David W. Swanson’s Rediscipling the White Church: From Cheap Diversity to True Solidarity is one of a growing subgenre of books written by White evangelicals for White evangelicals with the intention of correcting their racial biases and fostering racial unity. The book’s main practical steps are largely unobjectionable. However, it is rooted in a false assumption which undermines Swanson’s entire project: the idea that all white people are stained and wounded by “whiteness”.
Swanson rightly laments the persistent racial divide between White and Black Christians and the presence of grievous racial disparities in our society. Bridging this chasm is the motivation for his book and many of the means he recommends are biblically sound and praiseworthy. He speaks about how practices like communion and worship point us towards the unity we have in Christ. Eating together, serving together, and building interracial friendships is a way to tear down racial mistrust and undermine pernicious stereotypes. However, Swanson is emphatic that his aim is not merely interpersonal. Indeed, according to him, evangelicals’ emphasis on interpersonal relationships is a significant part of the problem. To understand why, we need to examine the basic premise of Swanson’s book: the claim that the imagination of “white Christianity” has been deformed by prolonged discipleship into our nation’s racist assumptions.
A Racialized Imagination
Swanson begins by recounting a story of hearing someone vandalizing a DIY project outside his Chicago apartment. He was surprised to discover a young White man loudly tearing down caution tape when he had, unconsciously, assumed he would find a young Black man. This incident left him shaken and introduces his main thesis: white Christians have had their assumptions, affections, desires, and imaginations shaped by the racialized society in which they live, a society with large racial disparities in education, wealth, incarceration rates, home ownership and a host of other factors. The limited claim that our assumptions have been influenced by our social environment is undeniably true. Like Swanson, all of us often make snap judgments based on stereotypes, some of them negative, and that can affect how we think about and treat people.
Yet Swanson goes far beyond this basic observation to argue that “white Christianity” has been infused with what he calls the “narrative of racial difference,” which is “a set of assumptions that dehumanizes entire groups of people” (p. 21). This narrative maintains that Black people “aren’t fully human, that they are three-fifths human, that they are not capable, that they are not evolved” (p. 21), and it “maps each American citizen onto a racial hierarchy.” (p. 23). Swanson cautions that: “This narrative is not one that white Americans typically discuss or even acknowledge. In fact, most of us are happy to publicly affirm racial equality. Yet the lived realities of Americans of different races point to how this narrative is alive and well… We can think of the narrative of racial difference as invisibly polluted air or contaminated water; the fact that we don’t recognize it doesn’t dull its impact on our way of moving through the world” (p. 21). In summary, he writes: “The narrative of racial difference is, at its core, a lie about humanity; it claims that some of us are more fully human than are others” (p. 90).
Despite this narrative’s subtlety and near-invisibility to most Whites, Swanson maintains that it is ever-present and is constantly shaping White Christians: “American culture disciples white Christians toward racial segregation and injustice. Our imaginations, desires, and assumptions are constantly shaped by historically rooted and socially constructed racial narratives that result in segregation.” (p. 8). For centuries, “whiteness” has corrupted Americans: “When European immigrants shed culture and ethnicity in order to gain promises of whiteness, they were going against something deep within their humanity [replacing] the diversity of [their] God-glorifying particularities with a one-size-fits-all category: whiteness” (p. 47) and “new [immigrant] Americans would come to see themselves simply as white, a bargain that also required their disdain for those labeled black. This is the other price demanded by racial whiteness: complicity in its destructive rationale” (p. 47).
Even today, whites bear the scars, wounds, and infirmities of their racial past: “whiteness carries the burden of history while also working to distract us from the ugliness of that history, including its legacy to this day…We allow our nation’s racial practices to warp our imaginations and then to conceal the very ways we’ve been deformed.” (p. 48-49) “We are a damaged people. In the past, most of us have ignored the hidden wound, the result of our devilish bargain for controlling power. We don’t think of ourselves as privileged, as having been given a leg up at someone else’s expense. But if we will be still long enough, we might begin to sense the damage we carry, the damage with which we are complicit, the damage we’ve inflicted. And if we choose to trust the voices and experiences of people of color, our capacity to feel this damage will grow, and with it, our ability to challenge the destructive demands of whiteness” (p. 49-50). I could go on, providing additional statements about how -according to Swanson- Whites are “wounded” (p. 49), how “society has mishaped [whites]” (p. 85), how “the rebellious power of privilege has left its stain on [their] spirits” (p. 87), and has produced “emotional immaturity” (p. 88), but the overall message is clear: Whites are broken, tainted, corrupt, complicit, and in need of repair.
Is It True?
At this point, we have to stop and remind ourselves what Swanson is claiming. He’s not merely saying that white Christians have implicit racial biases, which is almost certainly true of most White Christians and most Black Christians and most Asian Christians and just about everyone. Instead, he’s making a claim about a “narrative of racial difference” which maintains that “some of us are more fully human than are others” (p. 90). Do most whites today consciously believe that Blacks are sub-human? No, even Swanson recognizes that they don’t. But he’d insist that persistent racial disparities and implicit biases show the subconscious presence of a pernicious “narrative of racial difference.” But do they? Do whites even subconsciously believe that Blacks are sub-human? Is that an inference that could plausibly be drawn from the persistence of racial disparities and the presence of implicit bias? No, it couldn’t.
For example, when Swanson lamented his wrong assumption that a young Black male had vandalized his property, he never paused to interrogate his assumption that a young male had committed the offense. He took it for granted that a young male was responsible rather than an old male or a young female. But can we plausibly conclude from his assumption that he harbors an unconscious belief that young males are subhuman? No, of course not. Perhaps young males do commit most of the vandalism in Chicago. Or perhaps Swanson previously had bad encounters with young men, leading him to make inaccurate assumptions which were nonetheless based on his personal experiences. Or perhaps he had indeed imbibed unfair stereotypes about young males from the media. But in none of these cases would it be reasonable to infer that he subconsciously views young males as subhuman.
