Worship and Whiteness

November 16th, 2021
Available from MinistryMatters

Christians worship within the context of racialization. Brian Bantum writes, “The modern world is a racial world. It is a world whose economies are driven by the processes of identification and differentiation . . .” in which, “Christians are not only victims but also perpetrators, killers, and killed alike.”[1] Hierarchies of race profoundly shape Christian worship. Race and colonial systems of white power shape how individual worshippers, worshipping communities, and liturgical traditions encounter God through liturgical practices, and the accrual of the centuries-long impact of racialization and its interwoven inequities can be traced through centuries of liturgical history to our present-day practices.

Identifying the role of worship in the emergence of contemporary notions of race in European colonies in North America in the seventeenth century is crucial to understanding worship and race today. In her work The Baptism of Early Virginia, historian Rebecca Goetz recounts how Christian rituals, particularly baptism and marriage, were central to the formation and imposition of racial hierarchies in seventeenth-century colonial Virginia.[2] During this time, the theories and practices of worship rituals were adapted by European colonists to validate and enforce a racial order in which “white” Europeans consolidated power to economically exploit persons deemed not white. This is crucial to any examination of race and worship, because it reveals that the practices and theories of Christian worship have always been susceptible to the violent racialized agenda of whiteness.

However, this is only part of the story of the still-unfolding racialized drama of Christian worship. Christian worship has helped those deemed not white and targeted by systems of racialized violence to survive. As Cláudio Carvalhaes writes, “While empires and colonization processes tried to fix rituals as a way of controlling senses, understandings, and bodies, colonized people have always intervened in these processes, creating, rebelling, challenging, undoing, and redoing.”[3] For those not deemed white, Christian worship has over the past centuries frequently been a significant site of the contestation and disruption of racial hierarchies and racialized violence and a source of strength to resist the brutality of racialized violence.[4]

In our age of “color-blind” racism in which many persons claim that they “do not see color” even while racialized violence and racist inequity are rampant, it is crucial to identify the past and present impact of race on our persons, communities, and, for the sake of this exercise, our worship.[5] Critically reading liturgical history through the lens of race can widen our awareness of both the broader systemic economic, political, and social violence of whiteness and the racialized violence that too frequently occurs in worship itself. Racialized liturgical violence can take any number of forms that may include but not be limited to: (1) forced or coerced ritual participation; (2) widespread building and maintenance of Christian worship sites on stolen land utilizing the economic plunder of racialized violence; (3) enforced subordination or segregation of racially minoritized worshippers and worshipping communities; (4) racially dominant appropriation of liturgical resources created by racially minoritized persons and communities; (5) centering of white practices and theologies as normative; (6) subjugation of racially minoritized bodies, worship experiences, practices, and theories; (7) brutal terrorism of racially minoritized worshipping bodies and sites of worship; and (8) widespread disregard for and silence about the sustained brutal realities of racial violence.

The complex and ongoing legacy of Christian worship within the context of racism and ongoing lynching of Black persons, state and state-sponsored corporate violence against indigenous persons, brutal imprisonment of nonwhite refugees and immigrants in state-run concentration camps, and other expressions of racialized violence necessitate an urgent reckoning with the past and present role of Christian worship in creating and enforcing racial hierarchies and inequities. Such a reckoning requires us to intentionally recognize the impact of race on Christian worship and to critically engage that with attention to broader systems of white domination in the US. This requires leaders and practitioners of Christian worship to carefully explore the impact of racialization on those who worship, on the practices of worship through which we engage our racialized bodies and the racialized bodies of others, and on the theories undergirding our worship that may either reinforce or subvert racialized biases and hegemony. We must account for the racial dominance embedded in the theories and practices of our liturgical traditions as we work to craft a more racially just trajectory for our liturgical traditions and the world. This may require from some of us an intense deconstruction of our personal, communal, and liturgical formation amid the context of systemic and internalized racism.

Questions for your worship team

1. Consider the impact of racialization on the land upon which you worship. Visit a library and research the history of the land, your community, and how it came to be occupied by non-native persons and a site of Christian worship. Ask, “Whose land is this?” Once you have identified the answer to that question, begin to publicly and regularly acknowledge during your worship the violence that has been done to the land and to the indigenous people from whom it was taken whether through genocide or unfair or broken treaties. Then, initiate steps to take responsibility for that ongoing injustice through material acts of reparation and care for the earth.

2. Form a small, diverse group of persons to conduct a study of your worship space in which you audit all images, symbols, and texts that are present throughout your immediate worship space and, if applicable, entire building. What races and racial histories are materially visible and present? Which races or racial histories are less represented, not represented at all, or represented in demeaning ways? Identify practical steps that must be taken to ensure that the images, symbols, and texts in your church’s space disrupt white dominance and white normativity and center other races and racial histories.

3. Develop a strategic plan to increase your community’s awareness and knowledge of non-Christian religious traditions, particularly religions primarily practiced by persons who are racially minoritized, for example, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Islam. Taking great care to avoid appropriation and to participate in mutual dialogue, intentionally invite interreligious practitioners and incorporate interreligious sources into your worship, and, as appropriate to mutual hospitality, be responsive to invitations to enter into non-Christian spaces and, if applicable, respectfully participate in non-Christian worship.

4. For participants and leaders of white worship, educate yourself about how your racial identity within the dominant hierarchy of whiteness uniquely shapes your worship. Consult critical sources at the intersection of race and worship (start with the sources noted in the footnotes from this contribution and the entire volume) that will help you begin to glimpse how your worship is racialized, for example, white worship, and how that functions in relationship to economic, political, and social injustice along racial lines. As you learn from racially nondominant perspectives on worship, work to articulate points of consonance and points of dissonance from your experience of racially dominant white worship. Taking care to avoid appropriation, consider how you can begin to let racially nondominant liturgical images, symbols, texts, and practices critique and reshape your assumptions about worship.

5. Over the course of an extended period of time, intentionally observe what is said and unsaid in the context of your worship about racial inequity and eruptions of racial violence. During that same time period document any material actions taken by your congregation that are explicitly and intentionally anti-racist. Evaluate your findings.

Does your worship lead you and your community into consistent, tangible expressions of anti-racism? If your answers are negative, make concrete plans to consistently name race, racialized violence, and racial inequity in your worship. Commit to developing an anti-racist agenda manifested in consistent, material actions that disrupt racism in your community.


[1] Brian Bantum, Redeeming Mulatto (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010), 142.

[2] Rebecca Anne Goetz, The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

[3] Cláudio Carvalhaes, Liturgy in Postcolonial Perspectives: Only One Is Holy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 4.

[4] For further reading about the role of worship in contesting racial hierarchies and contributing to the survival of racialized minorities, see James Cone, “Sanctification, Liberation, and Black Worship,” Theology Today 35, no. 2 (July 1, 1978): 139–52; George Garrelts, “Black Power and Black Liturgy,” Journal of Religious Thought 39 (Spring–Summer 1983): 34–45; Scott Haldeman, Toward Liturgies that Reconcile: Race and Ritual among African-American and European-American Protestants (New York: Routledge, 2007).

5. For further reading about color-blind racism, see Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). See also Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010). Iam concerned about the ableist dimensions of the terms “color-blind” and “color blindness,” and the ways in whichthese phrasings can appeal to conceptions that are utopic. However, I concede here because engaging the aspiration or concept of colorblindness is essential to understanding racism in recent decades in the context of the US.

This article is excerpted from A Worship Workbook: A Practical Guide for Extraordinary Liturgy by Khalia Williams and Gerald Liu (Abingdon Press, 2021).

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