Heretical Hegemony: The Danger in Theologizing White Supremacy
On September 4th, 2018, a small group of 13 major church leaders published an online statement concerning social justice and the Christian gospel. Headed by pastor John McArthur, the statement was promoted across the US through his sermons and blogposts. As pastors and religious figures across the country from various denominations read this document, these men decided that in order to retain a sense of moral purity, a hardline stance must be taken against the social transformation occurring in the United States today. Thus, John McArthur, alongside twelve other Christian leaders, stated, against all opposing fact and argument, that the western Christian church stands in opposition to social justice.
While many within my social community, including my parents, partner, and friends, were outraged by this conservative document layered with white supremacy, sexism and homophobia, an astonishing 10,281 signers flooded the website in order to take their stand against liberal communities across the US. These signers included over 4,400 church pastors. Other signers included church lay members and a number of signatures on behalf of entire church communities. In essence, the white evangelical church came in full support of a Christian gospel estranged from the importance of human life and dignity.
The extent of this estrangement is made clear through McArthur’s writing. Within his blog series against social justice, McArthur writes:
The evangelicals who are saying the most and talking the loudest these days about what’s referred to as “social justice” seem to have a very different perspective. Their rhetoric certainly points a different direction, demanding repentance and reparations from one ethnic group for the sins of its ancestors against another. It’s the language of law, not gospel—and worse, it mirrors the jargon of worldly politics, not the message of Christ. It is a startling irony that believers from different ethnic groups, now one in Christ, have chosen to divide over ethnicity. They have a true spiritual unity in Christ, which they seem to disdain in favor of fleshly factions. (John McArthur, Social Injustice and the Gospel)
In its inception, the founding of the United States functioned as the merging of white supremacy and the Christian faith upon lands occupied by First Nation peoples, which were then tarnished by western expansion. As these two institutions intertwined, laws became the means by which the church flourished, as well as the economic privileges of white landowning men. In essence, the American dream became a western religious ideal. Following this history, John McArthur’s statement against social justice is a retaliation on behalf of the white supremacist frameworks of the State.
…[S]ocial movements for equality and representation seemed to challenge the seemingly holy boundaries of church and state. Where the Civil rights legislation now guards the legal principle of equal rights for all Americans, but no law can change the heart of someone who is filled with prejudice or bitterness. (John McArthur, Is the Controversy over "Social Justice" Really Necessary?)
Thus, from John McArthur’s statements it is apparent that the privileged perspective he holds blinds his capacity to recognize his own advantage, as well as the privilege of white folks within the US. By separating racism from the political sphere, John McArthur’s understanding of inequality is reduced to an interpersonal level, whereas, it is apparent that the weight of inequality rests upon the violence enacted by societal structures of stratification. This understanding of the US is based in an ahistorical narrative of universal equality and liberty, when in reality, race, class, gender identification, sexual orientation, and ability function as the means by which particular social groups are allowed power.
The weight of John McArthur’s words falls on the backs of those already ignored by society. In placing the church against social Justice, McArthur is invalidating the people’s call for change. In denying the reality of systemic racism, his statement silences the stories of individuals like Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Jussie Smollett, and the many other victims of police brutality, systemic racism and homophobia. Where we recognize that these are societal issues, McArthur portrays them as personal behavior issues.
Yet, McArthur’s statement is also indicative or a broader theological issue too. Within the context of conservative white evangelicalism, social transformation is perceived as an affront to seemingly long upheld traditions of family and society. As churches struggle to separate homophobic theology from their religious text, and US citizens seek justice on behalf of commodified and oppressed bodies, evangelical church leaders fear a corruption of religious social ideals held as truth claims. Within the social group of evangelicals in the US, individual free will is seen as the system of human action. Thus, for John McArthur, any ideological or theological perspective which speaks for systemic change–ideologies that actuate the lack of agency that people hold within society–is recognized as an attack on Christian morals. In essence, they are placed in the category of heresy.
