Growing Up in a White Male God's World

Column by Christena Cleveland on 4 July 2019 8 Comments


One of the first things the Church taught me is that my blackness is abhorrent. I had just finished kindergarten and my resourceful mother had signed us up for every Vacation Bible School (VBS) in a twenty-mile radius. VBS was a cost-effective alternative to daycare, so each week she dropped me and my siblings at yet another church where our black bodies were engulfed by a sea of whiteness. A precocious child, I didn’t love the soulless VBS songs — and though it wasn’t until college that I would encounter the term theodicy, I was already beginning to question how a loving God could possibly commit global genocide by flood. But I endured VBS because my mom told me to go and I prided myself on being an obedient child.

One time, as soon as our mom dropped us off at that week’s VBS, my brother John-John and I spotted a towering tetherball set. At the first recess break, John-John and I sprinted to the tetherball and got lost in a competitive game. We must have missed our teacher’s call to return to the classroom, because the next thing we heard was, “Get in here, you niggers!”

We both froze. The tetherball whizzed and spiraled around the pole.

As a five-year-old, I hadn’t yet acquired this new vocab word, but I instinctively understood that it was negative, and that it referred to me. I knew that my brother and I looked different from our classmates, and it didn’t take long for me to deduce that nigger was about my blackness and that it was bad. This rudimentary knowledge was enough to make me duck my head in shame as I ran toward the classroom.

I understand that not all white Christians are as explicitly racist as my VBS teacher. Many are implicitly racist. Some are anti-racist revolutionaries. But what shaped my childhood reality was the absence of messages from the Church that refuted my teacher’s proclamation that my blackness is abhorrent.

In fact, many of the messages I received implicitly supported her proclamation. For example, I often encountered illustrations of God as a white man that associated God’s goodness with His whiteness and maleness. As a black girl, I never saw myself in God. Consequently, it was easy for me to internalize the shame my teacher heaped on me. Additionally, much like the powerful white men whose social location was distant from mine, God felt distant from me. I’m not the only black kid to question my identity in light of the prevalence of white male god.

The late Black tennis star Arthur Ashe shared about his childhood experience with white male god: “Every Sunday, Arthur Jr. had to go to church, either First Presbyterian or Westwood Baptist, where his parents had met, and where he would look up at a picture of Christ with blond hair and blue eyes and wonder if God was on his side.”[1]

We don’t just encounter white male god at church. He is everywhere. For example, “In God We Trust” is printed on money next to a picture of a powerful white man. Each time we look at a dollar bill, we are implicitly reminded that God is a powerful white man. In my early adulthood, as I discovered how ubiquitous white male god is, and how much its racial-gender identity determines who is sacred and who is profane, I grew to hate white Christ. I hated it not only for its historical inaccuracy, but also for its exclusivity. I hated white Christ because its existence was a powerful social force that caused little black kids like me and Arthur Jr. to wonder whether God shared our black identities, whether God was near our black bodies, and whether God was on our side.

Ideas shape everything. In fact, social psychologists believe that ideas are the scaffolding of a culture; ideas impede or propel all that is possible within a culture. White male god rules Western culture. The more a person approximates white male god’s whiteness, the more desirable and holy they are perceived to be. Indeed, in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, darkness and blackness are often equated with ugliness and filth.

I hated white Christ and I was committed to dismantling its supremacy…by any means necessary. So, in 2016 when Christianity Today (CT) magazine invited me to become a monthly columnist, I saw it as an opportunity to talk to a pretty conservative Christian crowd about how Christ is not white. That year I wrote a non-shocking essay about the historical inaccuracy of white Jesus that shocked the CT readers. In response to that particular column I received about five times as much hate mail as normal and four death threats. The vitriolic response simply proved my point: that many American Christians are violently attached to the idea of a white god and are threatened by any suggestion that God is not white.

The overwhelming amount of hate mail and death threats simply affirmed that white Christ is a disease that infects people with anti-blackness. Consequently, I wasn’t at all surprised when, around the same time, America failed to resist Trump’s xenophobic and racist presidential campaign. Between white America’s general lack of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and its attachment to white god, I knew that a blatant racist could easily be elected in this country.

Then Trump was caught boasting about sexually assaulting white women.

I remember thinking, “I know from experience that white Americans typically lallygag when black and brown people are attacked and killed. But surely, they’ll rally to protect their own white women.”

But the white silence in response to white women being attacked helped me grasp that god’s whiteness isn’t the only problem. Up until this point, I had singularly focused on the problem of God’s whiteness when other problems remained, namely God’s maleness. My singular focus is easily explained. As a black woman whose existence is defined by intersectionality, I must navigate a society that is often unwilling to accommodate my blackness or my femaleness, much less both at the same time! So, I’ve often had to choose.  In this case, I chose my blackness, focusing on the problem of white Christ.

