“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate … In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”
— Martin Luther King Jr., 1963
“I Have Been Gravely Disappointed”
On April 19th, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat alone in a cell of the Birmingham Jail. He was more exhausted, discouraged, and afraid than he had ever been. The Birmingham Campaign, a campaign conceived to revive the beleaguered Civil Rights Movement, was faltering in the face of Bull Connor’s high-handed willingness to jail children and assault peaceful protestors with fire hoses and dogs. In the face of this faltering, King found himself in the center of a hurricane of recrimination. Local white authorities actively conspired against him. Local African American leaders expressed open resentment for him. Northern liberals in the Kennedy administration refused to support him. And, as ever, local Klansmen menaced him. In light of these things, the walls of his jail cell—dangerous though they were—provided him a brief, if complicated, respite.
As he sat on the bed of his cell, listening to the cries of other prisoners and the laughter of guards, he made an unusual decision. He decided to write a response to his critics. This is something that King rarely, if ever, did. More unusual, however, was the particular subset of critics on whom King decided to focus. Ignoring the concerns of Southern white supremacists, local African American leaders, and Northern political elites, King turned his attention to those whom he considered to be the greatest threat to his work for justice: White clergymen. For years King, in spite of strong opposition from black nationalists, had made it a priority to build collaborative relationships across both racial and ecclesial lines. This, he believed, was not only politically expedient but also theologically just. After all, his goal was not only black liberation; it was also “Beloved Community.”
And yet as he sat in that cell on that April afternoon, he decided that he—at risk both to himself and his movement—had a moral obligation to directly confront those who believed themselves to be his allies. His reason for this was that they—through their consistent centering of white theological voices, thoughtless minimization of black suffering, and unceasing prioritization of white comfort—not only obstructed the work of justice that they claimed to value, but also diminished the faith that they vowed to uphold. And so, as an expression of both personal weariness and brotherly faithfulness, King wrote the Letter From a Birmingham Jail.
We begin with this history because we believe that it would be difficult to find a clearer contemporary illustration of the tragic tendencies to which King responded than the recent review of our book, Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, written by the Reverend Kevin DeYoung. And while we confess that we ourselves have not known King’s suffering, do not have his insight, and do not in any way consider ourselves worthy of his mantle, we must also confess that in reading DeYoung’s review, we did share something of his disappointment. And it is out of this disappointment—the disappointment evoked by brotherly love—that we seek to respond.
The Essence of our Disagreement
To begin, we offer our sincere appreciation to Reverend DeYoung both for reading our book and for taking the time to offer public reflections on it. Some of our differences of conviction (“profound disagreements,” as he described them) are neither insignificant nor fleeting. Still, at a time when many blithely dismiss any serious discussion of reparations, DeYoung took the time to consider our arguments and respond to them. We do not take this for granted, and we wish publicly to honor him for it.
Not only this, we also wish to affirm straightforwardly that DeYoung raises important questions about reparations. And we happily acknowledge that we have not fully resolved some of these questions—either in print or in private. He is right, for example, to ask for clarity about who exactly is culpable for reparations and on what grounds. He is also right to press for greater clarity about the nature of reparative obligation and about when that obligation is met. And he is right to wonder about the impact of time—the passing of generations—on the shape of reparative action. Indeed, we are ourselves in daily and ongoing conversation with practitioners around the world seeking to clarify these very matters. This is because, as we repeatedly affirm in the book, we think these questions are best answered not a priori and in the abstract, but through collaborative conversations in local communities. Even so, it is important for both our readers and his readers to understand that we openly share some of DeYoung’s questions and work daily toward their resolution.
These questions, however—important as they are—do not yet capture the essence of our disagreement. In our view, our disagreement lies not in the questions themselves, but in the starkly differing ways in which we respectively relate to them. Namely, while DeYoung appears to view the “unresolved ambiguities” around reparations as the grounds for dismissing reparations altogether, we believe these same ambiguities to be an exciting occasion for the ongoing creative work of theological reflection. Here we ask the reader to pause and to ask why this is. Why is it that when faced with the very same conceptual ambiguities DeYoung chooses to close the door on reparations while we seek to open it further? This is a critical question. Indeed, it is in our judgment the critical question. And it is so because it suggests that the essence of our disagreement with DeYoung is not about the technical questions raised by reparations—again, questions that we share—but about how we approach those questions, about our respective dispositions toward them. In other words, the essence of our disagreement is not formally substantive, as Reverend DeYoung seems to believe it to be, but fundamentally methodological. And it is, in this respect, much more serious.
Because of this, in what follows, our intent is not to answer specific technical questions about reparations per se, but to expose and critique the method with which Reverend DeYoung approaches them. As we do so, we understand that some of our critics may see this as a form of evasion, as an attempt to escape the force of probing examination. But this is false. To the contrary, we engage these questions—and are engaged by them—every day. The actual reason for our approach is this: We believe that the methodology Reverend DeYoung employs actually keeps him from taking these questions seriously as an occasion for true theological reflection. In fact, it guarantees that he cannot do so. And we believe that until this methodology—a methodology broadly employed in current evangelical conversations on race—is seen, understood, and renounced, the true answers to these important questions will never be found. Indeed, they will never be sought.
Put most simply, our view is this: While Reverend DeYoung’s subtitle indicates that he believes his review to be an expression of a theological project, we believe his review actually to be expressive of a cultural project that seeks perennially to justify itself on theological grounds. And that cultural project is, in one inelegant and highly disturbing phrase, white supremacy.
Here’s what we don’t mean. We don’t mean—in any way—that Reverend DeYoung, in his private views, personal relationships, or public ministry believes or behaves out of the conviction that “white” people are inherently superior or that “non-white” people are correlatively inferior. Indeed, in the review itself DeYoung explicitly declares his convictions to the contrary. We believe him to be a good and faithful man who resists such heresy and who powerfully proclaims the universal glory of the Imago Dei with integrity and truth.
