Conversatio Divina

Part 6 of 12

Racism, White Supremacy and the Problem of Christian Maturity

Vince Bantu

The fifth session of the 2024 Martin Institute Christian Formation Workshop featured a presentation by Dr. Vince Bantu (church history and Black studies, Fuller Theological Seminary) and comments by Dr. Estrelda Alexander (sociology and political theology, William Joseph Seymour Foundation). The session was moderated by Dr. Brandon Paradise (law, Rutgers University). Dr. Bantu’s paper was titled “Racism, White Supremacy and the Problem of Christian Maturity.” This session deals with the complicity of Christian individuals and churches in chattel slavery, ongoing racism, and White supremacy.

Below is a summary and some key quotes from Dr. Bantu’s paper. In the video, Dr. Bantu briefly summarizes the main points of his paper and Dr. Alexander offers additional comments.

Download and read the full presentation paper, Racism, White Supremacy and the Problem of Christian Maturity, by Vince Bantu.

01.  Summary

Bantu draws on historical, biblical, and theological insights to measure what he refers to as the “racial maturity” of Christians. His historical survey of Christian racial maturity from Greco-Roman culture through to contemporary Christianity concludes that the racist immaturity of the “Curse of Ham” mythology (that Blackness is a kind of curse) is still with us today. 

Bantu notes that Christians were once a marginalized people. However, with the 4th century Constantinian fusing of Christianity with cultural and political power we see a major shift that “set the stage for the beginning of Western Christian racism and religious nationalism,” wherein one’s racial superiority came together with one’s Christian identity and imperialism and spread throughout the western world to the present day. A fundamental feature of this Greco-Roman racism is that darker skinned communities were marginalized as biologically inferior. Bantu argues that this ideology was then read into Christian spirituality, wherein dark came to represent sin and white, purity. Bantu points to this ideology in early commentaries on Scripture (e.g. Origen’s mistranslation of the Shulamite bride’s expression “I am black and beautiful” in the Song of Songs; in Genesis 9, Ham’s curse is viewed as a curse on Blackness).  

Bantu then provides anecdotal and textual evidence to suggest that while strains of modern Christianity have condemned racism, the Curse of Ham mythology is still very much alive. He notes George Fox’s time in Barbados, the Catholic Papal Bulls, and Jim Crow laws. He shows how 20th and 21st century figures such as Azusa Street’s Charles Parham, D.L. Moody, and Billy Graham continued to perpetuate the Curse of Ham mythology. “Graham’s statements against racism coupled with his compliance with racist systems and lack of involvement with the work of racial justice is a fitting example of the impotence with which White Evangelicals continue to address issues of racial justice today.” More recently, figures such as John MacArthur have outright denied that social justice has anything to do with the gospel.  

He then makes a biblical case urging Christians to openly acknowledge and stand against racism and injustice. Bantu says, “Most Christians are in agreement that God created all humans equally in His image and that outright discrimination is unbiblical.” Contrary to the Curse of Ham mythology, Bantu shows how the Bible clearly venerates people with dark skin. 

Bantu goes on to cite examples of racial maturity throughout Christian history (e.g. Gregory of Nyssa’s “scathing critique” of slavery, King Alfonso I’s 1526 letter to the Portuguese King Jaoa III, and the 17th century Sub-Saharan African philosopher Zar’a Ya’qob’s reflections denouncing the slave trade). Bantu states, “Often supported by White abolitionists, these slavery narratives were written by Africans who experienced slavery directly and used the Bible to argue against slave trafficking.” He then mentions figures like “William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe who were inspired by the Letters on American Slavery by Presbyterian minister John Rankin” and the white abolitionist journalist Elijah Lovejoy who was killed by a pro-slavery mob.  

He concludes, “the continuing presence of Christians in White, Black and other spaces that continue his call to justice further indicates that there has always been a faithful remnant of Christians exemplifying biblical justice. It cannot be said that people who exacerbated slavery, segregation or mass incarceration were just ‘people of their times,’ as believers have consistently demonstrated lifestyles of Christian maturity in the area of advocacy and prophetic engagement.”  

02.  Key Quotes

“Concern for justice—specifically racial justice—is a core part of the Gospel message, the teachings of Scripture and the ministry of the Church. Indeed, striving for justice for the marginalized is a direct reflection of a Christian’s discipleship, as our Lord clarified in Matthew 25:31-46. A commitment to justice is an integral part of Christian maturity and the perpetuation of injustice or neglecting the ministry of justice is an indication of Christian immaturity.”   

“The idea that lighter-skinned people were divinely destined to rule over those with dark skin was one of a conglomerate of beliefs that Western European Christians adopted and adapted from their Greco-Roman forebearers.”  

“The active implementation of the belief in the inferiority of Black people to White people was often realized through systemic policies. However, Western Christendom has also been plagued by tacit acceptance of systemic racism.” 

“This resolution is rooted in a conservative evangelical desire to create distance with movements for racial justice. From the beginnings of Greco-Roman Christianity to today, the Western Church has been plagued by White Supremacy, either through active participation or tacit compliance. However, there has always been mature Christians that mirror the biblical response to injustice since the beginning of the Church.”

“Most Christians are in agreement that God created all humans equally in His image and that outright discrimination is unbiblical. Where the Western Church is largely stuck now is in its lack of acknowledgement of systemic inequality and its responsibility to actively fight against it.”   

03.  Application Questions

  • Is it enough to condemn racism in word, but not take an active stance against it? 
  • Do we need to think more about the relationship between Christian maturity/formation and how it comes to be embodied or contextualized in active social engagement? 
  • How do our ministries embody or stand against injustices?  
  • Bantu says that MLK “claimed that the largest obstacle to freedom was not the KKK or overt racism, but the tacit acceptance of systemic racism by White moderates. King called for the White Church to the radical justice of Jesus and the Early Church.” Can we ponder the ways in which our ministries or discipleship models might tacitly accept injustices?  
  • How might we emphasize the love of neighbor and acts of justice in our models of discipleship?