Monday, August 17, 2020

We Christians, or Our Racist Christian World

by Dean Dettloff
This post is part of the series Uprooting Racism.

[T]he principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles of other churches, white. The principles were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, the first principle necessarily and actively cultivated in order to deny the two others. I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world.

- James Baldwin, “Letter From a Region in My Mind

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We tend to think of our world today as a “secular” one, whatever we might mean by that term. James Baldwin, however, one of the most incisive writers on race in the United States, calls to mind the ways in which Christianity shapes our political and racialized order. Christianity is not, Baldwin suggests, simply a private affair, something one either believes or disbelieves; it has a collective, formative power. Baldwin’s conclusions about that power are difficult to hear, but not for that reason untrue. On the contrary, Baldwin describes a Christian pattern of behavior that continues to shape our world today, and one we have to understand if we want to change it. Let me illustrate the point with a recent example.

On June 1st, protesters and clergy demonstrating as part of the ongoing wave of the Black Lives Matter movement were tear gassed out of St. John’s Church in Washington. The crowd was there peacefully and legally, and with the support of the church. Police nevertheless cleared the protesters with a chemical weapon for a photo opportunity, in which Donald Trump brandished a Bible using the church as a backdrop, holding the text without comment, wielding the Scriptures like a talisman to invoke the moral authority and continuity of the Christian world against the rabble of a movement for racial justice. The fact that other Christians on the side of racial justice were removed for this display is a testament to the ambiguities of Christianity, but their removal also highlights the material power of Christianity as a defender of racist order, in this case exerted by the highest office of the most powerful country on the planet. Trump’s exhibition of the Bible is a striking illustration of Baldwin’s formula, that the Christian world effectively cultivates a willful blindness, used to deny the loneliness and terror that surround us. 

The Christian world. This phrase appears throughout Baldwin’s work in essays, novels, and interviews, always in the context of an indictment. In another essay, Baldwin, says that the feeling of oppression among black people toward America is ignored as “the Christian world has been misled by its own rhetoric and narcoticized by its own power.” The phrase is especially biting in a conversation with Margaret Mead:

“I don’t understand at all what the white man’s religion means to him. I know what the white man’s religion has done to me. And so, I could—can—accuse the white Christian world of being nothing but a tissue of lies, nothing but an excuse for power, as being as removed as anything can possibly be from any sense of worship and, still more, from any sense of love. I cannot understand that religion.”

The precise contours of the Christian world, sometimes qualified as white, are not clearly drawn, at least not in Baldwin’s writing. But as I read the phrase, even as a white Christian, I think I have a sense of what Baldwin means. The Christian world is not only the world I encounter in homilies or church coffee hour, although it entails that. It is not the initial phases of colonial Christendom, built on indigenous genocide and racialized slavery under the sign of the cross, although it clearly descends from that. The Christian world is, rather, a social imaginary that funds the political arrangement in countries like the United States and Canada. These are countries founded by Christians and sustained still today, in some ways explicitly and in many ways subtly, by Christian practices and assumptions, all undergirded by an abiding, historically constitutive, antiblack racism. 

Among thoughtful Christians who know that the biblical God is a God of justice, it is an easy thing to rush to condemn the basest, most obviously evil expressions of Christianity, and to say we Christians are not like those Christians. We Christians, who have read the biblical prophets, who know God cares for the poor, who talk about “the marginalized,” who study the humbling trends of postmodernism or pragmatism or feminism—we Christians know better. That may be the world that some powerful Christians have built, but it is not the Christian world that we want to build, nor is it the world that we think God wants to build. Perhaps we even find ourselves saying “I cannot understand that religion.”

And yet, have we Christians—a group in which I am included—really reckoned with our own contribution to the Christian world that Baldwin accuses?


I am a product of Christian pedagogy. Soon I will finish a PhD in philosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies, and I have over a decade of post-high school education exclusively at Christian schools. To get to this stage, I have had to learn an immense variety of theories, put in hours of work to understand the minutiae of debates among idiosyncratic philosophical traditions, and spend hours more finding something to say about the people and ideas my education has required me to engage, all in curated Christian spaces, in small Christian worlds within the larger Christian world.

In all of these efforts, however, have I ever had to study—really study—a black author? Did required reading ever make me buy a book by a black person? Institutionally, have I ever been accountable for knowing, representing, and struggling with the text of a black philosopher? Has a grade or a paper or a class presentation ever hinged on demonstrating a close knowledge of a black theorist or the conversations and disagreements among black theorists? Even in those few times I recall when a black author briefly appeared on a syllabus, was I forced to learn from and dialogue with that author with the same focus and rigor demanded of me when discussing Foucault, Kristeva, Rorty, Irigaray, Habermas, or a host of other white theorists? 

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” I can’t remember; and in my Christian education, I have had no academic pressure to remember.


