Religious institutions across America are seeking out anti-racist professionals in a long overdue attempt to address the legacies of racism, bigotry, and discrimination in their denominations. The General Commission on Religion and Race of The United Methodist Church selected Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility to develop a response to “white privilege” called, appropriately, “Deconstructing White privilege.” For those unfamiliar with “White Fragility” DiAngelo states:
“white fragility,” is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”
Ironically, there was perhaps no better example of “white fragility” than the response of conservative commentator Eric Metaxas to DiAngelo’s video with the following tweet:
“Jesus was white. Did he have “white privilege” even though he was entirely without sin? Is the United Methodist Church covering that? I think it could be important.”
As expected some members of the Twitterverse took Metaxas to task for the troll-ish nature of his remarks. Some responded that “white people” didn’t exist in Jesus’ time period since race is a modern social construct. For others, the historical Jesus was undoubtedly a person of color, therefore Metaxas was factually incorrect on that front as well. Other responses could be boiled down to the well-known trope that “race/color doesn’t matter.”
To some degree all these responses have merit. However, what if we take Metaxas’ statement at face value and not just as some very keen trolling of what he considers the politically correct theology of the UMC. What does it mean to state (not ask) that “Jesus was white,” and to ask whether Jesus therefore possessed “white privilege”?
Whether Metaxas purposely meant to or not, his question to the UMC about “white privilege” goes to the root of American Christianity if we define “white privilege” as the unearned benefits that white people possess in distinction to non-white people in a racialized society, particularly when they possess similar (though not identical) social and economic circumstances.
By associating Jesus (and his sinless nature) with whiteness Metaxas is, through “sleight of hand,” absolving white people of the “sin” of white privilege. Just as Christ bore the sins of humanity, white privilege isn’t the unearned benefits bestowed on whites that some claim, it’s the unearned burden through Christ’s own “whiteness” that harkens back to Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” of Christianity and civilization.
Therefore if Christians view Jesus as “white” in any way (phenotypically or ontologically) and sinless, then what’s the point in rooting out white privilege? After all, if God chose to be incarnate in whiteness (not simply a human body that we would now classify as white) who are we to question the “privilege” that comes with it?
This is the white Christian’s metaphorical cross to bear. Therefore, Metaxas doesn’t just force us to confront institutional racism in American Christianity, as Robert Jones does in his latest book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, but we must also consider how race itself is theologically constructed and embedded in sacred structures, as J. Kameron Carter does in Race: A Theological Account.
When Metaxas projects whiteness onto Jesus he commits one of the chief flaws of racialism: viewing humans as distinct and permanent races. The projection of modern racial categories onto geographic regions or historical eras where the people wouldn’t recognize the categorizing, creates a problem that American religious traditions have to confront in addition to the institutional racism that some are now beginning to recognize.
That problem is theological racialism where intrinsic value has been attached to race in our own current worldview necessitating the need to racialize the past, even when we say race doesn’t matter (which often is a default way of saying something is neutral and therefore “white”). Simply put, the implicit and explicit ways that we racialize religious symbols, doctrines, and beliefs are signifiers of our modern racial identities.
This means going beyond simply saying “race doesn’t matter.” It requires, as antiracist activist Ibram X. Kendi argues, that we must not seek to simply be non-racist but rather we must be anti-racist in our theological perspective. To have an antiracist theological perspective requires confronting the subtle ways that we racialize our theology to affirm our racial identity. This isn’t the same as not “seeing” race or arguing for a “color-blind” society that leaves the status quo in place. This means recognizing that our racial identities have been imbued with theological significance in terms of our relative closeness to or distance away from the divine.
When Metaxas says “Jesus was white” he’s not only making a statement about his own believed racial identity, he’s also signaling who’s closest to God and what one must become in order to gain closer access to God. An antiracism theology must disrupt and dislodge this association of whiteness and divinity with a radical break from the modern Christian theological tradition that elevated Christian whiteness to the level of the divine in the first place.