A Christian Response to Racism, Sexism, & the Rise of American Terrorism by Trelawney Grenfell-Muir

Trelawney bio pictureAs our country reels in horror at the brutal massacre of nine worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one particularly important detail has emerged: the young man who killed those nine people entered the world of white supremacism after the object of his romantic interest rejected him and dated a black man.

According to his cousin, the experience dramatically changed the young man, led to his obsession with racist hatred, and motivated him to commit the atrocity. In some ways, the event resembles the 2014 Santa Barbara massacre, in which a young white man with strong racist tendencies massacred young women because he felt angry that women generally did not respond favorably to his romantic advances. Other mass murderers have also exhibited violent misogyny. Moreover, our country has begun to notice that most mass shootings are carried out by white males, and to point out that white masculinity may lead young men into feeling like failures if they do not achieve all the trappings of their supposedly superior race and gender identity.

My questions are: how did we, as a society, fail these young men? And how have we, as a church, failed society? And, most important, how can we help heal these diseases that are killing us?

Racism and sexism are symptoms of the same disease: both racism and sexism arise from the need by one group to feel superior to another group. People feel afraid that if they are not superior, they might lose something important – some important part of their identity, self-worth, social currency, or status. And we’re all sickened by this disease – every time a Christian needs to feel superior to an atheist, or a liberal mocks a conservative, we exhibit the symptoms of a disease I call “egaliphobia” – the terror that we might not actually be better than anyone else, just because of our social categories… the terror that we might all be equal.

I believe our society has set us up for this phobia: for millennia now, we have constructed a system that rewards power imbalances. Such a system is doomed to fail. We have designed a socio-economic structure in which people must compete for pieces of a limited pie. Politically, economically, and socially, the size of someone’s pie wedge determines h/er power, security, prosperity, and status. We have bought into a myth, in which some groups can actually succeed at the expense of others. This myth destroys the humanity of both oppressed and oppressor, as both are crushed under the weight of the violence needed to sustain a system founded on an inherently violent lie.

The truth is – we rise and fall together. Only a communitarian, egalitarian approach, in which we honor our interconnected interdependency with the web of all people, all life, and all Earth, will heal us from this fatal disease that causes Rape Culture, hate crimes, police brutality, and every manner of oppression.

How has the Church failed society? Historical and current examples of churches supporting racism and sexism abound. But to get at the root of the problem, we must engage Johan Galtung’s theory of “cultural violence.” In both racism and sexism, the oppressed group experiences a combination of cultural violence (such as language and symbols), structural violence (such as discrimination), and direct violence (such as rape, assault, and murder). Galtung notes, cultural violence legitimizes structural and direct violence.

As the Church, we have preached cultural violence over the millennia. We have used language and symbols that convey violent messages, such as our predominantly male language about humans and God/ess. Use of predominantly male language sends the message that men are more like God/ess than women. That message implies that women are not fully in the divine image, are thus not fully human, and thus do not deserve to be treated as humans. All of the other many forms of cultural violence (archaic marriage rules, patrilineal naming), structural violence (exclusion from priesthood) and direct violence (witch burning) flow logically from that fundamental, underlying assumption that forms part of the very foundation of the entire Christian tradition and permeates every level of its theology and practice: women are not human.

By excluding one category of humanity from the divine image, our tradition has set itself up to reward power imbalances. Once we decided that one group benefits at the expense of another, all subsequent exclusions naturally followed. Over time, God/ess became thought of as more white than black, more old than young, more civilized than wild. In each case, the cultural violence of limiting God/ess led to oppression of various groups, including the oppression of people who worship God/ess with different symbol systems, such as Jews or Muslims.

How can our Church redeem itself and offer a message of healing redemption to the world? For starters, we must engage in activism to dismantle all forms of cultural, structural, and direct racist and sexist violence in society. But in order to see that path more clearly, we must remove the log from our eyes. Our first step is to recognize that we have forsaken the Living God/ess for an idol. Just as many religious communities have done throughout history, we have turned our back on God/ess and worshiped a false image of our own construction. We must confess that we have knelt at the altar of power imbalances and prayed that we would climb above someone else.

We must help each other release our egaliphobia, our fear that we might not be on the “winning team” in any given social category. We must learn to trust that God/ess is bigger, stronger, higher, wider, and deeper than our worst fears of unworthiness… and we can learn that Truth only by living and teaching thusly with each other in our faith communities. We need to find and redeem every single example of cultural violence in our tradition, so we can create a truly life-giving theology, liturgy, and mission in the world. We must embrace the Truth that we are all One: one with God/ess and with each other, and we all need each other to survive and to thrive.

Sophia-Christ was crucified that night in Charleston, betrayed by one who could not recognize the Holiness in that community. Sophia-Christ rose again when black communities continued to gather in faith and power. Sophia-Christ is in the world when people of faith live the Truth that Good is stronger than evil, and Life is stronger than death… May we release our fears, join hands in trust, and embody the Living God/ess!


Trelawney Grenfell-Muir is an adjunct professor in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance with a specialization in Cross-Cultural Conflict at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. She was a fellow at the Institute of Culture, Religion, and World Affairs and at the Earhart Foundation. Grenfell-Muir has conducted field research in situations of ongoing conflict in Syria, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland. Her dissertation explores the methodology, constraints, and effectiveness of clergy peacebuilders in Northern Ireland. She has been an invited speaker in community settings and at MIT, Boston University, Tufts, and Boston College on topics of gender violence, economic injustice, and religious or ethnic conflicts and has also moderated panels on genetic engineering, cloning, and other bioethics issues.

