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!

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Do You See This Woman?: Renisha McBride and the Imago Dei

In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus is invited over to a pharisee’s house for a dinner party. He has a place and space reserved at the table. His presence is welcomed. However, a woman realizes that Jesus will be at this home and decides to come by unannounced. However, the pharisee hosting the party only saw a “sinner”, rather than this woman who was made in the image of God. Her stigmatized reputation as a sinner was reason enough for many to marginalize this woman in that society. This woman recognizes Jesus’ worth and anoints him with costly oil. The pharisee, in his mind, believes he knows the essence of this woman, which is again nothing more than Sinner. Jesus and this marginalized woman, are now both bound together in judgment by the pharisee because Jesus’ allows her to anoint him. Jesus tells this pharisee, Simon, a story and then asks a simple question: “Do you see this woman?” 

Simon saw a “sinner” but Jesus saw a “woman” loved and created by God. Simon instantly judged this woman, as though he knew her essence. But Jesus flips the script and makes this woman who was marginalized in her society the embodiment of God’s in-breaking Shalom and Kingdom activity. Jesus lifts up this woman on the margins as an example and standard that this religious man had failed to live up to. She is told to go and continue on in God’s peace. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is continually portrayed as caring for, standing in solidarity with, and often discipling women in a way that would have been understood as threatening the social order of his time (and often still our time). Jesus loved to liberate women on the margins from the societal and physical bondage they found themselves in. This “sinful woman” must be understood in light of this larger theme seen throughout Jesus’ life that seeks to bear witness to God’s love for women on the margins.

On November 2, 2013, in the suburbs of Detroit, Renisha McBride, a nineteen year old black woman, got into a car accident and needed help. She came to the home and up onto the porch of Theodore Wafer. In her search for help, Renisha was shot in the face by Wafer. Two early findings. First we know that the shot was not close range. This is important, because this is a 19 year old woman, wounded from a car accident, who was not close to this man. What kind of threat could she have been to this middle aged man? Secondly, we know that Renisha, as the victim of a homicide, is already beginning to become the criminalized “sinner” because of her alcohol level. No one should drink and drive, everyone is clear on that. However, that is no justification for a grown man shooting this 19 year old in the face on his porch.

It seems that black women in our society are never given the same respect and dignity that most white women who participate in dominant society receive. The moment dominant society lays their eyes on black women, they are rarely seen as people to be protected and cared for, but most often are branded with a whole assortment of stigmatizing stereotypes. I will be honest, I wasn’t there so I do not know all the details of what happened. But what I do know is that racialized biases pervade every encounter in America. On top of that, black women always must confront not only being black, and not only being a woman, but being a black woman. Renisha McBride had to navigate this difficult space, and on November 2, 2013, it became a death-dealing space.

For anyone, who while gazing at a black woman, thinks they know her essence and nature instantaneously must now realize that Jesus still stands in deep solidarity with marginalized women. No matter how much we stigmatize black women, Jesus reminds us that they are made in the Image of God and therefore prophetically asks us all “Do you see this woman?”

Renisha McBride

The Particularity of Christ: Resurrecting Jesus from Abstraction

So, I am realizing more and more that I am more of a post-Christendom theologian than a purely postcolonial theologian (though they are highly related). This is especially true because of my concern that the ‘Christendom Shift’ (the imperial favor Christianity received during Constantine that mutated its core essentials) has marginalized, distorted, and domesticated Jesus. This has been done first by changing the center of Christian teaching to be something other than the narratives of Jesus and his teaching as something to be followed and obeyed, as well as by creating theology that accommodates and justifies dominant society’s self-interest.

If one does not start with the narratives of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John) to understand who Jesus is, but rather abstract and dogmatic doctrines about Jesus’ salvific work, then Jesus can either accommodate anything (crusades, persecuting the Jews for 1500 years, waging war against other nations, colonizing continents, and slavery to name a few examples). If it is not an accommodated Jesus, it is skirting Jesus all together. People try to dismiss Jesus by going backwards to the Old Testament (an unfulfilled narrative by all Christian account) or past him to Paul (unfortunately Paul is most often misread through European eyes as writing theology books rather than contextualized theological letters). Either way, the end result is one not having to follow Jesus’ life or obey his teachings.

We need to recover the ancient practice of  early Christians who understood that Jesus’ life and teachings were meant to be taken seriously and followed. It’s time to let the abstract and domesticated Jesus of the West die, and let God resurrect the true and living Jesus in your lives. This is the Crucified One that actually spoke and lived in a manner that was supposed to be ‘the Way’ to follow. We need to go back to the particularities of Christ. What are the actual and concrete ways that Jesus lived? What did he specifically teach? Howard Thurman talks about recovering Jesus’ Jewish ethnicity, poor upbringing, and minority status as important aspects of Jesus’ identity. Furthermore, Black and Anabaptist theologians have been pointing the Church towards Jesus’ particularity in both word and deed. This is why they can boldly talk about Jesus as liberator (Luke 4) and peace maker (Matthew 5). It is in the particularities of Jesus’ teaching and life as recorded in Scripture that he is known, not through the memorization of human articulations of doctrines, creeds, and confessions which are inevitably more abstract than the Gospel narratives themselves.

