Written by Yin-An Chen.
Image credit: blue sky + by Froschmann/ Flickr, License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
The connection between Whiteness and Protestant Christianity does not simply result from its relation to Western missionaries but is consolidated by the power of Western Christianity in its theological language, ideology, and hierarchy. In other words, what Whiteness maintains in Protestant Christianity is not about whether white European and American people established Protestant churches—it is about who can talk about God and explain the doctrine. It is about the power of speech and authority instead of skin colour. Whiteness, in this sense, is a method of securing the power of speech and authority.
Becoming White and Whiteness
Most Protestant churches, no doubt, can trace their origin back to Western missionaries when mission works spread widely along with the expansion of Western empires—although Christianity, fairly speaking, originates from Palestine in the Middle East rather than Europe, and Jesus almost certainly had neither blonde hair nor blue eyes. But we rarely think of Christianity as a religion of the Semitics. This is because when in the 4th century, the Roman Empire stopped persecuting Christians and began to regard Christianity as the official religion, Christianity turned into a ‘European’ religion and ‘washed off’ its Semitic character and colour.
Jesus of Nazareth became a white man. Most Christian saints are simply assumed to be European people. For example, St Augustine of Hippo, the writer of Confession and The City of God, whose theology has had a decisive impact on the church in Western Europe from his time through to the present day, is commonly depicted as a European man because he was a ‘Roman’ Catholic bishop. It is easily forgotten that he was an African, as he came from modern-day Algeria and served as a bishop in what we now call Tunisia. Though we don’t have his portrait, he was, in all likelihood, a black man.
This ‘contextualisation’ of Christianity—which re-interprets a Semitic religion spreading across the Mediterranean area in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Europe to fit into a new context—gradually increased in importance for the new Christian converters living in Europe. Making Christianity light-skinned creates ‘familiarity’ with and for its new European believers. Similarly, contemporary contextual theologians attempt to portray Jesus in Chinese clothes (though Jesus certainly wasn’t East Asian). So we can say that Christianity-turns-to-be-white results from hundreds of years of Western contextualisation. It is nonetheless important to bear in mind that if Whiteness is about power as opposed to skin colour turning Christianity to white European does notnecessarily mean the birth of Christian Whiteness in the sense of this article. Making Jesus light-skinned is just one way of contextualising European absorption of Christianity from Palestine.
Whiteness and Hierarchy
However, the experience of contextualising Christianity into European culture works less well when it spread to places beyond Europe.
First, Puritan Christians fled from Britain to North America to secure religious freedom. But religious freedom in this sense is not about the right to believe in different gods or religions (such as Buddhism, Islam and Judaism) but the freedom to express people’s Christian faith. Believing in a non-Christian religion was unthinkable. Second, Puritan Christians who escaped to North America believed that they were people specially selected by God and that they were chosen to enter the ‘Promised Land’—completely disregarding those who already lived there and had a different faith and cosmology.
Puritan Christians were urged to construct their Christendom. Although they claimed to protect religious freedom, this right to freedom did not cover those who had different faiths. Religious freedom became a right to be enjoyed only if you were a Christian or even a Puritan. For Puritans, Christianity was one way in which they could justify placing themselves in a superior position above other peoples – their Christianity entitled them to take their rightful possession of God’s Promised Land.
Secondly, what do God’s chosen people ‘look like’? White Puritans soon noticed the physical difference between the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, the Africans, and themselves. Having white skin’ gradually became a sign of God’s chosen people, and having darker skin came to be identified with sinfulness, spiritual immaturity, and inferiority in all senses. Some Puritan Christians even prayed for Africans’ souls to be washed white and become white after the Resurrection.
Therefore, racial difference was created as a social label that not only separates white Puritans from non-white people who are not chosen by God but also constructs a social and spiritual hierarchy of Christian superiority. So now we can see that Christian superiority is connected with being white—Whiteness based on social hierarchy and spiritual salvation. And we can also begin to see that Whiteness is not purely about having white skin but is a sign of superiority.
Whiteness and Protestant Christianity in Taiwan
Whiteness in Puritan Christianity became the mentality of Christianity among the American churches rooted in Puritan tradition—especially in conservative Evangelicalism and white Fundamentalism—as they possessed (and indeed still possess) strong self-belief in their own unique chosen identity and salvation. This mentality of Whiteness also became a key component of Protestant Christianity in Taiwan due to how the thinking underpinning missionaries introduced it from American Evangelical and Fundamentalist traditions. It was especially propagated during the Cold War era.
