Spirituality and the Battle Against Racism

Several months ago I was invited to give an address at a Christian college related to my 2021 book, Disrupting Whiteness: Talking with White People About Race. My presentation was part of an ongoing effort of the institution to sensitize and educate its employees about issues of personal and systemic racism. In preparation for my presentation I asked to meet with a small group of staff members to get a sense of what might be most helpful to the employees of the institution.  In that meeting one woman spoke of hearing a presentation by Rev. Dr. Victor Aloyo, the President of Columbia Theological Seminary, on “Antiracism as Spiritual Formation.” I was quite taken with that phrase and in my presentation addressed that issue in a limited way (1).

Since that time I have continued to ponder, study and reflect on what it would mean for our spirituality and spiritual practices to be shaped and informed by our commitment to resist racism in all its expressions in our society and to build a world where racial injustice no longer existed.  What if our sense of God, our prayer life, our character and our sense of mission were inextricably woven through with a commitment to fight and eradicate racism in our nation and world? Beginning with this blog entry, over the next few months I will share my thoughts and musings on this complex and challenging topic.

Spiritual Formation, Racism and Antiracism

But first, let me define a few terms.

When we speak of spiritual formation we are talking about a conscious and deliberate process through which people work to deepen and strengthen their relationship to God and awareness of God’s leading and participation in their lives. Robert Mulholland defines spiritual formation as a “process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others” (2). I like this definition because it explicitly ties together our desire to draw close to God, the formation of our character and our relationships with other people. In this way our spiritual life is not confined to a private inner life but also impacts the manner in which we relate to the people and issues in our day-to-day lives. More specifically this definition of spiritual formation compels us to engage with the various expressions of racism as part of our inner and outer expressions of our faith.

When we speak of racism, we are not only referring to a person’s interaction with people of other races and ethnicities. We are also referring to the racially discriminatory values embedded in the laws, policies and practices propagated by the institutions and systems that shape and govern our society: our schools, the criminal justice system, the health care system, corporations, non-profit organizations, religious organizations and so on. Moreover, we are referring to many of the implicit racist values in our American culture that go largely unnoticed and unchallenged until crisis events such as the death of George Floyd or the shooting in an elementary school or an attempted insurrection.

By contrast antiracism is a conscious, committed and continuous effort on the part of an individual, a group or an organization to resist, root out, call out and transform the values, attitudes, actions and institutional policies and practices that promote, uphold and defend racism in society. While there are ongoing efforts to challenge racism in the political, economic and social realms, I believe the battle against racism must also be fought in the human heart. Efforts to challenge racist policies and practice “out there” fall short and fall flat if the individuals involved in such efforts have not done the inner work of examining and wrestling with attitudes, emotions and stereotypes they have inherited living in a society that has yet to fully contend with the racism so prevalent in all aspects of life. The battle to overcome racism in our society must include each individual contending with the racism within.

I think of racism as a form of social addiction. Like a child born into a drug-infested environment, most Americans, regardless of their ethnic background or skin color are socialized into a racialized view of the world. They are led implicitly and explicitly to see people of other races and ethnicities as “other,” as people to be feared and distrusted. They grow up in social bubbles where interactions with people who are “different” are limited. They learn a view of history in which white is right and virtuous and Black, Brown, Native American and Asian is “different” and less important. Often the adults in the lives of these young ones are not conscious of how thoroughly they are conveying these messages because they themselves have not done the inner work to root out the racist tendencies in their own lives.

Antiracism as Spiritual Formation

Antiracism as spiritual formation is an effort to develop practices and a perspective that help us acknowledge, examine and unravel the way that racism has infected our attitudes, emotions, actions and spirituality. But it’s not a quick fix. Rather it is an ongoing process of personal transformation. When individuals addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling or some other self-destructive behavior go through 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, they never say they are cured or recovered. Rather they say they are “in recovery” because they realize the battle to overcome addiction is a day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute, lifelong effort to” stay clean.”  In the same way one’s battle with racism is never “over,” but rather is an ongoing effort to resist racism both in the world outside themselves as well as within.

My goal in this series is to explore the ways people in the past and present have developed practices to stay in the fight against racism. For that reason, I will be drawing heavily on authors and spiritual thinkers of color who have had to contend with racism in all its forms on a daily basis without giving into hopelessness and despair.  Moreover, I will draw from the practices I have learned from other white people who have become role models for battling bigoted and discriminatory behavior of others. Finally, I will share my own efforts to pray, read the Bible, worship and mediate through an antiracist lens.

Christianity and Racism in History

Because I am a follower of Jesus, this series will have a decidedly Christian bent, but my hope is that those who do not espouse a belief in Jesus may yet be able to find practices that can be adapted and applied in other faith traditions. While I practice within a Christian framework, I wholeheartedly believe there are many pathways to the Divine, and that practices that have roots in other spiritual traditions that have equal validity and efficacy to the ideas I will share.  I would hope that those reading these blogs who are not followers of Jesus might share their experiences and perspectives as well.

At the same time, I must openly acknowledge that people claiming to be Christians have done more to advance the ravages of violent racism over the last 500 years or more than any other religious group. From the Doctrine of Discovery to the justification of chattel slavery to the genocide of indigenous people to the blessing of Jim Crow, segregation and lynching to raping and theft of indigenous lands to the marginalization of Jews and people of Asian descent to the rise of Christian Nationalism today, people proclaiming to be followers of Jesus and believers in the Christian God have explicitly and implicitly contributed to racist practices, values and worldviews in North America and elsewhere round the world. Thus, seeking to practice antiracism as spiritual formation requires one to both learn and acknowledge that our faith has been used to sanctify incredible atrocities and where possible must lead to repentance and reparation.

The Invitation

Some reading these words might think I am inviting people to join in some massive guilt trip. However, for me it is quite the opposite. Rather it is a call to liberation from a life of dehumanization to true freedom to embrace and walk in solidarity with those seeking to build a world free of racial injustice and racial discrimination. Part of that practice requires us to face some hard truths, but as Jesus once said: “If you abide in my word…, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). That is the hope that has led me and continues to lead me down this path, and I invite you to join me on this journey.


  1. I also encountered this phrase on The Protagonistas, a podcast hosted by Kate Armas, which features Christian women of color and their views on issues of faith.
  2. M. Robert Mulholland Jr. (1993). Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL