Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Danger Of Racialized Jesus

It sounds no better in the idiom of woke American culture than it sounded in the original German
Screen Shot 2021-10-17 at 4.40.45 PM

You think we would ever seen something like this appear in The New York Times?

But by the time I started reading George Bertram and others, I knew I had to leave the non-white places that had become less familiar and less worthy of my presence: the seminary where I’d been studying and the non-white evangelical church I’d attended for so many years.

I had met great people at these places. But, sadly, they never really took seriously the life of the Aryan body in America. So I decided to return to the Aryan people and Aryan worlds that made me and loved me. I was growing up white again.

If the non-white people I worshiped with and went to school with and had dinner with had the imagination to see C.S. Lewis’s Aslan the lion in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” as Jesus, then I knew there should have been no problem when white people said Jesus was white and Jesus loved white people and Jesus wanted to see white people free. But I found out that many could see the symbol of divine goodness and love in an animal before they could ever see the symbol of divine goodness and love in whiteness.

My world changed when I stopped sitting at the feet of Jewish Jesus and began becoming a disciple of Aryan Jesus. I didn’t have to hate myself, or my people, or our creativity, or our beauty to be human or to be Christian.

Of course you wouldn’t. This is a statement of the theology that the Nazis created, with the collaboration of eleven German Protestant churches, to de-judaize Christianity. From a Big Think article explaining it:

Operating from 1939 until 1945, the so-called “Institute for the Study and Elimination of Jewish Influence on German Church Life” was founded with the purpose of “defense against all the covert Jewry and Jewish being, which has oozed into the Occidental Culture in the course of centuries,” as written by one of its directors, George Bertram. According to him, the institute was dedicated not only to “the study and elimination of the Jewish influence” but also had “the positive task of understanding the own Christian German being and the organization of a pious German life based on this knowledge.”

The institute, based in Eisenach, was organized with the participation of eleven German Protestant churches. It was an outgrowth of the German Christian movement, which sought to turn German Protestantism toward Nazi ideals. The visionary behind the institute, Walter Grundmann, collaborated with the Nazi regime and later the East German Democratic Republic (GDR), spying for the infamous state security apparatus known as the Stasi.

As detailed in Susannah Heschel’s The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany, Nazis aimed to create the theological basis for the elimination of Jews. One mechanism of accomplishing this was the creation of the institute, which taught to erase Jews from the Christian story and to turn Jesus into the world’s most prominent anti-Semite.

As Heschel wrote, for the Nazis involved, “Jesus had to be drained of Jewishness if the German fight against the Jews was to be successful.”

Following this logic, the “dejudification” institute created the narrative of an anti-Jewish Jesus, bizarrely making him the follower of an Indian religion that was opposed to Judaism, as Heschel explains. Nazi theologians invented a narrative that Galilee, the region in which much of Jesus’ ministry took place, was populated by Assyrians, Iranians, or Indians, many of whom were forcibly converted to Judaism. Jesus, therefore, was actually a secret Aryan, who was opposed and killed by the Jews.

In the version of the Bible produced by the institute, the Old Testament was omitted and a thoroughly revised New Testament featured a whole new genealogy for Jesus, denying his Jewish roots. Jewish names and places were removed, while any Old Testament references were changed to negatively portray Jews. Jesus was depicted as a military-like Aryan hero who fought Jews while sounding like a Nazi.

“By manipulating the theological and moral teachings of Christianity, Institute theologians legitimated the Nazi conscience through Jesus,” explained Heschel. In the revisions of Christian rituals that were also part of this Nazi effort, miracles, the virgin birth, resurrection, and other aspects of Jesus’ story were deemphasized. Instead, he was portrayed as a human being who fought for God and died as a victim of the Jews.

“The Institute shifted Christian attention from the humanity of God to the divinity of man: Hitler as an individual Christ, the German Volk as a collective Christ, and Christ as Judaism’s deadly opponent,” elaborated Heschel.

I bring this up because today the Times published an op-ed by Danté Stewart, a black writer who left a white Evangelical church and seminary when he became racially conscious. He writes in the op-ed:

But by the time I started reading James Cone and others, I knew I had to leave the white places that had become less familiar and less worthy of my presence: the seminary where I’d been studying and the white evangelical church I’d attended for so many years.

I had met great people at these places. But, sadly, they never really took seriously the life of the Black body in America. So I decided to return to the Black people and Black worlds that made me and loved me. I was, as Toni Morrison writes, growing up Black again.

