Anti-Racism as Rebirth: A Review of Barndt’s Becoming an Anti-Racist Church

Becoming an Anti-Racist Church is ELCA pastor Joseph Barndt’s guide to transforming churches from racist institutions to anti-racist institutions. BecomingAntiRacistBarndt’s book is “focused on a particular segment of the church: mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in the United States, all of which are predominantly white.” (p. ix) Nonetheless, his approach is representative of the anti-racist movement in general, both in the culture at large and within evangelicalism.

The key to understanding the anti-racist movement is understanding the term “anti-racism.” Contrary to what one might expect, “anti-racism” emphatically does not mean “opposition to racism.” While definitions of ‘anti-racism’ can vary, they roughly share several key features: 1) the affirmation that racism is not mere personal prejudice, but is rooted in power dynamics, 2) the belief that racism never disappears, but simply adapts, and 3) a commitment to actively dismantling the systems and structures that create and perpetuate racism. Anti-racism also tends to draw heavily on the ideology of critical theory.

Barndt arguably takes this definition even farther when he says that anti-racism not only requires action against racism, but that it “also requires a new identity for individuals and for communities. As an individual, anti-racism is not only something I can do, but it is someone I can be. Anti-racist is a new name for a person or community that develops an analysis of systemic racism, becomes committed to dismantling racism, and will not rest until ultimately escaping from the prison of racism” (p. 156).

Pros:

Like most anti-racist books, Barndt’s begins with a good summary of the historical origin of race and racism in the U.S. from slavery to the post-Civil Rights Era. He also recognizes that the historical narrative isn’t homogeneous. Individual people and even some entire churches resisted the racism so prevalent in culture.

Barndt also rightly recognizes that power is not inherently oppressive: “Racism misuses power for oppressive and evil purposes. However, this does not mean that from the point of view of the Bible and Christian theology, power itself is evil… In misusing power, racism misuses something that from God’s point of view is very good” (p. 93). His insistence on the goodness of power shows that he is cognizant of the tension between a Christian worldview and critical theory, which insists that power is inherently oppressive.

Finally, many of the questions Barndt’s raises in the book are worth considering: to what extent do we see true racial and cultural diversity within the church? Do we see our church’s culture as the ‘default’? How is our church’s culture perceived by outsiders?

As the majority culture, whites can sometimes fail to recognize the fact that they do indeed have a culture. Culture influences everything from the music we listen to and the food served at our potlucks to our our style of worship and our level of emotional expressiveness. Consequently, it’s important for all Christians to learn to distinguish biblical mandates from cultural preferences. We should strive to ensure that mere preferences do not become stumbling blocks that keep people from the gospel.

Cons:

The fundamental problem with Becoming an Anti-Racist Church is its ultimate aim.  Barndt is not merely trying to equip Christians to combat racism. Instead, his goal is to convince Christians to embrace an entirely new ideology. While this claim might seem exaggerated, I think it’s supported by numerous lines of evidence.

First, very little of the book is devoted to practical steps for how churches can eliminate racism. Of the book’s twelve chapters, only the last two deal with advice for “Getting it Done: The Organizing Task” and “Institutionalizing Anti-Racism in the Church.” In lieu of concrete actions, Barndt confines himself to abstract principles like “Commitment to Institutionalizing”, “Full Power Sharing” and “Multiplying Inclusion”, admitting that this final stage of anti-racism is “uncharted territory” since “No churches, nor any other institutions have fully been here” (p. 187). This emphasis on theory makes little sense if Barndt believes that Christians can fight racism within their existing paradigm.

