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!

400 Years of Blinders, Counterintuitive Solidarity, and the Epistemological Advantage of the Oppressed

“In being pushed to the margins of the system the repressed not only gain an alternative perspective–you see things from the underside that you cannot see from the top, especially the distortions of the system–but they also gain surplus energies and enjoyment that escape the powers that be in a twofold sense.” – Joerg Rieger[1]

Like clockwork our country cycles through event after event that sparks outrage over issues of race and racism in America. The responses to events like these are predictable, as many fall into their default positions, because people’s perceptions of what took place are equally shaped by race as much as the event itself that triggered the conversation. A slight majority of white Americans will deny and dismiss the outcry and experience of black Americans, claiming that it is emotionalism and an inability to deal with the facts. From their vantage point, only they are seeing things objectively. Their experience tells them that America is generally speaking a good, fair, and equal country. The continual outcry of black Americans, therefore, is a result of media manipulation and race card playing for sympathy. In the end, these White Americans apparently know and understand black experience better than black people themselves know it. Despite the fact that those who deny systemic racism most, are actually more likely to have less racially diverse networks than white Americans who also recognize the racial inequalities in America similar to African Americans (check out Divided by Faith).

And there lies the problem. White intuition and experience (limited by homogeneous networks) is signifying one thing while black experience is claiming an alternative reality. What are people who participate in dominant society to do when their intuition and experience contradict the experiences of oppressed people? It is on that subject that we must gain some historical insights from before we can offer a constructive path forward.

It was in the 17th century, that masses of Europeans bought into the myth of race as a justification for chattel slavery. Ironically, the majority of Europeans were not wealthy enough to purchase slaves themselves. In fact, many Europeans were themselves indentured servants in no better situation than most Africans. The motivation of wealthy Europeans who could actually afford paying for slaves was obvious; they could increase their production and labor while living a more luxurious life. But, what was the motivation for poor Europeans who could not afford to pay for slaves? It seems as though the main reason was simply the relative status offered of knowing that no matter how hard things were, they could count their blessing that they were not black! That is right, the relative social status of being a part of the new found ‘White Male Citizenry’ proved to be more important than linking arms with the people who actually had more in common with them economically in absolute terms. The invitation from the elite to participate in the relative psychological gain of white identity and social life outweighed the absolute realities these European men were living with. The privilege of Whiteness blurred the reasoning of these people, which while looking back now seems “self-evident” (to use modernity’s universalist language) that they were blinded by their desire for acceptance and superiority. It is also worth briefly noting that throughout most of slavery, the majority of White Americans did not think we had a racial problem.

Let’s jump forward to 1857 and the Dred Scott decision. It was at this point that the honorable and esteemed Supreme Court of the United States, dispensing truth, justice, and equality, came to the clear minded 7-2 decision that black people are not citizens and could never be citizens, and therefore did not have the right to sue for their freedom when moved into free states. This decision after the fact has been agreed upon by just about all legal scholars to be one of the most horrific decisions by the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, at the time, while still a boost to the Southern way of life and the larger U.S. slaveholding economy, it was not so obvious to most people who benefited from this arrangement that this was a poor decision. White privilege blinded people’s moral vision.

That was not the only decision that now as Americans we can all look back on and (almost) agree was a terrible decision by the Supreme Court. Consider Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896. It was in this 7-1 decision by our highest court, that racial segregation was decisively affirmed as legal and promoting equality. Looking back, most white Americans could agree that that was a terrible decision, but that was not the sentiment at that time.

Jump forward to the racial unrest of the mid 20th century, which climaxed during the Southern Freedom movement. We can all picture from the old black and white footage, black school boys and girls being hosed down against walls and sliding down the street while dogs are set loose on them during the Birmingham demonstration in 1963. Or how about remembering ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Selma, Alabama, where peaceful marchers were clobbered and beat senselessly. We all (mostly) can look back and say that racism was a huge problem at that time. Guess what, when polled in May 1946, about 7 out of 10 White Americans believed that “negroes in the United States are being treated fairly”.[2] This of course was in the midst of Jim Crow segregation, the terror of the KKK and the White Citizens Council, and the regular lynching of black people in America. That almost 7 out of 10 white Americans could think that black people were being treated fairly, questions the capacity of any oppressive dominant society to look even remotely objectively at a situation. Of course, for the black community the majority of them knew that they were being treated unfairly. That so many in the midst of racial segregation and oppression could think that things were fine and pretty much equal for all, at that time, must be seriously wrestled with for its epistemological significance.

What I have very briefly and quickly tried to do is highlight the epistemological blinders that most White Americans seemed to have had for about 350 years. That they were epistemologically impaired is a given today. Almost everyone, except for the very fringe of society will agree that the majority of white people got it wrong for the first 350 years. What we are considering now is the implications of 350 years of those within dominant society, to not be able to recognize, see, or know racial injustice in whatever new social manifestation it appears in their time.