13 thoughts on “A Christian Response to Racism, Sexism, & the Rise of American Terrorism by Trelawney Grenfell-Muir”

  1. Oh what a tangled web we weave
    When first we practice to deceive. – Sir Walter Scott (Marmion, 1808)

    And yes, the idea of white male supremacy is a lie that requires many more lies, as well as violence and threats of violence, to support it.

    In prepatriarchal societies males as well as females were taught that the nurturing of life is the highest value. May we all have the courage to teach a gentle and compassionate way of being to our sons. Why do even the best-intentioned parents “go along” with the idea that “boys must be boys”=tough and willing to fight? And fear that if they teach them to be gentle they will be mocked as “girls” or “sissies”? Is that the worst thing that could happen to them? Or could the worst thing that could happen to them be that they grow up with “normal” assumptions of “white” and “male” privilege and dominance?


    1. Beautiful questions, Carol – I agree: it all comes down to fear and courage. I keep hoping our faith traditions can give people more effective help in releasing fear and finding courage. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.


  2. I just saw the picture Dylan Roof posted of himself with the flag. His gun is where his penis would be if it were larger than life. So pathetic, no one would believe it if it were not a true.


    1. Yes, I see what you mean – and ancient Romans used to write rape comments on their bullets and rape men who burgled their homes. In rewarding power imbalances, we allowed sex to reflect power imbalances, so now domination has come to define male sexual prowess, with all the violence that goes with it. Thank you for posting this photo – very good point.


  3. Wonderful post, Trewalney. Thank you. I recall once when I was teaching a mythology class and we had studied the stories of several different societies, one of them an American Indian culture. I asked one especially gifted artistic student to draw a picture of the “Great Spirit” that the Indians described. He drew a magnificent multi-colored cloud, full of energy and compassion. I was quite moved. And he was right — that was the image that the American Indian tale described. That cloud had no he/she, no old/young, no black/white. It gently incorporated everything. And that is what our Great Spirit should be too.


    1. Thank you, MaryAnn – what a beautiful story and inspiring image. That sounds like such an incredible image. Imagine the impact such life-giving symbols would have were they to replace symbols of coercive power!


  4. Cultural violence and from my awareness of 40+years of experience in minisry, there is the violence that clericalism offers. The clerics , ordained as priest and deacon are not secure in their personal identity to be open to the presence of women as equals in the call to ministry.


  5. I think you ask some great questions, Trewalney. Especially poignant is: “And how have we, as a church, failed society?” I’ve often wondered why an institution (the Church in this case) claims to “know,” yet seems not to lead or “know” many times when it comes to matters of justice, love, and compassion. What “the Church” (as an institution) does seem to do is attempt to find an advantageous position (survival?) when it’s threatened by those voices who call out for justice.


    1. Thank you, Esther, and what an important point you make! Churches have bought right in to rewarding power imbalances, and they have joined the contest for supremacy… by claiming expert power and authority over certain spheres of life and using that power to seek more coercive and reward power. In doing so, they gain “referent power” – the power to attract people – among groups who want to be on the “winning team”… until they start losing status in society, and then they lose their influence among the power-hungry. Maybe the more churches renounce any desire for status, the more they attract humble seekers? Thank you for your interesting thoughts!


  6. As women, we can make sure that we don’t try to take care of murderers and rapists. Their behavior is anti-life and destructive- no need to convince readers of this blog of this. It is the responsibility of men,
    male allies to nurture young men and many are stepping up to the plate. Michael Kimmel wrote
    “Angry White Men” about shooters and violent men. Let’s hear from men menbers of this community about ideas they have to support a new way to be a man in this culture. The world is hungry for such thinking
    and would welcome men with real courage. Let’s hear it from men who are powerfully asserting and new non-patriarchal way to be a man.


  7. This is an excellent article. You deal so succinctly and pointedly with so many aspects of a very complex problem. Though this particular statement deals with the role of the Church, the problem itself is, of course, systemic, and is inextricably tied to issues of privilege.
    Most of our identity is constructed for us by the culture in which we live. Even the parts we choose for ourselves (such as teacher or artist or good at math or Christian or deist or any number of other things) are influenced by cultural values. Some identities, however, are unavoidable and even if we would not choose to emphasize them, the culture demands it of us; an Asian-American cannot simply choose to ignore that part of her identity. One aspect of privilege is that a large part of our identity can be set aside, allowing us to choose more for our personal identity. A white male rarely has to contend with public notice of that part of his identity. The superiority of the norm is a fundamental flaw of cultural identity. But superiority as a need that drives us to issues of racism, sexism, misogyny, and other ills is also influenced by our perception of competitiveness as a “natural” and positive trait. From sports to business to science, to all kinds of “awards” shows, even to faith as an expression in our lives, we are pushed to be the best, to win. The fear of being inferior is also the fear of losing; and the tragedy is that in any competition there are always a lot more losers than winners.
    So, yes, in order to change the culture, the “winners” need to act, the “norm” needs to do more of the work to create that change. And it is not as simple as declaring oneself an ally. We need to reject huge portions of what the culture tells us about ourselves and others. The task is to create norms of identity that are inclusive rather than exclusive; that group us by positive aspects of human-ness, rather than by arbitrary and ultimately meaningless differences; that emphasize competitiveness as a test of our relationship with ourselves rather than our relationship with others (I win not because I defeat others but because I defeat “inferior” aspects of myself).
    I have recently been trying to write more about issues of identity and privilege, and I thank you for this genuinely thought-provoking (and spirit-stimulating) discussion.


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