In the same way, there is a tremendous difference between saying “most Whites harbor unconscious stereotypes, many of them negative, about Blacks” and saying “all Whites subconsciously believe that Blacks are subhuman.” The former might be true; the latter is not.
Is It Good?
If Swanson is fundamentally wrong in his assumptions about the universality of subconscious White belief in the sub-humanity of Blacks, then everything that follows from that assumption will likewise be wrong. I’ll focus on one main area: the religious parallel he draws between Christianity and racial justice work.
I expect that many readers gasped at some of Swanson’s comments about whites. It is indeed shocking to claim that whites are “deformed”, “damaged,” and “wounded” by their whiteness and that they are “complicit” in all manner of racial injustice. It begins to sound like “whiteness” and “white privilege” are functioning like original sin, staining people from birth with corrupt desires that must be redeemed. If there are any doubts about the validity of such a comparison, they ought to be laid to rest by Swanson’s section on children’s ministry, where he makes statements like:
“Our children are born into the smog of our racialized society. Whether or not they recognize it or their parents point it out, these children are born into the historical wound of racial whiteness that, as Wendell Berry says about his own life, was ‘prepared centuries ago to come alive in me at my birth like a hereditary disease, and to be augmented and deepened by my life.'” (p. 116)
“[Parents] must be honest about how the smog [of racial injustice and segregation] has entered their own imaginations before they can hope to spare their own children from its destructive deceptions.” (p. 119)
“Too often we have abandoned our white children to our own silence about race… So another generation of white Christian children bring to the church the same malformed assumptions, imaginations, and desires as have the generations before them. It’s no wonder that –despite what most white Christian families, and their churches, might claim about racial reconciliation– the sins of the parents are passed on to their children.” (p. 119)
Just as a comparison can be made between original sin and socialization into whiteness, so can a comparison be made between redemption and a “second conversion” to racial justice. That’s not my own language; it’s Swanson’s:
“one of America’s most well-known pastors… described major transitions he had experienced … as second conversions…. One of these was his theological discovery that women, like men, have been gifted for every kind of leadership within the church. Another of the second conversions had to do with the racial segregation that is normal within white Christianity… For many Christians, our conversion to justice is secondary, occurring sometime after our first conversion to Jesus. And secondary conversions, no matter how important, will never be as important as the first. They are, in a word, optional” (p. 150).
What Swanson is offering sounds a lot like another religion running in parallel with Christianity. However, this parallel religion is not based on Scripture but on sociological claims about the nature of whiteness and false beliefs about the nature of racial biases.
A final aspect of Swanson’s book that deserves comment is his insistence that Whites are blinded by their privilege and therefore need to listen to and defer to Black voices when it comes to issues of racial justice:
“white people cannot be trusted to understand how our whiteness deceives us… Almost everything I know about how race has impacted me has come from friends, mentors, pastors, and authors of color…They have had to understand whiteness in a way that white people never have to grasp… I am distracted and deceived by [my whiteness], led to believe that my successes are solely due to my work ethic and dedication… In the context of these friendships, my ears will slowly be unstopped and my eyes opened” (p. 168-169).
“Prioritizing repair does not mean that white Christians decide what needs to be fixed. By now we are aware of the inadequacy of our ability to diagnose what is wrong in our racialized society, much less describe how it might be fixed.” (p. 180)
The problem that arises here, which I also identified in Daniel Hill‘s and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s books (both of which are cited by Swanson), is that this assumption of blindness makes it difficult for White Christians to test the recommendations of Black Christians against Scripture. Indeed, what if their blindness extends to the interpretation of Scripture itself? Swanson recounts how he “once suggested to a white church planter… that he partner with the churches in [a black] neighborhood. Doing so, though, would require him to expand his very white theological boundaries. This was a bridge too far, and he admitted, ‘I just love my theology so much'” (p. 78). Yet this approach should strike evangelicals as dangerous. We can certainly remain open to potential blind spots in our theology and in our practice. But we must let Scripture be the ultimate arbiter of what is true and good rather than deferring to the guidance of Black Christians (or White Christians or Asian Christians or Hispanic Christians). After all, none of these groups are theologically or ideologically monolithic. And all of our claims must be tested against the same objective standard of Scripture.
In conclusion, Swanson is quite right that all of us will have our imaginations shaped by our culture and that -as Christians- we’re called to not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We have to be constantly testing society’s assumptions against God’s truth. We have to be constantly on guard against accepting false, demeaning stereotypes that will divide the body of Christ. Yet these commands apply to all Christians. All of us need to search our hearts, interrogate our own biases, put to death our mistrust, and love one another.
Yet to insist that Whites are uniquely tainted broken, wounded, deformed, stained, and blind due to their whiteness and complicity in racism is to promote just such a false, demeaning stereotype. The assumption that our white brothers and sisters in Christ are blind and broken and need our care and direction to be made whole is neither true nor conducive to Christian solidarity. All of us are broken and blinded by sin and all of us need the gospel and each other other to be healed. It is in this truth that the church will find true unity. While I admire Pastor Swanson’s thirst for justice and desire for racial reconciliation, I must gently but firmly insist: this is not the way.
See all content on critical theory here.
- Blind But Now I See – A Review of Daniel Hill’s White Awake
- A Short Review of Sechrest’s Can ‘White’ People Be Saved?
- Reconstructing the Gospel or Obscuring It? A Review of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Reconstructing the Gospel
- An Antiracism Glossary – Whiteness
- Reflections on Ekemini Uwan’s Sparrow Interview – Part I