But once I turned my attention to the problem of God’s maleness, I realized that I didn’t just hate white Christ, I also hated male Christ. A god who is exclusively white and male, or even predominantly white and male, is never going to be safe for people of color and/or women. Indeed, white male god is intersectional; we must be liberated from both its whiteness and maleness.

The idea of a white male god has ruled American culture for so long that it’s not at all surprising that the Judeo-Christian scriptures depict women as foolish and licentious, that mass incarceration disproportionately affects black and brown people, that a gender pay gap persists in the world’s most prosperous economy, that black and brown people are being shot incessantly by a largely white police force, and that men who have been accused of sexual assault sit on our Supreme Court. When the ruling idea is that the Divine is proximal to whiteness and maleness, and distant from blackness and femaleness, it follows that the culture’s institutions and humans will support anti-blackness and misogyny.

As both black and female in the aftermath of Trump’s election, I consciously found myself caught in the crossfire of anti-blackness and misogyny. I also realized that due to the limitations of my Protestant background, I didn’t possess a theological imagination that ventured beyond white male god.  Consequently, I began searching for other images of the Divine. I didn’t have to search far.  Just beyond Protestantism, from the depths of Catholicism rose the Black Madonna, a black female image of the Divine who is claimed by Catholicism but definitely not owned by it.

Within the span of a few months in 2017, I read every book I could find on Her, lingering on the images of Her. But I knew in order to truly heal from the wounds of growing up in white male god’s world, I needed to encounter Her face to face.  So, in the fall of 2018, I spent five weeks in central France, walking over 400 miles to visit 18 ancient Black Madonna statues in remote villages. I’m not what anyone would call an “outdoorsy” person, but as I’ve reflected on the ways that white male god has wreaked havoc on me, I’ve become more conscious of the ways in which slavery, domestic service, devalued labor and environmental racism have antagonized black women’s sacred relationship to the earth. Though I was scared to walk so many miles, alone, and much of it across winter mountain ranges, I chose to take on the challenge of a walking pilgrimage. I wanted to experience the liberation of intentionally connecting with the earth, with my body, with the air, with the people who lived in the Black Madonna villages – and most of all with an image of the Divine who looks like me, experiences the world like me, and is beloved and holy like me.

~ Christena Cleveland, Ph.D.

[1] Kenny Moore, “Sportsman of the Year: The Eternal Example,” in Sports Illustrated (December 21, 1992).


If/when ego is attuned or at Oneness there is no judgement or comparison. When ego gets disconnected from Source perception shifts… then that which I like I call ‘good’ and that which I do NOT like I call ‘bad’.

As the spiritual path unfolds before me if I have finally learned each experience has within it an opportunity to be drawn closer to the Source, to develop reliance and trust in that Source. My life has presented some intense faith provoking experiences. When I meet them with the anticipation of eventual blessing to be revealed, it is NOT necessary to (even though I do at times) become despondent and hopeless.


Dear Nelda,

You pack a lot into your reflections. In response, I’ll offer some distinctions you might find helpful.

I would invite you to consider distinguishing the ego and the soul. By soul I mean our sense of self that is Being manifesting uniquely as you in each arising moment. You speak of the Source, and Being is the Boundless Source. You can think of the ego as your soul constricted by defenses, by armoring, by ignorance, by instincts. The ego imitates the soul, seeking the Source but unable to experience the connection, you might say, because of the boundaries it imposes to try to survive without being transformed.

You also speak of “perception,” which is helpful and accurate. Since the soul is Being being you, she knows her Source. Yet it is also true that the soul needs to learn how to trust what she perceives and what she knows. For the ego, the spiritual world is often reduced to the small, moral, superegoic field bounded by “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong.” For the spiritual journey of the soul, the focus is the inner journey home to the truth of who she has always been but has forgotten. In a sense, the ego’s unrelenting concerns (anxiety) dulls the perception of the soul and lulls her to sleep about what truly matters: union with the Source.

An essential quality within the soul is that of basic trust in the beauty and goodness of the Source. The ego cannot relax into trust because of the defenses, and so despondency and hopelessness arise. But the gift within the despondency and hopelessness is our realization that we can do nothing to acquire connection with the Source, or to gain value, or to become lovable. What we learn to do is nothing (wu wei, in Taoism), rest and relax in the arms of Being, because the Source is already the essence of our soul. This realization about the nature of reality moves the soul to engage in those spiritual practices (e.g., meditation, curious inquiry, service) that actually deepen her union with the Source without becoming lost in distracting egoic concerns about salvation or superegoic preoccupation with “good” and “bad.”

