Supremacy’s Cloak of Christian Election
“I offer […] an account of modernity and demonstrate how it is that in functioning according to and harboring a logic of race.”¹
It is right to begin with such a quote from J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account, being that the offerings and intentionality of our writing share many structural parallels. While this article will not carry with it the excellence or exhaustive nature of Carter’s work, it will offer an account of a theological modernity, so to speak. The western church has, in large part, ignored the issue of racism dubbing it a social issue and antithetical to its focus and purpose, that being Jesus. However, it is actually within the Reformed and Evangelical understanding of election that racism has cloaked itself as theology. In fact, it is Calvin’s unconditional election that specifically harbors a logic not only of race, but white supremacy.
So why has Christianity in the United States — majority Mainline and Evangelical churches — been so adverse to anti-racism? Well, the theology of salvation supports racist supremacy.
Understandably, responses to such an actuality are vast; however, orthodoxy, orthopathy, and orthopraxy in relationship to unconditional election in light of African-American experience must be ruminated upon.
The doctrine of unconditional election is not a unique theology limited to John Calvin’s and was by no means his in original form. Election theology has circulated since the time of the Apostle Paul with the influence of a number of scholars and theologians all aiming to identify God’s methodology of believer’s eternal adoption as the children of God. Despite Calvin’s mentioning predestination in two places within his Institutes of 1536 — both explaining the second article of the Creed and in the definition of the Church — he emphasized an increasing importance of election because of “the sway of ecclesiological and pastoral preoccupations rather than in order to make it a main foundation of his theology.”² Calvin recognized in a short period of time that in all actuality many opposed his thoughts and theology of unconditional election. He stated there was a growing number of those who wish “every mention of predestination be buried.”³ Undoubtedly, this contributed to Calvin’s heavy hand regarding election, insisting unconditional election to be a biblical concept and that nothing is taught in Scripture “but what is expedient to know.”⁴ Unconditional election was thus brought to the forefront of theological conversations as Calvin believed it was to ignore what God brought to the open to not be convicted by His Word, specifically in this case: unconditional election.
Calvin defines unconditional election as:
“God’s eternal decree, by which He compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others.”⁵
Some qualification is necessary as many who oppose a Calvinistic view on atonement would agree whole-heartedly with the aforementioned definition. The difference of the opposition is in the belief that unconditional election was based upon God’s foreknowledge of man’s merit as opposed to Calvin’s foundation of divine arbitrary decree.⁶ Calvin wisely not only bases his position exhaustively on Scripture but draws systematically from Scripture to structure and support his argument. It is in this where Christianity and culture find fuel for a white normative and historical understanding of Reformed doctrine of election with a Calvinist bent, comprehending that God chooses us not because of what he sees, but in accordance to his own good pleasure. This gives rise to the charge that God is arbitrary.⁷ Calvin would contend that God is not arbitrary but instead has his reasons that are beyond our understanding; “God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man.”⁸
So what then is beyond our human understanding and how can one identify the “something” that we cannot understand? As stated earlier, unconditional election is not a theology that began with Calvin, and in effect, most Bible-believing Christians do submit to a form of theological atonement that includes unconditional election in some form. From a white normative this argument for unconditional election is just that, a theological argument that encompasses the debate as to when God predestines and elects those he has created; but for African-Americans, people of color, as well as oppressed and minority groups this theological discussion carries with it drastically more. It is in the spirit of Calvin’s statement “whoever, then, heaps odium upon the doctrine of predestination openly reproaches God,”⁹ that we see the foundation for a white normative to have an understanding of — dare I say — God on their side.