Second, the ideological emphasis of Barndt’s message can be seen in the explicit connection he makes to liberation theology. In an important section in Chapter 1, he writes:

“Justice is at the heart of the biblical message. God’s opposition to all forms of societal inequality and the call for a radically inclusive community are at the center of the gospel of Jesus Christ… In recent decades, a ‘theology of liberation’ has emerged as an exciting new articulation of theology by churches living in the context of poverty and oppression…The central themes of liberation theology are that God takes sides where issues of justice are concerned, that God’s first option is for the broken and the oppressed of the world, and that justice and liberation should be the central focus of the ministry of the Christian church.” (p. 14)

It’s crucial to recognize that Barndt is not arguing that our modern, 21st century American understanding of the gospel has been corrupted by materialism, individualism, and racism. If that were the case, he could point us back to the doctrines of the Reformation or even to the earliest Christian creeds. Instead, he takes a more radical approach, arguing that Christianity has been corrupted by power and domination since the 4th century:

“The Christian Church has had two personalities almost from the very beginning… Especially with regard to injustice and oppression, the church has been divided, sometimes taking sides in adamant support of oppressors, and at other times standing courageously and compassionately on the side of the oppressed… ” (p. 28

These two churches, which he calls the “Ruler’s Church” and the “People’s Church” came into being “fairly early in the church’s history, in A.D. 313” (p. 30). He continues: “Tragically, the Reformation movement in the sixteenth century did not heal the church’s split personality… In time historians recognized the Ruler’s Church as the official representative of Christianity in United States history” (p. 31-32).

Again, Barndt is not arguing that we need to purge the influences of racism from the American Church. Instead, he’s arguing that we need to entirely overhaul our understanding of Christianity along the lines of liberation theology.

Third, Barndt’s adoption of oppressed and oppressor as fundamental categories that extend beyond race is evident in his understanding of gender and sexuality:

“until just recently the churches blasphemously permitted and often encouraged the use of the Bible and doctrine for the support of racism, as well as exclusion on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. Only by remembering centuries of blindness and unspeakably painful violation of these core beliefs of the Christian faith can be assured that they will not be repeated” (p. 141).

“Where the Predominantly White Church Needs to Go:.. Inclusion of worldviews, cultures, and lifestyles of people of color… There are similar institutional changes toward other socially oppressed groups, including women, gays and lesbians, Third World citizens, etc.” (p. 149).

Authentic anti-racism requires also authentic anti-sexism, anti-heterosexism, anti-nationalism, and so forth. An [anti-racist] institution must be also working on similar institutional changes toward other socially oppressed groups” (p.193).

Here, we see the connection between anti-racism and the ideology of critical theory, which divides the world into oppressed groups and their oppressors. According to Barndt, a true anti-racist cannot be committed to liberating racially oppressed groups without also working to liberate groups who are oppressed because of their gender, sexuality, and nationality.

Based on these statements, and many others, we could infer that Barndt is not merely urging us to make minor changes, but is demanding that we completely reorient our worldview. But to dispel any remaining uncertainty on this point, let me simply offer one final quote:

“The first and most important task in shaping an anti-racist church is to give birth to an anti-racist Christian identity… Taking this birthing metaphor one step further to the biblical imagery of rebirth, this identity-transforming process can be understood in no less powerful terms than what Jesus described as being ‘born again’ – a complete spiritual transformation… In the same way, the rebirth and renewal of mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches as anti-racist multiracial/multicultural churches, after centuries of imprisonment in racism, is nothing less than a death and resurrection experience. Not only individual members of the church, but the church itself must be born again.” (p. 153-154).

Space isn’t sufficient to list all the other problems with Brandt’s material, but his insistence on our need for a “spiritual re-birth” eclipses them all. As this passage makes plain, Barndt is not trying to correct a few faulty beliefs. He’s essentially arguing that we need a new religion because what we understand to be “Christianity” is fundamentally wrong.

Summary

Both Christians and non-Christians have recognized that anti-racism, and the ideology of critical theory more broadly, has become a kind of secular religion. As such, it will compete with Christianity when it comes to our allegiance. Either we will derive our values, priorities, and ethics primarily from a Christian worldview, or we will derive them from critical theory. We can’t do both.

It’s for this reason that I find Barndt’s book so troubling. He’s not trying to equip Christians to fight racism; he’s trying to win converts. As a window into the ideology of the anti-racist movement, his book is useful. As a Christian approach to racial reconciliation, it’s a disaster.


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