Dylann Roof, a white Christian who killed nine African Americans during a final Bible study prayer at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015, recently returned to the news after a federal appeals court upheld his conviction and death sentence.
Before I continue, I want to stop and pay tribute to those whose lives are over. You can read more about each of them here, and read about the events focused on healing on the sixth anniversary of last June here.
I invite you to take a moment, inhale and say their names – not just in your head, but out loud, slowly:
- Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
- Depayne Middleton-Doctor
- Cynthia Hurd
- Susie Jackson
- Ethel Lance
- Clementa Pinckney
- Tywanza Sanders
- Daniel Simmons
- Myra Thompson
Rejecting Roof’s appeal, the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Richmond strongly condemned his violent actions:
Dylann Roof killed African Americans in their church, while studying the Bible and worshiping. They welcomed him. He slaughtered them. He did so with the express intention of terrorizing not only his immediate victims in the historically important Church of Mother Emanuel, but as many similar people as would have heard of the mass murder … Neither cold records nor careful analysis of statutes and precedents can capture the complete horror of what is Roof did.
But the recent AP story, like almost all the major media covering Roof in the last six years, he does not mention Roof’s own Christian faith – a faith that was not only secondary, but was an integral part of his white supreme worldview.
At the time of the massacre, Roof was a baptized member with a good reputation in the Lutheran Church of Sts. Paul in Colombia, SC. Significantly, this church is associated with the ELCA, a denomination that is more progressive Protestant rather than more conservative. and the southern evangelical Protestant – a branch of the white Christian family tree. According to relatives, Roof grew up going to church regularly, including catechism classes.
Roof’s own diary, written in prison while awaiting trial and then brought into evidence by the prosecution, it shows how tightly Christianity and white supremacy were linked in his worldview. There he called on whites to reform American Christianity, to transform it from “this weak cowardly religion” to the “warrior faith”.
“What is most disturbing about Roof’s diary is that it is filled with Christian images.”
But for me, what is most disturbing about Roof’s diary is that it is filled with Christian images, including a drawing on the entire page of the risen white Jesus coming out of the tomb. It’s the only picture without data I’ve included in my book, White too long.
Such images of the white Jesus, in stained glass and portraits, they are often found in white Christian churches throughout the country, even today. They are designed, consciously and unconsciously (and here it is most powerful, when taken for granted) to represent the Son of God as a member of what they believed to be the dominant race.
For example, I recently revisited the Episcopal Church of Sts. Paul in Richmond, often called the Confederate Cathedral 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 for the past six or six years as it has been in the process of removing a large number of Confederate symbols from its sanctuary, work that began in response to the 2015 Emanuel AME massacre.
Under ongoing work its History and Reconciliation Initiative, in 2020 the church also removed additional plaques associated with the Lost Things ideology and rededicated three stained glass windows, moving objects of its devotion from Davis and Lee to the “glory of God”.
Efforts in Sv. They are praiseworthy and sincere to Paul and in many ways represent a model of how white churches can deal with the legacy of white supremacy that has lingered among us for too long. But what got out of hand is the central image of the sanctuary: the white Jesus filling the large central window behind the pulpit.
Paul is not the only one who has this blind spot. Just this year I had the horrible experience of attending a Zoom meeting on racial justice, where one of the priesthood leaders stood under the gaze of a similarly imposing white Jesus in a not-so-colored glass.
These images are unrecognized but a powerful theological work. For skeptics, only a few experiments would probably reveal how many Christians are still invested in the whiteness of Jesus, which is rooted in fundamental beliefs about white supremacy:
- How would your church react to the move to replace all images of Jesus, including stained glass and paintings, depicting Jesus as someone of European descent with more accurate depictions of Jesus of Middle Eastern descent?
- How would a non-white Jesus influence the way white Christians you know think about the personal Savior and the theology of salvation? How comfortable would it be for them to allow brown-skinned Jesus to “enter their hearts”?
- How would you react to the illuminated child Jesus in the manger in front of the church that was brown instead of white?
- And how would a non-white Jesus affect things like the white gospel culture of purity? Would the “promising rings” representing the sexual purity of white adolescents, which often signify some kind of spiritual marriage to Jesus, be something white Christian fathers would encourage their daughters to wear if Jesus was not white?
And one should ask: What difference would Dylann Roof make if the Christian formation he received in the white Lutheran church of his childhood took place under the compassionate gaze of a brown-skinned Jesus?
Robert P. Jones is the CEO and founder of PRRI and the author of the book White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, which won the American Book Award 2021.
This column originally appeared on the Robert P. Jones #WhiteTooLong undercurrent. In partnership with the author and PRRI, BNG will present a new Jones column every Monday.
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