Overcoming Racist Idolatry

From “My People Is the Enemy”
by William Stringfellow, 1928-1985

Racism is, in its origin, an idol, a principality, one of the works of the power of death in this world: demonic, demanding a service and worship of people, whether white or black, which is radically dehumanising. Americans, perhaps especially American Protestants, naively suppose that racism is a fetish of individuals, a matter of individual prejudice and ignorance. It is that, but much more than that. From the point of view of the Christian faith, the monstrous American heresy is to think that the whole saga of history takes place merely between a celestial God and terrestrial human beings. But the truth is quite otherwise, both Biblically and empirically: the drama of history takes place among God, people and the principalities and powers, those dominant institutions and ideologies active in this world. It is a shallow humanism which encourages Christians to believe that people are masters of these principalities and powers, including racism. In fact, however, racism has been and still remains for both white people and black people in America the reigning idol which replaces God, and represents that power in the world which is superior to all other powers, save God himself - the power of death.

This is the power with which Jesus Christ was confronted throughout his own ministry and which, at great and sufficient cost, he overcame. This is the power with which any person who is a Christian has contended and from which, by his own participation in the death in Christ, he is set free. This is the power which must be exposed and openly confronted if there is to be true reconciliation and not simply a modest degree of secular integration of American life.

The issue, at least for Christians (though in the end for every person) is what it means to be human. Much more is involved than legal equality. Much more is at stake than common morality, natural law or democratic axioms. The issue is not really articulated in the decisions of the courts or enactments of the legislatures, or even in the ideals and goals of the civil rights movements. More and something different is required than improved education, better job opportunities and public integration if a human is to be human.

What it means to be human is to be free from idolatry in any form, including, but not alone, the idolatry of race. What it means to be human is to know that all idolatries are tributes to death and then to live in freedom from all idolatries. To be human means to be freed from the worship of death by God's own affirmation of human life in Jesus Christ. To be human means to accept and participate in God’s affirmation of one’s own life in Christ. To be human means the freedom, in the first place, to love yourself in the way in which God himself has shown that he loves everyone.

That is the issue which is most profoundly threatening to both black people and white people at the present time. Their reconciliation one to another first requires that they be reconciled to themselves; to love another means first the freedom to love yourself.

Into that freedom, from time to time, people are baptised. In that freedom, people are born into the society of all humankind wrought by God in the life and ministry of Christ. In that freedom is the way and witness of the Cross in which is reconciliation. In that freedom is the love and unity among people which can endure death for the sake of all, even unto our own enemy, even unto my own enemy, even unto myself.

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