~ Kevin G. Thew Forrester, Ph.D.




8 thoughts on “Growing Up in a White Male God’s World

  1. I don’t see God in the form of a human. Race and gender biases cause problems regardless of what they are. Jesus seemed to have grown beyond those, but the Christ created by the church has allowed the faults of humans to be propagated as social clubs have grown.

    • I think John Dominic Crossan summed it up very well. God created humans in his own image and we are returning the favour.

      I think it’s too bad that Christena Cleveland has chosen to combat the male white God by choosing a black female God instead of a genderless raceless God. She has chosen to solve one problem with another problem.

      • Edward, I see your point; but I look at it this way. Think of the progressive Christian community (of which Progressing Spirit and similar forums are critical components) as a spiritual emergency room. We as people of color, for the reasons stated by Christena and EbonyJanice and Irene and so many others, are hurting, and have been for centuries.

        When you go to an emergency room, if one form of treatment doesn’t work to alleviate the pain, you go for another. Until you get the ultimate healing, you don’t stop coming. One of the few forms of connective tissue I feel toward Christianity, as a Black man, is the knowledge that the historical Jesus was in fact a non-Caucasian, in defiance of the idealized images Christena refers to that have been shoved down our collective throats for millenia. That for me is a bridge to the concept of the raceless, sexless god, one not bound by ego’s formulations of race, gender, and so on.

  2. Dear Christena,
    Thank you for sharing your world through your eyes. I don’t know what it means to feel your pain. As a white, male Christian raised in the South, I don’t know how it feels to suffer from such injustice. I don’t know what it means to live in a world that is so unkind to people who don’t look like me.

    For reasons beyond my control, I was born a white, male child. It was not my choice to be born that way. It was not my choice to appear physically different from you. It was my choice to not define myself based on my physical appearance. It was my choice to stop believing in the religiously “Divine image” of a “White Male” God.

    I understand why some “Christians” use Religion as a way to justify their desire for the “Manifest Destiny” of a Master Race. I can see the historical origin of Christian “religious authority”. Ancient Romans worshipped the “Divine image” of Caesar. Did a religiously convenient “Divine image of Power” suddenly cease to exist when a “wholly” Roman Empire decided to become a “Holy” Roman Empire?

    It is an historical fact that the “authority” of the Church came from a “Caesar” named Constantine. Would a Roman being worshipped as “God on earth” want the Church he created to change the religiously established image of “God”? The Divine Cult of Caesar-worship did not end until long after Romans were being forced to repeat the words of the Nicene Creed.

    We both have a reason for rejecting the “White Power” image of a “White Male” God. We arrived at the same conclusion, even though our approach to that conclusion came from opposite directions.
    I was guided by a desire to learn the truth about Jesus as a Jew. I was guided by the Spirit who did not want me being fooled by how a Roman Religion could use the word, “Good”. I was guided by the God who knew why there was nothing “Good” about “Good Friday”. I was guided by the God who wants people to know what is “Good”.

    He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8 (NRSV)

    On the inside, I feel God’s Spirit of Compassion. I love sharing God’s Spirit of kindness. But as a white Christian man from the South, I cannot turn a blind eye to injustice. I know the Christian Religion comes from the mind of Paul. I also know that Paul stood there and watched Stephen die. I cannot act like Paul and become a blinded Pharisee. I refuse to believe that “Religion” has the authority “to justify” the senseless killing of a child. If Religion causes people to do what is Evil then the Tree should be known by its fruit.

    Offering kindness to most people is easy. Fighting against injustice is hard. It is easy for someone like me to offer kindness to someone like you. The fight against religiously justified oppression is against people who look just like me. When you shake your fist at “the Divine image” of a “White Male” God, you appear as a hero to “your people”. When I do the same thing, I look like a traitor to “my people”. Perhaps we each have our own cross to bear.

    I understand why you need to speak out as an African-American woman. Do you understand why God would call a white Christian man from the South for such a time as this? God can call a white, Christian man from the South to do something that an Africa-American woman simply cannot do.

    A white Christian man can show people who look like me that a man can change his mind about God. I can show people who look like me how a white man from the South can change his religious ways. I can show people what it means for a white Christian man to humble himself before the LORD. I know there are people who dream of having a “White Power” Religion. Someone like me can be their worst nightmare. I can reject everything that comes from the “White Power” image of Caesar as “God”.

