The Sins of White Supremacy

Christianity, Racism, & Religious Diversity in America

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Jeannine Hill Fletcher
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , August
     2017.
     208 pages.
     $28.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626982376.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

It does not take long to recognize that the work of Whiteness has come front and center on the social-political scene in the United States in recent years. Debates about who “belongs” in in this country, terrorist acts committed in the name of defending one’s race, and the ease with which the worst is said about/did to/affirmed about non-White persons – the work of Whiteness is a very present reality. Jeannine Hill Fletcher’s The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism, & Religious Diversity in America provides readers with a convincing argument that connects Christian thought and action in the production of Whiteness. Fletcher makes it clear that Christian supremacy, which gives birth to White (Christian) supremacy, is a part of the fundamental bedrock of the United States. She makes no attempt to speak of one without dealing with the other. Fletcher’s argument is simple: “the systems and structures of White supremacy have been intimately joined with Christian supremacy [emphasis added], such that undoing White supremacy will also require relinquishing the ideologies and theologies of Christian supremacy” (5). With this in mind, it is now possible to devote attention to how she achieves this argument, the argument’s strengths along with its weaknesses, and possible future trajectories that Fletcher’s work presents. 

In the second chapter—“The Witchcraft of White Supremacy”—Fletcher details a crucial point that she addresses from a multiplicity of angles throughout the book: the theology of White Christians in the United States has tended towards the privileging of Whiteness above Others (whether they be indigenous, Asian, Black, or Latino) through justifying the divinely-sanctioned use of the land and bodies of Others. In the story of the United States, Christian thought has often worked hand-in-hand to propagate ideas about Christian and White supremacy that were translated in such a way to create real material conditions that benefit White Christian persons through the subjugation and oppression of non-White (non-Christian) bodies. This is the titular “witchcraft” of White supremacy. Using James W. Perkinson’s work as a theoretical lens, Fletcher argues that “White Christians created the conditions of their superior subject position—with better access to resources, better housing, better education, better health—through the exploitation, extraction, and demonic control of others” (47). White supremacy has been sustained through legislation, socio-economics, citizenship law, and other practices that uphold White Christians as instruments of God’s divine will for the development of the world. 

After highlighting the role of White supremacy as a historical social-religious project in the United States, Fletcher turns her attention to the present in the third chapter, “When Words Create Worlds.” The significance of this chapter is that it reminds readers that the power of White supremacy is not something that merely belongs to the past, nor is it something that American society has moved beyond. Rather, the White Christian theological framework that empowered the dispossession of peoples from their lands, enslaved Black bodies, and continually marginalized various people groups of Asian descent has created the world we inhabit today. Throughout this chapter, Fletcher makes it clear that the social, political, and economic disparities enacted through White Christian supremacy contradict the heart of the gospel. She argues that “the Christian vision is not solely one of White well-being. Quite the contrary, strands of the Christian vision propose well-being for all” (82). Unfortunately, the historical and present-day realities of the United States reveal a world where well-being is for some and is sustained by consistently denying it to others. According to Fletcher, a society where White (Christian) well-being reigns supreme is not a Christian world, but a world of ungodly power and privilege. 

After discussing the persistence of White Christian supremacy in the first three chapters, Fletcher uses the remainder of the book to discuss the possibility of a new society in which the Christian community actually functions in accordance with the New Testament idea of love and well-being for all. Importantly, the way forward for the Christian community does not come through more Christian supremacy. Rather, it comes through the affirmation of God’s mystery (109) and the realization of the inclusive love that Jesus’s message calls his church to live out in the world (111). Christian supremacy that becomes White supremacy represents the failure of these two critical aspects of the Christian faith. By remembering God’s mystery, Christian thought might avoid constructing ideas about God that favor certain persons above others. By re-embracing the centrality of love in Jesus’ gospel, perhaps the Christian community in the United States can address its repeated epic failure[s] of love (to use Fletcher’s words) towards non-White and non-Christian Others. Love seems to be forgotten in a significant part of the history of Christianity in the so-called “New World” that becomes the United States, and love seems to be the starting point for addressing the disparities that have been created by failing to love the Other.

One of the strengths of Fletcher’s The Sin of White Supremacy is that it begins to unpack the theological history of racism in the United States in a way that is readily accessible. Importantly, this allows her work to be very useful for undergraduate- and graduate-level students who are exploring the very Christianbeginnings of racism in the United States. Fletcher has done an excellent job of sourcing her argument and providing paths for further exploration of the subject matter. Furthermore, she does offer some ways forward, especially for those doing work in the Christian community. Rather than a critique, one way in which The Sin of White Supremacy could be expanded is by applying its argument to the way in which Christianity has functioned as a racializing power in the Caribbean and South America—the other parts of the New World. However, this would be another project, and in the meantime, readers will benefit from the work that Fletcher has done here.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anthony Roberts is Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Department of Ministry and Theology Chair at Southeastern University.

Date of Review: 
May 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeannine Hill Fletcher is a professor at Fordham University and a constructive theologian whose research is at the intersection of systematic theology and issues of diversity (including gender, race, and religious diversity).  Her books include Monopoly on Salvation?  A Feminist Approach to Religious Pluralism (2005) and Motherhood as Metaphor: Engendering Interreligious Dialogue (2013). 

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