By Bishop Ann Svennungsen
I was privileged to meet Drew Hart, religion professor at Messiah College, when I sat next to him at dinner last Tuesday before his lecture at Luther Seminary. Impressed with his grace and approachability, I wasn’t exactly expecting the challenge his lecture would bring.
Oh, his words came with that same grace and humility; no fire and brimstone.
Still, I was challenged to think in a way I’d never done before. And I was grateful for this experience on the cusp of celebrations of Martin Luther King, Jr., a prophet who challenged a whole nation/world to think in a new way.
Both King and Hart call the Christian church to address racism in response to God’s call to love the neighbor. We work to dismantle racism because of the tragic evil and suffering racism has caused neighbors today and throughout history.
BUT HART DOESN’T stop there. The Christian church needs to address racism because God calls us to have no other gods. It’s not just the command to love our neighbor that calls us to dismantle racism, it’s also the command to love God above all else.
And, at least since the doctrine of discovery was signed by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, Christianity has been intertwined with racist anthropologies. More specifically, Christian theology has been entangled with a worldview that puts white people at the top of a false, humanly constructed racial hierarchy.
“How has our understanding of God been shaped by a history steeped in white supremacy?”
The Papal Bull stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and “that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”
Similar church documents justified slavery. Martin Marty recalls a fellow historian noting that the white southern Protestant clergy prior to the Civil War “came across as moral, devout, pastoral, learned, caring, informed, and generous preachers. And also to a person they defended human slavery, claiming that it was a response to divine mandates and divine will, biblically authorized.”
EPISCOPAL BISHOP AND South African activist Desmond Tutu called apartheid a heresy. Because all people are created in God’s image, all have intrinsic value. However, in apartheid, “[r]ace is the principle which determines your value,” Tutu said. The policy of apartheid is “totally un-Christian, evil, and a heresy.”
How has our understanding of God been shaped by such history? What is our responsibility to look deeply and honestly at Christian churches in this country and dismantle all that has worked to collapse Christian faith with white supremacy?
“It’s not just the command to love our neighbor that calls us to dismantle racism, it’s also the command to love God above all else.”
Yes, love of neighbor calls us to dismantle racism. And, so does love of God. May we have the courage to question when our other gods – like white supremacy – obstruct our understanding of the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.