Conversion and Radical Love: The Goal of Christian Antiracist Work

Protestors hold up signs saying Black lives matter, White silence is violence, and Get up, stand up for your rights, don't give up the fight.
Photo by Shane Aldendorff on Pexels.com

Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a spiritually moribund religion in need of new blood.

-Martin Luther King Jr.

What is the goal of Christian antiracism? Specifically from my own context, I ask: What is the responsibility of churches that contain white people to shape those white people[1] toward real Christian antiracism? It is important to address this question at least in part because in some circles, people tend to think that antiracism is only interested in critiquing or tearing down the negative aspects of our current world. While this is an important aspect of antiracist work, the goal is the creation of a new society, and ultimately a new world, where the human dignity of each person is recognized and respected. The problem that we encounter in striving for this new world is that certain systems and structures—anti-Black racism and white supremacy, for example—are incompatible with a world that allows for the human flourishing of all people. So, in constructing the new, some of the old must be done away with.

This vision of a renewed world was called the Beloved Community by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who dedicated his life to making it a reality. I draw on King because I believe that he exemplified the need for simultaneous construction and destruction, as well as understanding the need for both theological complexity and theology put into practice.[2] 

Antiracism is more holistic and comprehensive than simple colorblindness. The idea of colorblindness is, in essence, that the best way to address racism and inequality is by attempting to treat everyone the same, regardless of their race. While this approach may sound appealing initially—and is supported by some well-meaning individuals—it ultimately serves to entrench racism and inequality rather than addressing them. As Montague Williams, professor of Church, Culture, and Society at Point Loma Nazarene University, states, “To be clear, color-blindness is not a Christian virtue… [it] maintain[s] racial injustice by claiming the recognition of race to be unconstitutional, anti-American, and immoral.”[3] 

Rather than ignoring the problem of racial injustice, King called for a radical restructuring of our internal lives, interpersonal relationships, and the fundamental value structures of this world—what I refer to as radical love and conversion.[4] One of the main obstacles that King faced in attempting to instantiate this alternative reality, the Beloved Community, was what he referred to as “the white moderate.” The white moderate is one who is so ensconced in the status quo that even if you convince them that white supremacy exists and change is required, they will be unable or unwilling to imagine a different reality. King’s frustration with the white moderate Christian leads him to cry out in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?”[5] King could clearly see that following Christ involved tearing down systems of oppression and building a humane community together, but the vast majority of white Christians either denied the existence of oppression altogether or counseled King to be patient and allow oppression to resolve on its own.

As Christians who discover ourselves in a world where colorblindness is often assumed to be the definition of antiracism, we must soberly confront the issue in order to form each other in real antiracism. We have to confront the issue so that white siblings in Christ are not misled from the mission of Christ into a false antiracism.

In short, King calls for us to become members of the Beloved Community. In the Beloved Community, each member works to recognize and properly value the humanity of each other member, and God’s love reigns as the overarching principle. Though this kind of talk strikes many as naively utopian, King believed that he was being eminently practical, and following in the path of Jesus, who King argued was fundamentally a realist. In his sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” King states,

Yet far from being the impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist. … Instead of being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command [to love our enemies] is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Love is the key to the solution of the world’s problem, yes even love for enemies.[6]

As we see here, King saw that without a community based on the all encompassing love of God, society was doomed to implode, either through conventional means like political infighting or apocalyptic ones like nuclear co-annihilation. King often spoke in prophetic terms about how America and the world were doomed, or were going to be sent to hell, if we humans could not figure out how to love one another with the love of God.

However, it is important to note that, for King, love is not what he derisively called “emotional bosh.” Rather, love is tapping into the power of God to bring about change in the world. Love, in this divine, radical sense, participates in the power of God to reshape and redeem our world. Indeed, King argued that love could not be separated from power, stating,

One of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites. … What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. … Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.[7]

Given this understanding of the necessary connection between love and power, we can begin to understand what radical love means to King. Radical love is not sentimentality or even feelings of affection for other people; King tried to love everyone but freely admitted he did not like everyone, especially the people oppressing him and upholding the status quo.[8] Love entails wanting what is best for everyone, even if what is best for them is back-breakingly hard. This brings us to the concept of conversion.

Speaking at the legendary Highlander Folk School, King stated that the goal of the nonviolent demonstrations he led was to “leave [white people] glutted with [their] own barbarity; you will force [them] to stand before the world and [their] God splattered with the blood and reeking with the stench of [their] Negro brother.”[9] King spoke of the demonstrations he led as dramatizations of the plight of Black Americans, which were intended to wake up white people to the reality of oppression in which we were and are complicit. And by encouraging white people to rid themselves and the world of that which stands in the way of their communion with their fellow humans, King was also attempting to rehabilitate white people’s communion with God, whose love is the source of true community and authenticity. In other words, King was hoping to bring about a conversion in white people.[10]

This conversion is difficult, even painful. Indeed, one way of speaking about it is to say that King hoped that white people would suffer. What I mean by this is that King desired that white people would come to see themselves as intimately connected with their fellows—specifically Black Americans—and would come to experience something of the suffering of Black people. This is similar to what Frederick Douglass desired for white people. Douglass recognized, on the one hand, that no one could fully understand what it was like to be another person, which was especially true when there were significant differences between the people in question. Yet, Douglass believed that the effort to see from another person’s perspective, and feel what they feel, produced an “ethical intersubjectivity,” or, in other words, made a moral community possible.[11] These efforts make community possible because the members of such a community value and try to understand each other’s perspective. King often stated that “what affects one directly affects all indirectly,” which entails that when one person is suffering, all people suffer as a result. All suffer because we are not fundamentally individuals but what King at times called persons-in-community. Our ability to be individuals comes from our human community.

