What does “Christian” mean today in America? Not for those who consider themselves followers of Christ, but for those who do not: When you hear “Christian,” what words or images come to mind?
Let’s get real here. People see 81% (voted for Trump) and 76% (approved of the travel ban) and white evangelical Christians get branded racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic and then are shoved into a box by liberal-minded people so they can continue in their ignorance at a safe distance from the rest of America. Now, the self-identified Christians contained in these numbers span a spectrum of experiences: some may consider themselves culturally Christian because of their upbringing; some obligatorily take the label “Christian” and agree with Trump on a moral basis; and some claim a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ as their Savior.
These nuances matter in examining Trump’s rise to power and the consequences for communities now suffering the brunt of his nascent orders. The shades within the data prompt more complicated questions about how Bible-believing Christians align with Trump’s policies even if they dislike the man himself, how race and class shape political beliefs for people of faith, and how the Church should deal with the burgeoning resentment it faces in the United States.
The response to the latter question might earn you a lecture about John 15:18-25, where Jesus declares:
If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason’.[b
I’ve seen Christians proudly raise the banner for our status as foreigners in this world–in not of, present but separate. I resonate with the core truth that our primary belonging is in Christ and not the mores of our current society. Our attitudes and actions should be counter-cultural if those standards misalign with how Jesus calls us to live; we are to emulate him, not mimic the denizens on the It-List. Where I experience tension is when Christians use this passage to avow the persecution of American Christians and shrug off the ire of non-Christians as the same kind of lamentable hate John 15 describes. Christians start glorying in percentages and media attacks as proof of their righteousness, proof that we are right, they are wrong, and we must either endure their misguided slander like societal martyrs or challenge it as morally superior conquerors.
I want us to look at the last line of the passage again: “But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’ Remember, this is Jesus talking. When he was on Earth, he was perfect, holy, loving…and many people hated him–enough to crucify him! The Pharisees and other religious folks’ rationale for killing him was founded on fearful, self-serving reasoning, not any actual moral high ground. And so in this passage, Jesus warns his followers that if they seek to be like Him, they will experience persecution. The world will not understand them. It will hate them instead.
But what if there was another reason for us to be hated?
For many years, Christians have had a reputation as being intolerant, dismissive, apathetic, ignorant, and largely irrelevant to the systemic problems shaping the lives of marginalized peoples. That is our tragedy, and we cannot just blame the media for it. We have to be willing to step closer to the question of why we are hated–and if not hated, then met with such friction.
Where is hate born? It can emerge from that destabilizing fear of what one doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to–like what the Pharisees experienced in respect to Jesus. But it can also come from hurt, and there are ways that as Christians living in America, we have collectively hurt many people.
Through the eyes of non-Christians-especially those with marginalized identities-they see us criminalizing trans people over bathroom stalls without caring about the staggering percentage of trans teens who commit suicide. They see us dismissing black people’s pain while chastising them as divisive for speaking out against racism. They see us getting defensive when the segregation and power imbalances in our congregations are challenged. They see us fall silent as hundreds of black men and women are unlawfully imprisoned each year. They see us reducing the plight of Latinx immigrants to a matter of “just following the law” or assimilation rather than us taking time to listen to their stories and look at our detention centers, our labor exploitation. They see us trying to change gay people before we allow them entrance into our sanctuaries. They see us forget the indigenous peoples of our land to protect our economic self-interests. They see us prioritizing hierarchy and tradition and theological debate over standing in solidarity with the suffering.
It is possible that what they are valuing represents the heart of Christ more than what our words and actions are conveying. Rather than promoting a compelling vision of a world being redeemed, walls torn down and people made equal, we too often advertise the failed systems of prejudice and oppressive powers of an old order.
But who is this generalized us anyway? The we?
I ask these questions because I’ve noticed that when other people rant about Christians or ridicule them on social media, their words are coded for white Christians. White is seen as the face of the church in America, the benchmark for our loudest and most featured voices. In media representation, we get either the white evangelical stereotypes or the soulful black Gospel choir tropes. But when it comes to conversations about social justice and Christians, the image of white Christians materializes first. And so when they are framed as corrosive, we all get burnt–the other “we” being Christians who are not white. Where do we feature in these media portrayals of Christianity, and are we included in the “hate” for it, even as we face our own oppressions?
I stand somewhere to the side in this space, apart from the pie chart dividing white Christians who echo Trump’s policies and those who don’t. I see the debates raging about where Christians stand, and everything is “white evangelical” this or that, and out of those rhetorical battles, the bitterness towards Christians as a whole grows. In this languaging, I’m grouped with the perceived oppressors, and my multiple identities don’t factor into the equation. Maybe I’m looked at with pity for remaining with a socially illiterate faith community. Maybe people are waiting for me to get further woke and leave it. Maybe it would be easier to do that after all the hurt I’ve experienced and witnessed within it.