Branding Supremacy as Election
The doctrine which would eventually span the globe through the genocidal Euro-expansion of the West continued to grow in popularity and dominance through the Reformation as well as the birth of a Nation: the United States of America. Unconditional election took root in the Americas as the Christian doctrine of election through the historical understanding of Anglo-Saxon dominance partnered with the Doctrine of Discovery; however, doctrinal dominance didn’t begin with rational thought or scholarly agreement. The supremacy of white purity and privilege can be traced back to Germania and an Anglo-Saxon myth which in early American culture became intimately intertwined with a “white virtue.” This mythical perversion begins in 98 C.E where the Roman historian Tacitus published a work entitled Germania, which provided a picture of Germanic tribe who fended off Rome’s first-century onslaught. These mythical tribes were said by Tacitus to be aboriginal people free from all taint of intermarriages.¹⁰ The expounding upon hair and eye color amongst other physical attributes brought with it an assumption that the Germanic people had “good” morality as well as “good” law. It was a people group, a tribe of sorts, who were gifted with a purity, freedom, and supremacy to what would end up being human histories largest empire. Tacitus’ work in Germania not only influenced the organization of western expansion’s governments but also played a significant role in the suppression — and eradication — of people groups who were not members of the Germanic Anglo-Saxon origin story. This myth eventually arrived in America by way of England’s post-Reformation struggles.¹¹
Another contributor to the rising white normative of the time was the Papal Bull issued by Pope Alexander VI stating that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered.” Because of this, the Bull was an integral piece of the fundamental foundation supporting conquests of the western world. This also effectively gave Spain a monopoly on any lands “found” in the west. This Doctrine of Discovery laid claim on the America’s in the name of European nationalism and the Catholic faith through the understanding of an Anglo-Saxon myth and Papal authority. Meanwhile, the conquest of what will later become the United States of America was fueled by religious persecution resulting in the Reformation. A perfect storm of myth, oppression, and theology led to an affirmation of the supremacy — known only as the image of God — being found in Europeans who would then “discover” the Americas and “take ownership” of Africans. White Americans saw themselves — and the majority continue to see themselves — as God’s chosen people destined to bring the Christian purity of the white race to people groups who were not white. Sadly, it was through long-standing myth and the institutional church that white supremacy was born.
It cannot go without saying that people who did not fit into the meta-narrative of white Christian purity — and supremacy — were either excluded or exterminated. This includes but is not limited to indigenous peoples of what are now the Americas, Africans, and African- American slaves on whom western culture and a nation were built. White supremacy continued to hide in plain sight within the doctrine of unconditional election throughout chattel slavery in America. The consequences of a doctrine of election that was popularized by John Calvin and the Reformed movement has devastatingly decided the fate of indigenous people groups and African-American slaves during the Doctrine of Discovery as well as Manifest Destiny. “This doctrine has often been mutilated and speculatively interpreted to the detriment of many.”¹² Unconditional election was specifically interpreted by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to benefit the Church in the same way the slave trade and discovery of the west were benefiting white Christians in the latter half of the fifteenth century and into the sixteenth century.¹³
Theological and Ethical Contrast
Considering the racist roots of the Reformed doctrine’s theological understanding, it begs the question in 2018’s American cultural climate: is Reformed theology for black people?¹⁴ While this question deserves an easy answer the truth, it is elusive. Can a white normative understanding of unconditional election be overcome to theologically include the African-American populous who have been and are systematically oppressed by white supremacy? One must begin with the realization that it is not difficult to see how Reformed theology carries on its shoulders historical oppression and spiritual prejudice that have inspired and encouraged the racial injustice we see and experience in the United States of America today. The African- American experience does lead to some inevitable questions about Reformed theology’s doctrine of election. Because of this, denominations born out of Armenian theology see a much larger minority involvement. Armenian election ignores the theological supremacy found in the unknown reasonings of God. One of the denominations born of Armenian theology — the Pentecostal Church in America — rigorously opposes Calvin’s doctrine of election and believes in election as a result of God’s foreknowledge of man’s merit. In a Pentecostal theology, the only thing that can position itself between a human created in the image of God and salvation is their choice to believe and seek first the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. Therefore, election is not contingent on an unknown characteristic or quality, but instead, God’s foreknowledge of one’s choosing to exercise free will, confess and be saved. White supremacy fails to make an appearance in the electoral doctrine of the denomination and theological understanding, but that doesn’t mean racism is absent from the Pentecostal experience. Theological differences are not the primary obstacle but white supremacy and racialized lived realities in church governance, systems, worship, preaching and liturgy are all present.¹⁵ Nevertheless, the Armenian Pentecostal theology is not the counterpoint to a Calvinist theology; the presence of racism and white supremacy in the Pentecostal church only goes to prove that the white normative is not found solely in one’s orthodoxy.
