Is Black Atheism an Indictment on White Christianity?
Ta-Nehisi Coates is an atheist. He also has a highly successful career at “The Atlantic” and is author of many books, perhaps chief among them; Between the World and Me, and his more recent tome, We Were Eight Years in Power. The former is a book about race relations in the United States while latter is a narrative about how the nation’s first African-American president provoked a racist counter blast that began with a rise in white nationalism and culminated in a Trump presidency. Coates is a distinguished, award winning writer, he is so much more than his religious beliefs, yet his lack of religion is of much significance. His lack of belief in a just and loving God is an indictment on justice in the United States. Worse than that, in this pastor’s opinion, it is an indictment on white Christians everywhere.
Ordinarily one’s atheism can be written off as simply a matter of personal beliefs. Adherents of all faiths have examined the evidence and believe that their god is the correct version. Conversely, atheists have examined the evidence and believe that there is not enough proof to support a deity. And while atheism may be fashionable among youths today who pride themselves on rational humanism; ordinarily, the story ends there. The so-called ‘culture war’ between the intellectual atheists and the pious Christians is largely overblown by politicians and the intellectually elite as it serves their purpose.
Appeals to a social conscience will only fall on deaf ears without a God to lead the fight for justice. If there is a god, why isn’t the world a more moral place?
The theology of chaos
Not so with Coates, his lack of belief is in reaction to a system he believes let him down. He views the universe as an amoral place where the powerful have no need, nor wish, to help the powerless. As he put it there is “no one coming to save me.” Coates sees the world as a rather chaotic place, one that admittedly, has allowed him to prosper. It is this chaos that best sums up his theology. Fifty years ago Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, often preached that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” This optimism, firmly ground in King’s deeply help Southern Baptist beliefs, contrast sharply with Coates pessimistic atheism where he claims “I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos.”
Coates, like all the rest of humanity, has based his world view on the evidence that he has observed. Unfortunately, his observations show that white people are only looking out for their own self interest. He doesn’t believe this to be unique to white people, he feels that everybody is looking after themselves first. Appeals to a social conscience will only fall on deaf ears without a god to lead the fight for justice. If there is a god, why isn’t the world a more moral place? Coates pulls this philosophy from the deep well of racial injustice that has existed in this country from the 1600s to present day.
On May 19th 1925, Malcolm X was the seventh of among eight children of Louise and Earl Little. Malcolm’s father was a Baptist preacher whose support of the teachings of Marcus Garvey led to death threats and prompted the family to move twice before Malcolm’s fourth birthday. When Malcolm was six, his father was killed by white supremacists. Tragically, white people were also responsible for the murder of three out of his four uncles. A few years after Earl’s murder, Louise suffered a mental breakdown and her children were sent to live in foster care.
In his youth, Malcolm fell into a life of crime and was eventually sent to prison where his sharp mind studied history and philosophy. While incarcerated, his brother visited him and explained to him his conversion to the Nation of Islam (NOI). This piqued Malcolm’s interest and he further studied the preaching of Elijah Mohammad and his theology. Malcolm was released from prison in 1952, shortly thereafter he became a minister for the NOI and adopted the surname X to signify the unknown origins of his African roots. Born the seventh son of a Baptist preacher, Malcolm converted to the segregationist theology of the NOI.
Black slaves were beaten, whipped, raped, and killed by church goers who said that ‘God loves all His children’ even while they were oppressing millions of those same children. Seventy years ago white people would go to church on Sunday and lynch a black youth on Tuesday.
When darkness drives out the light of God
And why shouldn’t Malcolm convert? White Christians killed his father and uncles. The oppression, poverty, and loss of her husband led Malcolm’s mother down a path of mental illness to which she would never recover. The brutality of some white Christians and the complacency of others had taught Malcolm that Jesus was the God of the white Europeans and Americans, not the God of the oppressed African Americans. What did Christianity have to offer him? Why would Ta-Nehisi Coates believe in the goodness and mercy of the God of white Christians when white Christians have not displayed the light and love of Jesus Christ?
One hundred and fifty years ago, an outspoken minority of white Christians fought to end slavery. Other white Christians used their Bible to justify it. Black slaves were beaten, whipped, raped, and killed by church goers who said that ‘God loves all His children’ even while they were oppressing millions of those same children. Seventy years ago white people would go to church on Sunday and lynch a black youth on Tuesday. Today a young white man will kill a black teenager and claim it was God’s will that it happened. For a young black man or black woman witnessing this, can they feel any other way but that God is not just, or worse still, that God himself is a racist God?
Now it is at this point that white Christians here may be feeling a little offended. It seems that Christians can’t turn on a TV or the Internet without constantly being told that their faith is backwards and foolish, and that the Bible is an ancient, hate filled book of fairy tales. Frankly, after awhile, it gets a bit tiring. So I get that they might not want to hear more of the same. Especially not from a minister, after all, I’m supposed to be on their side.
In fairness, no Christian alive today ever owned a single slave. Few Christians are alive anymore who lynched a black youth in a fever of excitement and mob mentality. And a statistically insignificant number of Christians have ever shot and killed a black person. This is 2017! We’ve evolved past that kind of evil, we would never stand for racial injustice today. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. From the safety and comfort of our white neighborhoods; while we sip our pumpkin flavored coffee, we genuinely believe that we good, God fearing Christians, would never oppress a minority.
We are all children of God
I’m sorry to say, that no matter how much we want to believe that our racist past is history, the truth is it never left. As a Christian it causes me great pain that woven into the fabric of our nation; knitted with the same cloth that displayed the Stars and Bars and Old Glory, is the Devil approved, bloodstained white supremacy. Racist ideology has climbed out from under the rock where it pretended to hide over the past twenty years or so. Now it’s loud and proud. In the past, white racists would hide under robes, today they give public interviews.
White supremacy is holding marches in Charlottesville, it’s giving speeches at universities. It’s a system that blames the victims when unarmed black men are shot by cops, but blame the cops when unarmed white women are the victims. It’s the universities and jobs who won’t accept African Americans after their quota is filled. It’s the system that gives longer prison sentences to black youth than it does to white youth when both are charged with the same crime. It’s the banks who charge more interest to people of color, and it’s the hard working, minority employees who are passed over for raises and promotions. Our country was built on the idea that ‘all men were created equal,’ yet has done everything it could to ensure that Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Irish, homosexuals, and women didn’t get that equality without a fight.
As a white Christian, you may not personally participate in egregious acts of racism, in fact, I sincerely hope that you’re not. But what are you doing to stop it? Dr. King once said that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” What are you doing to bring justice to the poor and the oppressed? To the bottom of my heart, I hope that you are standing up for justice and racial equality.
This earth is not ours, Leviticus 25 tells us that the land belongs to God and we are all foreigners in it. If the land belongs to God; the United States, Canada, Africa, Ireland, Mexico, and every other country is nothing more than a worldly idea, a part of man’s reality, not God’s reality. In Christ there is no Jew, nor Gentile, no slave, nor free, no male nor female (Galatians 3:28) we are all children of the same God. If our actions do anything but speak of the love of Christ, then we are acting wrongly. If a person looks at a white Christian and sees an unjust God, then we’re not sending a godly message. And if we’re not sending a godly message than woe unto all of us. Jesus himself, in Matthew 18:6, said that if anyone causes one of his children to sin, it would be better to tie a millstone around their neck and fling them into the sea. If the sin and racism of white Christians is creating black atheists, then we'll have to answer to an angry God.
© 2017 Anna Watson