Unearthing racism's Christian roots: How far-right Christianity quietly fueled Jacksonville shooter

A shooting in Jacksonville is the latest example of overt, growing, and gruesome anti-Black violence

Published August 31, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

A United States and Christian flag are sandwiched together (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A United States and Christian flag are sandwiched together (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

This weekend, a racist shooter – Ryan Palmeter – murdered three Black people – Angela Carr,  Anolt Laguerre, Jr., and Jerrald De'Shaun Gallion. This is the latest example of overt, growing, and gruesome anti-Black violence in our nation. 

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We've heard from our leaders time and time again that we need to end racism. But we can't just keep giving the issue lip service. To create true change, we need to peel back the layers, understand how we got here, and defeat the forces that have allowed violence against Black bodies to proliferate. 

For us, as people of faith, that means acknowledging the perverse role of a distorted Christianity in fueling rampant racism. 

This distorted Christianity is at the core of our nation's deep history of racism. Starting from the very beginning of European settlement, colonists used the Bible to claim Christian explorers had a divine right to seize lands that were not inhabited by Christians. They also argued that they had a godly duty to bring the Bible to native lands. These "Biblical" missions left fields of blood and fire behind them. 

Then, as colonists took over the South, Christianity became a lynchpin of slavery. Faith leaders and policymakers professed that the Bible contained passages that clearly supported enslavement. For example, they claimed that Noah's curse on Ham in Genesis 9:20-27 justified the subjugation of Black people. In some areas, slaveholders also distributed tainted Bibles that removed mentions of freedom and equality. 

It is these types of distorted uses of the Bible that allowed many Christians to leave church on Sunday morning, and then attend a lynching on Sunday afternoon.

Keep moving through our history, and you'll see endless examples of purported Christians using the Bible for racist ends: Enforcing segregation, blocking civil rights movements, forbidding interracial marriage, creating a racist incarceration system, committing yet more acts of violence, and more. 

Fast-forward to today, and far-right Christians continue their hateful crusade. They have supercharged their white supremacist rhetoric and pushed for policies that uplift white communities and denigrate Black and Brown ones. For instance, many far-right Christians have fought tooth and nail to redact our nation's history of brutally enslaving human beings. They have also demonized Black Lives Matter, denied systemic racism at every turn, and conjured fear that white people are in danger. And all of this is imbued with the language of a white supremacist Christian piety. 

And the violence continues. In 2015, a white supremacist influenced by Christian nationalism entered a predominantly Black church in Charleston and killed nine people during a Bible study. Last year, a shooter with ties to white Christian nationalism stormed into a grocery store in Buffalo and killed 10 Black people. These are but two of too many instances to date in our country. 

Crucially, while the Jackson shooter hasn't yet been overtly connected to Christianity, the racist propaganda that fueled his hatred is grounded in far-right Christian forces. Virtually every white supremacist post, video, meme, and social media group can be traced to our nation's religious history.

It's particularly alarming how far-right Christianity can quietly infiltrate people's lives. A small cohort of white Supremacists has become particularly adept at using online platforms to gently draw in new followers and espouse hateful ideas. Those carefully chosen words quickly translate into discrimination and violence. 

We simply can't dismantle racism unless we understand and unearth its far-right Christian roots. It's up to all of us to speak truth to power in a way that ensures every life matters. From individuals who can say something if they see something, to faith leaders who can speak and preach messages of love, to lawmakers who can ensure justice rolls down, we all have a responsibility to engage.  

Every moment we delay puts more Black and Brown lives in danger. It's time to own up to our nation's history and use the Bible for good.

By Serene Jones

Rev. Dr. Serene Jones is president of Union Theological Seminary, a globally recognized graduate school of religion devoted to putting faith into practice for the common good.

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By Rev. Dr. LaKeesha Walrond

Rev. Dr. LaKeesha Walrond is president of New York Theological Seminary.

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