How Christian Theology Created the Need to Assert that Black Lives Matter

Image: Clay Banks/Unsplash

The Republican Party’s primary race is filling up with candidates crusading against “wokeness,” particularly in the American educational system. Meanwhile, here in Kentucky (where I live), a rural school district will be forced to reform its anti-discrimination policies after a federal Department of Justice investigation has uncovered “serious and widespread racial harassment” in the school system, targeting Black and multiracial students who live in the county. Denial about the White supremacy at the heart of American culture and politics has become so deeply integral to conservative politics, it’s essentially become a kind of spiritual practice. And it’s bound up with a network of denials that run deeper than American history. 

There’s a passage from a letter, written by James Baldwin to his nephew, that I cite in my new book Sister Death: Political Theologies for Living & Dying. I was working on the book in March 2020, and this comment from Baldwin has been haunting me for the past three years since the Black Lives Matter protests erupted in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since, that is to say, the denial of the value of Black lives coincided with the denial of the gravity of a pandemic.  

“White Americans do not believe in death,” Baldwin wrote. “And this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them.” That which is unspeakable for White Americans, their “private fears and longings,” are “projected onto the Negro,” says Baldwin. The fear of death is projected onto the other, who becomes both the emblem and victim of that which is feared. White Americans fear death, but convince themselves that death doesn’t happen to them. That they aren’t the ones destined for death. Death is something that happens to Black Americans.

Black Lives Matter protests were one of the places where people wore masks early in the pandemic facing ridicule from politicians like Donald Trump. Many White Americans like Trump were not convinced that the pandemic, or the risk of death that it carried, was a real threat. Baldwin’s words speak to us about both of these forms of denial.

But Baldwin’s words are also reminiscent of a more ancient history of death denial in Christian theology. It’s long been the case that many Christians claim death as something meant for their enemies, not something that truly applies to them—or at least to those they deem faithful Christians. Instead, Christians expect to live on eternally. It’s a view that promises insiders the ultimate reward, and makes enemy lives (already destined for death) that much more disposable. White Americans have, we could say, inherited their denial of the value of Black life (and their disbelief in White death) from the Christian tradition that so many White Americans have turned to (and continue to turn to) for guidance and strength. 

Death denial in Christian thought

There is no singular way of interpreting what death is (why it happens, what purpose it serves) within the Christian tradition. Christianity is a diverse tradition that harbors all kinds of potential attitudes towards the reality of death. But one of the most dominant and enduring interpretations of death takes its cue from the apostle Paul’s message to the church in Corinth, in which he writes that: “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Paul seems to clearly indicate that death is an enemy of God, and those who follow God. 

Death is abstract; it’s a power, or a force, that’s difficult if not impossible to actually conceptualize. It perhaps wouldn’t matter how we think about abstract matters like these if it weren’t also the case that powers and forces—like life and death—are also understood to be embodied by living beings like us. The lines between life and death can divide people and communities, feeding into narratives about who should live and who should die. 

Paul’s message has often been interpreted to be a declaration that Christians—who are friends and lovers of God—are on the side of life, and the living. Death, which is the enemy force, is not only an evil enemy of God but the ultimate fate of Christianity’s foes. These enemies of God are more killable than other Christians, precisely because they were never promised eternal life to begin with. Their lives don’t matter and their deaths are inevitable. 

The promise that Christians will be lifted up to heaven, to join together with God after their own death, even has its ties to death and violence. In their book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock reflect on how the belief that Christians will join God’s eternity immediately after death (rather than after the resurrection, or even after baptism, for instance) became more commonplace after the Crusades. Pope Urban II promised Crusaders that those who died fighting Jews and Muslims would be assured a quick passage to eternal life with God. This direct route to heaven was forged by martyrs in a war, but soon became a popular route to the afterlife for all Christians.

Christianity has long promoted itself as a universal religion—a faith that absolutely anyone can join. But the dividing line between who identifies as a Christian and who doesn’t has always been a meaningful one. One has to join, in order to be part of it. In Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity Denise Buell argues that, despite the fact that Christianity is understood to be a universal religion available to all, it’s clear in ancient Christian texts that there’s an “ethnic reasoning” Christians use to distinguish themselves from Jews, Greeks, and Romans. Despite the fact that Christianity’s universal tradition appears to transcend race or ethnicity, the lines between insider and outsider have been actively shaped by a kind of racializing logic. 

In Christian anti-Judaism this racializing logic has been especially visible. While it took centuries in the ancient world for the line between Christianity and Judaism to be definitively drawn, this line became a powerfully meaningful one. J. Kameron Carter argues, in Race: A Theological Account, that modern racial imaginations, which draw a sharp distinguishing racial line between White and Black, were aided and empowered by the Christian quest to “sever itself from its Jewish roots.” The Christian attempt to render itself superior to Judaism generated a differentiating pattern (Jew/Christian) that has given shape to anti-Blackness (White/Black).

In Divine Variations: How Christian Thought Became Racial Science, Terence Keel argues that the logic of Christian supersessionism (the idea that God’s covenant with Jews has been replaced by a covenant with Christians, rendering Judaism irrelevant and unnecessary) has fed into “a long tradition of racial reasoning” in Christianity. Given the deep influence that Christian thought has had on the development of culture and politics, this racial reasoning patterned within Christianity has also influenced patterns of racial reasoning in modern science, about race. And this is just one way in which these Christian views have been secularized. 

In other words, there’s a long history in Christianity of creating a dividing line between Christian and non-Christian that also serves as a racial line. The line between who is Christian and who isn’t doesn’t have to be a racial line, perhaps. But it often has been, and it often is. Christian antisemitism is one example. But we can also look to the colonization of the Americas to see how Indigenous people were understood, by colonizers, to be non-Christian in both a racial and a religious sense. The push to convert Indigenous people to Christianity wasn’t simply a religious project but also a racial one.

What does this have to do with life and death? One could make the argument (as I do in Sister Death) that it isn’t just White Americans who lack a belief in death—who seem unconvinced that death is a fact that applies to them. Rather, in the history of Christianity we can see an ancient trail of death denial. This Christian view discussed earlier, about whose lives matter eternally and whose lives don’t, and about who can be killed with impunity and who can’t, may be written into White supremacist views about whose lives matter—and whose don’t.

It might seem like a leap to make a parallel between these old Christian ideas and the modern American viewpoint that James Baldwin was pointing to. But if we know anything about American history, we know that the colonization of this land and the practices of enslavement that built its economy have been deeply connected to—were founded in conversation with—Christian theologies. 

Erik Ward argues that White nationalism in America today continues to be animated and fueled by the antisemitism that has, for so long, animated Christian imaginations. Is it really such a leap to suggest that death-denial in Christian thought might animate and enable the exceptionalism of a contemporary White supremacy that denies the value of Black life? I certainly don’t think so. 

The fact of death

James Baldwin saw the White American disbelief in death as a kind of tragedy. We spend our lives “imprisoning” ourselves in “totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags,” and “nations” in order to make ourselves part of something that’s permanent and lasting.

Instead, we should “rejoice” in the fact of death; we ought to “earn” our death, “by confronting with passion the conundrums of life.” In the end, he wrote, life is “the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.” And “one must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.”

In denying, or refusing to believe in, the fact of death we may be unable to travel well with all these others who were made by this darkness, and will travel back into it with us. We may be missing our own humanity.