Rejecting White Dominion

Lisa Sharon Harper
Lisa Sharon Harper is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith– forthcoming September 2014, Zondervan.

I didn't see the film Malcolm X in theaters. I waited to see it on video. Big mistake.

I watched it in my home, just off campus from University of Southern California, late at night when everyone else was sleeping. Another big mistake.

At the time I was living in a house with one other black person and a bunch of white and Asian friends. I was attending a mostly white school and a mostly white church and had attended a mostly white institute for urban transformation that was borne out of my church. Ironically, it was there that I was required to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. But I never read the whole thing, only sections.

So, I sat in the dark living room, lit only by the television screen, and watched Denzel Washington bring Malcolm X to life … by myself. And there, in the dark, Malcolm's words about Jesus hit me to the core.

Malcolm X
Malcolm X in 1964. |

In the film, Malcolm sits in a prison Bible study with an image of a white Jesus on the wall behind white Chaplain Gill. Chaplain Gill reads a portion of John 10:10 and asks if there are any questions. Young Malcolm raises his hand, then proceeds to burrow into and expose one of the most consequential spiritual lies that ever masqueraded as truth in the history of the world.

Malcolm: What color were the original Hebrews?

Chaplain Gill: I have told you that we don't know that for certain.

Malcolm: Then you can't believe for certain that Jesus was white. …

Chaplain Gill: God is white. Isn't it obvious?

Iconic pictures of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Jesus flash across the screen, even as Malcolm indicts the historical accuracy of images of Jesus on church walls throughout the world. Then Malcolm cites Revelation 1:14-15: "His head and his hair were white like wool … his feet were like burnished bronze."

I had restless sleep that night. God came to me in my dreams and God was black and I rejected him.

I understood the sickness of that moment, even in my dreams. So, when the white God came, I told white God to go away and I invited black God to come back. God held me and as I looked down at God's skin; it was dark. I felt safe and something in my soul felt reconciled.

The next Sunday I sat in my typical second-row seat at church and seethed. Almost every person who took the stage was white. And behind them was a large stained-glass window with a larger-than-life blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus with arms outstretched.

By the end of the service I could barely hold back tears as the thought crystalized in my mind: "It must be nice to have a God who looks just like you."

Paintings are not the root of the problem any more than Confederate flags. They are the natural byproducts of the root problem — the spiritual lie that God is white and therefore white people are like gods.

The roots of this belief run deep. According to Plato (in 360 B.C.E.), God created a class hierarchy determined by "racial" categories delineated by the kind of metal people were made of: gold, silver, iron, or brass. Each race was ordained to hold different stations in society. Book VIII of The Republic lays foundations for the belief that the mixing of the races will lead to destruction.

Fast forward to 1767: Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, publishes the 12th edition of his Systema Naturae, which crafts the first taxonomy of human racial hierarchy by skin color.

Twenty years after Linnaeus' racial taxonomy, the U.S. Congress passed the three-fifths compromise , which allotted representation by counting each enslaved person as three-fifths of a human being — in essence declaring black people less than human.

Three years later, in the first census, enslaved black people were listed as chattel — non-human property of their owners — along with pitchforks and horses.

In the same year, Congress passed the Naturalization Act of 1790, which declared that only free white men could become naturalized citizens of the U.S. — meaning only they could vote. So, for the next century new immigrants in the U.S. fought to be legally categorized as "white."

Here is the rub: Genesis 1:26-27 tells us all humanity is made in the image of God. In the same breath, God says, "and let them have dominion." The core lie of western "civilization" is that God reserved the power of dominion for some, not all. Since the enlightenment era, that lie has been radicalized. With the founding of our nation, it was racialized and institutionalized in law with one resounding message: God reserved the power of dominion for white people and no one else.

Since those days—through the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the War on Poverty — The U.S. has been at war with itself, never renouncing that core lie.

Church icons, seminary curricula, "classic" texts, and church structures have reinforced that belief on American soil and around the world through the white Western missionary movement.

But God is not white. Chaplain Gill was wrong.

The deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and hundreds more black men, women, and children have caused scales to fall from the eyes of many. And recently the race-based slayings of the Emanuel Nine in Charleston, S.C., so obviated the evil that people across the South began to question the ethics of the Confederate flag that flew on state grounds.

On July 10 South Carolina removed that flag. It was a start; not an end.

Now we must all commit to examine every structure, system, philosophy, and theological construct in the church and society. We must interrogate them for the ways they reinforce the lie of white dominion. Then we must set about the work of active repentance.

For more on rejecting white supremacy check out the recent #ForgiveUsBook Twitter TeachIn on the topic via Storify.

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