When God Became White: Dismantling Whiteness for a More Just Christianity by Grace Ji-Sun Kim

When God Became White cover imageSummary: A mix of history, memoir, and theology to discuss the problem of God being portrayed as White and how this has communicated Whiteness (an ideology of racial hierarchy).

I have been looking forward to reading When God Became White since I heard it announced. I have only read her Intersectional Theology, but I own three of her books and I hope to read at least two of them this year. (Invisible, The Homebrew Christianity Guide to the Holy Spirit, Healing Our Broken Humanity). There are several reasons why I was looking forward to When God Became White. First, I wanted to explore the concept of Whiteness from a more theological perspective. Emerson and Bracey’s Religion of Whiteness explores it from a Sociology of Religion perspective, and I am familiar with its historical development from authors like Ibrahm Kendi and philosophical development of whiteness from authors like George Yancy. There are others working on theological development of the concept of Whiteness, but I expected (and found) that Grace Ji-Sun Kim broke out of the Black/White paradigm of discussing Whiteness and I knew from listening to a number of interviews and her writing that she would bring a gender critique as well.

The strength of When God Became White is its exploration of her own story and the way the Asian experience more broadly. The discussion of Whiteness is often limited to the White/Black binary. Throughout the book she discusses Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ thats her mother kept in an honored place in their home above the couch (Color of Christ by Harvey and Blum has a lengthy discussion of the history and impact of Sallman’s painting.)

“The white Jesus on our wall was a depiction to me of how God looked as well. I pictured God as an old white man, just as everyone else did. There was no reason to question that notion. It was everywhere: in paintings, stained-glass windows, and storybooks. I never questioned it. I didn’t even think twice about whether Jesus was white or not. It was not in my consciousness to question anything that was taught by my mother or the church. Both pushed a white Jesus, and I just took it as the truth.”

“What I didn’t know then that I know now is how influential that picture was on my own theology and faith development. That image of a white Jesus was imprinted on my brain and body so that I could not even question whether Jesus actually looked like that. It was a given, as it was the most famous picture of Jesus. I went to visit family in Korea twice during my youth, and even my family members there had the same picture of the white Jesus in their homes. The Korean churches also had the same picture of white Jesus. Furthermore, when I traveled to India during my seminary years, all the churches that I visited had this same white Jesus picture. This confirmed to me that this must be the real Jesus, as it is universally understood to be the image of Christ. I just took it for granted that Sallman’s Head of Christ must be the real thing.” (P8)

Part of what Grace Ji-Sun Kim is grappling with is the ways that her Korean cultural bias toward obedience impacted the ways her biases about her faith in ways that she was unable to explore more deeply until well into her adult years. The memoir aspects of the book matters because she is recounting the ways the presentation of Jesus and God the Father as both male and white negatively impacted her faith There will be people who want to argue with her experience, but her experience isn’t unique, there are many who have a similar impact.

“As the center of Christianity, God being white implies that whites are the center of humanity and that God’s concerns and God’s desires center on white people at the expense of people of color. This has damaging consequences for people of color who experience grave injustices due to racism, discrimination, and xenophobia.” P13

Central to the concept of the book is the idea of race and Whiteness.

“The notion of race is based not on biology but on social meanings that are created and re-created due to changing contexts. The concept of race was created mainly by Europeans in the sixteenth century and is based on socially constructed beliefs about the inherent superiority and inferiority of groups of people.” p19

People who have not explored the development of the concept of race often do not realize that the notion of race was developed slowly along with the reality of colonization.