But here is what we do mean. Though we believe that he neither sees it nor intends it, Reverend DeYoung, in his review, methodologically centers whiteness at every turn. Like King’s opponents in 1963, he consistently privileges white theological voices, minimizes white supremacy’s tragic impact on the lives of “non-white” persons, and prioritizes the comfort of white people. And in this respect, while he does not argue for white supremacy, he nevertheless performs its most basic impulses. In so doing, he not only tacitly commends some of the most egregious blindspots and tendencies in our theological tradition, he also inadvertently lends his learned and powerful voice to the tragic work of sanctifying the cultural status quo. Viewed in this light, DeYoung’s review does much more than simply reject our book. It actually perpetuates the very social conditions that our book was written to address.
Because we are not insensate to the potentially inflammatory impact of our words here—especially in our particular cultural moment—we wish to be as explicit as possible. Do we believe that Reverend DeYoung, in his personal beliefs and public ministry, is in any way sympathetic to the convictions of white supremacy? We do not. Do we believe that Reverend DeYoung is both heir to and practitioner of a mode of theological reasoning that, in both past and present, has been a crucial factor in sheltering and sustaining the cultural project of white supremacy? We do.
In fairness, we do not believe that Reverend DeYoung is in any respect unique in this regard. To the contrary, we believe it to be endemic to much of the American church, especially in its evangelical and Reformed manifestations. Indeed, this is why we suspect his review felt familiar to many readers and found natural resonance with them. This is why, having been trained in the same ecclesial tradition, we anticipated what many of his concerns would be before we even read the review. And this is why we are taking the time to write this response. For we believe that if the evangelical church is ever to play a constructive role in the critical work of healing our nation from the manifest and enduring ravages of white supremacy—a work we believe to be central to any integral missionary vocation in America—we will have to fully and finally reject the pernicious ways that the cultural impulses of white supremacy continue to exert methodological control over the theological life of the church. And we believe that Reverend DeYoung—because of his integrity, his gifts, and his influence—ought to commit himself to that work.
Because of this, in what follows we explore three examples of these methodological impulses in his review. We do so in hopes that he, and all who follow him, will both see them and renounce them.
1. Centering White Theology
Like the culture of white supremacy itself, the theological work that shelters it begins with the centering of white theological voices and the marginalizing of others. Indeed, a careful study of the American Reformed tradition, especially in its evangelical manifestations, shows this to be a core methodological impulse. While some may be tempted by the rejoinder that this impulse is driven by necessity, suggesting that there simply are no non-white Reformed theologians, this is, as a matter of historical fact, false. To the contrary, some of the most important theological actors in the American Reformed tradition—Francis Grimke, Henry Highland Garnet, and the brothers James and Thomas Ames among them—are African American. And not only this, there exists a host of Reformed and evangelical-adjacent African American theologians throughout American history whose ideas and practices are deeply important sources for sanctifying the American theological imagination. And yet with predictable regularity, in much of what now passes for theological work in American evangelicalism, these voices are not heard. Indeed, one suspects that in many circles they are not even known. The fruit of this is that one of the most easily discernible distinctives of American evangelical theology is its de facto centering of white theological voices.
This inclination is one of the foundational features of Reverend DeYoung’s review. And, in keeping with the historic practices of his inherited tradition, this inclination expresses itself in two ways.
Excluding Black Voices
The first of these is the complete exclusion of any African American theological voices from his review. Indeed, apart from two ill-advised attempts to evoke Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. (ill-advised, because he enlists them in the service of a theological and cultural project that they explicitly and repeatedly disavow), there is no engagement with African American voices of any kind. Consider this for a moment: In reflecting on a topic whose primarily theological articulations have come from African Americans, and commenting upon a book whose primary sources are overwhelmingly African American intellectuals, Reverend DeYoung somehow manages to dismiss reparations without making a single substantive reference to an African American voice. This alone should give DeYoung’s readers serious pause.
Narrowing ‘the Gospel’
Predictably, this exclusion leads to the second and more pernicious way that he centers white voices; namely, his habitual identification of the narrow theological priorities of American Reformed evangelicalism (an overwhelmingly white community) with “the gospel.” This is a complex concern that bears elaboration, and so we ask for the reader’s patience.
In order to understand this concern, one must see the inescapably contextual nature of theology. While God’s word is eternal and unchanging, the theological work of reflecting on and applying that word is a deeply and inescapably cultural act. Because of this, the distinctive theological concerns, emphases, and systematic formulations of a given moment—while they reflect something true—ought not to imagine themselves to be the normative concerns, emphases, and formulations for all Christian communities across time and context. One thinks, for example, of the fact that a controversy that dominated the church’s theological imagination for several hundred years—the Donatist controversy—is barely even understood, let alone engaged, in our current moment. Indeed, as even casual study of theological history makes plain, the truth is that the theological concerns, emphases, and systematizations of Christian communities vary widely, importantly, and continually. The implication of this is that when any theologian speaks, they must recognize that, while they may speak faithfully and truly in their particular time and context, they do not speak on behalf of the whole of the church or with anything like a comprehensive account of “the gospel.” We speak as limited creatures, always from the relatively narrow frame of our own contextual theological traditions.
This insight leads us to recognize the prejudicial role that some of the distinctive theological emphases of Reverend DeYoung’s own tradition—American Reformed evangelicalism—play in his discussion of reparations. In particular, we wish to draw attention to three tendencies in this tradition—tendencies on prominent display in his review—that play an inordinate role in that tradition’s singular capacity to shelter white supremacy.
