The headline above reveals two possibilities. I am either so blind to my place in life (as a white man) that I cannot see how my race and religious beliefs have become completely intertwined, or I am perfectly capable of sight, but I just don’t agree with the premise. That I am even asking the question means I am really stupid or it means the premise (that Christian virtues and white culture are synonymous) is absurd and I am willing to say so. But the question needs to be asked because we are now reckoning with Western Civilization as a whole: what are its foundations? Is our society worth preserving? Is it time to start over on another foundation?
Because “White” or European or, really, Christian culture is at least a foundation of the American experience, and America is apparently a hopelessly racist nation, our culture’s foundations have come under intense scrutiny in recent months. Because our European forebears gifted us slavery, perhaps it was never a culture worth building a civilization upon in the first place. So some say it is time to knock it all down – literally, in the case of monuments – which first requires defining what it is to be “White” or European or Christian in the first place. If the culture of the Ancient Americans was wholly rotten, then like a bit of cancer, we must identify it and root it out. We should probably take some healthy tissue around it out for good measure, too.
With that in mind, a poster was promoted by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) that sought to identify “White” culture that has led to problems and presumably should no longer be normative. (The poster has since been removed and apologized for.) Besides being the kind of racism I was taught to avoid – stereotyping any one ethnicity, even if in a complimentary way – any of the characteristics listed could describe any number of ethnicities and I would argue some are virtuous by their very nature.
Here are a few of the “Aspects and Assumptions of Whiteness and White Culture in the United States” that are listed on this poster, a poster which, by the way, is not new or unique but reflects ideas that are pretty common in the American academy today:
- “The nuclear family: father mother, 2.3 children is the ideal social unit”
- “Objective, rational linear thinking”
- “The primacy of Western (Greek, Roman) and Judeo-Christian tradition”
- “Protestant Work Ethic: Work before play”
- “Religion: Christianity is the norm”
- “Respect authority”
- “Delayed gratification”
- “Protect property and entitlements”
- “Be polite”
Yes, with this list, I am cherry-picking the best examples of critiques that tie into Christian values or virtues. What you see above strikes me as not only not bad, but firmly situated in the Christian ethic. To attack them or write them off as mere “whiteness” seems utterly dismissive and unhelpful.
Some of the critiques of “Whiteness” are critiques Christians might also bring. Instead of rooting them in “Whiteness”, we would just root them in plain ol’ sin. For example, Christians would agree with the museum that to “win at all costs” is wrong, that a “woman’s beauty based on blonde, thin – ‘Barbie’” is wrong, that “wealth=worth” is wrong, and that “rugged individualism” can be taken to unhealthy extremes. Indeed, any virtue can be taken to an unhealthy extreme and become a vice. So not everything that is said in the now-infamous poster is wrong; however, many whites criticize those same qualities or behaviors. And it is factually wrong and slanderous to suggest uniformity among whites to prize blonde women, be on time, be Christian or to have a breadwinner husband and homemaker wife. How is this not racist?
But this conversation troubles me not because I seek to impose white culture onto blacks, but because part of the critique contains several explicit mentions of Christianity itself, and it seems to suggest that blacks reject these virtues. Is that, in fact, insulting to blacks? As I said in a recent sermon, Jesus and His Church are in the process of being cancelled, both on the Covid-19 front and now the reassessment of Western Civilization. We are either “non-essential”, dangerous gathering places amid a pandemic or we are the root cause of racism. We are routinely described as an imperialistic force that brought so much evil into the world, it is time for us to go.
Well, I disagree. First of all, virtues are virtues regardless of the ethnicity that practices them because we live in God’s world. The same is true for vices. Christianity, through description or prescription commends the following virtues, and I cannot think of any good reason that any Christian – or person, for that matter – should not make them a habit.
- “…in humility count others more significant than yourself.” (Philippians 2:3)
- “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Ephesians 5:22-23)
- “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
- “Honor your father and mother.” (Exodus 20)
- “You shall not steal.” (Exodus 20)
These teachings are the foundations of the “way of life” you see described above as “White.” And yet, I unapologetically claim that any culture or ethnicity would benefit from following God’s Word and seeking these virtues, because all men and women are created in God’s image.
Second, where Christianity has flourished, so have these virtues, and the critical voice against excess has also been present. Around the world, Christians who are not white believe that idleness is a sin, that being polite is part of following Jesus, and that authority should be respected. That alone makes this poster not just an attack on “Whiteness” (if there is such a thing), but the kind of world that Christianity produces. After all, do we really want a world that is the opposite of everything on this poster: non-rational thinking, a destroyed nuclear family, idleness, rudeness, play before work, etc.?
Third, rationality itself appears to be under assault. Did you know that Western science and math are being rejected because they are considered products of white or European culture? Math is now called racist. Perhaps this explains the phenomenon of flat-earthers becoming en vogue. I never thought I would see the day where “objective, rational linear thinking” would not be valued or limited to any subset of humanity. True, the extreme version of this – cold, unfeeling carelessness (Modernism!) – is also not ideal. But God Himself created logic and order; we live in an ordered world governed by laws of nature. To reject them is to ultimately reject the God who created them. This has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin and everything to do with whether logic and reason are objective or not.
Now, perhaps I should just ignore this and move on. After all, the NMAAHC has removed the poster after considerable pushback. But this re-thinking of Western Civilization and, hence, Christianity itself, is not at its nadir; it is only beginning. Part of our apologetic as Christians now is not just defending the existence of God, the resurrection, and the design of the universe, it is also our virtues and our values which are increasingly seen as fundamentally flawed and even imperialistic evil.
I know, I know, this is my “white fragility” talking. But if we are in the midst of a revolution, then it will not be enough to defend a mere political or economic way of life. If virtues are the foundation of a civilization and if our Christian virtues are seen as harmful, we will have to defend both the truth claims of Christianity and the world it creates. We must do so in love or else we will mock our own virtues. But do so we must. Because the opening shots in this revolution were not fired with this poster; they were fired decades ago. Only now are we seeing a vocal enough majority who is willing to say that your faith is part of the problem and it must be destroyed to root out the cancers it is created.