When Baldwin names blindness as a key principle of the Christian world, we might quickly think of obstinate conservatives who live in intentional denial when it comes to the realities of racism in our society. But this reflex is an incredible mechanism for racism’s reproduction, for it diverts our attention and ensures that we are unable to see our own contributions to the production of a racist, Christian world. Instead, if one can take a sober moment in our narcotic state, Baldwin poses a question directed squarely at us: what kind of world is it that we Christians are inheriting and making?

In my own case, if I were to judge solely based on my academic curriculum, from my undergraduate years to the near-end of my Christian education, I inhabit a world almost completely without black people. A classroom and an education are more than assigned texts, to be sure, but the demographics of my colleagues and the pedagogy that takes place in hallways or over meals do not counterbalance or exonerate scores of syllabi. Whatever discussions I have had or heard about a black theorist, like Cornel West, or racial injustice, like the murder of black people by police, have not had a recursive effect on the formal architecture of my education. As W. E. B. Du Bois writes in his essay “The Souls of White Folk,” “How easy, then, by emphasis and omission to make children believe...that every great thought the world ever knew was a white man’s thought…” How easy to do with adults, too.

I know that my philosophy and theology teachers have not gone out of their way to ignore black theorists on their syllabi, and I can say with confidence that my teachers have instilled in me a genuine concern for justice, hospitality, and solidarity. Their teaching led me to begin my own struggles into studying and working to dismantle the racist systems that have shaped me and the world I inhabit. 

But this is precisely what is so troubling about racism—that otherwise intelligent, thoughtful, and responsible people nevertheless exist in and as part of a society that endangers other people’s lives. Racism and white supremacy are not reducible to personal opinions or intentional prejudices, but are structural and political problems with long, winding genealogies. Deeply embedded, these structures continue to shape us and our institutions with or without our conscious participation. So often, it is our unconscious participation that guarantees racism’s staying power, since those of us who think of ourselves as “good,” “kind,” “educated,” “Other-oriented,” or “on the side of justice” can be easily blinded by these self-perceived attributes, trusting that we are on the right path without coming to terms with the fact that the path itself may be part of the problem.

When it comes to our own institution, the Institute for Christian Studies, it might be tempting to assume the root issue of our antiblack racism is a lack of representation, which would be solved by including black theorists on our syllabi. We certainly should include other voices in a way that is meaningful and not tokenizing. The problem of racism, however, of our Christian racism, is deeper. More than recognizing our representation patterns, we have to ask why an institution like ICS, even while it does not have an exclusively white student body, staff, or alumni community, dialogues almost singularly with white thinkers, and why it is unable to consider its racism on its own without the intervention of a massive social movement. 

We have to inquire, in other words, into the whiteness, antiblackness, and racism of our Christian world, by which I mean both the confessionally Christian pedagogical world of ICS specifically and the Christian world in which ICS is situated generally. We have to inquire into the mediations between the wider Christian world Baldwin interrogates and our own niche within it. The Christian world we have built, no matter how many important essays it has produced about hospitality, the Other, relativity, obligation, justice, or many other truly good words, is one that is nevertheless blind to racism—and more, one that therefore reproduces racism. Addressing our racism, to put it another way, would mean not only registering our blindness, but recognizing, as Baldwin does, how this blindness enables loneliness and terror, how it participates in the building of a whole racist world. 

To make the stakes clear, the problems black people face in Canada and the United States are not simply matters of inclusion, and the challenges for white people, like me, are not simply matters of checking our privilege or becoming better listeners; these are matters of literal life and death. Racism is more than bad opinions or failing to meet the best practices of diversity trainings. Racism, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains in her book Golden Gulag, is “the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” 

Considered in this way, we might ask: What is ICS doing or not doing that provides support or cover for a racial regime that produces and abuses foreshortened lifespans? What are we doing to oppose this regime, not as a byproduct of themes or ideas we study, but directly? What precedents are there in our community for addressing structural racism? How and why have we failed to make the struggle against racism an enduring feature of our work for justice? How have the reformational tradition and Dutch Calvinism contributed not only to the racist horrors of apartheid South Africa, but to the racist horrors of Canada and the US? As Angela Davis famously put it, “in a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

What I have always appreciated about ICS, what drew me to ICS, is its commitment to trenchant criticism of Christianity from within and as part of the Christian community. ICS has been so committed to this criticism that it has historically been a liability, as Senior Members questioned the homophobia, patriarchy, and assimilationist tendencies of Christianity and the Reformed tradition. ICS also carries a spirit of activism, which blurs the boundaries between theory in the ivory tower and work in the trenches and refuses a clean break between ideas and practice. It is a spirit that led the first generations of ICS students to oppose the Vietnam War, led Senior Members to speak out against apartheid, and continues today in our research on refugees in Canada.*

I take it that this spirit is also what motivates this blog series, and it gives me a fragile hope that ICS could, in fact, really engage the reality of antiblack and other forms of racism, internally and externally, with all the inevitable mistakes, failures, and difficult work that will mean. It is that spirit that might also help us to not only call into question, but hasten the end of our racist Christian world, its ideas, habits, and brutalities, and our own contributions to it. Historically and ideologically, Christians have played a unique and outsized role in the construction of a racist society, so much so that black theologian Amaryah Armstrong urges us to see the “history of Christian order as the maintenance of racial order”; as Christians who dare to say the word “justice,” we have a responsibility to dismantle this order—starting with ourselves.