On the contrary, it is with the devastating networks within Christian theology, the Church, and ideologies of white supremacy one must consider the opposition to Reformed election is an orthopathy of theological rebalancing. While orthopathy has yet to settle into a universally understood definition in the theological world, it is most often used — and is used here — to address our concept of how one knows God and the transformation of the heart from knowing God.
The primary function of white Christian supremacy as an ideology has always been to justify the oppression of non-white people to the benefit of a socially contracted people group: whites. Jeanine Hill Fletcher — a Black Constructive Theologian — in her book The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism, & Religious Diversity in America, builds on the work of James Pekinson by labeling white Christian supremacy as witchcraft. Regardless of white supremacy and institutionalized and theological racism coming through manifest destiny, slavery, redlining, Jim Crow, or mass incarceration the white supremacist hierarchy in the U.S. shapes virtually everything.¹⁶ The institutionalization of our reality has taken on a life of its own, and in essence, the institution of white supremacy has shaped everything. The institution is divorced from personal concern, morality has become absent from society, and the instituting outlives individuals while vocation of the institution continues to evolve.¹⁷ One of the most significant accomplishments of the devil is convincing people that individual sin is of primary concern thus one can ignore corporate and communal sin as secondary at best. To address this evil, we must know the geography of evil.¹⁸ Where exactly is the white normative hiding and if we are to find it we must fundamentally rebalance, reconfigure, and re-understand (not a new understanding, but new application to the understanding of personhood) not only to Reformed theology… however, all westernized Christian theology. Hill Fletcher’s theological rebalancing embraces the mystery that is the reality of God portrayed in the Gospels: John’s emphasis on relational intimacy, Mark’s healing of suffering over personal gain, Matthew’s call to love and Luke’s loving those beyond kinship and tribe. How we know God and how God knows us must be reimagined to exist beyond the unconditional election and white normative. The ethical perception moving forward is an attack on the root of Reformed election, petitioning believers and non-believers alike to reconsider and rebalance our theology outside of culture.¹⁹
Without rebalancing of such, the narrative of white supremacy will continue not only within theology and Church but culture as well because mediating narratives are what drive these systematic hyper-individualisms.²⁰ This could very well be the root of the decline of Reformed denominations in America. A failure to reimagine and reassess continues to exclude African- Americans with a white normative. To put this in perspective, the Emancipation may have legally ended slavery, but the metanarrative went unaddressed and unchanged; thus, racism persists as Jim Crow, redlining, the war on Drugs and mass incarceration. “History demonstrates that racism never goes away; it just adapts.”²¹ It is the social construct of reality which permits white supremacy²² the most dominant meta-narrative of them all.²³ Deconstruction of the narrative is necessary and is not possible without the reimagining of theology and systems.
The issue of doctrinal compliance with hierarchical racial supremacy is neither a binary issue nor an issue that can be exhaustively examined in one’s lifetime. One of the alternatives to unconditional election and supremacy can be found with those identifying as Black and Reformed. Essentially, the birth and development of the black church has a foundation in the sovereignty of God. This foundation serves to clarify why the Reformed faith is slowly becoming a landing place of understanding the African-American experience.²⁴ So, how could African-Americans embrace the same Christ and theology that their oppressors professed? This begins by bearing witness to God’s sovereignty. Tracing God’s hand from the incarnation of the African-American church to the leadership of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in the church’s establishment in 1794 on the heels of the cruelty of slavery; in spite of all the oppression
African-Americans discerned the truth of the Christ of Christianity while rejecting the unbiblical theological influences of white supremacy.²⁵ “Is the black Christian experience incompatible with the Reformed tradition?”²⁶ Despite the traditional religious and cultural traditional perspective that black Christian’s cannot be Reformed, this way of thinking is nothing more than white supremacy attempting to own a theological perspective and thus maintain denominational dominance solely. It is yet again, white purity and freedom-seeking to own the African- American reality. American theology is incomplete if it fails to include the contributions of African-Americans.²⁷ We need not look past a list of black Christian leaders as evidence that God is not a respecter of personhood in light of the Great Commission: Augustine, Athanasius, Jupiter Hammon, Lemuel Haynes, Phillis Wheatley, John Marrant, et. It is in these men and women — amongst other African-American theological leaders — where we see a proper orthopraxy despite a seemingly oppressive orthodoxy.
