“We are protecting ourselves without violating the principles of Christian decency.”
These words, said at the end of this 1942 propaganda film meant to justify the internment camps for Japanese Americans during WW2, shook me to my core when I first heard them. I was struck in that moment how, throughout history, White Christians have used the “Myth of Christian Decency” to somehow validate their injustice and oppression.
The Myth of Christian Decency teaches that order is always better than justice; that the status quo is worth protecting at the expense of God’s image bearers; that the rights of those in power must be centered at all times; that my neighbor who is “other” is less human than I and is not worth all my support and love.
Whether in the United States or abroad, it has been the Myth of Christian Decency which has for centuries justified violence and oppression in the name of Jesus. It was the Myth of Christian Decency which justified the brutal treatment of indigenous persons on Turtle Island, declaring that Native Americans must either by exterminated or “civilized” in the order of Whiteness (see: Andrea Smith, “Decolonizing Salvation” in Can “White” People Be Saved?).
It was the Myth of Christian Decency which has led some in the global Christian tradition, such as Abraham Kuyper, to look down on persons of African, Latin, or Asian descent. The myth of Christian Decency, using White European standards, looks down on other cultures as somehow less human, uncivilized, incapable of “proving a benefit to humanity at large” (see: Vincent Bacote, “Kuyper and Race” in Calvinism for a Secular Age).
Even today, it is the Myth of Christian Decency which exhausts all energy on parsing the semantics of injustice rather than acting against injustice, choosing instead to debate facts, views, and history with the most minute of precision. The Myth of Christian Decency doubts the validity of the claims of the oppressed and and thereby sides with the oppressor in maintaining the status quo.
This myth was best captured by Dr. King who, when sitting in that jail in Birmingham, identified the Myth of Christian Decency as his greatest ideological opponent:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
The Myth of Christian Decency is one of the many diseased ideologies which operate as a central pillar to maintain Whiteness and White Supremacy in our society today.
We do not have to look too hard in the Scriptures to know what Jesus’ attitude is toward those who ardently uphold this Myth, for he encountered similar myths in his own day in the attitudes, actions, and structures of the religious leaders in his day. His anger toward such persons, most evident in Matthew 23, is palpable:
So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. 4 They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. 5 Everything they do is for show. (Matthew 23:3-5)
Could we not hear him utter these same words about the followers of the Christian Decency Myth? The judgment is equally strong:
What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either. 15 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. 24 Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. 28 Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:14-15, 23-24, 27-28)
If the Myth of Christian Decency is to finally end, it will only be by the merciful Interruption of the Holy Spirit who will breathe new life into the dry bones of those who choose order over love.
Until then, we who endeavor to follow the Way of our Master must strive to interrupt the order of the status quo with justice, mercy, and faith.