Megan Flynn / Gavel Media

Anti-Blackness and the Role of Christian Ethics

In the midst of political contention, the upcoming election, issues of national security, and a slew of concerns which occupy the mind of the informed citizen, one long-standing domestic difficulty continues to negatively influence the history of the West: the pervasive presence of racism and, in particular, “anti-blackness.”

On the night of Wednesday, September 14, three experts in the fields of theology, ethics, and religion sat before an exceptionally diverse audience in Lyons Hall’s Welch Dining Room to address this issue through the lens of Christian ethics at “Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics: A Roundtable Discussion.” Moderated by Dr. Vincent Lloyd, an Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University, the panel of speakers presented a series of enlightening, disturbing, and intriguing observations regarding the problem of anti-blackness and the ability of Christian ethics to address this problem.

In a socially self-reflective manner, panelists discussed the social tides in Western history that have contributed to the rise of anti-blackness as an issue within society.  

Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College, introduced the concept that the very founding principles of the United States initiated an American mode of thought wherein only Anglo-Saxons could be seen as the ideal citizens in a state.

In Douglas’ words, the Founders “believed that America… ought to be a model of Anglo-Saxon governance and exceptionalism.” In this light, she presented the disturbing notion that “this narrative… naturally began to cherish whiteness.”

Douglas observed that, when non-Anglo-Saxon white immigrants began to arrive in the United States, they could be accepted only under the broad category of whiteness. “Whiteness,” she said, “becomes the mask of protection as well as the thing that mystifies the notion that not everyone… from Europe was indeed Anglo-Saxon. If you were white, you were Anglo-Saxon enough.”

Members of the black community, however, were not “white enough,” and therefore struggled—and continue to struggle—with American identity and acceptance.

Similarly, Dr. Ashon Crawley, Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California at Riverside, applied this concept to the Christian community at large. He believes that, in many communities and families, there is a tendency to feel as if white Christians must “allow black people into… Christianity,” a sense that stems from “the creation and maintenance of bodies through whiteness and the vulgarization of bodies through blackness.”

In the words of Crawley, “blackness is the wretched… the worrisome station” to these communities.

To support this, Fr. Bryan Massingale, an acclaimed Catholic social ethicist and scholar of theological ethics as well as a member of the Theology department at Fordham University, reflected upon his experiences surrounding the response to anti-blackness within Christian communities.

Megan Flynn / Gavel Media

Megan Flynn / Gavel Media

In Massingale’s opinion, “the Catholic Church will deal with the Black Lives Matter movement insofar as it does not make white people uncomfortable.” He noted that “what makes the Catholic Church white and racist is the belief… that European persons, and only these… are truly Catholic.”

Using striking evidence in the history of anti-blackness, the panelists imparted onto the audience a recognition of how Christianity and Western culture at large have contributed to the prevalence of anti-blackness in the society of today.

At times, however, the conversation shifted to a different question, one that the students and scholars in the room were clearly eager to answer: how can Christian ethics be utilized to remedy the issue of anti-blackness?

Douglas presented her view that this point in time is a “Kairos moment”—a moment in which the faithful are called to act. “God’s peace” she suggested, “is not equivalent to violence. God’s peace is equivalent to justice.”

And that, in essence, is what all three panelists showed themselves to be seeking: justice.  

The conversation occurring between these scholars did not ultimately rely upon a knowledge of theology, of faith, or even ethics. Rather, it suggested that the riddance of anti-blackness and racism rests upon a fundamental human understanding of justice, particularly within the ethical components of the Christian faith.

In the words of Massingale, “a race relationship paradigm,” a solution which asks for the tacit and immediate healing of interactions between races, “cannot deal with social conflict. A more adequate frame would be a racial justice paradigm.”

To this end, Massingale expressed his opinion that justice must begin with reflection and lamentation over the mistakes of the past, leading to a deep-seated sense of anger.

“Anger,” he said, “is the passion that moves the will to justice.”

The discussion imparted upon the audience a deeper recognition of certain problems within society—problems which everyone in the room had encountered, either in others or in themselves, at some point in their lives.  Tied into this acknowledgement, however, was optimism—the knowledge that, while Christianity and other social structures have contributed to the widespread evil of anti-blackness, these same structures offer a solution: the justice of God, rooted in Christian ethics.

Prior to the event, Professor Andrew Prevot of the Theology Department at Boston College expressed his hope that “students and faculty gain from this discussion… a clearer understanding of how the tradition of Christian ethics has failed,” and also “that the conversation will open up new, constructive possibilities.”

Such possibilities were undeniably presented. “If we want to stop the violence,” said Douglas, “we’ve got to stop the injustice. And the answer to that is God.”

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