If the white people I worshiped with and went to school with and had dinner with had the imagination to see C.S. Lewis’s Aslan the lion in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” as Jesus, then I knew there should have been no problem when Black people said Jesus was Black and Jesus loved Black people and Jesus wanted to see Black people free. But I found out that many could see the symbol of divine goodness and love in an animal before they could ever see the symbol of divine goodness and love in Blackness.

My world changed when I stopped sitting at the feet of white Jesus and began becoming a disciple of Black Jesus. I didn’t have to hate myself, or my people, or our creativity, or our beauty to be human or to be Christian.

I find it hard to believe that any serious white Christian believes that Jesus doesn’t love black people and doesn’t want to see black people free. If they do, then they need to repent of their racism. But so does Danté Stewart, whose essay is a justification for deifying his own race and calling it Christian.

In Galatians 3, St. Paul writes that ethnic consciousness is antithetical to the spirit of Christ:

27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

That is the ideal to which Christians of every time and place have been called to live by. We have very often failed. It’s a failure every time I meet someone — as I did on a flight home to Baton Rouge from Chicago yesterday — who has visited an Orthodox church, and felt alien to it, because it struck them as being “too ethnic” — and never went back. I usually tell them that they should give that church a second chance. Orthodoxy has many national expressions, and they should not be surprised that a parish in the Slavic tradition, or the Greek tradition, or the Arabic tradition, has worship features that come from those particular cultures. If you went to a traditionally black church and felt alienated by the gospel singing and the style of preaching, that would be your fault, not the fault of the parishioners there, who are worshiping and praying in an organic style native to their culture. But if the people there excluded you because you were not part of their ethnos, then that is a very serious sin on their part.

In the Orthodox church, this is actually a defined heresy, called phyletism. It is the confusion of church with race, or ethnos. The man I talked to on the plane yesterday had visited a Greek Orthodox church in his city, but told me he had the feeling that the church centered Greekness above anything else. Of course I can’t know if that’s really the case with that particular parish, or if it just felt that way to a stranger with no prior experience of Orthodoxy. I encouraged him to visit the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) parish in his city, which comes out of the Slavic tradition, but which is mostly a convert parish, and doesn’t feel “ethnic” in the same way other Orthodox parishes do (I know this because I’ve worshiped there before). To be clear, I have worshiped in “ethnic” Orthodox parishes that were quite welcoming to me as a non-ethnic — something I might not have recognized were I brand-new to Orthodoxy. It’s a real challenge for Orthodox churches in this country: trying to be respectful and honoring of the national tradition of that particular church, but also appealing evangelically to those who are not part of that ethnos. Some do it better than others.

On the other hand, universalists have to learn to respect cultural particulars. You usually hear well-intentioned Christian do-gooders lamenting that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in America, because blacks and whites are worshiping at ethnically exclusive churches. I understand the complaint as an objection to racism — and share it. But this is naive and insensitive. In my Deep South hometown some time ago, one of the white Protestant churches got a new minister, who launched a small crusade within the church to encourage it to integrate. He wasn’t wrong to do this; non-white people should feel welcome at this church. But he seemed to have the idea that the only reason local black Christians weren’t coming to that church was whites didn’t welcome them. From the secondhand reports I received (I say that because I could be wrong), it sounded like he wasn’t taking into account that many of the black churches of the parish (county) had roots going back to the conversion of their slave ancestors, and that leaving those churches behind could seem like breaking faith with their ancestors. More important, the way of worship of white Protestants in that place is very different from that of black Protestants. Long after that pastor moved on, a friend who attends that church told me her teenage son invited a black friend from school to go to church with him one Sunday. The black teen told his white friend that he could not understand a church where people just sat there quietly for an hour.

I get that! I don’t think that the black teenager showed disrespect for the white church by saying, “That’s not for me.” Nor do I think the white church was obligated to change its traditional worship to be more accommodating of people raised in the black church. The extent of the obligation either that white Protestant church or the black Protestant churches in that parish have to newcomers of other races is to welcome them as fellow Christians, and do your best to integrate them into the community. But they have an obligation to respect that church’s established traditions.

The problem in Orthodox churches struggling with phyletism is not that they should de-Greekify or de-Russify themselves, but rather that they should realize that their Greekness, their Russian-ness, etc., exists in a hierarchy of values. If maintaining racial identity is more important than maintaining Christian identity, then that’s a theological problem as well as an evangelical one. If an Orthodox parish existing in a racially pluralistic, non-Orthodox country, like America, doesn’t figure out how to do outreach to those outside the ethnos of the church’s founding roots, then it will die, in part because it is failing in the evangelical mission that all Christian churches are called to do.

