Christianity is one of the most diverse world religions. In his book, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical, author Tim Keller argues that Christianity is the only major world religion that is not centralized in one particular region. It is practiced by billions globally and has been a liberating force for good in many communities.
While Christianity at its core is a gospel of liberation and hope, the reality is that the faith has been abused and institutionalized. It has been used to justify so many evils around the world, including slavery and colonialism. Professor and author Cornel West refers to Christianity that oppresses others and supports imperialism and enslavement as “Constantinian Christianity.” The label is derived from Constantine, the 4th century emperor who institutionalized Christianity in the Roman Empire and used it as a force to oppress Jews and other non-Christians.
Much of the oppression and evil around the world done by people who claim to be Christians has been blatant and overt. However, there are many subtle ways that Christians have oppressed and brainwashed communities and in particular, communities that they have ministered to. This is particularly an issue with American Christianity that has been responsible for a lot of missionary work around the world. Despite its good intentions, the U.S. church has whitewashed and Americanized a Christian faith born in the Middle East and Northern Africa and practiced passionately at every end of the earth.
When we talk about “whitewashed” or “Americanized” Christianity, we are talking about a gospel that teaches people that White American culture is normal and ideal. Furthermore, to whitewash Christianity is to suggest to non-Whites around the world that the right way to be a Christian is to adopt worship styles and customs that are attributed to predominantly White communities. This harms both White and non-White Christians. It robs non-White Christians of their culture and community and blinds White Christians to the rich diversity within God’s Kingdom. In essence, preaching that “whiteness” is synonymous with Christianity is teaching false doctrine. Below are three false doctrines that have whitewashed churches globally
I. Worship Styles
Some Christians accuse preachers who adopt the Black church “call and response” rhetoric of being mere entertainers and not “serious” about preaching the gospel. Many Black and brown Christians who were raised in churches where worship and preaching was more charismatic and later attend predominantly-White churches, end up believing that the way they were raised as Christians was wrong. When White theologians and Christian leaders at megachurches and Christian universities shun preachers who “get too excited” they are subtly insulting church communities domestically and internationally that worship and preach in ways that inspire a generation of believers. When missionaries go to African, Asian and Latin American countries and tell people they have to reject all of their cultural practices and customs to follow Christ, they are creating an idol of White Christianity and turning people away from the rich cultures of their communities.
II. Silence on Racism
This is especially prevalent in American churches that strategically avoid talking about racism because leaders think discussing the subject is too “divisive” or that it is not a real issue. Others take it further and suggest that discussing racism is contrary to preaching the gospel. The church’s silence and aversion to discussing America’s original sin of racism is toxic because it censors the voices of many Christians who experience racism. Furthermore, it suggests that racism is not a primary concern for Christians because it is too political. The irony is that Christians do not shy away from controversial and contentious issues. They march in droves against gay marriage and pray at abortion clinics. They speak unapologetically about the dangers of radical Islam and speak about the superiority of America.
With race, however, they are either silent or openly critical of what they refer to as the civil rights establishment. The fact that much of the American Evangelical Christian community has avoided and shunned the topic of race shows the power of whiteness and color blindness in the church. It shows that many White evangelicals have corrupted churches to be resistant to tackling systemic issues that speak to the sins of America embedded in our society. It shows the subtle desire to avoid critiquing majority (White) American culture and instead focus on the social pathology of certain communities as the major sins in our world.
III. White Jesus
I know what you are thinking: “It doesn’t matter what race Jesus was.” Unfortunately, saying that does nothing to address the reality that, for the most part, images of Christ and everyone else in the Bible have been White for much of history. This is not only historically inaccurate, it is psychologically toxic to non-Whites. In a world where whiteness and Western culture are seen as normal and moral, the images of “God’s people” in the Bible as White only reinforces feelings of inferiority among non-Whites. This even results in some subconsciously believing that God is White. While logically we all know that God is not of a particular race, in many artistic depictions (such as Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel) He is portrayed as a White man. That impacts the minds of people, particularly children.
We have to reject and avoid teaching the false doctrines that whitewash and Americanize churches. Rejecting that false doctrine is for the good for both White and non-White Christians. It will help non-White Christians love and affirm their culture while recognizing their newness and identity in Christ. It will help White Christians reject their often well-intentioned mission work that does much harm and little good. It will humble the White Christian pastor who believes that his style of preaching is most holy. It will enlighten the Black worship leader who has been convinced that she has to lead worship softly and slowly so that it does not entertain or distract the masses. Finally, it will liberate Middle Eastern teenagers who have been told that their native cultures are inherently wrong.
Editor’s note: A version of this essay was first published on coloredchristianity.com.
Jonathan Holmes is a Christian who has advocated for racial justice in Chicago for over two years. He has written about the intersection of race, class and Christian faith for multiple magazines and is an avid reader of both fiction and nonfiction. Find him on LinkedIn.