Saving Our Churches from Dylann Roof's White Jesus
Saying "No" to white supremacy means re-visualizing Jesus
First, let me say “thank you” to all of you who have signed up for this “White Too Long” newsletter. The vibrant response in this first week has confirmed that there is a hunger for a broad, ongoing conversation that is committed to truth-telling, repair and healing from white supremacy in Christianity. Let me also encourage everyone to use the comments area under each post. I, and other readers, would love to hear your thoughts and reactions. We’re well on our way to building this conversation and community. Please do share with others in your circles who might be interested.
Dylann Roof, the white Christian man who murdered nine African Americans during the closing prayer of a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015, was back in the news this week after a federal appeals court upheld his conviction and death sentence.
Before I go any further, I want to pause and honor those whose lives he ended. You can read more about each of them here, and read about the events focused on healing at the six-year anniversary this past June here.
I invite you to take a moment, breathe in, and say their names—not just in your head but aloud, slowly :
Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Rev. Daniel Simmons
In their rejection of Roof’s appeal, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond issued a strongly-worded condemnation of his violent actions:
Dylann Roof murdered African Americans at their church, during their Bible-study and worship. They had welcomed him. He slaughtered them. He did so with the express intent of terrorizing not just his immediate victims at the historically important Mother Emanuel Church, but as many similar people as would hear of the mass murder…. No cold record or careful parsing of statutes and precedents can capture the full horror of what Roof did.
But the recent AP story, like nearly all mainstream media coverage of Roof over the last six years, makes no mention of Roof’s own Christian faith—a faith that was not just incidental to, but constitutive of, his white supremacist worldview.1
At the time of the mass murder, Roof was a baptized member in good standing at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Columbia, SC. Notably, this church is affiliated with the ELCA, a denomination that is the more progressive mainline Protestant—not the more conservative and southern evangelical Protestant—branch of the white Christian family tree. According to relatives, Roof regularly went to church, including catechism classes, growing up.
Roof’s own journal, written in prison while he was awaiting trial and subsequently entered into evidence by the prosecution, shows how tightly woven together Christianity and white supremacy were in his worldview. There, he called on whites to reform American Christianity, to transform it from being “this weak cowardly religion” to become “a warrior’s religion.”
But to me, the most disturbing thing in Roof’s journal is that it is filled with Christian imagery, including a full-page drawing of a resurrected white Jesus emerging from the tomb. It’s the only non-data image I included in my book, White Too Long.
Such images of a white Jesus, in stained glass and portraits, are commonly found in white Christian churches throughout the country, even today. They were designed, consciously and unconsciously (and this is where it is most powerful, when it is taken for granted) to represent the son of God as a member of what they believed to be the dominant race.
For example, last month, I revisited St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, often dubbed the Cathedral of the Confederacy because it served as the home church to both Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War. The church has been in the news over the past 6 six years because it has been in the process of removing the large number of Confederate symbols from its sanctuary, work that began in response to the 2015 massacre at Emanuel AME.
Under the ongoing work of its History and Reconciliation Initiative (HRI), in 2020 the church also removed additional plaques that were associated with Lost Cause ideology and rededicated three stained-glass windows, shifting the objects of their devotion from Davis and Lee to “the glory of God.”
The efforts at St. Paul's are laudable and sincere, and in many ways provide a model for how white churches can deal with the legacy of white supremacy that has too long dwelled among us. But what has escaped scrutiny is the most central image in the sanctuary: the white Jesus that fills the large central window behind the pulpit.
St. Paul’s is not alone in having this blindspot. Just this year, I had the jarring experience of participating in a zoom meeting on racial justice, where one of the clergy leaders was standing beneath the gaze of a similarly imposing white Jesus in not-so-stained-glass.
These images perform unacknowledged, but powerful theological work. For the skeptics, just a few experiments would likely reveal how strongly many Christians remain invested in the whiteness of Jesus, which is rooted in underlying beliefs about white supremacy:
How would your church react to a move to replace all images of Jesus, including stained-glass windows and paintings, that depict Jesus as someone of European descent with more accurate depictions of a Jesus of middle-Eastern descent?
How would a non-white Jesus impact the ways white Christians you know think of a personal savior and the theology of salvation? How comfortable would they be with letting a brown-skinned Jesus “come into their hearts”?
How would they react to an illuminated baby Jesus in the nativity scene in front of the church that was brown instead of white?
And how would a non-white Jesus impact things like white evangelical purity culture? Would “promise rings” representing the sexual purity of white adolescent girls, which often connote a kind of spiritual marriage to Jesus, be something white Christian dads encouraged their daughters to wear if Jesus weren’t white?
And one has to wonder: What difference would it have made for Dylann Roof, if the Christian formation he received at the white Lutheran church of his childhood had taken place under the compassionate gaze of a brown-skinned Jesus?
To take us out, here’s former President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the memorial service for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, June 26, 2015.