A Semi-Review of Jones’ White Too Long

Robert P. Jones’ White Too Long follows a now-familiar trajectory:

  1. Highlight examples of historic injustices like racism or sexism
  2. Claim that evangelicalism is rooted in these injustices
  3. Argue that evangelicalism needs to be fundamentally reconstructed

I usually have few objections to step 1 and serious reservations about steps 2 and 3. Below I’ll provide representative quotes from Jones’ book with moderate commentary.

Examples of historic injustices

There is no shortage of historic injustices that have been perpetrated in the U.S. over the last three centuries, and these should be part of any course on U.S. history. Accurate history offers neither a sanitized hagiography nor a bleak jeremiad. I’ll quote from just two of many terrible examples provided in the book:

In Colfax, a group of armed African American Republicans, hearing of an impending attack, barricaded themselves inside the Grant Parish courthouse to defend the results of the elections and their lawful authority to assume office… [Christopher] Nash’s followers turned a small cannon on the courthouse and set fire to the roof. Nearly seventy African Americans were killed in the initial battle. When the remaining African Americans inside surrendered, thirty-seven were marched outside and publicly executed in the town square. (p. 26)

[Samuel Thomas] Wilkes was stripped naked, and a chain was wrapped around his body from neck to foot, locked around his chest, and attached to a tree. Tree limbs and railroad ties were laid at his feet, and young boys scavenged for additional brush to add to the pyre. Before the fire was lit, Wilkes was tortured for a half hour. His ears were cut off, his fingers removed one by one, and his genitals were severed–with each held up for the approval of the cheering crowd… ‘Glory’ an old man in the crowd was recorded as saying. ‘Glory be to God!’ (p. 31)

This is racial terrorism. There is no other word for it.

Jones also calls attention not only to the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in defense of slavery, but to its close connection to the Confederacy via leaders like Basil Manly Sr. However, White Too Long is somewhat unique in showing how non-evangelicals also participated in our nation’s racial sins. For example, Jones relates how Allen Thompson, the segregationist mayor of Jackson, MS, was a member of the local United Methodist Church (p. 43) and how “widespread opposition to racial equality by the U.S. Catholic Church led W.E.B. DuBois to single it out for particular criticism” (p. 65).

In general, the historical overview provided by books like Jones’ may be one-sided, but isn’t fabricated. Christians can and should learn from it. For the sake of space, I won’t address Jones’ analysis of the PRRI American Values Survey. While it definitely shows statistical differences in how certain groups answer questions about race, I’m skeptical that it measures either “racist attitudes” or “racial resentment,” as Jones claims.

American Christianity Is Rooted in White Supremacy

The second step in Jones’ argument is not that American Christianity simply co-existed with white supremacy but that it is inextricably intertwined with white supremacy. For example, he makes statements like these:

American Christianity’s theological core has been thoroughly structured by an interest in protecting white supremacy” (p. 6)

“The historical record of lived Christianity in America reveals that Christian theology and institutions have been the central cultural tent pole holding up the very idea of white supremacy” (p. 6)

“in the white evangelical conception of Jesus, though not often interrogated, Jesus is white, or, as in the late nineteenth-century racial classifications, an Aryan Caucasian… no proper white Christian would let a brown man come into their hearts or submit themselves to be a disciple of a swarthy Semite” (p. 100-101).

“White supremacy lives on today not just in explicitly and consciously held attitudes among white Christians; it has become deeply integrated into the DNA of white Christianity itself” (p. 187)

“the version of Christianity that our ancestors built–‘the faith of our fathers,’ as the hymn celebrates it–was a cultural force that, by design, protected and propagated white supremacy” (p. 234)

These kinds of claims are crucial because Jones is not merely saying that racist ideas were co-mingled with or layered on top of historic Christian theology, but that our very conception of “Christianity” is bound to white supremacy.

One claim in particular is worthy of note. At one point, he writes:

Blacks… were cast as descendants of Cain… In this narrative, the original black ancestor was a criminal, and modern-day dark-skinned people continue to bear the physical mark of this ancient transgression; it did not need to be reiterated that they likely inherited not only their ancestor’s physical distinctiveness but also his inferior moral character. These teachings persisted in many white evangelical Protestant circles into the late twentieth century. (p. 17)

I’d be curious to know which “white evangelical Protestant circles” taught this doctrine during the “late twentieth century.” I had only heard of it in connection to Mormon theology, and Jones doesn’t provide a citation. However, I’ll come back to these remarks in the following section.