Dean Dettloff is a Junior Member in the PhD program at the Institute for Christian Studies, where he researches media theory and religion. He is also the co-host, with Matt Bernico, of The Magnificast, a podcast about Christianity and leftist politics. You can find more of Dean’s work on his website

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*Editorial Note

From the early 70s through the 90s, some ICS Senior Members engaged with the black consciousness and anti-apartheid movements in both the South African and North American contexts, especially through the lenses of philosophy, theology, and political theory. In an effort to provide a historically-informed starting point for our institutional reflection and to fill out the author's mention of past work done by ICS Senior Members on anti-apartheid efforts and race discourse, we will highlight the contribution of two particular Senior Members over the next couple weeks: Bernard Zylstra and Hendrik Hart (although Senior Members Paul Marshall and Jonathan Chaplin, ICS fellow Bob Goudzwaard, and ICS adjunct faculty Elaine Botha also engaged race issues).

ICS Senior Member in political theory (1967-85) and President (1978-85) Bernie Zylstra conducted numerous in-person interviews with Bob Goudzwaard in South Africa in the early 70s. During one of these trips, Zylstra connected with Steve Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa, and interviewed him just months before Biko's murder while in police custody in 1977. This interview was published in an abbreviated format in The Globe and Mail upon news of Biko's death, and garnered international attention through a number of re-publications and fuller publication in journals like The Canadian Forum, The Reformed Journal, Trouw, and Vanguard. The Globe and Mail version of this interview can be accessed freely through many major Canadian public library archives, other of Zylstra's writing on racism and apartheid are listed on the site All of Life Redeemed with much of it archived by Calvin UniversityZylstra's continuing influence can be seen especially in the work of those who followed his footsteps in the discipline of political theory.

ICS Senior Member in systematic philosophy (1967-2001) Henk Hart was also involved in anti-apartheid work in South Africa during this time, and he maintained (among other things) a close association with C.F. Beyers Naud√©, South African civil rights worker and apartheid-era theologian. Further details about Henk's work and experiences in South Africa can be found in the next post in this series.

All this is not intended to rebuff the author's claims above, nor does it counter the predominant whiteness of our tradition. Rather this reinforces the point that it is necessary to ask—as the author does—why such work has not driven or featured more prominently in current ICS curricula, discussions, and projects; and why it has not prompted us to attend more closely to BIPOC voices in our own day.

Click here for other works by Bernie Zylstra and Henk Hart available through the ICS library.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful self-reflection on ICS's education. I agree that it is time to build on ICS's vision of philosophical thought/action, to include explicit and deliberate anti-racism lenses. In my experience, ICS strength is to have a porous canon, white as it is. It can only be strengthened by including scholars such as Maria del Guadalupe Davidson, Katherine T Gines (Belle), Kristie Dotson, Anita Allen, Naomi Zack, and Emily S. Lee, just to name a few. Attending to the blind spot in our social imaginary will only push forward ICS's engaging philosophy. (Clarence Joldersma, '82 M Phil)

  2. A way in which a preference for "white" thought is maintained is in the "white-washing" of Western culture, including of course, Western Christian culture. But if one thinks about Northern Africa and Egypt, so crucial to the formation of the Christian theological tradition one can begin to see that that tradition emerges from 'racially' heterogenous sources. Moreover, if one sees the role of Persian, Moorish and Middle Eastern Jewish thinkers in the renaissance of European thought in the thirteenth century, the effect of Sinhalese Theravata Buddhism on western understanding of the conditions of possibility for moral rectitude, one sees further evidence of the cultural and racial heterogeneity of that thing we call Western Civilization or Judaeo-Christian culture. Now this "white-washing" plays right into the narrative you present us with Dean, but it also points toward a possibility of resistance--the recognition of and documentation of the cultural and racial heterogeneity of Western Christian culture as a matter of wonder and gratitude. We are required to do similar work with respect to the formative meaning of women's thought and work in our patriarchal culture as well. Of course, to engage in such work is no guarantee that it cannot be used to re-enforce the systemic evil you describe so well but maybe it needn't re-enforce. As such it might contribute to resistance in a small and beginning way. It is not directed at anti-black racism directly but at the whitewashing of culture that is an effect of anti-black racism. Anyway that is what popped into my head when I thought of the call to action your deliver to the community I serve.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Bob. I agree, it would certainly benefit us to interrogate our own habits and assumptions by examining how whiteness itself is constructed, becoming a retroactive filter for how we are taught to understand history--a point James Baldwin was also very skilled at explaining! And if we could dislocate that myth of whiteness, I think you're right that we would also find points of resistance, or that such a dislocation itself would be a point of resistance. We would also find, I think, a more complex and useful history of the development of race and racism, seeing how the seeds for whiteness and antiblackness can be identified also in the racializing narratives of European Christians (I always think of the 15th century Spanish "limpieza de sangre" in Spain).