1 John 2: 6 “The one who says he resides in God ought himself to walk just as Jesus walked.” (NET)

In It For the Long Haul: Gracialized Vision & The New Black Panther $10,000 Bounty

Well, whether some like it or not, we have been thrust into a national dialogue on race, violence, and the legal system. I can’t lie, I can often get very frustrated by the same old story being played out over and over again. How many more young black males have to die? Since slavery has ended thousands and thousands of black men have been killed, being seen as disposable, in contrast very few black killings happened during slavery because we were seen as valuable property. Ida B. Wells, a brave and courageous black woman, spoke up and brought national attention to the lynching crisis that exploded after slavery and went well into the 1900’s (Last recorded tree lynching took place in the 1980’s). In the 1950’s, Emmit Till’s murder became a national symbol after the country reacted to the images of Emmit Till’s 14 year old deformed dead body that was placed on the cover of black magazines. Originally from Chicago, Till was visiting family down south when he was dragged from his uncle’s home, beaten, and had an eye gouged out. He was eventually shot in the head, and had barbed wire and a heavy cotton gin tied around his neck as his body was disposed of in a river. His crime, supposedly whistling at a white woman.

There is a long legacy of black life being disposable and unvalued in American life. While there have been tons of senseless murders that have taken black life, some particular names have continued to shape Black American historical memory, probably because of the details surrounding each situation. Let’s remember some folks who have had their lives abruptly ended because of America’s pathological racism. Michael Donald, lynched in the 1981, James Byrd’s dragged to death behind a truck for 3 miles in 1998. Amadou Diallo shot at 41 times (hit 19 times) while unarmed and pulling out his wallet in 1999. Sean Bell was shot 50 times and killed the night before his wedding in the Bronx in 2006. Oscar Grant’s murder while handcuffed and on his stomach by a cop in Oakland was recorded by several camera phones and uploaded online in 2009. And more recently of course we have been mourning the death of Trayvon Martin while also dealing with the unarmed shooting of Ramarley Graham last month. There are so many other folks who have lost their lives similarly, but these names for most are familiar and recognizable names which remind us how vulnerable it is to be a black male in America, and also how the legal system often fails to uphold justice for ALL.

How should we (Black Christians) respond to such a legacy of racism or to the apathy towards black life? The New Black Panther Party supposedly has put out a $10,000 bounty for Zimmerman. While I can sympathize with their frustration with our legal system and the reality of how many black people never find justice in it, I continue to believe that we can not utilize the same violent tactics imposed on us if we desire to see a new humanity usher into our world. That said, I find the legacy of the Black Panther Party and the spirit of Nat Turner and his violent slave rebellion as very natural and normal responses to injustice and oppression. While I reject the use of violence, I do share that same spirit of frustration with racial injustice in America. In fact, sometimes, that same natural response emerges in me in greater amounts than other times. I hate the negative ways black people are treated and the apathetic and cold responses that come from some in the dominant culture. And it is hard not to project those feelings onto all people who participate in the dominant culture.

And then I am reminded of the Oppressed and Crucified One being made a public spectacle and shamed on the cross. Jesus, like many other vulnerable Jews at that time, experienced the weight of an unjust and violent system that didn’t value Jewish life. According to all the gospels, Jesus was a threat to the Jewish-Roman power system in Jerusalem. In response, they employed their technique of public torture and humiliation, which was always just as much about intimidating the masses as it was to punish the individual. James Cone in his most recent book, rightly compares Roman crucifixion to American lynchings of black men. This offers us a helpful glimpse culturally into the horrendous nature and role of crucifixion in 1st century Palestine. Yet it is there hanging on the Cross that Jesus cried out…

 Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

He didn’t demonize them, he didn’t call for a violent revolution like Peter or Barabbas. He graciously asked the Father to extend his forgiveness to them. The vision of Christ was a gracialized vision, in that those that his eyes laid on, burdened him, in that even those who were oppressors in the traditional sense, were ultimately enslaved and broken people needing to be shown the way back to the humanity originally intended by God. It’s as though his gaze continually made distinctions between the horrendous acts that he opposed, and the people who were enticed and enslaved by those systems which temporarily benefited them. His ability to see oppressive dominant peoples through gracialized gazes allowed him to make the root of the problem opaque and highly visible, that is he saw the evil systems and forces that enslave humanity rise to the surface, while graciously seeing the transparency of all humanity which desperately is in need of a Victor and Liberator. This doesn’t mean that Jesus responds the same way to all people, it is very evident in the Gospels that Jesus takes sides with and extends extra compassion towards the socially marginalized. However, folks like the young ruler and Zaccheus, who both hoard wealth, are both given the opportunity to accept the grace being extended towards them which would liberate them from the grips of this world. Just like then, some now will accept and some will not accept such grace, but that is not our issue to worry about, that is between them and God. Our responsibility is to hold firm to that same gracialized vision Jesus did, in that we see EVERYONE as needing liberation from invisible yet powerful forces.