So, back to Danté Stewart. I have no idea where he went to church or to seminary. It may be just as he said, and these places were bastions of white supremacy. I find that hard to believe in 2021, but maybe it happened just this way. I think it more likely that these institutions may have been unaware of how their normative practices were bound to their culture. That is, they think that the way they do things are “Christian,” but in fact are more like “the way white Evangelicals in 21st century America worship.” This is an easy mistake to make. One thing I’ve learned in my lifelong journey from Mainline Protestantism to Catholicism to Orthodoxy is that the experience of Christian worship and community is far more culturally determined than most of us think. A non-denominational Protestant pastor I talked with over the weekend at the Touchstone conference told me what a revelation it was in seminary for him to study church history, and to realize how deep the church’s history was prior to the Reformation. He said the way he was raised, everyone in his home church just assumed that church history began with Martin Luther. Mind you, he is still a Protestant minister, but he knows how culturally and historically contingent Protestantism is.

The feeling of alienation Danté Stewart had in that white church environment is completely understandable. It’s not just a racial thing. I left Catholicism for Orthodoxy in 2006. Since then, I have had several Protestant folks ask me why I did not consider returning to Protestantism after I lost my ability to believe as a Catholic. When that happens, I am willing to go into church history and ecclesiology if they’re interested in having the conversation, but I begin by telling them that after over a decade of living within sacramental Christianity, Protestantism is really alien to me. That’s not a judgment on their belief in Jesus Christ, but a statement about how hard it is for me to response to their worship traditions. To be sure, I also believe that non-sacramental Christianity (and yes, I know that some Protestant churches have sacraments) is profoundly deficient — something non-sacramental Protestants believe about us on the other side of the divide — but that does not mean I think they are bad people at all, or love Jesus any less than we sacramental Christians do.

The point I’m trying to make here is that it is easy for me to get why Danté Stewart felt alien in that environment. I can’t blame him for leaving. Me, I would feel vastly more at home worshiping in an all-black Orthodox parish (like the Ethiopians) than I would worshiping with an all-white Protestant congregation. But I think Stewart is not only wrong, but dangerously wrong to racialize and moralize his break with white Evangelicalism. There is no “divine goodness” in blackness any more than there is divine goodness in whiteness — except possibly as a reflection of the diversity of God’s good creation. The divine goodness comes from our shared humanity, which makes our particular race less important.

I get anxious when anybody starts talking about race in religious terms. I’m just barely old enough to have memory of some white Christians talking about how blacks were cursed by God to be black. Older whites where I grew up sincerely believed that. I can imagine that a lot of this black-positive theology developed in reaction to that white supremacist lie. But you don’t fight one lie with another lie. There is no curse in being of a particular race, and no blessing in it either, except in the weak sense I mention above (e.g., Negro spirituals, which emerged from a particular people, under particular historical conditions, are a great blessing to the entire church, and a glory of black Christianity in America).

Stewart writes:

July 5, 2016: I remember my hands holding my phone, my stomach sweating, my eyes beholding Alton Sterling, lifeless. I saw in him the face of every Black boy and man who couldn’t be protected. I was cold, empty, afraid. I didn’t know what to do with what I saw or what I felt.

The very next day, another Black death: Philando Castile. I heard him pant. His breaths were heavy, weak, patterned. I remember hearing his girlfriend, Diamond, frantic and crying. “Stay with me,” she told him. “Please, Jesus,” she cried. There were no answers to such a prayer.

I remember what the white Christians around me said, how they blamed Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile for their own deaths and how they struggled to see the value of our lives.

Leaving aside the circumstances around both deaths — Alton Sterling’s death was very, very different from Philando Castile’s, as the video record of both shootings demonstrate — let’s assume that a white Christian worshiping in a black church in the early 1990s heard black congregants praising the O.J. Simpson jury for acquitting the football star of murder, as was widely reported at the time. Could you blame that white Christians for wondering in that context if his black fellow Christians could see the value of the lives of white people like Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman?

That thought would be understandable, as is the feeling Stewart got hearing those white Christians’ opinions about Sterling and Castile. But would it be understandable, or defensible, if the offended and alienated white Christian built an entire theological rationale for leaving that church, construing the church and its entire tradition as “black supremacist”? No, not at all. That would be unjust, in fact. The reactions of one group of black Christians to racially charged news events would not damn the entire community of black followers of Jesus. On what grounds, then, does Danté Stewart get to pass that kind of sweeping judgment on all white Evangelicals?

