Why white nationalism tempts white Christians

Too often Christian individuals and institutions act as if general statements condemning bigotry and saccharine assertions of racial and ethnic equality are sufficient to combat white nationalism. They are not.

RNS photo illustration by Kit Doyle

(RNS) — Troublesome though it may be, Christians must contend with these twin facts: White nationalism is on the rise, and white Christians are susceptible to this ideology.

On Saturday, April 29, the last day of Passover, a shooter identified by authorities as a white nationalist entered the Chabad synagogue in Poway, Calif., armed with a semiautomatic rifle, and sprayed bullets into the congregation.

By the end, one woman, Lori Gilbert Kaye, lay dead and three other people were injured. One of them, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, lost his index finger to injuries.

RELATED: Click here to read all Religion News Service commentaries on Christianity and white supremacy

Unfortunately, this attack is only the latest in a rising tide of anti-Semitic and racist attacks.

Last year, a suspect identified as a white nationalist allegedly conducted the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history when he entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed 11 worshippers.

The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 brought together 600 white nationalists to protest the removal of a Confederate monument, and one woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.

John T. Earnest, center, appears for his arraignment hearing April 30, 2019, in San Diego. Earnest faces charges of murder and attempted murder in the April 27 assault on the Chabad of Poway synagogue, which killed one woman and injured others. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP, Pool)

Recently, it came to light that the suspect in the attack on the Poway synagogue, John Earnest, was a member of an Orthodox Presbyterian church in Escondido, Calif.

The OPC formed in 1936 in response to a theological dispute between “fundamentalists” and “modernists.” It purports to be the “orthodox” alternative to mainline Presbyterianism.

The approximately 30,000 members in their 300 congregations often gravitate toward the denomination because they believe the OPC represents careful exposition of Scripture, fidelity to theological documents such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, and preaching that covers the “whole counsel of God” by walking through entire books of the Bible verse-by-verse.

For any Christian denomination to find out that a murderer was in its midst would come as a shock, but for those affiliated with the OPC, a denomination that makes such strong claims to biblical exposition, the news of Earnest’s membership in one of their churches should force some deep introspection that leads to concrete action.

“We are wounded to the core that such an evil could have gone out from our community,” the denomination said in a statement. “Such hatred has no place in any part of our beliefs or practices, for we seek to shape our whole lives according to the love and gospel of Jesus Christ.”

But the OPC is handicapped in its effort to combat white nationalism by the application of the very theology it promotes.

Too often Christian individuals and institutions act as if general statements condemning bigotry and saccharine assertions of racial and ethnic equality are sufficient to combat white nationalism.

They are not.

White nationalists engage in sustained and sophisticated recruiting and propaganda tactics to advance their agenda.

White supremacy demonstrators clash with counterdemonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The Anti-Defamation League, which has been tracking the activities of hate groups since 1913, released a report called “New Hate and Old: The Changing Face of White Supremacy in the U.S.” The 2018 research noted that the latest manifestations of white supremacy, of which nationalism is an outgrowth, are “youth-oriented, overwhelmingly male and often tech-savvy.”

White nationalists take to the internet on sites like 4chan and 8chan to form communities of hate. Earnest himself is believed to have published a white supremacist manifesto online to explain his motivations for terrorism. In addition, mass communication channels such as podcasts, videos and blogging sites have become tools to spread racist and anti-Semitic beliefs.

These groups have also taken their efforts into the real world through such actions as targeting college campuses to distribute flyers and recruit new members to their cause.

In the face of the potent propaganda apparatus of white nationalists, white churches have to take a stronger stand against hate — and to proactively teach their church members that such hate is antithetical.

Instead, pastors and other leaders in theologically Reformed — or “gospel”-centered —denominations like the OPC often resist calls to become anti-racist.

Mika Edmondson, currently the OPC’s only self-identified African American teaching elder (those ordained to preach and pastor local congregations), said in an interview that he saw the appeal of white nationalism among white Reformed Christians as related to controversies about social justice.