In his final address, which has come to be known as the Mountaintop speech, King speaks to these ideas of community and suffering: “Up to now only the garbage men have been feeling pain. Now we must kind of redistribute that pain.”[12] Note King’s use of the word “feeling” here. He does not say that only the garbage men have been affected but that only they are aware of it. In fact, everyone is damaged due to the injustice King names, but some privileged (primarily white) people are unaware that they are being injured because they have neglected their duties to other (primarily Black) people in their midst. Thus, King desires that this pain be felt by all not out of a sense of vengeance or a desire to do harm to others, but rather so that those who are complicit in white supremacy will come to see not only its detrimental effects upon others but also the harms it is causing to society at large and their own ability to lead a flourishing life. This kind of suffering is redemptive because it leads to love of others and love of God, which is the sort of conversion King was interested in.

This willingness to embrace the suffering of others can be understood as part of the eternal call to model our lives on that of Christ. One constructive perspective is provided by AJ Maynard, an author at Conciliar Post, who argues that white supremacy can be understood as a kind of original sin. He states:

Institutional racism is the world we live in; it is our Original Sin. You and I may not personally believe black individuals are, by nature, inferior to white individuals. But we nonetheless live within, and benefit from, a system built and maintained by people who did. Because of this, every white Christian should now consider not if, but rather how we are racist, which will require “… nothing less than renovation from the inside.”[13]

Maynard’s suggestion is helpful because it points out that, while we will likely need to struggle against white supremacy both internally and externally for the foreseeable future, we also can be redeemed by God through conversion, just as we are redeemed by conversion from original sin.

Theologian Matt Jantzen, in conversation with the founder of academic Black Liberation theology James Cone, argues that this conversion “is not a human achievement but a divine gift.”[14] Conversion is something that we cannot do ourselves, but through which we are empowered by God’s grace to participate in the divine plan to bring down all systems of oppression. Jantzen notes,

The destruction of one’s whiteness does not happen in a heroic moment of personal reinvention, but requires the literal destruction of the material manifestations of whiteness in the world. … It is both an individual and communal phenomenon.[15]

So, drawing on Jantzen, conversion from whiteness is both a moment of divine grace and a working out of divine grace in the lives of people socialized as white, to break the power of white supremacy in spiritual and material ways within the context of community. Or, in the terminology of King, it is working to become members of the Beloved Community by radically loving ourselves and others in ways that break down systems of oppression and make way for loving community with God and our fellow humans. This path is not easy. Indeed, by ourselves it is impossible. Yet, Christian hope lies in the impossible, in the lion lying down with the lamb, in the great empires being brought low by a Galilean peasant, and in the resurrection of the dead to new, transformed life. So, in closing, I hope you will join me in praying for and working toward the impossible: the dissolution of white supremacy and all systems of oppression, and the full realization of the Beloved Community.


[1] It is more accurate to say “people racialized as white,” because whiteness is a historical, social construction. That is to say, it is not natural in a genetic sense nor something that is a part of the essence of a person. However, social constructs like whiteness have very real consequences for both those racialized as white and those excluded from whiteness. And, as I will argue in this article, it takes far more than ignoring race as a social construct to do away with its devastating effects.

[2] This emphasis on praxis is something shared between King and John Wesley. Wesley, reflecting on the relationship between doctrine and praxis, stated “I believe the merciful God regards the lives and tempers of men more than their ideas.” (John Wesley, “On Living Without God,” Wesley Center Online, http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-125-on-living-without-god/)

[3] Montague R. Williams, Church in Color : Youth Ministry, Race, and the Theology of Martin Luther King Jr,  Baylor University Press: 2020, p. 47-50.

[4] One of King’s best speeches on this subject was given to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, titled “Where Do We Go From Here?” However, the idea of a radical restructuring is found throughout King’s works. If you wish to read King’s address “Where Do We Go From Here?” it can be found here: https://www.crmvet.org/info/67mlkchs.htm.

[5] Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” University of Pennsylvania African Studies Center, https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

[6] Martin Luther King Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” King Institute, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/loving-your-enemies-sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church.

[7] Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” Civil Rights Movement Archives, https://www.crmvet.org/info/67mlkchs.htm.

[8] Martin Luther King Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” King Institute, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/loving-your-enemies-sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church.

[9] Martin Luther King Jr., “A Look to the Future,” in All Labor Has Dignity, Beacon Press: 2012, p. 8.

[10] This does not mean that King thought that Black people had no work to do. Rather, I mean that the work that white people have to do with throwing off white supremacy, both from our own minds and our society, is different from the work Black people have to do fighting off the negative effects of white supremacy and racism. White and Black people can and should work together to oppose these demonic systems, but the work that they have to do is different because of the different ways that Black and white people are situated in the world.

[11] Nick Bromell, The Powers of Dignity: The Black Political Philosophy of Frederick Douglass, Duke University Press: 2021, p. 67.

[12] Martin Luther King Jr. :I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” King Institute, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/ive-been-mountaintop-address-delivered-bishop-charles-mason-temple.

[13] AJ Maynard, “Reclaiming Original Sin in the Face of White Supremacy,” Conciliar Post, https://conciliarpost.com/politics-current-events/originalsinandracism/.

[14] Matt Jantzen, “Neither Ally, Nor Accomplice,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 40, no. 2, 2020, p. 286.

[15] Jantzen, “Neither Ally, Nor Accomplice,” 287. 


David Justice

David Justice is a PhD candidate at Saint Louis University writing his dissertation on the political theology of Martin Luther King Jr. He is also concurrently enrolled as an MA student in the religion department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

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