What is white Western Christianity?

This is mainly for Eddie, who acknowledged “I don’t know what “white Western Christianity” is”, despite the fact that it is a term which has been current in mainstream theological literature for at least 30 years. He complained that I hadn’t defined this term, despite the fact that he was perfectly willing to use the term “traditional Western Christianity” (a term even more fraught with contention), without defining it.

A geography lesson

These countries are dominated by people of European ancestry, people typically identified as white.

These countries are typically identified as Western (dark blue), or Western-dominant (lighter blue).

When we overlay these two maps, the correspondence between them is obvious.

The countries with the greatest concentration of both white people and Western culture, are typically understood as “white Western” countries.

White Western Christianity is the Christianity which emerged within white Western countries, and which became typical of the Christianity in white Western countries, and exported to other countries by white Western Christians. It also became the vehicle for distinctly supremacist white Western views.

Typical characteristics of white Western Christianity

1. White fragility.

It is not difficult to find fundamentalist and other conservative white Western Christians taking offense at the term. Here are some examples.

You are using the phrase as a term of reproach, relying on its vagueness for rhetorical effect.

But sweeping, undefined phrases like “white Western Christianity” are of no use, and potentially insulting.

And the fact that you can find academics who use the term doesn’t make the term any less offensive.

These claims are unsubstantiated, untrue, and simply a reflexive reaction to the term. Which part of the term causes offense? White? Western? Christianity? All of them? This is never explained. What is clear however, is that this is a typical example of white fragility; a reflexively hostile reaction to being identified by others with an accurate descriptive term.

Another tactic demonstrating white fragility is the attempt to co-opt non-white Christians, and represent them as offended (or even “potentially” offended), by a term which you personally find offensive. That way you can make it look like you’re actually concerned about their feelings, instead of admitting that you’re really concerned about your own. Here’s an example.

That you cannot see that a term like “ white Western Christianity” might well be offensive to millions of Christians from the southern hemisphere who hold to the doctrines of classical Christianity but are not white

There are millions of non-white Christians from the southern hemisphere who hold to “the doctrines of classical Christianity”, but where is the evidence that any of them are offended by the term “white Western Christianity”? Since there are millions of such Christians, it shouldn’t be difficult to find at least a few thousand who find the term offensive. Yet not even hundreds of examples are provided. Why not? Because this is nothing to do with what they find offensive, it’s just an attempt at using non-white people to shield a white person’s sense of offence.

Here’s another example of an attempt at using non-white people as a shield for white fragility. I raised the fact that Christianity in Asia is far more diverse than simply white Western Christianity. This was the response.

I have met scores of Christians from Asia (Japan, Korea, China, India, and other countries) who have moved to North America, either permanently or to study. The vast majority of the ones I have met hold to traditional Western Christianity. Most of them, when they come here, end up at Baptist-type churches, occasionally Presbyterian-type. That is what they were used to as Asian Christians. They accept the Trinity. They believe the Gospels teach the existence of demons and demonic possession. Etc. None of them have ever complained that Christianity over here is too “white” in its doctrines or practices.

Note the implication that Asian Christians actually conform to white Western Christianity, that Asian Christians “hold to traditional Western Christianity”. Note the complete lack of acknowledgement of the actual diversity of Asian Christianity. Note that this was written by a fundamentalist white Western man in a white Western country. Note that this white Western man is attempting to characterize Asian Christianity despite never having actually lived there. Note that the message being sent is “Asian Christians are like us [white Western Christians]”. Note that “like us” is the benchmark being used for Christianity. This centering of Christianity inside a white Western context is typical of white Western Christianity.

2. English language liturgy.

The liturgy and general language of white Western Christianity is overwhelmingly English, the native language of almost every white ethnic group. In contrast, Christians operating outside the confinement of white Western Christianity take care to contextualize their Christianity appropriately, even when they are in a Western country. For example, the last time I was in England I attended a service run by a predominantly white congregation, but which was almost entirely in Farsi (including the prayers and hymns), with English occasionally used as a concession to non-Farsi speakers. This is truly Christian Christianity, not white Western Christianity.

3. Western Christian theology.

The theology of white Western Christianity is overwhelmingly that of the Christian West. Major theological influences include Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Cranmer, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, Arminius, Francis Turretin, Hugo Grotius, Jonathan Edwards, John Gill, John Wesley, George Whitefield, Charles Hodge, and John Henry Newman. White Western Christians.

I shouldn’t need to explain that theology in non-white, non-Western countries has typically expanded well beyond this narrow paradigm, producing indigenous theology, liberation theology, de-colonial theology, restorationist theology, the list goes on.

4. Ethnic and cultural erasure.

Historically, white Western Christianity has been characterized by ethnic and cultural erasure of the diversity of global Christianity. White Western Christian iconography has not only historically centered white Western theological figures, but has literally whitewashed non-white figures in the history of Christianity.

The most prominent example is that of Jesus himself, who has for centuries been represented in white Western Christianity as a white Western man. Jesus would have looked something like this (you might need to brace yourself).

Yet for over 1,000 years, white Western Christianity has overwhelmingly represented him like this.

I shouldn’t need to explain how the historical portrayal of the Aryan Jesus (complete with white skin, blond or light brown hair, and blue eyes), has been incredibly damaging.

Recently, some Anglicans have made attempts to try and gently explain to their flock that their concept of Jesus’ ethnicity has been wildly wrong for a very long time.

A few weeks ago in youth group we talked about how Jesus wasn’t white. Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew, and forensic scientists have even done facial reconstruction of 2000-year-old skulls from Palestine in order to get a sense of what Jesus might have looked like. With olive skin, black hair, and large nose, this facial reconstruction looks nothing like the Jesus we typically see in art with long curly brown hair, white skin and blue eyes. Anthropologists have even debunked the notion that Jesus had long flowing locks – Jewish men of the day cropped their hair short. Yet the image and myth persist.