The Spiritualizing Tendency
The first of these is what may be called a spiritualizing tendency—the cultural inclination to imagine that one can talk meaningfully about theology apart from any substantive reflection on politics, economics, or culture; acting as if theology is somehow independent of or sealed off from these more mundane realities. To be fair, we acknowledge that—insofar as disciplinary distinctions are fruitful—theology can and should be seen as its own discipline with its own methodologies, convictions, and goals. But we also acknowledge the plain fact that in American Reformed evangelical tradition this spiritualizing tendency is deployed in a way that allows Christians not only to artfully (if selectively) ignore matters of politics, economics, and culture when doing theology, but also to believe themselves to be somehow more methodologically pure in doing so. And, historically speaking, the undeniable social effect of this spiritualizing tendency has been to allow Christians to talk rhapsodically about the spiritual glories of the gospel even as they leave transparently unjust social conditions unaddressed.
The Forensic Tendency
The second of these tendencies—a correlate of the first—is what may be called the forensic tendency. This refers to the tendency to reduce all matters of “the gospel” (again, selectively) not simply to the broadly spiritual but to the exclusively forensic concerns related to justification and substitutionary atonement. This tendency has both conceptual and pastoral horizons. Conceptually, this tendency leads its practitioners to hermeneutically and systematically prioritize matters related to forensic justification as the essence of Christian faith and practice. Pastorally, it leads to a disproportionately singular focus on perceived threats to justification and a relative inattention to (or ignorance of) other real offenses to the Christian faith.
The Individualizing Tendency
The last of these tendencies can be referred to as the individualizing tendency. This describes the cultural habit of reducing all theological concerns to their individual and private dimensions, and all ethical concerns to principles of personal responsibility—leaving little to no room for corporate or public considerations that are also manifestly present in scripture. Unsurprisingly, this tendency is intimately related to the others. Both the spiritualizing and forensic tendencies turn one’s gaze inward, away from social conditions (no matter how antichrist they may be) and exclusively toward the benefits of personal salvation. This individualizing tendency is readily seen across the evangelical tradition, which at times appears to uncritically prize and parrot the tenets of American individualism as inalienable Christian values. Tragically, churches embedded in the Reformed tradition—which historically has emphasized the essentially covenantal (and thus, corporate) character of Christian faith and practice—often fare no better. Indeed, this contradiction appears to be troubling evidence of the cultural captivity of these communities, as radical individualism regularly trumps covenantal community.
Though American Reformed and evangelical Christians seem not to know it, the fusion of these three tendencies—while expressive of real biblical truths and reflective of deep themes in theological history—is nonetheless culturally distinctive. Specifically, it is distinctive of the kind of theology produced by white (and often Southern) American theologians from the 18th to 20th centuries. It is not, for example, representative of the theological emphases of the Patristic era in either the East or the West. It is not representative of either the Desert Tradition or of the monastic movement that grew from it to become the center of Western theological production for nearly 1,000 years. It is not representative of the founding theologians of the Protestant Reformation, who—in spite of their singularly powerful focus on forensic justification—also managed to write on politics and to do so as a theological act. It is not representative of the historic evangelical movement of the United Kingdom, which succeeded in integrating a strong appeal for personal salvation with a strong appeal for social action. It is not representative of the theology that emerged—and continues to emerge—in non-western Christian communities (the most populous on earth), including those established by immigrant churches in this country. And it is not, in any way, representative of the prophetic tradition of the Black church in America. This is not to say that these traditions did not talk about the spiritual dimensions of the Christian faith, personal responsibility, or forensic justification. They surely did. It is to say, however, that the form of methodological narrowing that we describe above is distinctive of the theology produced in a very particular cultural context. And that context was American white supremacy.
It is not difficult to see why. Taken together, these tendencies justified what can only be called a form of discursive control—a powerful impulse to view Christianity and its concerns through a highly spiritualized, narrowly individualistic, and exclusively forensic lens, and to insist that others do the same. And while the salutary effect of these tendencies has been the production of some faithful and deeply moving theological reflections (for instance, on justification), its social effect has, in many ways, been undeniably tragic. Throughout American history, when faced with terrible forms of political injustice, economic exploitation, and cultural malice, American Reformed and evangelical theologians—with harrowing consistency—have chosen to leave these cultural harms unaddressed by simply changing the subject to personal justification. And they have done so not only believing that they are defending the Christian gospel, but also consistently anathematizing any who disagree.
Given the resilience of these theological tendencies in evangelical circles, it was not surprising to us to see their prominence in DeYoung’s review.
Consider, for example, his deployment of the spiritualizing tendency. DeYoung begins his review by explicitly embracing it, informing his readers that he did not “want to provide a historical analysis of Reparations [or to] focus on the sociological and economic claims of the book. … Instead, I want to provide a theological assessment of the book’s theological claims.” On the surface this seems harmless enough; it appears simply to be a reasonable narrowing of his field of inquiry. And yet when situated, as it must be—against the backdrop of his own theological tradition and viewed in terms of its effect in his argument—it takes on a different meaning.
How so? This one simple a priori methodological decision allows him—as it allowed his theological forebearers—to simply ignore the historical, sociological, and economic realities that serve as the primary justification for reparations. And that is exactly what he does. Consider this for a moment: In reviewing a book that spends fully one half of its allotted space explicitly laying out the historical, sociological, and economic foundations for reparations, Reverend DeYoung, through the alchemy of spiritualization, allows himself to simply set these foundations aside. And, having done so, he comes to the wholly inevitable conclusion that reparations is “ambiguous, unworkable, and unpersuasive.” In this respect, we see DeYoung’s decision to ignore history, sociology, and economics, not as a convenient disciplinary delineation, but as the reflexive redeployment of a prejudicial methodology with deep historical roots in white supremacy.