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”²⁸
Ultimately, when it comes to the doctrine of unconditional election the non-conforming agreement with Reformed theology can be found in infralapsarianism. Lapsarianism is merely one’s theological understanding of when election took place, pre or post fall of man.
Supralapsarians — including Calvin — would contest that God’s decree for election took place prior to the fall and thus we cannot know the reasoning behind God’s will for those elect or damned. Infralapsarians content election took place after the fall of man, with God’s foreknowledge of humanities response to sin and His son. While Calvin falls into the supralapsarian category, Reformed theology is not inherently supralapsarian. Thus, an infralapsarian view can omit the theological wanderings of white supremacy and focus in on sin being all that separates man from God and even more importantly, that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”²⁹
It is without question that this doctrine has often been mutilated and speculatively interpreted to the detriment of many.³⁰ Indeed, there are other roads of thought through the white theological normative found in unconditional election which exist outside — and independent — of the few mentioned within the orthodoxy, orthopathy, and orthopraxy dialogue. White supremacy and thus a white normative is everywhere in Reformed and Evangelical theologies not being limited to unconditional election. It is in this lived reality where we must lean into the fullness of God’s design in creation considering not only the perspective given to believers from history, nor should we consider only our perspective; but instead, seek together to understand the profound theological truths considering the experience and perspective of many. A white theology is an incomplete theology and must be paired with the understanding and experiences of not only African-Americans but other oppressed people groups.
We must also remember that despite theological musings on election by John Calvin like: “All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death,”³¹ We must take the time and effort to fight not a theological debate, but the white supremacy meta-narrative that lies within. When supremacy is removed from our theology our orthodoxy, orthopathy, and orthopraxy as a Body of Christ can grow in Spirit and in truth.
Until then, whiteness remains buried in unconditional election and thus salvation… and the Christian faith continues to fail at the gospel work of anti-racism.
¹ Kameron. Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 80.
² Francois Wendel, Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought (Place of Publication Not Identified: Nabu Press, 2011), 264.
³ Johannes Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: In Two Volumes (Philadelphia, Pa: Westminster Press, 1986), III, 21, 3.
⁴ Calvin, Inst. III, 21, 3.
⁵ Ibid, III, 21, 5.
⁶ Henry Scowcroft Bettenson and Chris Maunder, The Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 268.
⁷ R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Sanford, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2011), 156.
⁸ Calvin, Inst. III, 21, 5.
⁹ Ibid, III, 21, 4.
¹⁰ Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015), 5.
¹¹ Douglas, Stand, 19.
¹² James Daane, “The Greatest Misconception,” Reformed Journal 11, no. 1 (January 1961): 15.
¹³ Thomas Glen Sleeth, “Historical Consequence of the Misinterpretation of the Doctrine of Election,” The Liberty University Journal of Graduate Research 1, no. 1 (2016): , https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1023&context=fidei_et_veritatis.
¹⁴ Jemar Tisby, Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (S.l.: Zonervan, 2019), 207.
¹⁵ (Kevin Sack, “How Race Is Lived in America,” NYTimes, June 4, 2000, , http://nytimes.com/library/national/race/060400sack-church-side.html.
¹⁶ Jeanine Hill Fletcher, The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism, and Religious Diversity in America (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017).
¹⁷ Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York, NY: Library of America, 2015).
¹⁸ Stephen Charles. Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 111.
¹⁹ Hill Fletcher, White Supremacy, 106.
²⁰ Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galilee Doubleday, 1999).
²¹ Tisby, Compromise, 9.
²² Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).
²³ Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 89.
²⁴ Anthony J. Carter, Black and Reformed, (Phillipsburg, P & R, 2016) 45.
²⁵ Carter, Black and Reformed, 72.
²⁶ Ibid, 117.
²⁷ Ibid, 115.
²⁸ Matthew 28:16–20
²⁹ 1 Timothy 2:4
³⁰ Daane, Greatest Misconception, 15.
³¹ Calvin, Inst. III, 21, 5.