Evangelicalism Needs to be Reconstructed

If white supremacy is embedded in “white American Christianity” –so deeply embedded that we aren’t even aware of it– then the solution must be radical and foundational. Jones puts it well on pages 70-71:

“A moment of reckoning is upon us, and it’s time that we white Christians do better… What if the racist views of historical ‘titans of the faith’ infected the entire theological project contemporary white Christians have inherited from top to bottom? If white supremacy was an unquestionable cultural assumption in America, what does it mean that Christian doctrines by necessity had to develop in ways that were compatible with that worldview? What if, for example, Christian conceptions of marriage and family, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, or even the concept of having a personal relationship with Jesus developed as they did because they were useful tools for reinforcing white dominance? Is it possible that the white supremacy heresy is so integrated into white Christian DNA that it eludes even sincere efforts to excise it? …Is such a system, built and maintained not just to save souls but also to secure white supremacy, flawed beyond redemption?”

This transformation must start with white Christians having their eyes opened to their own corruption:

“The question today is whether we white Christians will also awaken to see what has happened to us, and to grasp once and for all how white supremacy has robbed us of our own heritage and of our ability to be in right relationships with our fellow citizens, with ourselves, and even with God” (p. 236).

Somewhat ironically, Jones reinvokes the image of Cain, but with one difference. He applies it not to Blacks, but to Whites:

“I’ll be blunt: it is white Americans who have murdered our black and brown brothers and sisters… it is white Americans who have used our faith as a shield to justify our actions, deny our responsibility, and insist on our innocence. We, white Christian Americans, are Cain.” (p. 230-231)

We are Cain. It is white Christian souls that have been most disfigured by the myth of white supremacy. And it is we who are most in need of repentance and restoration” (p. 232)

A Different Vision

For evangelicals engaging with Jones’ book, it’s crucial to see that he is driven by a very different vision of Christianity than ours. Perhaps no anecdote more exemplifies this contrast than a narrative Jones tells in Chapter 2.

Jones reminisces that “the first black person I recall seeing in the church sanctuary [was] a man named Sheldon Gooch, an inmate from the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary” (p. 49). As Gooch himself tells the story, he had begun “running with the wrong crowd,” ended up “strung out on crack and heroin by fifteen,” and “in prison for the first time at seventeen” (p. 50). While in prison for three counts of armed robbery, he recounts meeting a “little bitty old white woman” named Wendy Hatcher, who was the prison chaplain. Gooch then tells the story of attending a church service that she organized:

I heard them say, “Jesus Christ can set you free no matter where you are.” And I said, “Man, you know what, if anybody needs to be free, it’s me. Let me just listen.” At that point, I knew I needed Jesus, and he was there to save me. And on that night, November 18, 1982, in Parchman Prison, I gave my life to Jesus Christ…. Life plus sixty years, but I found freedom from slavery and bondage of sin.” (p. 51)

Rather than seeing this story and Gooch’s joy as a testimony to God’s power and the genuine fellowship that believers can have across lines of race and even incarceration, Jones offers the following commentary:

“Although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, in retrospect, I realize that Gooch’s easy acceptance [by my white church] hinged on the fact that his testimony reinforced a complex choreography of white supremacy.. His personal narrative evoked stereotypes of black inner-city ghettos and dangerous black male bodies that needed to be subdued and disciplined by white authorities before surrendering and submitting to a Jesus introduced to him by a white European woman. And the central point of Gooch’s testimony subtly evoked a common trope of Old South white ideology: the happy slave who finds his true purpose in the service of a white master” (p. 52)

What Jones sees now in Gooch’s testimony is not the grand story of redemption, but the grand story of white supremacy. Raised as he was within “white evangelicalism,” Jones had not yet been awakened to the ways in which racism was the actual subtext of this incident. Probably, Gooch himself was not even aware of it. Jones is seeing through a new lens and it colors how he views everything, including Christianity. Evangelicals will have to decide whether this vision is one they want to pursue.

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