Consider also the individualizing tendency displayed in DeYoung’s essay. Repeatedly, he insists on evaluating reparations through a staunchly individualistic lens. When articulating his concerns about the impossibility of obtaining a full and final discharge of debts, his focus is manifestly on the psychological relief of (white) individuals. He expresses frustration that we are not “absolved of guilt just because we were not personally the slave traders, the slave owners, or the Jim Crow era oppressors” (emphasis added). As a result of this one methodological commitment, racial redress is deemed theoretically permissible, yet only in cases involving individual actors and still-living victims. (He concedes that “the obligation to make restitution may transfer to ancestors,” but he then limits that transfer, somewhat arbitrarily, to only one subsequent generation.) Restitution, it is repeatedly argued, is the exclusive burden of particular individuals who commit particular wrongs against other particular individuals; the ethics of corporate redress are ignored almost entirely.
Once again, it is our contention that DeYoung is simply performing the methodological habits of his ecclesial tradition. It’s true that parts of the Reformed and evangelical tradition recognize the corporate dimensions of restitution. Richard Baxter, for example, spoke of the restitutionary obligations of “public oppressors, who injure whole nations, countries, or communities.” Ezekiel Hopkins and John Calvin viewed the Israelites’ plundering of the Egyptians in Exodus 12 as mass compensation for their 430 years of unrequited toil. And yet, it is also true that when addressing matters of race and racism, practitioners of this same tradition have consistently prioritized the responsibilities and concerns of the individual, and exempted its white members from being covenantally implicated in the sins and sufferings of others. This, too, is expressive of a methodology rooted in white supremacy. After all, it is white supremacy’s very nature not only to confer benefits to “whites” as a group, but also to conceal itself by permitting its beneficiaries to view themselves strictly as individuals.
Consider, finally, the forensic tendency. First, a brief reminder: We wrote a book about reparations. In that book we offered an extended historical, economic, and cultural account of the ways that American white supremacy has stolen truth, power, and wealth from black communities (Chapters 1-3). And, because we are writing as Christian men and writing to the Christian church, we provided a preliminary account of the complicated ways that the Christian church is implicated in this theft (Chapter 4). Then, as an expression of Christian theological reflection upon these cultural thefts we turned to the Christian ethical traditions of restitution (Chapter 5) and restoration (Chapter 6) and through these made the claim that the Christian church has a singular responsibility to address these thefts through reparations. And finally, we looked to some African American Christian practitioners to help us understand the shape that reparations might take in our local communities (Chapter 7). We did not, in other words, write a book about personal salvation. And yet, somehow in DeYoung’s review he suggests that the largest problem with our book is “the conspicuous absence of grace.” The problem, in other words, is that reparations is, somehow, a threat to the forensic dimensions of “the gospel.” Indeed, he makes it explicit (emphasis ours):
There is not a clear picture of how those complicit in the theft of White supremacy—either because of wrongdoing in their personal lives or simply by virtue of their corporate identity as Whites—can find full freedom and forgiveness for their sins. The book certainly talks about sin and redemption, but redemption is found through reparations and the sin that poisons everything is White supremacy. … With language like this, it is not hard to see how White supremacy functions like a new kind of original sin. And with this new kind of original sin comes a new kind of salvation. … It is a vision where sin is White supremacy and salvation comes from a lifetime of moral exertion.
In responding to this, we wish to say two things briefly.
First, as a matter of substance, it is simply not the case that our book is a book without grace. To the contrary, we explicitly and repeatedly state that reparations is both a response to and an expression of grace (as it was with Zacchaeus). In this we directly reflect the long teaching of Christian theology: gratia non tollit sed reparat naturam (“grace does not destroy, but repairs nature”).
But secondly, and more importantly, we wish to draw attention to the impact of DeYoung’s methodology on his review. Having presumably read a book about the unjust and ongoing exploitation of African Americans by the structures of white supremacy—structures that, as a matter of historical record, our shared denomination was created to support—Reverend DeYoung, rather than owning this history and using his considerable talents to address it, chooses to change the subject. He chooses to suggest that the real issue is not our tradition’s utter hypocrisy in supporting white supremacy, nor our utter heartlessness in countenancing centuries of harm, but the ways in which the work of reparations allegedly imperils our account of the doctrines of grace. To support this claim, he employs a method of reasoning that—having assumed that the essence of “the gospel” is (exclusively) the forgiveness of debts—necessarily views outstanding moral debts of any kind as denial of the gospel. And not only this, he chooses to suggest—winsome evasions notwithstanding—that those who press for reparations are tacit devotees of a less than Christian account of both the gospel and the world. Again, to make it explicit, he concludes his essay by describing our vision for reparations as, “one that ultimately depicts a future where the White guilt never dies and the reparations never end.”
This remarkable sentence is the embodiment of everything that we have just described. Indeed, it is the apotheosis of the form. Why? Because in it DeYoung fuses the spiritualizing, individualizing, and forensic tendencies in a way that allows him to seize discursive control. He then uses that control to turn the conversation away from history, economics and sociology, and toward the forensic dimensions of personal salvation. He thereby decenters the historic and enduring concerns of African American voices and centers those of his own tribe. And he ultimately suggests that those who disagree with his account are a danger to the gospel itself. To put it succinctly, he responds to an argument for reparations not by addressing its actual historical and cultural bases, and not by attending to the historic witness of African American Christians on the subject, but by deploying distinctive modes of reasoning and self-centering that enable one of our tradition’s greatest past-times: ignoring them both.