Why does this matter? Well, as I mentioned, polls continually demonstrate that race tends to be a decisive factor in interpreting these highly charged racial moments in our country. Likewise, I have seen online and in person some people speak from a place of privilege in which they dismissed the experiences of race in American society as expressed by black Americans. Their own experience and intuition tells them that race is not a significant reality in this country. However, we must keep history in perspective as we consider current perspectives on race.

I guess, given our history, should we really consider it logical to believe that people, who benefitted from the racial system and have repeatedly been perceptively wrong for 350 years, now have suddenly gained an epistemological advantage over those whom they have historically oppressed? Even more implausible is to believe that at that exact moment that those in the dominant culture somehow suddenly got their act together that black people who have been epistemologically right for 350 years also instantly lost the ability to interpret their own experience now. To affirm that position seems to be the more emotional response not based on serious reflection of our past.

This is where I will employ some Christian white men to make this point for me. John Howard Yoder argued that those at the bottom actually have an epistemological advantage and what they know to be reality is closer to the real thing than the perceptions of those in dominant or privileged positions in society. In his words, “This phrasing points us to the awareness that the first question is not who should be fed or who should govern, but whose picture of things is correct. We speak of an epistemological advantage. To see things from below is a truer way to see things as they are.”[3] In light of the Trayvon case, some have seemed to think that since the courts ruled a verdict, that justice has spoken and the case is closed. This flows out of a naïve assumption that our legal system actually dispenses justice. Black people now that the verdict and reality often do not coincide. Yoder pushes this point as well. He states:

We are still part of the generation that believes that the wicked won’t really prosper, at least not for long, at least not if we do our job right. We believe that some of the people in power in Washington, DC, are on the side of the good; some of the oppressors’ hearts can be touched, and some people will give in a little, if just to get us off their sidewalks. That the wicked really prosper is a piece of world history and a part of the Old Testament witness, and a part of the Jewish and black experience, that we have not learned to take with deep seriousness in North America.[4]

What we are moving towards as a solution is completely counterintuitive. It is to trust the intuition of oppressed people over against one’s own gut and experience, which is proven to lead you astray when operating from a vantage point of dominance. Privileged people must do something very absurd and unnatural, they must move decisively towards a counterintuitive solidarity with those on the margins, while allowing the eyes of the violated to lead and guide the way.

In the end it is Dietrich Bonhoeffer that really understood the need to do that very thing. Coming from a very elite and privileged family it boggles the mind to think about the type of solidarity Bonhoeffer repeatedly sought after throughout his life. Whether it was in Harlem attending the famous black prophetic church, Abyssinian Baptist, while Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. was the pastor or his later participation with the Confessing Church in Germany as he defiantly confronted the violence being done against Jewish people, Bonhoeffer continually chose solidarity with the oppressed. This counterintuitive solidarity gave him new eyes to see and evaluate the world. Therefore, as he lived out his final days in prison before being hanged, he could write these profound words:

It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering. If only during this time bitterness and envy have not corroded the heart; that we come to see matters great and small, happiness and misfortune, strength and weakness with new eyes; that our sense for greatness, humanness, justice, and mercy has grown clearer, freer, more incorruptible; that we learn, indeed, that personal suffering is a more useful key, a more fruitful principle than personal happiness for exploring the meaning of the world in contemplation and action.[5]

This call for counterintuitive solidarity and trusting the historically marginalized and oppressed perception above one’s own is not easy. But I believe that Jesus’ own emptying of himself and taking on slave humanity models for us The Way forward. Jesus’ own solidarity performance is a call to discipleship and imitation as a way of being in the world. It is the cure for privileged blinders that leaves people’s own vision impaired and unreliable. The Spirit is pulling all of us to see things “from below” because that is where God has chosen to move, work, and transform the world (1 Cor. 1:18-31).


[1] Joerg Rieger, Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 9.

[2] Hazel Gaudet Erskine, “The Polls: Race Relations,” Public Opinion Quarterly 26, no. 1 (1962).

[3] John Howard Yoder, “On Christian Unity: The Way From Below,” Pro Ecclesia 9, no. 2 (Spr 2000): 175.

[4] John Howard Yoder, Glen Harold Stassen, and Matt Hamsher, The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2009), 195.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Fortress Press, 2010), 52.

Williamsburg: Hearing the Subversive Stories

I am wrapping up my family time in Williamsburg, which has been good despite it being a ‘working’ vacation. Eleven of us in total spread across several units, have enjoyed hanging out in Virginia and spending time with one another. We decided to actually visit Williamsburg, which most of us were hesitant to do, because well, we are not that patriotic as a family, and therefore tend to not be as inclined to relive early American colonial life. My dad however, urged us to do it, and so most of us did.