The decisive moment of the profound impact of conservative Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism on Taiwanese Protestant Christianity occurred in the 1960s when bitter rivalry arose between liberal Protestants and conservative Protestants in the USA and left-wing Christianity and right-wing Christianity in the global spectrum. This rivalry manifested itself in Taiwan as the division between the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the International Council of Christian Churches (ICCC).
Because of WCC’s relationship with Communist countries (particularly through Eastern European orthodox churches) and their recognition of the People’s Republic of China, Chiang Kai-Shek forced the mainstream Protestant churches in Taiwan (such as the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church and the Methodist Church) to withdraw their memberships. This caused these churches to lose their global connections with other churches worldwide and left the Protestant churches in Taiwan behind in the progressive development of Christian theology.
At this time, other WCC member churches began to reflect critically on the impact of imperialism on the local church alongside their national independence movement. At around the same time, in 1968, WCC members were encouraged to seek justice and peace in international affairs, to struggle for liberation (1975), and to confront threats to peace and survival (1983) when Taiwan was under the oppression of dictatorship. Protestant churches in Taiwan were constrained in isolation.
On the other hand, the ICCC, strongly supported by American fundamentalism, gained the upper hand over the already-isolated Protestant churches in Taiwan, thanks to their anti-communist ideology and preferential support from the government. Moreover, by means of attacking WCC as a communism-sponsored organisation, ICCC negated all WCC’s agendas which might empower the churches in developing countries, seek political and spiritual liberation, criticise Western Imperialism, and contextualise Christianity into their own cultural, social and political situation.
ICCC’s member churches labelled WCC’s supporters as ‘heresies’ that had turned away from ‘orthodox’ Christian faiths held by ICCC members. Therefore, only ICCC churches with orthodox beliefs that opposed WCC/lefty/communist/progressive/liberal thoughts were the ‘chosen’ people of God. They insisted that only when the churches were opposed to involvement in social and political issues could they maintain their own ‘purity’ of faith, ‘orthodoxy’ of theology, and selection status. Therefore, only they (in the circle of ICCC) were saved by God, as they shared the same Whiteness as the Puritan Protestant Church in America.
Whiteness Is Not the Racial Issue Alone
The ICCC’s members were not necessarily white churches and people. Taiwanese churches and Chinese Christians overseas supported their propaganda. But this did not mean that these Protestant churches in Taiwan had nothing to do with Whiteness—if we remember that Whiteness is not about the racial issue alone but hierarchical power.
Politically, what conservative Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism (in connection with ICCC) did was to strengthen the support of the American right wing for the Taiwanese dictators in the name of anti-communism and to secure the deep connection of geopolitics between Taiwan and the USA under the Cold War structure. Theologically, the impact of conservatism silenced the diverse voices of the local Taiwanese people in thinking of contextualising Christianity into its new situation and required Taiwanese churches to be subjugated to American Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. It also maintained the position of theological conservatism as the only orthodox and pure faith and demonised anything and everything that might threaten and challenge its power.
To this day, American Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism remain dominant over the development of contextualising Taiwanese Christianity and the making of Christianity relevant to the people. White and American conservative theologians and preachers are still worshipped. They seem to be superior because they are a sign of Whiteness and of the authority of the orthodoxy and purity of American Christianity. What shall these Protestant Christians desire themselves to be? How can they show the sign of salvation as the chosen people? Not like who they are, Taiwanese. But just be like a white Puritan. That appearance brings about the power and authority of Whiteness.
Yin-An Chen is an Assistant Curate at the Church of England and a Research Associate at the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide. He received his MPhil and MA in theology from the University of Kent and Durham University. In Taiwan, he did his MA in anthropology at National Taiwan University and BA in Humanities and Social Sciences at National Tsing Hua University. He has published some essays about Hakka Christianity and queer theology in Chinese. His current research focuses on decolonising theological education, political theology, queer politics, postcolonial critique and Michel Foucault. His newly published book is Toward a Micro-Political Theology: A Dialogue between Michel Foucault and Liberation Theologies (Pickwick, 2022).
This article was published as part of a special issue on “Invisible Discrimination in Taiwan.”
I overwrote this about 20 years ago, but you may find the footnotes useful as you further your research on Christianity in Taiwan. https://www.academia.edu/40927582/Taiwan_Presbyterian_Church_History