Let the circle be broken.
Words fail in these circumstances because we, collectively, have failed to act.* See edit.
Over the weekend, a racist massacre occurred in Buffalo, NY. The gunman was a white supremacist young man who drove across the state to enact his crime. I am not here to valorize or center his narrative through some morbid fascination. The New York Times has a summary of events, and what has been learned about this vile person’s motivations.
I am here to talk about the inherent violence of white supremacy, and the complacency with which we have become numb to gun violence.
My first coherent memory of watching a news event unfold in real-time was the Columbine shooting. I was in high school then, but by happenstance I had just had an appendectomy and was home for a week recovering. Since then, we’ve seen it happen again and again and again. In schools, in churches, in synagogues, in stores, at concerts, on streets. Over twenty years have passed since Columbine, yet instead of taking meaningful action our children practice active shooter drills at school. Listen to an older American, a Gen Xer or older, talk honestly about the dread they still have from practicing bombing drills during the height of the Cold War, and tell me that our children will not have the same.
It is a failure of imagination, a failure to accept responsibility, a failure to act—and white American Christianity is entangled in this failure, knotted up and binding us. And white evangelicalism, in particular, is complicit.
The Restricted Moral Vision of White Evangelicalism
There are ample books on the subject of whiteness and white evangelicalism. In this moment, one comes to mind: White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones. It is part of a subgenre of books about whiteness and Christianity, written by a white man reckoning with things that other white people deny or downplay. This is by no means the sole or most important lens with which to examine racism in religion, but one way white people in particular can work to challenge white supremacy is to refuse its inheritance and renounce it publicly. In 2022, you should not need books to persuade you of the realities of racism in the United States, but they can still inform and transform you.
Throughout the book, Jones wrestles with the way various racist assumptions go unchallenged and unexamined, and are even celebrated. While Jones grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition in the southern United States, his research is not limited his own racial and religious heritage, but expands to include every branch of white American Christianity. But of course, out of necessity I must single out the white evangelical role in perpetuating racism—because it is my own heritage, and because it has wielded the social and political power for decades, and it merits criticism.
In White Too Long, Jones shares some sociological findings about how white evangelicals view the world. There are two key metaphors: a “cultural toolkit,” and “restricted moral vision.” The passage is below:
“As sociologist Ann Swidler has noted, all groups have what can be thought of as a kind of “cultural tool kit”: a repertoire of shared ideas and behaviors that allow them to organize and interpret reality. This tool kit necessarily acts like a filter, allowing some things to come sharply into focus while blurring other things into an indistinguishable background field. Through the workings of this cultural filtering, some things seem like common sense, while others are less comprehendible or appear obviously nonsensical.
In a groundbreaking 2000 study, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith applied these insights to the results of thousands of quantitative and qualitative interviews with black and white Christians. Particularly on questions related to race, they found that white evangelicals’ cultural tool kit consisted of tools that restricted their moral vision to the personal and interpersonal realms, while screening out institutional or structural issues. Specifically, Emerson and Smith discovered that the white evangelical cultural tool kit contained three main tools that are all interconnected by theology: freewill individualism, relationalism, and antistructuralism.
Spelled out, freewill individualism means that, for white evangelicals, “individuals exist independent of structures and institutions, have freewill, and are individually accountable for their own actions.” Relationalism means that white evangelicals tend to see the root of all problems in poor relationships between individuals rather than in unfair laws or institutional behavior. Finally, antistructuralism denotes the deep suspicion with which white evangelicals view institutional explanations for social problems, principally because they believe invoking social structures shifts blame from where it belongs: with sinful individuals.1”
If your morality has been shaped or effected by white evangelical influence, you can sense the truth of this assessment—the deflection of social justice critiques that center norms and institutions to some vague notion that “what we need is revival” and that a heart strangely warmed is enough to effect broad social change. It’s that assumption of individual sin as the underlying cause of social ills that leads to phrases like “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
And yet this evangelical deflection of broad social culpability for violence to individuals is counterbalanced by a vague appeal to the corrupting influence of “the world.” There is no tension between these contradictory views. They sustain, in a haunting harmony, and the message they sing is “let the circle be unbroken.”
There are alternatives to this restricted moral vision, even within the Christian tradition. Hymns speak of being blind but now seeing and of Christians being known by their love. Yet even functioning eyes cannot see if they are not open, and those with working ears may hear but do not listen.
