Confronting White Supremacy in the American Church
by Kristopher Norris
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
The Book Review insert of Sunday’s New York Times includes a list of the top 15 selling books in a Paperback Nonfiction category. Eight of these books deal with race in America, providing just one indicator of the width and depth of the national conversation. This book—Witnessing Whiteness—will takes its place as a resource of significance in this dialogue.
Author Kristopher Norris is a scholar of the first rank; his educational pedigree (PhD, University of Virginia) and the erudition of this book (almost 300 items listed in the bibliography) clearly define him as such. But he is also a churchman: a Christian affiliated with Calvary Baptist Church in Washington DC. So he writes about and for his own people—the white congregation of the American South (which also happens to be my own people).
The problem Norris addresses is the continuing impact of slavery: its devastating impact on the economic, legal, political, and physical wellbeing of people of color in America today. Like Robert P Jones (in his book White Too Long), Norris names the culprit as white supremacy. He then faults Christian theology and practice as primary vehicles by which white supremacy is passed from one generation to the next. “Salvation became white” (42), he asserts. “As the Reconstruction-era hymn proclaims, being saved was simply a matter of being ‘whiter than snow’.” A mound of other evidence demonstrates, for Norris, that Christianity was not, as it claimed, the “only solution to the race problem” but was in fact the chief culprit of racism (54).
(I might insert: my recent reading and review of the Jones’ book prompted in me an examination of my own theological heritage. See my article “Baptist Theology and White Supremacy” here.)
Norris engages in extended dialogue with three of the most prominent and influential Christian theologians of the last one hundred years: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), James Cone (1938-2018), and Stanley Hauerwas (1940- ). He faults Hauerwas for largely ignoring the problem of race in American Christianity; he praises Cone for challenging both the white church and the black church to address the problem; and he finds in Bonhoeffer the kind of theological conversion on race that American white theologians need to undergo in order to address America’s original sin—racism.
To that end he includes a way-too-short segment on what we must do as Christians and as theologians. He proposes altering the practices of Christian worship and devotion to include remembering our tradition of suppression and oppression, repenting of our collusion in such things up to and including public policies of this very day (and I am thinking about the restrictions on felon voting recently enacted in Florida), and providing restitution (a la Zacchaeus) to the people and their descendants for the wrongs of yesterday and today. Sadly, he has no congregational illustration of the latter as he does the two former.
Norris is unrelenting in his attack on white supremacy. “The problem is worse than we thought, and the effort to undo this harm will be more difficult than we expect. We must exorcise our own demons” (59). He writes at the end of the book: “I am not interested in saving whiteness; it must be destroyed. And the white church must go down with it, and with God’s grace be born again into something completely new” (161).
This powerful attack on white supremacy in the theological traditions of my own religion joins with Jones’ book mentioned above as a one-two punch; it has knocked me out. Cold. My ministerial career is almost over (and some would say it was over years ago!!). But I have resolved to take what years I have left to do what I can to write, speak, and advocate about this (and I will be writing soon about a research and writing project I have embraced!).