Christianity is the most diverse world religion. According to Christian pastor and author Tim Keller, Christianity is the only major world religion that is not centralized in one particular region in the world. The religion is practiced by billions and has been a liberating force for good in many communities.
While Christianity at its core is a gospel of liberation and hope, the reality is that the faith has been abused and institutionalized. It has been used to justify so many evils around the world from slavery to colonialism. Professor and author Cornel West refers to Christianity that oppresses others and supports imperialism and enslavement as “Constintianian Christianity” deriving from Constantine, the Roman Emperor who institutionalized Christianity in the Roman Empire and used it as a force to oppress Jews and other non-Christians.
Much of the oppression and evil around the world done by people who claim to be Christians has been blatant and overt. However, there are many subtle ways that Christians have oppressed and brainwashed communities and in particular, communities that they have ministered to. This is particularly an issue with American Christianity that has been responsible for a lot of missionary work around the world that, despite its good intentions has whitewashed and Americanized a Christian faith born in the Middle East and Northern Africa and practiced passionately at every end of the earth.
When we talk about “whitewashing” or “Americanizing” Christianity, we are talking about a gospel that teaches people that white American culture is normal and ideal. Furthermore, to whitewash Christianity is to suggest to non-whites around the world that the right way to be a Christian is to adopt worship styles and customs that are attributed to predominantly white communities. This harms both white and non-white Christians. It robs non-white Christians of their culture and community and blinds white Christians to the rich diversity within God’s Kingdom. In essence, preaching that “whiteness” is synonymous with Christianity is teaching false doctrine. Below are 4 false doctrines that have whitewashed churches globally:
1. Worshipping in decency and order: Many church denominations, particularly “church of Christ” affiliation have discouraged charismatic worship. They argue that being “excited” in church is unchristian and contrary to the teachings of the bible. Other churches that are somewhat charismatic censor the way that people can sing so that it is not disruptive. Along with that, many Christians accuse preachers who adopt the black church “call and response’ rhetoric as being mere entertainers and not “serious” about preaching the gospel. Many black and brown Christians who were raised in churches where worship and preaching was more charismatic and later attend predominantly white churches, end up believing that the way they were raised as Christians was wrong. When white theologians and Christian leaders at megachurches and Christian universities shun preachers who “get too excited” they are subtly insulting church communities domestically and internationally that worship and preach in ways that inspire a generation of believers. When missionaries go to African, Asian, and Latin American countries and tell people that they have to reject all of their cultural practices and customs to follow Christ, they are creating an idol of white Christianity and turning people away from the rich cultures of their communities. I get tired of hearing people accusing black and Latino worship music as being “too excited” or suggesting that “call and response” preaching is not as “godly” as churches where preaching is more lecture based. Suggesting that Christians need to worship in a calmer and less charismatic way in order to be more “holy” is a subtle and severe racist idea.
2. Avoiding certain controversial topics: This is especially prevalent in American churches who strategically avoid talking about racism because they think discussing the subject is too “divisive” or that it isn’t a real issue. Others take it further and suggest that discussing racism is contrary to preaching the gospel. The church’s silence and aversion to discussing America’s original sin of racism is toxic because it censors the voices of many of their brothers and sisters in Christ who experience racism, as I referenced in previous blogs. Furthermore, it suggests that racism isn’t a primary concern for Christians because it is too political. The irony is that Christians do not shy away from controversial and contentious issues. They march in droves against gay marriage and pray at abortion clinics (many preach hate and others commit violence in those instances). They speak unapologetically about the dangers of radical Islam (often in inflammatory ways) and speak about the superiority of America. With race; however, they are either silent or openly critical of what they refer to as the civil rights establishment. Unfortunately, many black churches have been impacted by this and spend countless sermons condemning the LGBT community but refuse to talk openly and honestly about racism because they don’t think its appropriate for the church. The fact that much of the American evangelical Christian community has avoided and shunned the topic of race shows the power of whiteness and colorblindness in the church. It shows that many white evangelicals have inspired churches to be resistant of systemic issues that speak to the sins of America that are embedded in our society. It shows the subtle desire to avoid critiquing majority (white) American culture and instead focusing on social the pathology of certain communities as the major sins in our world.
3. White Jesus: I know what you are thinking, “it doesn’t matter what race Jesus was.” Unfortunately, saying that does nothing to address the reality that for the most part, Christian books and images of Christ and everyone else in the bible have been white throughout history. This is not only historically inaccurate, it is psychologically toxic to non-whites. In a world where whiteness and western culture are seen as normal and moral, the images of “God’s people” in the bible as white only reinforces feelings of inferiority among non-whites. This even results in some subconsciously believing that God is white. While logically we all know that God isn’t of a particular race, many images (including Roman Sistine Chapel) paint him as being a white man and that impacts the minds of people, particularly children. We can argue about what Jesus really looked like all we want, but we have to be honest about how the images of Jesus and everyone else in the bible as being white has an impact on non-white Christians around the world who already believe that white/western culture is morally superior.
4. Ignoring the contributions of non-white Christian theologians: Our seminaries, universities, and churches need to read more and recognize the great theological works of Howard Thurman, Gustavo Gutierrez, and others who have contributed much to understanding and analysis of the Christian faith. Similar to the knowledge of other world history contributions, almost every theologian who is quoted from and celebrated for deep contributions to the Christian faith is a white male. This in in spite of the great non-white and woman Christian theologians who have contributed greatly to the theological analysis and understanding of the faith.
The kingdom of God eccompases people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. It includes a variety of worship styles and speaks to the experiences of marginalized people. Furthermore, the truth is that “we” (people from various nationalities and ethnicities) are represented in the bible and throughout church history and have been prophets and messengers of God. It is important for us to celebrate our diversity in Christ but not merely for the purpose of numbers, but for the purpose of speaking to the unique and often undervalued experiences of those who are oppressed.
Doing mission work around the world is noble and often necessary. I applaud people who preach the gospel in areas where Christianity is unknown and in many cases unpopular. Yet I cringe when I hear of Christian converts from the Middle East or South Asia who despise their culture. I met a British Christian from India once who said that his country and people were “savages” and that he is glad that he lives in the United Kingdom. That broke my heart to hear someone reject his own people and accept a notion that the western world is more superior and moral. This is not to get into a debate about how governments are ran and managed in different nations. The point is that many Christian converts around the world are sold Christianity as a way to reject much of who they are and embrace a new ethnic and national culture. When you come to Christ you are a new person, but that newness transcends culture and nationality. Rejecting one culture for the sake of another is not what that “newness” in Christ is about.
We have to reject and avoid teaching the false doctrines that whitewash and Americanize churches. Rejecting that false doctrine is for the good for both white and non-white Christians. It will help non-white Christians love and affirm their culture while recognizing their newness and identity in Christ. It will help white Christians reject their often well-intentioned mission work that does much harm and little good. It will humble the white Christian pastor who believes that his style of preaching is most holy, it will enlighten the black worship leader who has been convinced that she has to lead worship softly and slowly so that it wouldn’t entertain or distract the masses, and it will liberate the middle eastern teenager who has been told that his native culture is all wrong.