In his sermon this morning, my pastor said that the Church exists for everybody, no matter their race or their politics — but they have to leave their own agendas at the door before they come into the church. This is correct. This same pastor has preached powerfully against anti-black racism, so he’s not trying to be quietistic. He is trying to keep us all focused on the fact that every single one of us is broken. Every single one of us needs a Savior. Every single one of us has sins of which we need to repent.

Those sins might include racism. Those sins might include anti-Semitism. Judging by his own writing, Danté Stewart has chosen to deal with his racial anxiety, and salve his wounds, by taking refuge in a racialized Christianity. Does he not recognize that he is commanded by the Lord God to love his white, Latino, Asian and other brothers in Christ (and brothers outside the church)? Does the love the white Evangelicals in whose company he worshipped for years mean nothing to him, because he hated the reaction of some of them to the police shooting of black men, and despised the support some showed for Donald Trump? If Danté Stewart felt that he needed to return to a historically black church for the good of his soul, I support him on that. He had reasons. But he is in spiritually dangerous territory with his racism in a theological key. It sounds no better stated in the idiom of woke American culture than it sounded in the original German.

Stewart writes, of his seminary days:

As the weeks and months and years went by, I found myself closer and closer to white people. After graduating from college, I joined a white evangelical church and entered seminary in the hopes of becoming a pastor there. In my pursuit to be a better person and a better athlete and a better Christian, I viewed Black sermons and Black songs and Black buildings and Black shouting and Black loving with skepticism and white sermons and white songs and white buildings and white clapping with sacredness.

Well, that’s a shame. There is nothing wrong, necessarily, with critiquing other traditions. Maybe contemporary black styles of preaching is problematic in some senses. If someone wanted to critique, say, contemporary Calvinist preaching by saying that it was too abstract and academic, well, maybe there’s something to that. In fact, I just looked up where Stewart was trained: Reformed Theological Seminary. Well, there you go: of course if you hew to the Calvinist tradition, you are going to find criticism of the emotionalism of much traditional black preaching. Reformed preaching is typically more logic-oriented. This has strengths as well as weaknesses. But it’s not necessarily racist for Calvinists to valorize a method of preaching that comes from the expository style of John Calvin, its founder. Nor would it necessarily be racist for theologians in the black church tradition to criticize Calvinist preaching for being too abstract. It goes back to the black teenager in the Protestant church in my hometown: he felt that that church’s style of worship was too much in the head, and did not involve the heart or the rest of the body as it should. Similarly, I bet if his white friend had attended his home church, he would have felt strange to be in a church where the preaching is so emotionally charged, and the worship is so physical.

(This is how I have felt when I have been in Pentecostal or charismatic worship; it is not a surprise that the most racially integrated churches in America are Pentecostal. Similarly, when I’ve been present at Mainline Protestant services, I understand where that black teenager is coming from: as an Orthodox Christian, it feels normal to want to stand, bow, cross yourself, and involve the whole body in worship. I don’t think that charismatics or Mainline Protestants love Jesus any less than I do, and if they happened to be of another race, I certainly wouldn’t have assumed that their implicit or even explicit critique of Orthodox worship would make them bigots.)

Stewart counts as a milestone on his way out of the white church hearing “someone who worshiped where I worshiped praising the name Donald J. Trump.” I suppose to readers of The New York Times, it is perfectly obvious why this is a horror that disqualifies a church from moral seriousness. But you know what? I have heard people who worship where I worship praising Donald Trump. I have also heard people who worship where I worship condemning Donald Trump. Sometimes this has been the same person. Sometimes, this person has been me. This is normal. Yesterday at the Touchstone conference, I heard Carl Trueman, who is English by birth, telling the audience that one of the most striking things to him about America is how much hope Americans place in politics. It’s disordered, according to Trueman — and he’s right. Anyway, if you’re a black Christian who is thinking of leaving a white church because you don’t like the politician a white co-religionist praised, you had better not be okay with this hypocrisy:

Aside from the theological problems with Danté Stewart’s column, one has to wonder what the political goal is. The Nazis’ attempts to de-Judaize, and to Aryanize, German Christianity were part of an overall effort to demonize Jews and divinize Germans on the basis of their race. The Stewart column appears in the Times, the leading journal of establishment liberalism. Many liberals and progressives, and the institutions they run, are thoroughly committed to demonizing whiteness. Liberal churches and liberal or liberal-trending Christian colleges and universities have signed on to the campaign. It’s sick, sick stuff, and as I have said here for years, they are only giving aid and comfort to actual white supremacists, who share their view that the line between good and evil runs between races; they’re just on the opposite side of the line, that’s all.

