2 Necessary Moves To Break Free from White Supremacy in the Church: Constantine, “the White Male Figure”, and the Centrality of Jesus

I am supposed to be reading about Constantine and his relationship to the bishops in the 4th century. H. A. Drake turns the discussion away from merely looking at Constantine and his actions, and whether or not he was genuine or not, you know the old Constantine scholarly debates. Instead, he looks at the Bishops and their role in the emerging form of Christianity, and their complicity in shaping a coercive Christianity. This is so important. For me, the issue of Constantinian Christianity (as Anabaptists often describe it) has less to do with Constantine, because heck, he is an emperor. Christian or not, he has imperial interests. Nothing surprising about any move or decision he makes.

What I am much more interested in is moving the discussion away from Constantine, to towards the way that the Church apostasized itself by displacing Christ as central and allowing Constantine to take that place. One must go no further than looking at Eusebius’ Church History to see that many Christian leaders were seeing Constantine rather than Jesus, as the new David. That Constantine presided over councils rather than the presence of Jesus, and the imperial edicts mandating and coercively enforcing orthodoxy following that council is not surprising when the way of Jesus is no longer normative. In fact, as people have noticed, even images of Jesus began to change after that point. Jesus himself begins to no longer be portrayed as a humble man, but as an imperial figure in art post-Constantine. The imperial figure, then is centralized, has the right to make calls on orthodoxy, and enforces those boundaries, reigning supreme over the Church.  It is the Bishops and the Church, and their gazing on “Christian” emperors that give them this power. It is a choice to fix one’s eyes on Jesus or the imperial figure.

Yet, can we really make huge distinctions between the past and the present, like we are above such problems? While no Roman Imperial Image reigns over us today, hasn’t the center still been occupied by something other than the Jewish anointed, crucified, and resurrected One? Certainly in America, that dominating figure since the 1600s has been “the White Male Figure”. The supremacy of the White Male Citizen as the standard to be measured against runs at the heart of the American experiment. When it was “self-evident” that all men were created equal, didn’t it really mean all “white men”?  Were not black people subjugated to the status of property? And finally, wasn’t Jesus himself recast and refashioned into a “white male figure” which remains on the walls of churches and homes even today?

When people want to learn about theology, there stands “the White Male Figure”. The White Male Figure has occupied the center, playing the role of the theological police for everyone else. Though western and American forms of Christianity have participated in some of the most atrocious and violent acts within Church History, the White Male Figure claims clarity and objectivity, accusing other ecclesial traditions without that violent baggage of actually being the violent ones or of transgressing faithful witness. Speaking from a position of power, those labels stick and stigmatize marginalized Christian groups. The White Male Figure, sees himself as apolitical, but in actuality, every statement, every accusation, involves strategic power moves and claims, that re-affirm hegemony and shut out dissenting voices.

Given the longevity of western Christianities tradition of exalting the White Male Figure as the standard of perfection and the model for citizenship and discipleship, it becomes the norm to see the White Male Figure at the center. Once people are accustomed to that norm, it is no longer seen as a violent practice, but instead, the one that points out this form of domination is the one accused of participating in violence. It is the irony of people becoming mal-adjusted to injustice and white supremacy. In fact, to even call out white supremacy in relation to mythic “White Male Figure” is in itself seen as heretical and anti-Christian.

However, what must be understood is that as long as the “White Male Figure,” in its mythic and legendary glory, stands at the center, then that inevitably means that the Jewish Messiah and Lord over all creation, Jesus the Victorious One, does not stand in the center. The Jesus that has been manipulated to look like, think like, and bolster the agenda of “the White Male Figure” is not the Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but is an imposter and enemy of Jesus. The Living and Resurrected One does not take the mode or disposition of the oppresser, but rather his disposition is found in his being crucified by earthly authorities that found him to be a threat to the status quo. Two moves are necessary for the Church to get back on track:

  1. The Church must decentralize “the White Male Figure”: Unlike popular opinion, this is not an attack on “the White Man” but instead it is a humanizing project. The “White Male Figure” standard demands people to be apathetic to the racialized other, to gaze on them with contempt and see something other than someone who God found to be worth dying for in the person of Jesus Christ. When one succumbs to playing this role, it is unfortunately them that become monstrous, being enslaved to the elemental forces of this world and the dominion Satan. Only through being transferred from that dominion to the Kingdom of the Son in which humanity can do “life together” through the Spirit in solidarity and mutual sharing of love, can the humanizing project be accomplished. This means that those that have stood in the center must step off the table as referee and are now free to sit around the table sharing and embracing God’s beloved as equals, no longer enslaved by the logics of race and white superiority.
  2. The Church must centralize the Jesus of scripture and encounter the Resurrected One. This is a human and fleshly Jewish Jesus. Jesus of Scripture (who is synonymous with the Real Living Jesus that we can encounter and follow) moves on the margins, making those spaces the Main Stage of God’s mission. This Jesus must be followed. What is interesting when we encounter this Jesus, is that he opposes the option of both the Imperial Figure & the Dominating Figure for his followers. Check Luke 13:31-35, Jesus is on the move among the broken and oppressed but Herod wants to kill him. Jesus prophetically unveils Herod’s mythic foundation as a ruling figure to be respected, by naming his problematic praxis. He calls him a “Fox”! Let’s be clear, in Jewish tradition and Jesus’ usage there, it is clear that Jesus is not complimenting him for being smart, but rather that he is in actuality small, deceptive, and a predator. Likewise, when Jesus’ own disciples aspire for greatness, like that of Roman rulers, Jesus cuts that mimetic desire off as an option and says “not so” for you. He explains that the Gentiles dominate and “lord over them”, but his followers instead are called to be servants in the way he himself has served the least and the last of society. In following Jesus and centralizing him in the Church, God’s people will find an alternative response to racialization and white supremacy in our society. Right under the nose of our racist society a space is created for “Beloved Community” and “Life Together”. And from that solidarity, a prophetic movement that is a light to the dark corners of our world can begin.

But do we have the courage to follow Jesus faithfully in this way, or will “the White Male Figure” remain centralized in our Christian communities and movements. The challenge before us, given our long history of faltering, is great, but our God is able!

Published by Drew G. I. Hart, PhD

Drew G. I. Hart is a theology professor in the Biblical & Religious Studies department at Messiah College with ten years of pastoral experience. Hart majored in Biblical Studies at Messiah College as an undergraduate student, he attained his M.Div. with an urban concentration from Missio Seminary in Philadelphia, and he received his Ph.D. in theology and ethics from Lutheran Theological Seminary-Philadelphia. Drew was born and raised in Norristown, Pa and has lived extensively in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA as well. Dr. Hart’s dissertation research explored how Christian discipleship, as framed by Black theologies and contemporary Anabaptist theologies, gesture the Church towards untangling the forces of white supremacy and the inertia of western Christendom which have plagued its witness in society for too long. As two traditions that emerged from the underside of violent and oppressive western Christian societies, he found Black theology and Anabaptism each repeatedly turning to the particularity of Jesus in the gospel narratives. From that arises an ethic of solidarity with the oppressed and pursuing liberation in Black theology and an ethic of radical peacemaking and ecclesial nonconformity in the Anabaptist tradition. Each challenge the violent and oppressive logics of mainstream western Christianity and salvage the call to follow the way of Christ. Together in dialogue they deepen our analysis of the churches failures and the need for Jesus-shaped repentance. His work beyond teaching and writing has included pastoring in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, working for an inner-city afterschool program for black and brown middle school boys, delivering lectures and leading anti-racism workshops, collaborating with local faith-based organizers and activists in his city, and doing a broad range of public theology. He is also a co-leader for a local Harrisburg faith-based relational network called FREE Together which has collaborated with POWER Interfaith, MILPA, the Shut Down Berks Detention Center movement, and a little with the Poor People’s Campaign. Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew Hart, has received great reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and Englewood Review of Books. Endorsing this resource, Shane Claiborne said, “This book is a gift from the heart of one of the sharpest young theologians in the United States. Hold it carefully, and allow it to transform you--and our blood-stained streets.” As a text, Trouble I’ve Seen utilizes personal and everyday stories, Jesus-shaped theological ethics, and anti-racism frameworks to transform the church’s understanding and social witness. Trouble I’ve Seen focuses on white supremacy as an overarching framework for understanding racism, with careful attention to its systemic and socializing dimensions. However, unlike sociology textbooks on the subject Dr. Hart also considers the subversive vocation of Jesus and the nonviolent yet revolutionary implications his life ought to have for his followers today. His newest book project is entitled Who Will Be a Witness?: Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance and will be published September 1, 2020. Who Will Be A Witness? invites the church to liberate its centuries long captivity to supremacist practices, and to expand its restricted political imagination in view of Jesus’ messianic reign. The book guides disciples of Jesus into joining God’s delivering presence through scriptural reasoning, historical reflection, practical theology for congregational life, social change theory, and the Christian call to love our neighbor. It is written for congregations, leaders, and students that understand that pursuing God’s justice goes way beyond waiting around for electoral seasons to come around. It is about the ongoing vocation of the Church right now, at the grassroots level, seeking after the wellbeing of their neighbors through faithful, strategic, and concrete action. Drew recently joined the Inverse Podcast team serving as a cohost along with Australian peace activist Jarrod Mckenna. Together they interview interesting people and explore how scripture can turn our ethical imagination and the violent and unjust systems of our world upside-down, which contrasts with interpreting the Bible as a tool for the status quo. Dr. Drew Hart was the recipient of bcmPEACE’s 2017 Peacemaker Award, a 2019 W.E.B. Dubois Award from a Disciples of Christ congregation, and in October 2019, Dr. Hart was chosen as Elizabethtown College’s 2019 Peace Fellow. Each award recognized him for his local and national justice work and public theology. You can find Drew Hart on Twitter and Facebook, or you can catch him as he travels and speaks regularly across the country to colleges, conferences, and churches. Drew and Renee, and their three boys (Micah, Dietrich, and Vincent) live in Harrisburg, PA and attend Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren.

