Editor’s note: This article was originally published on faithfullymagazine.com in January 2016 but was lost due to a database error. It was recovered and republished on June 8, 2019.
NEW YORK — Christian activist Jim Wallis said he was grateful that Martin Luther King, Jr. was more than a civil rights leader. King was also a minister who “spoke in the language of sin and repentance,” the kind of language that must be used to talk about racism, according to Wallis.
“Until we talk about racism in that language, I don’t think we’re gonna get to all of the things we have to change and fix, like the criminal justice system, our policing system, education, the economy, all the rest,” Wallis said to a small, mostly-White crowd at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City Tuesday night.
The gathering was organized by Union Theological Seminary and Demos. The featured panel discussion on racism was the first of many Wallis will be holding at notable churches in cities that have been the focus of headlines amid the Black Lives Matter movement. The discussions are based on Wallis’s new book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, which he described as a “roadmap” or “path of repentance.”
The language of “sin” and “repentance” is necessary particularly for White Christians because of slavery and its legacy, he argued.
White Christians, said Wallis, chose to mark enslaved Blacks as non-humans as a means of reconciling “their faith with what they had to do with these slaves to make a profit.”
Today, White Christians remain “blinded and their hearts are bound by” the sin of white supremacy, the ideology that positions whiteness as the norm, he argued.
“It’s what everybody assumes, and Whites are just oblivious to that assumption all the time,” Wallis said.
White privilege, which is “just a nice way of talking about white supremacy…and all of the assumptions,” becomes more than ideology when it is coupled with faith, according to Wallis.
“White Supremacy and white privilege is [sic] an idol,” he said. “And what do idols do? They separate us from God. Idols separate us from God.”
“White Christians are separated from God by this notion of whiteness, so this is not just something that we should do for a better America. This is about our identity, and our false identity, our illusions as white Christians,” Wallis added.
The “idolatry” of white supremacy “blinds White Christians from their identity as the people of God,” he added. “This is pretty fundamental to our spiritual health and well-being and to our identity.”
Wallis has served on the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He currently serves on the Global Agenda Council on Values of the World Economic Forum. During the discussion, he referenced the writings of black liberation theologian James Cone, who emphasized the need for White Christians to “die to whiteness,” or to the ideology of white supremacy.
Wallis began his remarks, however, by acknowledging his own position of privilege.
“I am a White male Christian and no matter where I live, where I have lived, no matter who my friends and colleagues are, no matter what I do or say about racism, I can never escape that White male Christian privilege.”
Wallis hopes his book, peppered with praise from folks like Cornel West, Joel C. Hunter, Cynthia L. Hale, and many others, helps to facilitate a “deeper and more complicated conversation” about race — one he thinks the media have purposely avoided having.
The media have been “obsessed” with the political race, and on how well Donald Trump is doing as opposed to what he is doing, said Wallis. He said the business mogul and Republican presidential hopeful has been “deliberately fueling racial fear and hatred” and thereby “poisoning and polluting the American political landscape.”
The next stop on Wallis’s book tour is a moderated discussion at New Waverly United Methodist Church in Baltimore (sponsored by Faith in the City). Future discussions were scheduled to take place at Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., Trinity UCC in Chicago, and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Wallis’s other books include The (Un)Common Good and the New York Times bestsellers God’s Politics and The Great Awakening.