“Before the seventeenth century, Europeans did not think of themselves as belonging to a white race. Instead, they viewed themselves as belonging to different parts or regions in Europe and had a very different perception of race and racialization. But once this concept of white race was shown to be advantageous to Europeans and enslavers, it began to reshape and redefine their world….Before the late 1600s, Europeans did not use the term Black to reference any group of people. However, with the racialization of enslavement around 1680, many looked for a term to differentiate between the enslaved and the enslavers. Thus the terms white and Black were used to represent and differentiate racial categories.” (p20-24)

It is not just that the concept of race is relatively new in world history, race as a concept was developed alongside Whiteness. Whiteness is an ideological concept not just that racial categories exist, but that there is internal to the concept of race a hierarchy of people within those racial categories. “White people are viewed as the norm, and everyone else is one or more steps away from the normative in society.” (p26)

The development of the concept of Whiteness had a historical context, the development of colonialism and capitalism.

“White Christianity and missiology are intertwined with colonialism, and it has had devastating effects all over the world. Whiteness is the root of much colonialism around the globe, and there are four deadly weapons employed in white Christian conquests: genocide, enslavement, removal, and rape. These weapons divide people, separating them from land, people, story, culture, and identity. These weapons serve colonizers in gaining more land and low-cost or no-cost labor to grow wealth.” (p48)

From this basic exploration of the concept and development of Whiteness, she lays out the central problem, “Decolonization is a spiritual matter just as it is a physical, mental, social, and political one. Hence, we need to decolonize Christianity from its whiteness if anything is to change.” (p60) The next several chapters explore how Whiteness has impacted how we think of the mission of Christianity and the practice of Christianity. The reality that so many Christians (White and non-White) have absorbed the concept of Whiteness in regard to Christianity means that harm to both White and non-White people is pervasive because so many cannot separate Christianity from Whiteness.

There are places I would quibble and I think there are also places where she shifts the concept of Whiteness to include all hierarchy or suggests that Whiteness was present long prior to the 15th-17th century. In some sense I can agree to this because Whiteness is a tool of hierarchy, and not the entirety of hierarchy. In all cases, ontological hierarchy is contrary to Christianity, even if some believe it is central to Christianity. This impacts not just how we experience Christianity, but even things like basic translation methods.

Toward the end of the book Grace Ji-Sun Kim explores Korean concepts of Chi, Han, Jeong, and other ideas can help extricate Whiteness from Christianity.

The last chapter in particular where she explores a way forward, particularly in regard to language and the liturgy. I am going to put a long quote, stitched together to give a sense of the way forward.

For most of the church’s history, our prayers, hymns, and liturgies have been written by white European men. The language used in our church worship imagines, describes, and reinforces a white male God. From the beginning to the end of worship, we praise, read about, and pray to a white male God…The white male language used throughout our religious practice reinforces our perceptions and beliefs that white and male is superior to nonwhite and female. We memorize prayers, hymns, and creeds during childhood that become embedded in our thoughts, hearts, and behaviors that end up carried into adulthood. These white male liturgies have become part of our being and greatly influence our perception of God…We know that God is neither white nor male. That was merely a notion of God constructed by white male theologians. God is Spirit and, as a spiritual entity, cannot have gender or race, and this should be reflected in the liturgical languages that we use within the church. It is paramount that we rethink and re-create our liturgical language about God..in Korea, the concept of ou-ri, translated as “our,” is far more important than the individual. “Ourness” is a concept that has built up the Korean community with an emphasis on being connected to each other to protect and help others. Ou-ri in the Korean language is often used as a personal pronoun. So instead of saying “my family,” in Korea, we say “ou-ri family.” Instead of saying “my spouse,” we say “ou-ri spouse,” even though you are married to only one spouse. This different outlook and emphasis in life challenges us to become different individuals within the community, to prioritize the needs of the community. We need to adopt an ou-ri-ness in our theological journey so we can fight racism and overcome the other divisive beliefs we face as people of God. All people are invited to the banquet of God where we can dance, rejoice, and be merry in the presence of God. It is the ou-ri-ness of God’s love that we should be embodying as Christians.” (p168)

While I have a few minor quibbles, I think that When God Became White is a helpful theological approach to bringing understanding and healing into Christianity.

I have about 50 public highlights and notes that you can view on Goodreads.

When God Became White: Dismantling Whiteness for a More Just Christianity by Grace Ji-Sun Kim Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

Leave a Comment