In the days before Easter in 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black pastors in the civil rights movement were at a crossroads. Their protests had begun to lose luster and funding was dropping as they sought to raise awareness for their cause.
As they debated ways to reignite the movement during a meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, King left the gathering in the living room and walked into his bedroom. When he emerged, he had replaced his black suit with a blue work shirt and blue jeans.
The message, professor Drew G. I. Hart told a large crowd at Elizabethtown Church of the Brethren on Wednesday night, was not lost on his colleagues. It was: “We’ve got to get to work. We’re not just going to practice our faith in the safety of our four walls, we’re going to embody the meaning of this tradition of Passover and Good Friday — suffering on behalf of others.”
Hart’s message, delivered at the conclusion of his hourlong talk “Putting on our Blue Jeans: White Supremacy, Christianity and the Work of Racial Justice,” was that this country has a long way to go to truly achieve a post-racial America.
Referencing King’s blue jeans gesture, he said: “I hope it can encourage us to really get to work.”
Hart, a professor of theology at Messiah College and author of “Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism,” was the keynote speaker at the Elizabethtown College Peace Fellowship 2019 Peace Fellow Lecture.
Two racism definitions
He described two different definitions of racism, one he termed “thin,” the other “thick.”
The thin version is a simple question of whether a person is prejudiced against another person due to race.
“It is probably the most prevalent way in which people talk about race and racism today,” he said.
“But if you were to go to a sociology department ... they’re not just going to give you that thin version of race and racism, they’re going to have a much thicker way of talking about race and racism. They’re looking at how race develops over history. They are looking at racial hierarchy, systems, structures, policies — the way that race organizes our lives and the political work that it accomplishes in our world today.”
He offered a quick overview of how Christianity grew from a grassroots minority religion in the East to a state religion under Constantine the Great in the fourth century.
“Over time ... the West begins to have the larger (Christian) population and with that shift, there’s a forgetfulness about the origins of Christianity. People begin to think of Christianity as indigenous to the West ... as if the West has a copyright on Jesus.”
Those paradigms played out in the colonization of lands and peoples.
“You begin to see not just a Christian supremacy over society but a white supremacy over society.”
And with that came white perspectives — how missionaries not only sought to covert people to Christianity but to a specific white version of Christianity. In order to belong, Hart said, people had to come “through us.”
That, he said, was an altered version of what Christianity was meant to be.
Hart came to think about these issues as an undergraduate at Messiah in the years immediately following 9/11. In the months after the attack, a chapel speaker discussed Jesus’ teachings as they related to vengeance and the increased nationalism in this country “and how the church was just kind of going along.”
The speaker discussed the Sermon on the Mount and the need to “love our enemies” and openly criticized the actions of the administration of President George W. Bush. At that moment, Hart said, hundreds of students — mostly white — got up and marched out before the speaker had finished.
It made Hart think about how their identities were more attached to their “American-ness” than to their Christianity.
During another chapel session, an alternate chapel called “Culture Shock” that was largely led by black students on campus, a speaker spoke of God as the God of the marginalized and how Christian churches were too often complicit in excusing slavery, despite biblical stories about the enslavement of the Israelites. It again led to a walkout by mostly white students.
That led him to ask: “Why are some of my white peers clinging to their whiteness instead of clinging to their identity as followers of Jesus?”
Those experiences led him to look deeper into how Christianity and white supremacy had been entangled with one another over the centuries.
He pointed to federal government programs in the 1950s and 1960s designed to boost the middle class that excluded African Americans.
When asked about reparations for African Americans, Hart pointed out that the U.S. has paid reparations to Native Americans sent to reservations and Japanese Americans who were placed in internment camps during World War II.
If targeted racism caused these problems, he said, then the answer is “targeted remedies that both help even the playing field and integrate the economy.”
But, he added, there is such a strong sense of anti-black racism in society that “unless we’re being intentional about it, talking about it, confronting it, weeding out all the nastiness inside of us, we’re not going to ever get to the point where we can have a meaningful conversation about restitution and reparations.”
And that, he suggested, is why people must put on blue jeans and get to work.