“Some Christians don’t believe it is the purview or jurisdiction of the church to speak into the concretized expressions of white nationalism. … If they don’t think that racial justice falls within the purview of the church’s moral teaching then you leave people to their own devices,” Edmondson said.

When Edmondson took to Twitter, his concerns were quickly overwhelmed by people offering a defense of the OPC and the pastor of the Escondido church.

“Mourning the loss of Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60-year-old mother killed while shielding her Rabbi at Chabad synagogue yesterday,” Edmondson wrote. “I was horrified to learn that her murderer is a member of the OPC … brainwashed by white nationalism in the very midst of a reformed congregation.”

The conversation then turned to a defense of the congregation’s minister.

“Do you think this (tweet) helps your fellow OPC church and minister? If you’re so horrified, how do you flippantly (tweet) about it? Consider deleting this,” wrote one commentator.

Another chimed in, “So they are blaming a denomination for the actions of a 19-year-old who has access to the internet?”

Far from a distant observer of these events, Edmondson explained that he lectured at Westminster Seminary’s student convocation, in the very chapel where the Escondido church also meets, just a month before and that he had spoken this week to the pastor, who expressed grief, humility and a willingness to learn from this tragedy.

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, right, is hugged as he leaves a news conference at the Chabad of Poway synagogue on April 28, 2019, in Poway, Calif. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

If denominations like the OPC wish to make their churches inhospitable to people who harbor white nationalist views  — or to confront the sins of racism and white nationalism in hopes that church members will repent of them — then they’re going to have to offer unequivocal and direct teaching refuting the ideology.

White denominations, especially in the theologically Reformed branch of the church, should hold specific workshops, classes and special events explaining white nationalist beliefs and tactics so their members can guard against subversion.

White churches and leaders must bring members who express white nationalist views or sympathies under church discipline, with the ultimate goal of discipleship and restoration. But, if necessary, suspension from the Lord’s Supper and excommunication should be an option.

In addition, white churches in Reformed traditions must probe exactly why people who hold white nationalist and other racist beliefs may find a comfortable home in their fellowships.

Perhaps it’s because pro-slavery theologians such as R.L. Dabney are still cited as positive examples of godly men.

Maybe it’s because black liberation theologians such as James Cone are demonized and if they are read at all, it is merely to discount their viewpoints.

Perhaps it’s because of the almost unshakable loyalty of many white evangelicals to Republican officials who express racist ideas.

Maybe white racists and nationalists can sit comfortably in the pews of certain churches because whenever calls for social justice arise their leaders say that such issues are a “distraction” from the gospel.

I absolutely do not believe that pastors in the OPC or any similar denomination are regularly spewing anti-Semitism and racism from the pulpit or on any other occasion.

But the rigid exclusion of discussions of racial injustice from the regular preaching and teaching in these churches means that white nationalists are seldom challenged in their beliefs.

San Diego County sheriff deputies stand in front of the Chabad of Poway synagogue on April 28, 2019, in Poway, Calif. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

As Edmondson put it, for some pastors “their gospel is too small.”

Their view of the gospel only focuses on issues of personal salvation and individual piety. It never touches broader matters of systemic and institutional injustice. It has little to say about white supremacy and its specific manifestations such as white nationalism and the alt-right.

The deadly actions of an alleged white nationalist cannot solely be attributed to what a church has done or said.

But each congregation is a covenant community in which members have a responsibility to one another.

Instead of a reflexive defensiveness that denies the roles of church teaching and leadership in white nationalism, white Christians should ask themselves if a white nationalist’s beliefs would be specifically challenged in their churches.

Even though no church can control all the actions of individual members, it must be the case that people who hold anti-Semitic and racist beliefs should never feel comfortable in any congregation. They should know that such beliefs are sinful and antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If any lessons can come from a murderous hate crime, then perhaps it is this one: Sin in the form of white nationalism crouches at the door of every congregation.

 Its desire is contrary to the Christian message. But Christians must control it before it controls them (Genesis 4:7).

(Jemar Tisby is president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, co-host of the podcast Pass The Mic and author of “The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.” Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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