Will this make a difference? Only time will tell.

5. Racism (including anti-Semitism).

I really don’t even need to explain the history of how racism, and in particular anti-Semitism, became embedded in white Western Christianity. Racism has been a recurring theme in at least 600 years of white Western Christianity; anti-Semitism, even longer. At least in the last hundred years this has receded, but the historical damage has been appalling. I give full credit to men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who stood up for Christianity against the Nazis (and gave his life for it, dying in a concentration camp), and members of my own church in Germany who also stood up for Christianity against the Nazis (and were sent to either a concentration camp or insane asylum, and in one case executed by firing squad).

I shouldn’t need to explain how colonialism and imperialism have also been historical characteristics of white Western Christianity.

Scholarly use of the term

Eddie complained that the term is “not found in most dictionaries of encyclopedias of Christianity, in my experience”. However he failed to explain why this is relevant. He later qualified that he wasn’t saying the term didn’t exist, just that he couldn’t find it in the handful of books he checked. He did not explain why this is of any importance whatsoever. Perhaps it was an attempt at explaining why he was ignorant of the term. Certainly it is a demonstration of how out of touch he is with modern theological scholarship, which unsurprising given his cloistered position in a conservative bubble of white Western Christianity.

The term “white Western Christianity” can be found used widely among non-white theological scholars (as well as widely used among white theological scholars). Here are a few examples.

  1. Lee Miena Skye (Australian Aboriginal).
  2. Chan-Hie Kim (Korean).
  3. G Anne Ng (Vietnamese).
  4. Kiyokazu Okita (Japanese).
  5. Pallavi Rastogi (Indian).
  6. Joshua Jackson (African American).
  7. Emilie M. Townes (African American).
  8. Joseph Nearon (African American).
  9. Dale P. Andrews (African American).
  10. Joy R. Bostic (African American).

Fundamentalist and other conservative white Christians typically disdain these scholars. Here is a recent description of the people I’ve listed.

…whining, special-interest-group, “grievance” literature written by people feigning to be scholars, slapping labels on people like “white Western Christianity.”

The people in academia who use terms like “white Western Christianity” are ideologues, whose “scholarship” is written with demagogical intent.

So the scholars in that list are apparently “people feigning to be scholars” who belong to “special-interest groups” writing “grievance literature” and “social-science-influenced crap”. They are “ideologues, whose “scholarship” is written with demagogical intent”. No evidence for this is provided; cf.“White fragility” and “Racism”, described previously.


26 posts were split to a new topic: Comments on White Western Christianity

Thanks for this post @Jonathan_Burke. As an Indian Immigrant in the West, it strikes me how “white Western Christianity” is largely transparent to those who are ensconced within it.

One window into this is how people represent Jesus.

You rightly point out the strangeness of representing Jesus as a white hippie. It should be noted, many cultures have represented Jesus in a vernacular. There are black, asian, and indian Jesuses too. At least in current day, it seems most of ethic groups realized that Jesus is actually on black, asian and indian. At times, however, I’ve seen white people very angry about the representation of Jesus this way, even as they are pleased with their white Jesus. Thus it is transparent to them. In contrast, when ethnic Christians, for example, draw a black Jesus they often do so as a protest against the white Jesus.

Any how, thanks for the article. A lot to chew on here.


I grew up with multi-culturally minded parents (one whom was an immigrant; I’m a second generation immigrant on one side, third generation on the other), and from an early age I was taught Jesus wasn’t white because he was a Jew. I saw Zefferelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” when I was about eight or ten years old, and already I understood it was a sign of typical Western bias.

What’s being described here is a US phenomena and can better described as Christian Nationalism. I contend that it has NOTHING to do with Jesus. It is a new ideology that is divisive yet powerful. To gain an understanding of the ideology sweeping today’s America, please read the new book by Andrew Seidel.

The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American: Andrew L Seidel, Dan Barker, Susan Jacoby: 9781454933274: Amazon.com: Books

Hi, Joshua.

Obviously, I can’t speak for all “white Western Christians,” but I grew up in an atmosphere that Jonathan Burke would probably call “white Western Christian,” and no one had any problem acknowledging that Jesus was a Jew and would have had a darker complexion than a Frenchman, and Englishman, a German, and Irishman, etc.

As far as artistic representation goes, it makes perfect sense to me that Jesus (and for that matter, everyone else in the story) would look Indian in Indian productions, African in African productions, Russian in Russian productions, Chinese in Chinese productions, etc. Works of art produced for a particular country or culture are naturally going to use actors who can connect with audiences in that country or culture. I wouldn’t have a problem with an all-black production of Shakespeare produced in Tanzania, or an all-Japanese production of a Greek tragedy performed in Tokyo. If the message of a story (whether the Biblical story or Shakespeare or anything else) is universal, it is translatable via performers of any ethnicity.

One thing that struck me as really strange was the portrayal of Judas as a black man in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. All the other disciples were white, but Judas was black. One would have thought that given the 1970-ish era of the production, when consciousness of the dangers of stereotyping was in the air, the creators would have gone out of their way not to link Judas with any particular modern racial or ethnic group, and least of all with blacks, given the recent explosions of racial conflict in the USA in the 1960s. (Sure, the creators were English, but they were well aware of the dangers of racism in the USA, and even in Britain itself; London by that time had a sizable immigrant population, including many blacks.) What on earth were they thinking, to make the only prominent black character in the production the guy who has gone down in infamy as the betrayer of Jesus? Did anyone ever ask them about that?

1 Like

(Splitting to a new conversation… Ceasings on the Lord's Day)