Q & R: Christian Racists

Here’s the Q:

You recently were mentioned by Brittney Cooper in an article on the Duck Dynasty controversy.
She wrote:

Ironically enough, the progressive Christians who inspire me the most these days are white. Rachel Held Evans, Jay Bakker, Brian McLaren and theologian Peter Enns are fighting the good fight of faith.

But then she added:

But I won’t let any of them off the hook for their failure to be more forthright in addressing racism. Evans, Bakker and McLaren are great on questions of homophobia, poverty and sexism; but racism, when it is addressed at all, is largely addressed as a problem of individual attitudes rather than systemic disfranchisement.

I wondered whether you thought her assessment of you was fair?

Here’s the R:
First, I think her article is deeply important and I’m greatly honored that she is helped by my work. I wouldn’t expect Dr. Cooper to keep up with everything I say about race, and so if she does underestimate my sensitivity to systemic issues, I wouldn’t hold it against her. I would say that her assessment of me was accurate for the first 40 years of my life. I was taught a very personalistic approach to faith and life, along with a bias to interpret claims of systemic injustice as excuses for personal irresponsibility. It took a long time for me to begin to break through that teaching and bias. It’s amazing how hard it is for privileged white heterosexual males to see or understand white male heterosexual privilege.
Although I’m sure I still have a long way to go, I think I’ve begun to see things a bit more clearly over the last fifteen or twenty years. If folks are interested in what I’ve been saying on the subject the last several years, they can search this blog for the words “racism” or “race.” They could check my Facebook page as well.
These days, I’m more often accused of paying too much attention to systemic injustice and not enough to personal sin … so it’s oddly refreshing to feel some push-back in the other direction. I couldn’t say it any better than Dr. Cooper does:

… individual prejudices, and the amelioration of them, are bound up with the structures that support them.

That’s why I agree with Dr. Cooper that it’s important to emphasize institutional structural injustice, disenfranchisement, and racism, without forgetting about personal responsibility. Those structures invisibly, unconsciously “educate” new generations into subtle, unconscious racism … a racism that is increasingly evident in our culture these days. For some recent research on this subject, check out this by Bob Allen:
This by Jonathan Merritt is also helpful.
And for a passionate response to the unconscious racism behind so much hatred of President Obama in our Congress, the media, and the culture at large (very evident where I live in Florida), Frank Schaeffer’s recent piece is explosive:
His term “slow motion lynching” captures something I think is very real … and nobody has put it more graphically than Frank.
All that’s to say that I think Dr. Cooper’s article is deeply important, and I’m grateful for your question pointing it out to me and giving me the chance to point others to it. Especially quotable:

As Evangelicalism goes, racism, homophobia, and sexism go hand in hand. Black evangelicals like to tell themselves that they can reject Christianity’s racist past, while embracing homophobic and sexist ideas about the position of gay people and women, in the world and the church. I have come to say: It just isn’t so.
God is not a racist. I know that despite a Bible that sanctions enslavement and implores slaves to obey and be kind to their masters.
God is not a sexist. I know that despite a Bible that tells me that women are to be quiet in church, that women are not to teach men, that women are to submit.
God is not a homophobe. I know that despite a Bible that declares sex between men to be an abomination.
God is love. That is a truth I learned first and foremost from the Bible. And it holds moral and political weight for me because of the life that Jesus Christ lived, from birth to death and back again.
I love the Church, despite myself. But I won’t love it uncritically. This is what hermeneutic consistency requires. And worshipping alongside white folks who are more moved to stand with a homophobe than to stand against racism gives me great pause.
The Church can no longer afford to be disingenuous about its racism problem. Easy unity is not what we need. Time has run out for an African American Church that continues to tack hard to the right — uncritically imbibing the agenda of the (white) Evangelical Right, without acknowledging that this position, predicated as it is on the belief that Christian = Republican, is fundamentally averse to, and in some ways responsible for, the declining social and political condition of African Americans, gay and straight alike.

Amen, Brittney Cooper!