I fear that those who need to hear these critiques will reject them outright. The lasting effect of Trumpism in conservative circles is that it has provided ample cover to reject for no-good-reason anything that isn’t already valued by the conservative, even rejecting out of hand any position that doesn’t come from a conservative source. Trump inherited and intensified this latent conservative trait, which was already cultivated by conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh for decades (who in turn inherited the conservative radio firebrand mantle from his own predecessors like Billy James Hargis, etc). To that end, conservative GOP politics and media has ceased to be about living any particular value but rather the brash “fuck your feelings” attitude emblazoned on the t-shirts of many Trump rally attendees.
Many neoliberal Democrats in power continue to appeal to norms and the due process of American institutions, and fail to meet the challenge of obstructionist Republican Senate leaders. Both are complicit in their inability and unwillingness to enact meaningful change. Democratic leaders appeal to the grief of the powerless in order to security their votes but cannot secure their safety, whereas Republican leaders value the right to bear arms greater than the right to shop, pray, protest, or pursue any form of happiness without being under threat of life-altering or ending violence.
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The Limits of Words
Words, at least mere words, are not enough. We have seen this cycle play out. We know its rhythms. Parker Molloy writes about the media cycle here:
Yet some words must still be said. Words of condemnation. Words of rejection and renunciation. Robert P. Jones calls on white Christians to do so, again, in this post:
Kristin Kobes Du Mez writes similarly here:
“As a historian of white evangelicalism, I also find myself thinking of the context of the recently manufactured anti-CRT campaign. As a close observer of white evangelical communities, I’ve seen this reactionary movement take hold in real time. I’ve watched friends get pilloried for calling on fellow Christians to pursue racial justice. (I’m old enough to remember when this was still an acceptable thing to do in most evangelical spaces.) I’ve had my own speaking event cancelled because of wholly fabricated allegations that I’m a CRT activist. (Maybe I would be if I had the expertise, but I don’t, and I’m not.) I’ve watched evangelical leaders push the anti-CRT agenda knowing full well that not a single member of their churches is likely to have had any substantive exposure to actual Critical Race Theory. Yet I’ve watched them remain absolutely silent as “replacement theory” has started to infiltrate their communities. Silent in the face of the racist histories that have shaped the towns in which they live and the churches they lead. I’ve watched evangelical leaders condemn a Black brother in Christ for preaching biblical justice—deeply rooted in Gospel teachings—while defending White “brothers in Christ” who promote explicit racism but purportedly “get the Gospel right.”
Enough is enough.
If your pastor cannot find a voice to condemn racism not just in the abstract, but also in tangible forms such as the pernicious spread of “replacement theory” through Fox News, other conservative media, and members of the Republican party, call them out. If they can raise the alarm over a half-baked notion of “CRT” but end up being (by design) utterly unable or unwilling to address racism, white supremacy, racial violence, and systemic inequality, call them out on this.
It is no longer tenable to pretend that “good Christians” do not hold to pernicious beliefs about race. (Fact check: It never was.)”
Positions like Jones’s & Du Mez’s have an inherent tension, because they are spoken to a white audience that does not want to hear their message. How many calls to repentance need to be made before it it heeded?
Yes, this publication focuses on white evangelicalism’s power & influence in America, but to zero in on it feels myopic and selfish. One needs to zoom out, to see how white evangelicalism interacts with other forms of whiteness and white supremacy, and call it all into question.
Words fail in these circumstances because we, collectively, have failed to act. (Edit: in particular, those with considerable political and social power have failed to act in ways that protect communities who have suffered violence of many kinds, including passing legislation & transforming institutions. And those who support or tolerate the powerful are complicit.) If a faith without works is dead, a peace without justice is uneasy. We cannot expect our hollow words to console the Black community, nor should we ever dare to mollify their rage and grief in whatever form. white people should seek to fight white supremacy for the sole reason that it is the right thing to do. We should break this circle.
If you aren’t already listening to Black voices about this, correct that immediately.
One final thought. If, in light of a tragedy like this, you find yourself wanting to “defend white evangelicalism” or more simply, “defend Christianity,” what are you defending exactly? Is it really Christianity you’re compelled to defend, or is it whiteness? And why has it earned your defense?
There are ways for those of us formed in white evangelicalism to correct our moral vision. None of them involve things staying the same.
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Jones, Robert P.. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity (pp. 97-98). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.