The experience of Germany in the 20th century does not give reason to hope that racializing law, racializing public discourse, and racializing Christianity, is going to work out well for anybody. What Martin Luther King and the movement he did gave to America was liberation from the demon of institutionalized racial hatred. We have never lived in a racial utopia, and never will, this side of heaven. But the Deep South world I grew up in was so much better than the one my parents grew up in, because of what Dr. King preached, and because of what he accomplished. Despite his moral flaws, his message was profoundly Christian, and profoundly American. It is a colossal tragedy that only fifty years after his murder, America is throwing away his accomplishment. It is a staggering irony that it’s not a resurgent Right that’s doing it, but the post-liberal Left.

I am happy for Danté Stewart that he has found a church home. But white people as white people are not his enemy, and black people as black people are not his allies. If he thinks that, he is setting himself up to be taken advantage of by bad men who play on his emotions. And he is at risk for being tempted to think that because of his race, and the historical victimization of black people in American life, he is somehow less culpable for his own sins. It doesn’t work that way, not in the Kingdom of God. The sins of whites does not give black people permission to hate whites, nor do the sins of blacks give white people permission to hate blacks. All of us are sinners. Our sins are our own. All of us need a Savior. All of us need to forgive, and to be forgiven. Every single day.  

I riffed on this Solzhenitsyn line above, but I’ll say it again, because it’s so important these days: the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Mine. Danté Stewart’s. Yours. We are all captive to sin. There is only One who can liberate us from that bondage.

UPDATE: Good comment from reader Elspeth:

Interestingly, we are a black family who found ourselves leaving behind traditionally black worship, and landing in a mid-sized Reformed church where we are among four other black families, several Latino families, a few Asian families, and yes, mostly white families.

I know how that happened. While I grew up immersed in traditional black worship, my husband was completely and thoroughly unchurched. When he converted, he followed me into a black church. However, his practice was to read the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation; repeatedly every year.

The more he did that, the less satisified he became with the emphasis on emotive worship at the expense of regimented, deep exploration of the Scriptures. He lamented songs about how we feel about Jesus at the expense of hymns that point to the glory and majesty of God.

He encountered Refomed black pastor Voddie Baucham, and that started us on a journey that we knew we were not alone in as a black family. It was easy for me to follow his lead because I strongly believe that is what I commanded to do, but also because our children have been immersed in classical, Christian education for the last 5 years. I was already changing. It all kind of went together.

This has not diminshed our blackness, neither has it come at the expense of black friendships. Only in a very limited scope of life experience does anyone harbor the delusion that they can implicitly trust or will not be hurt or disappointed by people who look like them simply because they look like them. See Rod’s example of Rwanda. That’s a good one, but examples are endless.

The fact that American Christians are mostly abandoning any attempt at striving for the Christian ideal serves to underscore how deeply divided this country is; even the Christian segment. It saddens me to think that the one thing Jesus says will identify is as His own (our deep love for one another) has been discarded for fleshly, tribal affinity.

UPDATE.2: Reader Austin Olive comments:

I am a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. I can assure you that the things this guy, or Jemar Tisby, say are calumnies of the first order.

RTS made great efforts (in concert with both the Presbyterian Church in America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church) to reach out to black ministers and churches. They created scholarships, established low-cost continuing education programs, and did extensive outreach in their desire to overcome the legacy of the past.

The Rev’d Dr Ligon Duncan, who is RTS’s Chancellor, took a chance on Tisby and others, elevating them, employing them, and giving them a platform. The PCA and EPC prioritized church planting with black ministers in intentionally integrated settings. And it was remarkably successful.

But Tisby and his crowd deemed them insufficiently woke, and have judged them as irredeemable racists. Tisby’s podcast ”The Witness: A Black Christian Collective” started out as the ”Reformed African American Network” (RAAN), and was sponsored by RTS and the PCA. But now they have had a whole series of episodes denouncing and slandering the Seminary and the denomination. I listened to them. I know the people he slandered. I know it’s the lies of a man who is himself a delusional racist. (Their pals at ”Truth’s Table” are just as bad.)

I’m sure they’re hurt and wounded by things they’ve experienced. I feel for that. But their pain, wherever or whatever it’s origin, does not justify the abuse they’ve heaped on people who sincerely tried to befriend and educate them.

One last comment: a lot of the students I attended Seminary with are Africans – Ugandans, Kenyans, Liberians, Malawians, and Zambians. Those men have no ill to speak, and loved their experience as students. Every one of them felt most comfortable attending ‘white’ Presbyterian churches, and had excellent experiences in them.

This is more about the men who are complaining than about the people they are lambasting.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now