    I can’t help but wonder as I hear the pain that you share so loudly with your words. Would you be able to accept God’s Spirit of Compassion if it came from someone who looks like me? Would you allow a white Christian man from the South who loves the LORD with all his heart to walk beside you as a friend?
    Would you be able to forgive the sin I must have committed due my appearance at my birth? Was being born a white, male child my original sin?

    There is nothing I can do to erase the pain from your past. As a Methodist in the South, there is nothing I can do to erase the horrible fact that the Methodist Church of the South supported a war to keep Slavery. The events of history cannot be changed. The way people chose “to see” the events of history can be changed. It is possible for people to learn how to see the events of their history from a different point of view.

    As a Methodist, I’m comforted by the fact that God guided John Wesley “to see” that Slavery was Evil. When America was fighting a war for Independence, John Wesley was leading the fight against Slavery in England. To me, God was leading John Wesley in the Way that was far ahead for a man living in his time.

    Because I know this truth, I know the Methodist Church of the South did not follow God’s guidance that was revealed through John Wesley. The Methodist Church of the South did the opposite of what God had guided John Wesley to do. I do not blame the God who guided John Wesley because a Church used Religion to justify its worldly desire to worship a “Caesar-like image” of God. I do not blame the God who guided Jesus because a Church in Rome allowed the Christian Capital of the world to form an alliance with Hitler. If Religion causes people to do what is Evil then the Tree should be known by its fruit.

    Go ahead and shake your fist at a “White Male God” of the world. If it makes you feel better, go ahead and curse the Darkness. The Darkness comes from people worshipping a Dark Age religious image of a “Caesar-like” God. It might be more helpful to provide the spark of some new ideas. Instead of cursing the Darkness, the world needs a spark that could get a fire going. I know you have seen the Darkness. But I have seen the spark.

    I’ve seen a spark open the eyes of white Christians in the South. The spark from enlightened thinking has helped people who look like me to see Confederate monuments from a different point of view. I have seen white Christians in the South changing the way they “see” their Southern history. The repentant spirit within these “white people” is not your enemy. The Spirit who is guiding these people to change their ways is not a “White Man’s” God.

    There is hope for a better world. A better world will happen when people who are different begin to see a different point of view. People who look like me need a way to work together with people who look like you. For this to happen, we need to look past the physical differences that only exist on the outside. We need to look for the Light of the Spirit that comes from the same loving God that we share on the inside.

    We need to learn how to come together as God’s people. We cannot allow ourselves be separated by “Dark Age” religious thinking. If we are bold enough in our faith as to believe that this could happen then God will help us find the Way.

    Your friend,
    John Crag
    Durham, NC

  3. Thank you, Christena! I appreciate hearing your story. I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on intersectionality. You comment that you are defined by the intersectionality of a white, male god. Do you see intersectionality, considering all the ways we are oppressed (race, gender, sexual identity, etc.) as a way towards liberation for all? As a white, straight, cis-gender woman, I am very interested in learning how to both honor the experiences of others that I will never have, recognizing where I have privilege and where I don’t, and finding common ground.
    Susan Strouse
    Berkeley, CA

  4. Dear John (Crag): The Roman Empire didn’t become “Holy” in AD400 to adopt the Roman Catholicism. It was after they had crucified Jesus, killing every one of his Apostles except John who was exiled to Patmos Island at more than 80 years of age (?) , and after persecuting and killing later Christian disciples in the thousands, discovering that the increase in number of Christians had gone from one million in 150AD to six million of them by 350AD. So in order to better control them, the Roman Empire used that bishop Augustine’s reading of the Greek Torah and the New Testament, also in Greek, to combine the two into the “Bible”, claiming that it was all written by God himself. Thus, the white Romanized Madonna was elevated to her highness. And later on the images of Jesus as well as all his disciples at the Last Supper, for example, were painted into Romanized white images to this day.
    John: You said, “There is hope for a better world. A better world will happen when people who are different begin to see a different point of view. People who look like me need a way to work together with people who look like you….”
    It has already happened in the “White America” as in 2008: Barack Obama was elected President in the evening of November 4,2008. The election was a landslide, with Obama receiving 365 electoral votes as compared with McCain’s 173.
    Later in 2012, it was not a landslide when Barack Obama campaigned again for the second term, but at 4 AM on the 7th of November, 2012, he had gained enough electoral votes to defeat Mit Romney. And we all know that Barack Obama has a black image rather tan a white one.
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

  5. Thank you Christena! The West turned Christianity into another business venture and so went about colonizing different races & nations under the banner of Christ. A shameful period in history. The white color of Jesus was used to justify their shameful adventures.

  6. But there is no point substituting white Jesus with another colored person for veneration. There is need to change Western mindset and psychology. This has to start from religious education.

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