On the intersection of race and religion

Managing Director’s Note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.

As a white person who is passionate about dismantling racism, I seek to notice the power and privileges that my pale skin affords me, as well as the many blind spots and biases it brings. My master’s thesis focused on interrogating the ways that my religion has functioned to create and sustain systems of racial inequity. White Christianity, as I have come to label it, has been a destructive force of oppression, sanctifying white ignorance/innocence while justifying enslavement, genocide, invasion and theft of indigenous resources and lands.

In focusing on how my religion and my race intersect, I became conscious of the way that my spiritual journey in following Jesus is also a form of privilege. Much of my American cultural context, from work holidays to children’s stories to political jargon, is imbued with a subtle, pervasive assumption that if you practice a religion, that religion is Christianity. This bias is not limited to popular culture, but is also evident in theological circles that elevate “written” over “oral” faith traditions. My experiences as an leader in interfaith women’s spirituality circles and my relationships with people from Native/First Nations, pagan and Wiccan backgrounds led me to challenge how “religion” is defined within the academic community.

While I cannot single-handedly change the cultural context, I can resist it. I can ask: How do I practice my faith in a way that challenges Christianity’s dominance of the religious conversation? How does my whiteness and my Christian faith function together to support a sense of internalized superiority in me? I can hold myself and other whites accountable for acts of religious racism: tokenizing other faiths, appropriating indigenous religions, “borrowing” from and “translating” other religions using Christian tenets and symbols as THE standard for comprehending and articulating the human quest for spiritual meaning.

In addition to a suspicious awareness of my white Christian privilege, my resistance also requires alliances with people from religious, ethical and cultural traditions different than my own. My curiosity about the radical differences between my faith and other religions enables me to honor the unique gifts, viewpoints and resources that other faiths offer to their communities. Noticing commonalities and shared ethical commitments reminds me that my faith is not superior or singular. As I challenge the privilege within my white Christianity, I begin to reclaim the ancient heart of my faith from its complicity in racism.

I pursue this work of resistance for myself, for the healing of my German-American ancestors, for my LGBTQ community, and for my daughter. As a lesbian mom, I am deeply aware of the ways that faith communities can both bring us low and build us up. In my life, as a theology student, and now, as I work towards ordination, I am committed to creating and nurturing a beloved community in which people of all faiths may pray and sing and share equally (and uniquely) together.

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2 thoughts on “On the intersection of race and religion

  1. Elizabeth, I appreciate your post and applaud your work. I have similar passions, though am working from a different angle.

    My master’s thesis was about how Mormons in the 1800s were both oppressed and oppressors as they related to dominate white Christianity and to the Utes as they fled the borders of the United States to Utah Territory. I made a point of using Ute and Mormon voices to tell the story, but I struggled (and continue to struggle) with how to tell this story as a white person.

    I would like to add to what you have said about the American cultural context from my perspective. The American cultural context does not only assume that if you are religious you are Christian. It also assumes that if you are American you are religious. White Christianity needs to be held accountable for forcing other religions into Christian molds and for “borrowing” and “translating.” I fully agree. I also witness and experience the American cultural attitude of “at least you believe in God” toward nonChristians that oppresses atheists and agnostics. This too is something American Christianity should be held accountable for and should address.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Wendy! Glad to hear about your master’s thesis…sounds fascinating. I am good friends with clergy in the Community of Christ and am a little familiar with their story of struggle against marginalization after the death of Joseph Smith and their ongoing work to defend their faith tradition as a legitimate one.

    I agree with you that “American” has been conflated with “religious.” Today is Columbus Day and I’m thinking of the stories I was taught as a child in public school about pilgrims and our “the faith of our founding fathers.” There’s maybe no more obvious example of this than the fact that the US gov’t outlawed indigenous religious ritual and practice until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. We’re still wrestling with that legacy today, and I often ask myself: how can I be Christian and NOT be an oppressor? What does that look like?

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