“A Stirring of Conscious”


Kaylee Oppenheimer, Editor-in-Chief

On Oct. 25, 2020, Pope Francis appointed the first African-American Cardinal, Wilton Gregory, to be the first African-American archbishop of Washington, in a year when the Black Lives Matter movement has risen and become a force for justice. This decision, however, did not come without the painful and looming debates over how to address the legacy of slavery and the use of Christianity to justify slavery and racism. In recent months, Archbishop Gregory has urged the church’s leaders to improve race relations, especially in a world in which only around 250 of the estimated 37,000 Catholic priests in the United States are African-American (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops). 

In August, during a Mass commemorating the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington, Archbishop Gregory said, “Ours is the task and the privilege of advancing the goals that were so eloquently expressed 57 years ago by such distinguished voices on that day.” He also said: “We are at a pivotal juncture in our country’s struggle for racial justice and national harmony.” 

In this article, I set out to expand access to knowledge concerning racism in our religious institutions, most notably in our churches for this article. This topic is too large to contain in one article, let alone ten-thousand, so during the course of this year I will be continuously interviewing faith leaders and writing articles. 

Christianity and racism have been intertwined for generations; for hundreds of years, christianity was used by many as a tool through which racism could be condoned, and even encouraged. 

Ibram X. Kendi wrote in his book Stamped From the Beginning; A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, “There was one enslavement theory focused on Black people already circulating, a theory somehow derived from Genesis 9:18-29, which said ‘that Negroes were the children of Ham, the son of Noah, and that they were singled out to be black as the result of Noah’s curse, which produced Ham’s colour and the slavery God inflicted upon his descendents,’ as Khaldun explained…God had permanently cursed ugly Blackness and slavery into the very nature of African people, curse theorists maintained…the medieval curse theorists laid the foundation for segregationist ideas and for racist notions of Black genetic inferiority…the disempowered curse theory became empowered, and racist ideas tuly came into being” (page 21). 

This “curse theory” originates all the way from the Persian scholar Tabari 838-923. When we think about the arrival of the Puritans and we learn about how they shaped the “American work ethic” and established much of the American dogma of individuality, our education fails to indicate that in fact “the first generation of Puritans began rationalizing the enslavement of these ‘Negroes’ without skipping a Christian beat” (page 19). 

By 1665, when Richard Baxter’s A Christian Directory came out, the use of Christianity and converting slaves to “win them to Christ” and “save their souls” was largely widespread, and “these assimilationist ideas of Christianizing and civilizing enslaved Africans were particularly dangerous because they gave convincing power to the idea that slavery was just and should not be resisted”(page 48). 

In 1706, Cotton Mather, an extremely influential young man at the time and a Harvard graduate, released his book The Negro Christianized, writing that the “Providence of God” sent Africans into slavery and over to Christian America to have the capacity to learn from their masters the “Glorious Gospel” (page 68). 

By the time of Mather’s death in 1728, “Royal Society fellows had fully constructed this White ruling standard for humanity. Christianity, rationality, civilization, wealth, goodness, souls, beauty, light, Adam, Jesus, God, freedom had all been framed as the dominion of White people from Europe” (page 75). This problem largely exists and continues to infiltrate churches all across America. 

Gary Percesepe, pastor at Church in the Highlands in White Plains (a progressive Protestant Church), a philosophy professor at Fordham University and a writer, said that racism is “deeply embedded in the church, in churches, and I said repeatedly from the pulpit and my writing ‘the problem is the notion that Jesus is white. Whiteness needs to be decentered. We need to understand that Jesus was a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew. He was a radical. And a revolutionary. One of my friends was asked for a soundbite on a network TV and was asked ‘Who was Jesus?’ and he said ‘Jesus was a Jewish Mediterannean peasant with an attitude.’ I would simply add that he was a brown-skinned Palestinian with attitude. So this is the founder of the movement that went to the establishment of the church, so I think the biggest problem was when the Roman Empire sort of co-opted Christianity with the conversion of Constantine and Christianity ceased to be illegal, and it became over time the official religion of the empire. So empire religion is not helping us, and white Jesus is killing us.

Emily Brown, an ordained minister at First Reformed Church whose ordination is in the United Church of Christ (a Protestant Christian denomination), said “there’s a lot of white Jesus art out there. There’s a famous individual piece that’s been reproduced like thousands maybe hundreds of thousands of times by Warner Salmon, and this painting is just on Sunday School walls everywhere. If you look it up it’s going to look really familiar. Blonde, white Jesus, very European-looking, and this is how we teach people to think about what Jesus looked like. And we know historically, that that is not what Jesus looked like. He was probably short. He was Middle-Eastern. He probably had olive-toned skin. He was probably dark-haired.”

She added: “There’s a famous case when somebody showed this to Sunday-school kids and said ‘you know, this is what Jesus might have looked like, this is what people of his ethnicity in his area at that time looked like’ and a little kid said ‘that’s not Jesus, that’s a bad guy.’ That’s the cultural messaging that kids get. Maybe less now, but I don’t want to assume that things are better because time has passed.”

But it’s not just “white Jesus.” It’s in the music of churches. Emily Brown added, “the music of at least the traditions I’ve been a part of – and that varies with churches – are very white in their history. But it’s very much in line with white musical traditions.” 

When I asked Gary Percesepe how he ensures that his church is not racist, he said: “I can’t. This is America. I’ve never been in a church that did not in some way participate/benefit from [racism]. I mean, look at the church’s endowments. Look at what Princeton did. Look at Georgetown. You know, I mean when they were in trouble financially over 100 years they sold slaves! All of our institutions are white institutions, are deeply embedded in [racism] and this is where we have to recognize the confluence of capitalism and racism. So as [Ibram X.] Kendi calls it, it’s a racialized capitalism that has compromised our message. And again, that goes back to empire Christianity and our throwing in with the religion of the empire because it offered success and money and that seemed better to people than Jesus’s teachings which had to do with suffering and the cross, and dieting to one’s ego. People don’t like that. So I think we’re all in a sense deeply embedded – all churches are – therefore all churches like individuals. What I really love about the confession time in the liturgy of the church is that the whole church together as the people of God are asked to examine their lives and name their sin before God and before each other – that’s what the liturgy says, ‘Before God and before one other we confess that you know, that we have been complicit, conspired with, the powers that be and the ideology of white supremacy.”

If you’re inspired by this article, make sure to also check out the article “‘We Repent!’ (Anti-Racism Projects in the Christian Church)  which is more solution-based! If you’re still interested after reading that, check out the article “A Religionless Christianity!” Additionally, this is the first of a series of articles examining racism in places of worship (next article will contain an interview with a Rabbi), so check back next week for another article!