But I have to ask myself: How big is my God? Is He bigger than the Republican party as it exists now, conflated with religion? Is He bigger than His white followers who inadvertently perpetuate harm towards me and towards marginalized communities?
I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that anyone who voted for Trump or even voted for the immigration ban is a bad person (and I don’t see my fellow Christians of color making that argument). That’s the old way of looking at things, where people can be divided and dismissed. These people are still my family in Christ, and they love Him and desire to follow Him. But they have their blindspots, the voids where that love is not found, and the consequences for people of color are well-recorded in history. Those blindspots must be accounted for and confronted.
What do I do with that? I will not demonize white Christians whose attitudes reflect the world that birthed Trump, and neither will I respect “opinions” that denigrate the dignity of human beings I am supposed to love and protect. There is a distinction between the two, even as I reject the idea that all white Christians can be subsumed into one ignorant collective and cut off. It’s not that simple, and we cannot reduce decades of racial tension in the Church to “good progressive white people” vs. “bad racist white people” when the insidious dynamics of racism defy dichotomies of good vs bad. Instead it fabricates a society where it is entirely possible to be kind, loving, intelligent, and follow Jesus and yet reinforce white supremacy and racism through one’s attitudes, actions, and participation in public life.
Whiteness as a construct infiltrates our institutions and results in policies that disenfranchise people of color in ways that would horrify our white brothers and sisters if they grasped the extent of it. As James Baldwin put it so eloquently:
“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel,” he said. “But I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church that is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday.
“That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church.
“I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me — that doesn’t matter — but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to.
“Now this is the evidence,” Baldwin said, his voice rising with indignation. “You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.”
There is dissonance between the experiences of black, brown, Asian, and indigenous Christians and the experiences of white Christians that belies the systemic reality Baldwin exposes. The former peoples are not included in the percentages that rouse animosity towards Christians-even as we follow the same Christ-and our loyalties are constantly tested as we sit in churches that nurture our spiritual formation, but whose members will not march with us when our children are shot in the street nor question their own prejudices.
There are the individual dynamics that Christians with dis-empowered identities must wrestle with as we interact daily with white people whom we love and know love us yet resist engaging with the unsettling and even threatening truths embedded within our experiences. I say threatening because making the commitment to educate yourself about race will destabilize your comfort and worldview if you are white. There is a cost to entering into a battlefield where history is indeed our present and something that we always carry with us, as Baldwin suggests.
If we (we being Christians as a whole) want to understand the resentment towards Christians within America, we must navigate the kinetics of these systemic and individual realities. We must lament them. We must ask God for clarity and courage to change them. My white brothers and sisters must also consider the stresses endured by Christians of color as we rally against the temptation to be bitter and jaded in our pain. We may understand the ire towards Christians better than anybody because we must wrestle with it in our own hearts; we persist in asking God to cultivate the forgiveness and grace in us we don’t always feel towards our white brothers and sisters.
From this tangle of identities and tensions, I speak to the hate, draw near, and repent. To those we have harmed: I own the sins of my Christian community, including the wrongs done against me. I repent of that and submit to you. I get it–some of it. I am not white, and sometimes I wonder where others would fit me into this conversation. I’m a black, Latina woman with roots in Africa and China and defiantly American…and I’m a follower of Christ. I’m still reconciling that tension.
The Christ I follow isn’t some White God. He isn’t defined by the politics of my country. He isn’t the arbiter of imperialism, colonialism, slavery–no matter how his image has been manipulated for other ends. He is not diminished when those who follow him fail to share his love with those who most need that affirmation.
Tenets may be questioned and examined, but I have an eternal relationship with this Jesus who embodies what love and sacrifice and faith looks like in action. And the historical faith that is woven into my story has many of the same roots I do: it comes from the East, from Africa, from huddled groups of brown exiles praying for deliverance from oppression, from loud, praising peoples declaring the glory of God from prisons, from radical communities loving the poor, calling out injustice, and opening their homes to each other. Christianity isn’t White, and so it is a shame that our theological texts and Sunday School lessons have painted it so.
Jesus isn’t contained within the percentiles of whiteness, maleness, or any other category–but since we have divided ourselves and allocated power disproportionately to different categories, we must now grapple with our sins committed against others. We must trace the statistical lines that encase our hideous realities and turn to the God who transcends them. Part of love is being accountable to those you have harmed, and that is what I expect of each person who answers to any policy that sins against another person and causes them suffering. Percentages do not define us, but our lack of compassion and humility will define our witness as the Church in America if we do not repent of it.
If Christians are going to be disliked, mocked, or even hated, then I hope it’s for the right reasons. I hope that we are known first as those ridiculous people who reach out to those who oppose us and love them, those weirdos who give up our privileges and comforts to follow Jesus, those radicals who consider people of all races, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, citizenship statuses, sexual orientations, and physical and mental abilities lovable and worth defending. I hope we are hated for being too much like this bewildering, offensive, audacious Jesus, rebels with a cause, heirs robed as servants, wielding grace as the hammer under which all things unjust crumble.