I am not sure how much longer this national dialogue will go on. We continue to be the United States of Amnesia, quickly forgetting recent history, or as Dr. King called it, “a 10 day nation”, which moves on to the next big thing after 10 days. But for me, I am in it for the long haul. I will be like a persistent poor widow demanding justice from an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). And as I confront empires, systems, and forces that enslave people and oppose God’s Kingdom, my prayer is that God would help me have Christ’s gracialized vision towards others, especially for those in the dominant culture who participate in oppressive practices and who are blind in their ability to see Jesus in those they harm (Matthew 25:31-46).

Tribal Talk: Exorcism and White Supremacy (Guest Post By Kevin Sweeney)

(I am thankful for the opportunity to have a guest post from Kevin Sweeney. He is a true follower of Jesus, intellect, theologian, and friend of  marginalized people.   I have been personally encouraged by his transparency as he discusses, exposes, and confronts white privilege and systemic racism as a white male himself. His honesty, courage and knowledge on the subject are deeply needed within the Christian Church. Enjoy! – Drew Hart)

What Should We Do?

In the last section of his book, Tribal Talk: Black Theology, Hermeneutics, and African/American Ways of “Telling the Story” Will Coleman describes what some of the main characteristics of Tribal Talk are. The two that are most vital for understanding the nature of tribal talk are tribal talk’s commitment to liberation and exorcism. Coleman states “It is committed to the liberation of persons of African descent from the legacy of white supremacy—and of persons of European descent from the same.” Anticipating the question of why from his readers, Coleman goes on to say, “It (white supremacy) is a stubborn demon, but it can and will be exorcised. Constant exposure (the naming and sending away) of its false powers is the key to its exorcism.”[1] Although white people may have a visceral reaction to Coleman’s referring to white supremacy as a demon that must be exorcised due to its violent nature, it does not require much historical research—especially in our own country, the United States–to end up confronting the unspeakable violence that is the result of white supremacy and racism. Examples of this white supremacy include, but are not limited to the enslavement and dehumanization of Africans, the burning and lynching of black bodies, and the systematic discrimination against blacks in housing, healthcare, and employment. And if “constant exposure” is key to exorcising this demon, then we must develop the vision to see the ways in which this demon still operates, name it as the demon of racism and white supremacy that it is, and enact the courage to confront it and send it away. But the question remains, who is this we that I am referring to as I write?

The “we” that is being referred to in this response is the white church in the United States of America. And for the intent of this post, the white church refers to any individual white person who professes Jesus as Lord, any local, white homogenous church, and any institutions of higher education that are still harboring this demon of white supremacy—my school, Fuller Theological Seminary included. The critical response is not focusing on the white church in the United States because it is the only instantiation of the body of Christ that has racist sensibilities; rather because it constitutes the geographical, religious and socio-political context that I inhabit. Our brothers and sisters in the African Diaspora have invited us to participate in this tribal talk, and in order to be faithful to this legacy we have a responsibility to exorcise this demon of white supremacy wherever we see it, including the depths of ourselves. In the early 20th century, Ida B. Wells said, “American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hell-fire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.” Since another element of tribal talk is listening deeply to our ancestors, we—the white church—must listen deeply to our sister Ida B. Wells and allow her to challenge us so we do not continue to embody the same demon of white supremacy that our predecessors did.


[1] Coleman, Tribal Talk, 194.

Kevin Sweeney studied sociology and world Religion at the University of Hawaii, holds a BA in biblical studies from Life Pacific College, and is currently pursuing masters degrees in both theology and intercultural studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is a mystic, a poet, a student of black theology, and an unmasker of institutional racism, white supremacy, and white privilege. His greatest joy is being married to (and surfing with) his wife Christine.

Follow Kevin Sweeney on Twitter @kevinsweeney1

Wright Around The Way!

Jeremiah Wright speaking at the church across the street.

Looking forward to Jeremiah Wright coming to my block next week, when he will be speaking at the Baptist church on my block on Monday and Tuesday. I have really appreciated his perspective. I honestly was not very familiar with him before President Obama and him split ways. From that point forward, specifically after hearing his response, I decisively was on #TeamWright. I am not an Obama hater, however, I did and continue to support the prophetic voice over and above a political positioning. President Obama at the end of the day is a politician, a politician for an empire. At the same point, Wright speaks out of conviction from subversive sub-dominant society, and more importantly on behalf of the Kingdom of God. We should never confuse politics from the center with prophetic subversion from the margins.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Likewise it gives me an excuse to hang out with my baptist brothers and sisters, it’s been so long 😉