24 thoughts on “2 Necessary Moves To Break Free from White Supremacy in the Church: Constantine, “the White Male Figure”, and the Centrality of Jesus

  1. I wish you could say more about “apathy.” How it has evolved, since much of anabaptism is quite apathetic. That is, there is no living critique of what one person called the “Joel Osteenification” of the church.

    The sentence in your blog reads: The “White Male Figure” standard demands people to be apathetic to the racialized other, to gaze on them with contempt

    1. The development of apathy in the church, in my opinion, is in direct correlation with not following Jesus or taking his teachings seriously in our own lives and Christian formation. The “Joel Osteenification” of the church is a real problem. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Thanks for this post.
    Reading through it was a helpful exercise as I continually seek to shed layers of “non-Jesus” that I’ve consciously and subconsciously picked up (and continue to cling to) through my years of Christian formation.

  3. Drew, flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but Heaven. You quite elegantly connect the rise of the medieval church patriarchy (and its contiguous contemporary iterations) to its White supremacist imperialist roots. But soon enough, Jesus shall be exalted in His people and shall dethrone and destroy every god that man has erected (Daniel 2). Great job.

  4. “But do we have the courage to follow Jesus faithfully in this way..” Yes!!!! A male figure is not always a safe figure. Understanding that Jesus was God in the flesh can be. So GOOD Drew!!

  5. Long time reader, first time commenter here.

    I really appreciate both of these moves you spell out here. I’d also like to contribute here in thinking through the politics at work in the decentering of the White Male Figure. The White Male Figure gains its power through a logic of representation by positing an idealized subject that not only works on our imaginations of how we are to be individually but also how we are to act collectively. Politics via representation becomes gathering interests from a group, approximating them by asking some to sacrifice or modify them, then electing or selecting a representative who can hold those approximate interests together to put them into play in the political sphere.

    However, because we live inside the Constantinian imagination of the WMF, the ideal representative we collectively imagine will be that of a WMF. Any deviation from the ideal representative will have to be explained. This means that any appeals we make via our representative must be framed in such a way to appeal to a variety of competing and conflicting interests. When these interests are translated via the representative into action they (oddly enough!) come out to favor the actually existing white males.

    What Christ’s fleshly existence reminds us of as you put it, is that we are not to Lord our power over people. In thinking through the logics of representation, I take this to mean that Christ has freed us to serve as he did, in the flesh. A person is something more than and other than their gathered interests. A person can never be represented by me or anyone other than Christ and even then, I think we might do well to question whether or not Christ chose to bear the mantle of representative of humanity.

    I have not spent as much time as I’d like working out the ecclesial or political ramifications of this refusal to represent and the refusal to be represented, however, I am currently working on a paper for a class on democracy that will (hopefully) end up with a thicker description of what this “Life Together” might look like. I certainly hope that it’s a freedom to ask the question “Who?” rather than “why?” or “how?” in the encounter with others. “Who is this person?” as Bonhoeffer reminds us is a very different question than “why does this person act the way they do?” and “how can I be a representative of their interests?” These latter two are the questions of the WMF serving as representative, the former is the question I believe Christ begs us to ask. The result maybe a slower, messier politics than the convenience and violence of representation.

  6. Perhaps we also need to move away from seeing ourselves as the oppressed by the white males of the church. If we are not a “white male in charge”, we are often tempted to think that perhaps it should be a woman, gay person, poor person, disabled person, person of color, whatever WE ARE or represents our interests and carries our agenda that should be in charge – which carries the potential problem of self idolatry.
    Jesus needs to be in charge.

      1. I agree, it really does. However I see some attempt to oppose the “white male” because they want to replace it with someone with their agenda rather than that of Christ. Sorry, it wasnt meant to distract from your point.

      2. Won’t lie, I have seen that before. But I tend to not worry about those trying swap and become the new oppressors, and instead try to focus on creating a spirit of mutuality in Christ. This demands both deconstructive and constructive approaches as we let Jesus take center stage. Thanks for thoughtful commenting Keith!

  7. This is really good work Drew. I really appreciate your perspective(s). I’ve been bothered by Augustine’s appropriation of empire (following Constantine’s lead). I forget now where Augustine mentions something about the sword of Constantine upholding God’s kingdom, but you reminded me of it when you mentioned Constantine’s relationship with the bishopric. It seems that has passed on through the generations quite easily and held as doctrine of the empiric (white) church.

    Any chance this work will be turning into a book? (For my two cents I think it should.)

    Thanks so much.

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