2. Minimizing White Supremacy
One of the most interesting, if pathological, features of American white supremacy is its capacity to deny its own existence. Indeed, this tendency is as old as America itself. Consider Monticello, the plantation of Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia hills. Because of a sinister architectural genius, it was possible for Jefferson to host guests in his parlor, dine with them at his table, and even gaze with them at the sunset from his veranda—no doubt engaged in rhapsodic discussion of democratic ideals—without their ever being aware of the expansive system of human bondage that made such a memorable evening possible. Yes, guests would occasionally see smiling and respectably-dressed African Americans passing down a hall, exiting a freshly prepared room, or disappearing into a narrow staircase. But this revealed only part of the truth. The full truth is that behind the walls where guests sat, beneath the floors where guests danced, and behind the ridges guests admired, an entire community was in chains. In this Jefferson embodies one of the most instinctive psychological habits of white America: the capacity to minimize the reality of white supremacy even as noxious signs of its existence lie everywhere around.
This habit of minimizing white supremacy is easily discernible in a great deal of the theology produced by the American Reformed evangelical tradition. Indeed, while we could point to a host of historic examples (and in fact did so in our book), to see the enduring force of this habit, one needs at present to look no further than the hysterical campaign currently underway in virtually every evangelical denomination not only to vilify “Critical Race Theory”—a valuable, if limited, tool for clarifying the vastness of white supremacy’s impact—but also to eradicate it from its midst. And in spite of pretensions that this campaign is an attempt to safeguard the integrity of the gospel, the truth is that it is most fully reflective not of a theological impulse, but of a cultural one. And that impulse is the minimization of white supremacy.
Sadly, this too is a feature of DeYoung’s review. And, true to the tradition, his expression of this minimization takes shape in two ways, each of which serve to obscure white supremacy’s true power.
Reducing White Supremacy to its Ideas
The first way DeYoung minimizes white supremacy is by reducing it to its ideas. This too requires elaboration, so once again we ask the reader’s patience. In the introduction to our book we acknowledge that the language of white supremacy is—for a host of reasons—difficult for many of our readers. Because of this, we spend not a small amount of time in chapters 1-3 both clarifying and elaborating its meaning. For the sake of convenience, we wish here to say what we mean: White supremacy is a cultural order (Chapter 1) that, first, organizes itself primarily through invented racial categories of “white” and “not-white” (Chapter 2), and second, disproportionately bestows its benefits on those deemed “white” and, correlatively, steals and withholds those benefits from those deemed “not-white” (Chapter 3). And, as we document extensively, the reality of this cultural order may be seen everywhere around us: in the persistence of segregation in our churches, schools, and neighborhoods, in under-representation of African Americans in places of significant institutional power, and in disparities in income inequality, educational quality, incarceration rates, and health outcomes. White supremacy is, in other words, a structural feature of the American cultural order that is both concrete in its expression and observable in its effects.
And yet, throughout his review Reverend DeYoung consistently chooses to render white supremacy—insofar as he even acknowledges that there is such a thing—in terms of ideas. That is to say, he completely ignores the structural dimension of white supremacy (its primary dimension) and talks about it in decidedly idealist and personalist terms. Consider a representative passage (emphases ours):
The concept of White supremacy does a lot of heavy lifting throughout the book. For Kwon and Thompson, White supremacy is the evil that has been essential to America’s past and remains inescapable in the present. One can question, however, whether the category obscures more than it illuminates. To be sure, very few White Americans prior to the Civil Rights movement held views about Black Americans that we would consider acceptable today. We should not gloss over this sad history. In so far as White supremacy entails believing and acting as if your racial or ethnic identity makes you superior to others, it should be repudiated wherever it is found.
Note that in this passage in which he explicitly addresses white supremacy he does not, in any meaningful way, acknowledge its structural dimensions. To the contrary, he chooses to reduce it to its associated ideas. But white supremacy is not, in fact, about ideas (although it certainly entails these). Nor is it primarily about the beliefs and practices of individuals (although it entails these too). It is—as we state repeatedly—primarily about a comprehensive system of cultural structures, and the demonstrable effects of those structures on the lives of African Americans. Contrary to DeYoung’s claim that white supremacy is “amorphous,” we insist—and demonstrate—that is in fact polymorphous, and concretely so.
Perhaps it is the case that Reverend DeYoung has actually taken the time to familiarize himself with the scholarship around white supremacy and its important critique of idealist accounts of culture, and has come to the conclusion that this scholarship is all wrong. If so, we would be interested in hearing such an argument. But viewed against the backdrop of the willfully idealist tendencies of the American Reformed evangelical traditions (that is, the tendency to discuss culture largely in terms of its ideas to the exclusion of its actual material conditions), and assessed in terms of the prejudicial role that this idealism plays in his argument, this seems unlikely. What seems much more likely to us is that he is simply deploying an inherited strategy of minimizing white supremacy by centering its ideas and ignoring its structural reality.
Confining White Supremacy to the Past
Our reason for suspecting this is that, having minimized white supremacy by focusing on its ideas, DeYoung then deploys the second historic strategy of minimization: confining it to the past. Here’s how it works: If one believes (as we do) that white supremacy is a structural reality, and if one believes that the effect of these structures is everywhere around us, then love requires one to take decisive action to address it in the present. But, if one suggests (as DeYoung does) that white supremacy is primarily an ideological reality (i.e., a conscious personal belief in racial hierarchy), and if one can plausibly propose that these ideas no longer exist or only exist in marginal form (e.g., the KKK), then one can claim that white supremacy is but a thing of the past. And that is exactly what DeYoung does. Completely ignoring arguments (ours and others’) about the enduring structural dimensions of white supremacy, he breezily describes the era since the Civil Rights Movement as “50 years of improvement,” and assures us that the views of “white Americans prior to the Civil Rights movement” would not be “consider[ed] acceptable today.” White supremacy, we can rest assured, is a relic of the past.
