congregation being sold to finance a new church building.

While these stories may lead many 21st century white Christians (especially northern white Christians) to point out that these thing are in the past, Jones will not let us off the hook so easily. His research shows that while white evangelical Christians have warm feelings toward African Americans our actual behaviors and beliefs (based on his 15 point racism scale) show that evangelicals are the most racist group in the U.S. Jones writes,

“The models reveal that, in the United States today, the more racist attitudes a person holds, the more likely he or she is to identify as a white Christian. And when we control for a range of other attributes, this relationship exists not just among white evangelical Protestants but also equally strongly among white mainline Protestants and white Catholics.24 And there is also a telling corollary: this relationship with racist attitudes has little hold among white religiously unaffiliated Americans; if anything, the relationship is negative.”

Jones also points out that the more one attends church as a white evangelical the more likely one is to be racist. 

All of this, of course, is hard to summarize in a review. You really need the statistical data to see the full picture—data that Jones provides. 

The damage of the legacy of white supremacy finally is not only the damage done to people of color. The damage done has and continues to hurt white followers of Jesus who don’t live fully as his disciples and miss the wonder of the many gifts different cultures and peoples bring to a nation and to the body of Christ. 

The damage of this legacy also speaks to church renewal. To be a church that is truly renewed is not simply about more people and more dollars, as so many view it, it is about bringing to life God's true community, about building the beloved community. Anything less is only a shadow of renewal.

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Thank you for these very timely and sad-but-true words that the Church simply must hear, lament, repent and follow a different way. Church renewal, perhaps the very life of the Church, is dependent on bringing to life the beloved community that God intends. My hope is in the Lord, who has sustained his people, his Church, throughout the ages, will continue to do so. We dare not place hope in power, politics, or charismatic leaders, that is not the way of Jesus. It comes through faithful, humble obedience, loving God and others.