On the surface, it was a ‘beautiful presentation’ of early colonial America, with reenactments happening all around as you walk the streets. We of course were too cheap to pay for tickets, so we didn’t get to go inside any buildings, but rather took it all in from a sidewalk view. I honestly was bored, and uninterested in the domesticated propaganda tour we were on, which presented early colonial times through a non-existent pleasantville-esque view. I know enough history to know that just because you are walking the very geographical streets, does not mean you are getting a significant glimpse into the context and times. So I decided to grab the first black ‘enactment’ actor I could find and proceeded to ask him about slavery and slave quarters. Unfortunately, he pointed out that to actually see the slave quarters you would have had to pay the ticket price, which again we did not do. But, he then began to personally share his own knowledge of the African American slave experience in Williamsburg.

What he shared was a counter-narrative to the dominant narrative that brushed slavery and oppression out of sight. While I was not surprised necessarily by any particular details he shared (not to say it wasn’t interesting), the more fascinating experience was again to unearth the voices and experiences of those who are not allowed space within the hegemonic center of American life. Everywhere you go, if you listen carefully, you will find subversive voices testifying to narratives other than the dominant narratives being told. These bottom-up heterogeneous stories are dangerous, in that they provoke and disturb the deceptive homogeneous story being told from the top-down. May we all hear, learn from, and be shaped by these subversive stories.

Baby Jesus Presented in the Temple: Luke 2:21-39

At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name given by the angels before he was conceived in the womb. Now when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be set apart to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is specified in the law of the Lord, a pair of doves or two young pigeons. Now there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon who was righteous and devout, looking for the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So Simeon, directed by the Spirit, came into the temple courts and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary according to the law, Simeon took him in his arms and blessed God, saying, “Now, according to your word, Sovereign Lord, permit your servant to depart in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: a light, for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” So the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “Listen carefully: This child is destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected. Indeed, as a result of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul as well!” There was also a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old, having been married to her husband for seven years until his death. She had lived as a widow since then for eighty-four years. She never left the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment, she came up to them and began to give thanks to God and to speak about the child to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. So when Joseph and Mary had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. (Luke 2:21-39, NET).

At the start of beginning of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited[i], the argument is made that there are certain elements that are often neglected in western Christianity. Particularly Jesus’ Jewishness, poverty, and oppressed and dominated state are highlighted as being often neglected. Here in the passage in Luke chapter 2, we see all three of those elements of Jesus’ humanity witnessed to in the text.

Jesus is not only ethnically Jewish, but he is obviously raised Jewish as well. He is circumcised, and even presented in the Temple to God, all according to the Law of Moses. Despite many people’s desperate attempts to cast Jesus as a western figure throughout history[ii], Jesus is very much a Jew. Sorry for those who continue to perpetuate the devastating lie that Jesus is a western hero, representing and endorsing all things European, but that house is falling fast. We must continue to argue for Jesus’ Jewishness, because in that particularity of ethnicity we are revealed to the universality of Jesus’ Lordship. It is because Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, that we gentiles can be engrafted into that story and salvation.

Ethnicity is not the only concern in the text or for Thurman. We also see that Jesus comes from poor and humble beginnings. This could be easily missed, but Jesus’ parents are noted for offering two birds. The preferred sacrifice would have been a lamb, the two birds as a replacement was a specific prescription for those who could not afford the costlier animal[iii]. The fact that Luke notes that they opted for the pigeons is not by mistake, but to remind the hearers of the gospel that Jesus was a common poor man, like the masses of humanity that struggled to make it day by day. Sorry folks that push that Jesus was wealthy, it’s not true, he was homeless and had no place to lay his head.

Lastly, we must take notice of the messianic expectation that is leaping of the text. The devout are anticipating the consolation and redemption of Israel. There is a common feeling of continued spiritual exile and political and social oppression because of the continued hostile occupation and taxing from the Roman Empire. Jesus is born under these conditions himself, and must be seen as a colonized person. The desire for independence and God’s full presence and reign for the Jews was real, and thoroughly shapes Jesus’ own experience, life, and teaching. Sorry for the folks that imagine Jesus as a part of the dominant streams of society, but Jesus has more in common with postcolonial thinkers and freedom fighters than he does with those safely situated in comfort and security without any fear of political incarceration or execution because of one’s ethnicity and social position.

Therefore, when we talk about the incarnation, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we must allow these aspects of Jesus concrete existence to shape how we begin to perceive, imagine, and come to know Jesus. And it this Jesus that we are also called to follow, imitate, and risk life for. May we all find the courage to follow Jesus radically as we also link arms with the underdogs of the world in our own contexts and communities.


[i] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1949).

[ii] J Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford ;;New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[iii] Biblical Studies Press., NET Bible : New English Translation., 1st Beta ed. ([Spokane  Wash.]: Biblical Studies Press, 2001), bk. Leviticus 12:8.