Taken together, these two methodological decisions—reducing white supremacy to its ideas and confining white supremacy to the past—have the inevitable effect of profoundly minimizing both its nature and its consequences. This is another occasion in which we invite the reader to take a moment to reflect. While reviewing a book whose central claim regards the effect of structural white supremacy upon the lives of African Americans, and doing so in the midst of a cultural moment in which the reality of these structures is becoming increasingly, if belatedly, clear to millions of people around the world, Reverend DeYoung makes a choice. And that choice is this: Rather than seriously engaging the undeniable injustice of white supremacy, and rather than acknowledging the important conversations currently taking place about how we might repair this injustice, Reverend DeYoung chooses to perpetuate one of the most popular and profoundly self-serving rhetorical strategies of American evangelicalism: minimizing the reality of this injustice. And the fruit of this minimization is, as it can only be, a sanctimonious indifference beyond the reach of tears.
3. Privileging White Comfort
If anything as principled as a “goal” may be ascribed to a project as nihilistic as white supremacy, that goal was surely to create a world ordered around the existential and physical needs of people deemed to be “white.” Indeed, even a cursory consideration of the particulars of our culture throughout history—the heroes of our myths, the statues in our squares, the representatives in our government, the directors of our corporations, the faces on our advertisements, and perhaps above all, the pallor of our deity—reveals not only the existence of this goal, but our collective success in attaining it. And not only attaining it, but also defending it. Throughout history, when this goal was threatened, America’s cultural stewards—American Reformed evangelical theologians in no respect least among them—have proved unhesitating in their efforts to defend against threats to “our race,” “our women,” “our way of life,” “our cause,” “our country,” and—perhaps, above all—“our faith.” The pursuit of white comfort is, in other words, the very raison d’etre of white supremacy’s existence.
Given this fact, it was more than disappointing to see the prominence of this instinct in Reverend DeYoung’s review. In truth, it was distressing. And though we should not be surprised, we confess that we were surprised—by both the frequency and the boldness with which he employs it. And once again, in keeping with the habits of his tradition, he does so in two ways.
Relativizing White Guilt
The first way he does this is by relativizing white guilt. Throughout his review, one of Reverend DeYoung’s central concerns is to address the guilt of white people. In one respect, this is understandable. After all, we wrote a book on reparations in which we claim that American white supremacy is a “massive, multi-generational act of cultural theft” and that, at the very least, the beneficiaries of this theft are implicated in the work of redress. White guilt, in other words, is a central concern of ours as well. What is noteworthy, however, is the easily discernible difference in our respective dispositions toward this guilt. Whereas we take pains to acknowledge that moral guilt and to own the responsibility to respond to it, DeYoung’s most consistent aspiration seems to be to relativize its obligations.
His primary strategy for this is to seek to disembed “whites” from this history. Throughout his review he consistently questions whether it really is the case that “white” Americans in general and Christian churches in particular can be implicated in America’s history of white supremacy. Consider a representative passage:
Kwon and Thompson make a convincing case that slaveholders should pay reparations to slaves, even that the next generation of a slaveholder family should make restitution to the next generation of the family they enslaved, if such a connection can be established. But the case for reparations becomes less cogent when it is applied across centuries, across a continent, and across families irrespective of any other consideration except for skin color.
Setting aside the misleading assertion that reparations is offered “irrespective of any other consideration except for skin color,” we wish to affirm again that Reverend DeYoung raises important questions regarding the mechanics of reparations (e.g., from whom, to whom, in what form)—questions that need ongoing constructive attention. And, as we say repeatedly in the book, we believe that these answers will most faithfully emerge out of collaborative local conversations and will, as a result, vary from community to community. For us, therefore, these questions are a matter of ongoing exploration.
But it is crucial to understand that in DeYoung’s review, the function of these questions is not exploration but exoneration. Their goal—and their effect—is not to lead the reader further into the complexities of history, but to disembed them from it. Indeed, in another important passage, he makes this desire explicit:
[W]hen “White supremacy” covers everything from the horrors of slavery and lynching to the more common blindspots of self-centeredness and indifference, the result is that little effort is made to understand people in their own time and on their own terms. Moreover, the category of White supremacy, as a totalizing heuristic device, often lacks basic Christian charity in so far as it measures peoples, churches, and nations by their worst failures (as we see them) and pathologizes everyone and everything associated with the sin of partiality as being complicit with the most egregious catalog of sins in our nation’s history. … Kwon and Thompson depict a world where the campgrounds, cabins, and cottages we visit on vacation were all taken from former slaves, and where our colleges, universities, and seminaries were all built by tortured hands and paid for by slave money (47). And those who question this view are the ones who refuse to see reality (48). “What if,” they ask, “out of no evident fault of our own, our pursuit of happiness entails the sorrow of others” (48). But is it really the case that the rank-and-file church member holding down a job (or two), paying taxes, tithing to the church, volunteering in the community, and trying to raise decent children is really the reason that others are suffering?
In these words, DeYoung explicitly urges us to reframe human life in ahistorical terms; to see ourselves not as inheritors and stewards of a history, but exclusively in terms of the boundaries and burdens of our own personal lives. In his rendering, it does not actually matter whether our vacation homes are, in fact, on land taken from African Americans (as is the case with much of the South Carolina coast). Nor does it matter that our beloved universities were built by the hands of the enslaved (as both of our respective alma mater’s were). What matters for Reverend DeYoung is that we not—in spite of our enjoyment of these homes and universities—be in any way implicated in their painful history.