The consequence of this cultural framework manifests itself in a fear of difference. Christian identifiers find themselves tied to social expectations that perpetuate competitive judgement. For each individual there is a fear of breaking code; a fear of being different. Thus, they project their insecurity through rigorous comparison to each other. When a member of the community experiences levels of inequality, whether this is based on class, gender, or sexuality, the community responds with condemnation. In essence, the Christian gospel becomes a social trap that perpetuates homogeneity and hegemony. No longer is liberation a necessary term. It is replaced with discipline and acceptance.
Through the evangelical epistemology, the Statement Against Social Justice silences the voices of Christian intellectuals such as Cristina Cleveland, M. Shawn Copeland, and Lisa Sharon Harper, claiming that all forms of knowledge which do not come from the Christian bible do not validate or invalidate dogmatic teachings.
…we deny that the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching. We further deny that competency to teach on any biblical issue comes from any qualification for spiritual people other than clear understanding and simple communication of what is revealed in Scripture. (Statement Against Social Justice)
Even more so, any form of cultural or sociological theory is recognized as human thinking separate from God. This results in a closed hermeneutic circle, dictating legalistic morality that perpetuates anger and violence against difference. Arguably, the acceptance of these black women as Christian scholars can be seen as a threat against the white evangelical community.
In its articulation, the Statement Against Social Justice is a document of conservative propaganda fed through the lens of Christian theology. With each affirmation and denial, John McArthur builds a politicized doctrine which defines belonging within the Christian church outside of the biblical scriptures. A blatant example of this can be seen in their statement concerning sexuality:
We deny that human sexuality is a socially constructed concept. We also deny that one’s sex can be fluid. We reject “gay Christian” as a legitimate biblical category. We further deny that any kind of partnership or union can properly be called marriage other than one man and one woman in lifelong covenant together. We further deny that people should be identified as “sexual minorities”—which serves as a cultural classification rather than one that honors the image-bearing character of human sexuality as created by God. (Statement Against Social Justice)
Here we see the true basis for this document; the exclusion of all lifestyles other than the nuclear white, heterosexual family. “We reject ‘gay Christian’ as a legitimate biblical category.” This sentence is an overt declaration of homophobia and discrimination stated through a bloated perception of personal authority. By writing these words, John McArthur strips his God of the authority to dictate who can and who cannot be a member of the Christian faith, as nowhere in the biblical narrative is ‘gay Christian’ even addressed as an idea, let alone a condemnation.
Yet, there is a question which arises concerning the nature of the Christian faith. To what extent is its theology based upon a narrative of white supremacy and ethnocentrism? In actuality, not at all. If one takes into account the history of Israel’s oppression under Egypt, and Jesus’ body as that of a black, male, Jewish refugee under Roman occupation, there quickly comes to the surface a narrative articulating the character of a God which cares for the justice of their people. A God that intentionally acts on behalf of their well-being.
“He who oppresses the poor taunts their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors [their Maker].” (Proverbs14:31)
To interpret the Christian texts, it is vital that the reader understand the dynamics of social power. For biblical Israel, peace and shalom are God’s promise of liberation. As a people called to be ‘set apart’ they are challenged to reorient society in order that all might find shelter. From the beginning of this text until its conclusion, the Jewish writers continually return to a responsibility for the orphan, the widow, and the foreigner. In today’s context we might recognize these identities within conversations around immigration, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Perhaps, when we think of the orphan, we might also see the ways which homophobia orphans queer individuals from their families. Perhaps, the continued othering and discrimination of black and brown bodies is a “foreigning” of their identities; the hyphen between African and American. As white Europeans have co-opted Christianity from the oppressed, the gospel has been replaced with a web of dogmas and traditions. If the church continues to separate itself from the justice-centered narrative of the Christian bible, white supremacy will continue to rear its head in the teachings of pastors across the US. With the growing call for social change, the church must now choose between humbling itself and continuing to hide behind fear and hegemony. In my heart, I hope it chooses to learn from the people.
About the author: Levi Clum is a student at Seattle Pacific University studying Cultural Studies and Philosophy. His personal interests include the intersection of religion and inequality. In his free time he enjoys writing poetry and playing music with his friends.