THE RACISM FAITH: A THEOLOGICAL REFLECTION INSPIRED BY Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

Under every presidential administration Cecil would go to the head of the housekeeping staff to demand that African American cooks, butlers and housekeepers, in the White House, be paid the same wages as white workers.  Cecil also demanded equal access of opportunities to advance in their professions like their white counterparts.  He was denied every time.

The racial prejudice and institutional racism within the White House was only a microcosm of the greater social inequalities that existed within American society.  In “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” the main character, Cecil, started working in the White House under the Eisenhower Administration in the 1950s.  He retired under Reagan’s administration in the 1980s.  Up until his retirement, white employees in the White House, still received higher wages and better access to advancement in their respective service professions than blacks.

I sat and watched the reenactment of young college students who organized lunch counter sit-ins, protesters—adults and children—hosed and mauled by dogs of local law enforcement, and Freedom Riders killed by bombs thrown on to buses.  No one person can chronicle the numerous accounts of individuals giving their lives for the cause of racial equality.

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is a fictional portrayal based on the real life and person of Mr. Eugene Allen.  Through the lens of Allen’s personhood, the movie vividly recalls an American society plagued with systemic racial, social, & economic inequality.  I must admit, I left the movie with that all too familiar dissonance—“Time has changed but racial prejudice and institutional racism are alive and well today.”  What makes this dissonance even more potent is the former’s presence within the American church.

For some, addressing the injustice of racial prejudice and institutional racism are not matters central to our confession and affirmation of Christian faith.  However, this does not reflect the view of some Christians, particularly African American Christians. In the movie, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is portrayed as a key public figure in the Civil Rights Movement.  In reality, King represented a segment of the American Black Church who challenged the amoral existence of unjust systems like Jim Crow.  When I visit Birmingham, Alabama, I am reminded of black churches like Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that became training centers for non-violent protesters.  Not only churches, but even establishments like black owned funeral homes, became meeting places for developing and implementing local and state wide demonstrations.  In sermons preached from black church pulpits and through the dignity and discipline of young black children marching for equality, America and the world could not ignore the cry for justice.  For African Americans the cry for justice stemmed from a “resistant soul force—the power to create, transform and transcend those barriers and constraints that enforce complete domestication to those values, processes, behaviors, and beliefs that reinforce human devaluation and oppression.” (Carlyle Fielding Stewart, III’s Black Spirituality & Black consciousness, p.3)  It was this soul force that gave divine expression to the reality that human devaluation and oppression of black people, or any people, run contrary to God’s will and God’s character.

After working in multiracial ministry a few years, I have witnessed the challenge of a historically white-European denomination work towards what was called “a multiracial future freer from racism.” Many denominations that are mono-racial and becoming more multiracial love the idea of a racial-ethnically diverse church.  However, the risks and levels of deep change that must occur to achieve such a reality are often met with resistance—a resistance displayed in failure to adopt, internalize and faithfully live out the values of anti-racism and racial reconciliation.

James Evans in his book, We Have Been Believers: An African American Systematic Theology, reflects on George Kelsey’s work Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man.  Kelsey views racism as “a form of idolatrous faith…a perverted form of faith.”  Racism is not only a living breathing societal institution but it also takes on the essence of forming and shaping the spirituality of oppressor and oppressed alike.  Evans further expounds on Kelsey’s understanding of racism’s faith nature:

“Ethnocentrism formed the basis of modern racism.  Racism is a system of meaning and value complete with a theological infrastructure.  The difference between ethnocentrists and racists is that the latter have the political power to deny the humanity of the former. Racism is also a perverted form of faith that alienates & divides human beings from one another.  Its roots run much deeper than the cultural, political or economical bases of human stratification.  Racism is an expression of the will to believe. (105)

Racism as “perverted faith” then is faith that exist perpendicular to faith in ADONAI who created ALL humanity in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:29).  A Christian church, that reflects the character of the One who values all life, internalizes this value through its witness, faithfully contradicting racism as “perverted faith.”  If human institutions promote belief systems like racism then in response the church must live into its redemptive reality as a transformed human institution that is a reconciling, justice seeking agent imbedded within human society.  This is one of marks of the church as a vibrant institution.  Another mark of the church as a vibrant institution is its own resistance to forget the church’s home is at the intersection faith and justice.  Every day I fear the church’s movement away from this intersection, especially when faith and justice are central to the ethos of the Christian church’s life and witness in the world.  We cannot authentically be Christ’s Church if we actively participate in THE RACISM FAITH whose roots run deep in sin that nurtures the devaluing and dehumanization of people.  Christ’s Church must “reject any ideology which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.” (The Belhar Confession, 1986 of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa).

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3 thoughts on “THE RACISM FAITH: A THEOLOGICAL REFLECTION INSPIRED BY Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

  1. Excellent, challenging post, my friend. I think it’s the systemic nature of racism that fills me with such hopelessness, in part because it is so innocuous, and in part because systemic racism fuels individual racism.

    This particular quote from your blog made me think of systemic racism: “We cannot authentically be Christ’s Church if we actively participate in THE RACISM FAITH whose roots run deep in sin that nurtures the devaluing and dehumanization of people.”

    I don’t think the church KNOWINGLY participates in the sinful devaluing of people (at least not most of them), which is why this racism–and identifying such as a sin–is so subtle. From your perspective, what are ways you’ve seen that the church participates in the sin of racism, and what is the antidote for it? What do we do? What is God calling us to? What are some things that individuals can do?

  2. Thanks Kenita for posting this! I am more eager than ever to see the film now. I am so thankful we have you on the task force of people in our historically white-European denomination, working towards a multiracial future for us all. I have received everything from raised eyebrows to yawns from search committees when discussing the “social issues” section of my ministry profile. There I name racism as still one of the most pressing issues for our church and society. In fact one church in a fairly rural homogeneously white community didn’t feel it was much of an issue for them because they had so little diversity in their town. They wondered if I might be better suited for “urban ministry.” I feel like they missed the whole point of my essay.

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