We suspect that DeYoung’s words here are born, in part, of a pastoral burden. We know from personal experience just how exhausting the work of engaging with white supremacy in the midst of very full lives can be. (Though it should be noted, our exhaustion is minimal compared to that of our African American brothers and sisters.) And we also know the desire to escape this work by relativizing our own culpability—the desire to, as he puts it, “be understood on our own terms” (another illustration of the individualizing tendency described above). In this sense, we understand Reverend DeYoung’s desire to lift a burden off of the shoulders of his people. But we also recognize that to disembed ourselves from the burdens of history is, in the end, to lay those burdens on the shoulders of others. Because of this, our strong conviction is that Christian faithfulness, like the Incarnation itself, leads not away from history but into its heart.
Perhaps it really is the case that DeYoung has a principled argument for believing that human beings ought to be understood on their own terms, free of the entailments of a history over which they have no control. This would be some consolation. The truth, however, is that Reverend DeYoung does, in fact, understand that Christians are inheritors of a history that we are obligated to steward. Consider, for example, the words of his “Independence Day Prayer” posted on his blog on July 4th of this year:
Gracious heavenly Father, on this day where we celebrate the 245th anniversary of the independence of the United States of America, we come before you to pray for this country.
We give thanks for the many blessings and evidences of divine favor that belong to us in America. We live in what may be the most powerful and most prosperous nation ever on the face of the earth. For hundreds of years, for millions of people from all over the world, this has been a land of hope–the hope of religious freedom, the hope of self-government, the hope of liberty. In the Declaration of Independence, our Founding Fathers spoke of certain unalienable rights–rights not granted by the government, but given to us by you, our Creator, which our government is obliged to protect.
The United States of America began with the conviction that a nation should be founded upon truth. Not opinions or preferences or feelings, but upon truths. Self-evident truths that remain true no matter the time, the place, or the culture. And central among these truths is the Christian belief that all men are created equal. Made in your image, no one possesses more intrinsic worth for being born rich or poor, male or female, black or white, aristocrat or artisan, financier or farmer. We give thanks for the God-given rights and hard-fought freedoms we enjoy in this country.
Setting aside the idealist fantasy that in America “no one possesses more intrinsic worth for being born rich or poor, male or female, black or white”—a claim that can only be made by ignoring our actual cultural and political history—this is yet another occasion when we ask our reader to pause and reflect. When considering America’s long history of white supremacy, Reverend DeYoung in his essay seems unable to understand how we, in our own time, are in any meaningful way implicated. Indeed, the very suggestion of implication seems to him to “lack charity.” And yet, when considering America’s long history of noble ideals, his confusion mysteriously dissipates. To the contrary, he not only explicitly identifies with that history—a history in which he had no direct role—but also embraces the task of stewarding it into the future. Indeed, as the full prayer reveals, he sees this stewardship as an act of Christian faithfulness.
What are we to make of this equivocation? Only this: When it comes to America’s blessings, Reverend DeYoung freely takes its obligations upon himself, and does so as a matter of spiritual devotion. But when faced with America’s burdens, he—suddenly bewildered by the complexity of historical inheritance—sets those obligations aside. This selectively editorial approach to history and its legacy—a mainstay of American evangelical civic piety—is the essence of white privilege. It presumes the right to order not simply our personal stories and our public spaces around the needs of white Americans, but history itself. And the effect of this approach is, as it always has been, the endless relativization of the obligations of love.
Prioritizing White Forgiveness
And yet there is a second way that DeYoung privileges white comfort—namely, by prioritizing white forgiveness. Indeed, it is not unjust to suggest that the forgiveness of white people, the full and complete discharge of their debts, is his central concern. As he puts it in a representative passage:
The work of reparations outlined in the book is so expansive and so nonspecific as to be impossible to ever fulfill. … When will the debt be relinquished? How will we know that the reparations are complete and the healing can begin? … [I]f their definition … is true, Whites … can never in this life truly be forgiven of the debts they owe. How does that bring healing to everyone? How does this square with the gospel? If reparations are to be “fixed in the church’s imagination and fundamental to its vocation as the language of repentance and reconciliation,” it would be good to hear more about how we can all find forgiveness for our sins and freedom from condemnation in Christ.
As we have noted before, we too care about this question, in both conceptual and pastoral terms. And, as we have said repeatedly, we believe that the substance and duration of reparative efforts are best determined collaboratively in local contexts. But that is, in some sense, beside the point. This is because in the context of DeYoung’s review, these questions have a particular function. And that function is to turn the focus away from African American suffering and toward white forgiveness. His question is not, in other words, “What will it take to repair America from the ravages of white supremacy?” Nor is it, “What can we do to restore our African American brothers and sisters to wholeness?” His question, rather, is “When can I be free from my obligations?”
This is an unsettling approach to the ethical life in any setting, but it is particularly egregious in this context. Why? Because in reviewing a book whose central theme is the unjust cultural victimization of African Americans, Reverend DeYoung conjures—indeed centers—a new victim: white Americans. And in evoking white victimization he willingly deploys one of the most historically reliable tropes of American white supremacy. A trope that throughout American history has been used to justify all manner of cruelty. A trope that, in our own cultural moment, has hardened into a self-absorbed and, at times, violent form of political resentment.
With this trope of victimization in mind, we turn once again to his extraordinary closing sentence: “[Reparations] is a vision filled with many noble aspirations, but one ultimately that depicts a future where the White guilt never dies and the reparations never end.” For a final time, we ask the reader to stop and reflect. Having read over 200 pages detailing the comprehensive injustice wrought upon African Americans Reverend DeYoung makes yet another choice. He chooses not to address this suffering. He chooses not to invite his readers into the work of meaningful redress. Indeed these things are nowhere to be found. Instead, he chooses to rewrite the story. And in his revised version, the real victim, the real object of injustice, is actually white American Christians. It is they who are being treated unjustly through the ascription of guilt. It is they who need deliverance from perpetual servitude imposed by reparations. It is they who, in the end, deserve our sympathy and protection. And with this, his argument enters fully into the realm of the grotesque.
