Many strains of American Christianity have a racism paradox. They are clearly bigoted in past and present actions, often embodied by their adherents and leaders in ways subtle and gross (and grotesque). Now such bigotries clearly would go against almost any sane interpretation of Jesus, a pleasant fellow by all accounts who invited people to love each other and never set down any racial boundaries. However we see such bigotries with painful clarity in our culture today (specially, 2023) even as some of these strains of Christianity seek to control our country.
I’ve also noticed a peculiar brittleness in practitioners of these bigoted strains of Christianity. There’s a defensiveness and an anger, a kind of fear of a person who feels something can break any moment. It may manifest as bravado or ever-speedier speech, but there’s something there that’s delicate. I want to discuss this behavior, these moments of fearful eyes, cracked voices, and aggressive yet confused postures easily apparent in newscasts, recordings, and fundraisers.
(I am aware American Christianity has other sins, but I focus on this brittleness because it is a problem in America, and it utterly flies in the face of most interpretations of Jesus. Honestly, the man deserves better.)
In exploring this brittleness, this insecurity that boils up in these strains of Christianity when they confront racism, it’s necessary to discuss the idea of Hell. In popular Christianity the idea is simple – you get judged when you die and irrevocably go to the afterlife, which may include eternal torment for being a bad person. Now I would argue that actual biblical literalism would argue for a resurrection, but again this is what is believed.
Now if you believe that bad people go to Hell, and one is a Christian where one is called to love people by Christ, then being a racist, simply means you’d possibly go to Hell. I mean one is not just hating people, but not helping them when in need and quite possibly harming them directly and indirectly. In fact, to spout racist rhetoric is to slander a person, and Jesus was pretty against that too (Matthew 5:22).
(It’s really hard to read the New Testament and imagine Jesus being fine with racism. Of course many people try to imagine him being fine with many terrible things, but those take effort as well.)
This means many bigoted Christians are caught in a trap of fearing damnation but also very obviously doing what Jesus said would get you damned. The racism is so ingrained in their culture – as history has sadly shown – they can’t give it up despite this fear. Thus they have to go through many psychological acrobatics to ignore it.
And this is if they believe at all and aren’t just trying to cover up the stark truth that they’re just lying (and if caught, a better liar will steal their grift).
Thus I believe that the brittleness we see in bigoted Christians confronting their racism is in part due to this dichotomy. Having internalized racism as part of their religion – yet not being able to reconcile it – there’s often that low level itch of “I am a bad person and am going to hell.” To fear eternal damnation and continue to court it in your mind has to be, well, rather hellish.
Further, as one tries to reconcile blistering racial hatred with Jesus, one has to consider past actions. American history has plenty of Christians excusing and participating in horrible racist atrocities. To look at the words of Jesus and the threat of damnation is to open your mind to the possibility an enormous amount of your ancestors are eternally in the grip of Satan forever.
Obviously a book could be written on bigotry, the fear of damnation, and Christianity. I certainly won’t explore it in a blog post or simple musing. But I think as we deal with American Christianity and racism, it’s important to keep in mind this brittleness. There’s a fundamental tension some American Christians have gnawing at the back of their minds – being racist and fearing damnation for it.
And as we deal with their actions and plays for power, we’ll want to keep that in mind.