Taken together, DeYoung’s choice to relativize white guilt and to prioritize white forgiveness consummates his performance of white supremacy by embodying its essence: prioritizing white comfort above all else. And in so doing, he tragically reiterates what African Americans throughout history have long known: That Reverend DeYoung and the theological tradition he represents have nothing—literally nothing—to say about the racially motivated political, economic, and cultural suffering of their neighbors. Not, it should be said, because the Christian tradition doesn’t provide them with things to say, but simply because they choose not to say them. They have, it seems, more pressing concerns.
A Standing Invitation
Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was, in important ways, a lament. It was a lament over the ways in which well-meaning white Americans—Americans who believe themselves to be sympathetic to the cause of racial healing—actually obstruct that cause by centering white voices, minimizing white supremacy, and prioritizing white comfort. But it was also an invitation. An invitation for these same Americans to turn from these inherited and culturally self-serving modes of reasoning and to fully and finally give themselves to the work of healing our nation from white supremacy. Indeed, he closes his letter by inviting his critics to join him in working toward “peace and brotherhood.” And yet, in the days following its publication King’s invitation went largely ignored. He continued his work, of course; and in time transposed what once appeared to be certain defeat in Birmingham into one of the era’s most celebrated human rights campaigns. But he did this, with some notable exceptions, almost wholly without the support of the white church.
In a number of important respects, this situation continues in our own time. Our present moment is one of the most extraordinary periods in the struggle for racial healing in decades. Indeed, across the world people are laboring mightily not only to see racial injustice, but also to eradicate it from our social order. And not only to eradicate it, but to build something more beautiful in its place. And yet, at the very moment that this is taking place, many Americans—American evangelicals not least among them—are responding to these developments not by offering support, friendship, and self-sacrifice, but by re-embracing long-held habits of ideological resentment, discursive control, nationalist nostalgia, and political violence.
In our opinion, a significant measure of the responsibility for this tragic and unrepentant retrenchment is to be laid at the feet of American evangelical pastors and theologians such as Reverend DeYoung. The reason for this, we should say again, is not because of their explicit advocacy for the ideas of white supremacy. Indeed, a great number of these leaders explicitly disavow racist ideas. No, the reason for this is that the methodology they employ—a methodology passed down and perfected across many generations—inevitably produces a theology that, by its very nature, centers white cultural concern. In this regard, while they disavow racism, they nonetheless perform and perpetuate its most elemental instincts. And in so doing, they provide moral sanctuary for others to do the same.
This is why, in every era of American racial history, the evangelical church has consistently proved itself incapable of metabolizing the irrefutable evidence of its collusion with the worst embodiments of white supremacy. It is true, of course, that there have been times when this community has rejected particular expressions of white supremacy (e.g., slavery). But what is truer still is that, at each juncture, this church has repeatedly centered its own concerns, presumed its own orthodoxy, and evoked its own victimization—all while leaving its culturally captive modes of reasoning, the implicit theology it produces, and the social miseries that it shelters unexamined and fully intact.
And this, we believe, is also the reason why much of the American evangelical church cannot talk meaningfully about reparations—and why many instinctively recoil at the very mention of the subject, even as they are ignorant of its basic claims. Not because the idea of reparations lacks historical foundations. Not because it lacks biblical justification. Not because it lacks theological precedent. But because it requires us to do the one thing that, methodologically speaking, we seem to be incapable of doing: considering others more important than ourselves.
In our view, this methodology undergirds the entirety of Reverend DeYoung’s review; prejudicing his instincts and pre-determining his conclusions. And, because of both his talents and his justly deserved influence, we believe that these tragic effects will be compounded across a broad audience, to the detriment of both the church and its neighbors. It is for this reason that we write: to shed light on this inherited way of reasoning and to invite both our brother and the larger church into a different way of being.
What would it look like if we did this?
It would look like deliberately centering voices outside of our tradition—voices who have important and critical things to say to us, and not least, who have spoken about reparations for hundreds of years. It would look like seriously reckoning with the sin of our national and ecclesial history and refusing the temptation to garland them in exonerative myth. It would look like prioritizing and actively pursuing the well-being of our neighbors—on terms recognizable to them and at cost to ourselves. It would look, in other words, very much like what the Christian church refers to as grace.
Our book, and our response to Reverend DeYoung’s review of it, are an invitation to the American evangelical church to step into this grace. We are not unaware of the costs of doing so. Personally, this will mean confessing that we are inheritors of a cultural order that, even as it secured unprecedented freedoms for one community, knowingly condemned another community to perpetual servitude. Institutionally, it will mean renouncing our chronic self-righteousness, confessing that our churches have been both the stewards and the sanctifiers of that cultural order, and doing the painful theological, relational, and structural work of repentance. And culturally, it will mean deliberately placing ourselves in between two cultural forces locked in perpetual, zero-sum warfare—retrenched conservatism and retributive progressivism—and calling each into the kingdom of love even as we bear their hate with hope.
But we are also aware that the costs of not doing so are much more significant. It is our firm conviction that if we do not repent in these ways, we will continue—as we have already done—to bear false witness regarding the life and love of the Trinity. If we do not repent we will continue—through our lives of privileged indifference—to disregard the cries of the poor and the concerns of our neighbors. And if we do not repent we will, in the end, condemn ourselves to being what we are always on the verge of becoming: a community that, while believing ourselves to be the stewards of a theological project, prove ourselves finally to be the slaves of a cultural one.
Because of this, we invite Reverend DeYoung and all who have ears to hear to renounce the work of centering ourselves, to do the work of listening to our neighbors, and—at long last—to finally take up the work that is truly ours to do: the work of repair.