The Way We Think

The following is excerpted from Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony, by Paul Kivel. 

Christian dominance goes much deeper than even our language and issues of privilege, credibility and sexuality. Core concepts of sin and salvation, universal truth and progress over time are embedded in the way we organize knowledge to understand the world. When we hear about the discipline of the market, the achievements of science or technological progress, we might take these concepts to be universal. Yet there are multiple ways to organize economic interactions, practice science and focus technology. We need to demystify the concepts behind accepted ways of thinking and seek alternatives. What kinds of economies, sciences and technologies will serve all of us without destroying our livelihoods or natural environment? It helps to ask: Who benefits? Who pays? and Who decides? in the current system? 

Our Bodies and Feelings are Sinful

In hegemonic Christianity the body (female) is juxtaposed to the soul (male) and our disciplined and rational minds (male) are juxtaposed to our uncontrolled emotions (female). Bodies and feelings are our weaknesses, sources of pain, suffering and temptation. Our body/feelings are said to tempt us to overeat, to enjoy sex, to indulge in leisure, to “be lazy,” to cross boundaries.

The Christian concept of sin children internalize prepares them to accept and enforce hierarchies of class, race and gender. The socialization doesn’t have to be brutal or even overt if children are taught early on to intuit from the culture around them which beliefs and behaviors are taboo. The sense of crossing the line of what is acceptable (to sin) produces guilt and often even a fear-based paralysis, making it difficult for people to challenge those taboos and those who benefit from them. Lillian Smith, a southern white woman, wrote about how Christian training in the concept of sin enforced racial segregation in the US.

When we as small children crept over the race line and ate and played with Negroes or broke other segregation customs known to us we felt the same dread fear of consequences, the same overwhelming guilt we felt when we crept over the sex line and played with our body, or thought thoughts about God or parents we weren’t supposed to think. Each was a “sin” and “deserved punishment,” each would receive it in this world or the next. Each was tied up with the others and all were tied close to God … The lesson of segregation was only a logical extension of the lessons on sex and white superiority and God.1

In the early church the body and feelings were not taken to be sources of sin, and for many, such as early church leader Cyril, the body, emotions and the physical world were sources of inspiration to be treated with reverence. Paradise was considered to be attainable by human communities on this earth and involved respecting our bodies and nature.2

Over time, the church understood that sexual temptation could lead people to challenge its anti-sex prohibitions and thereby undermine its authority. Its leaders constantly railed against the dangers of sex and lamented its powerful effect. As just one of countless examples, the Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm, wrote:

There is one evil, an evil above all other evils, that I am aware is always with me, that grievously and piteously lacerates and afflicts my soul. It was with me from the cradle, it grew with me in childhood, in adolescence, in my youth and it always stuck to me, and it does not desert me even now that my limbs are failing because of my old age. This evil is sexual desire, carnal delight, the storm of lust that has smashed and battered my unhappy soul, drained it of all strength and left it weak and empty.3

Christian theologians have long praised the virtuous life as pure, transcendent and undistracted by bodily/earthly needs and desires. They believe the devil tempts people through the body (and indirectly via women); only with strict, purifying religious discipline – including fasting and sexual abstinence, or at least, highly monitored temperance – can temptation be overcome. To defend against succumbing, they teach that control of bodily desires through faith, will and vigilance is the source of salvation.

As the Inquisitions extended their long shadow over Europe and Christian civil authorities became more able to control people’s daily life, stronger prohibitions emerged on sexual activity, dancing and public festivals. Secular authorities enforced these prohibitions as a way to preclude public gatherings that might lead to organizing and rebellions. Christian leaders cited morality and virtue as justification for the prohibitions, contrasting model Christians to wild and savage Native Americans and Africans, as well as women and working-class people. This ideological legacy has played an important role in shaping current social concerns about the regulation of bodies and our sexual desires.


God judges individuals on their beliefs and behavior, sexual or otherwise. Over the centuries, judgment has become an essential element of Christian belief. Would God declare a person good enough to go to heaven, or sinful, condemned to hell? Christianity teaches only God can judge. But first the Catholic Church, as God’s representative on earth, and then most Protestant denominations set up courts and inquisitions to decide in God’s name. Some denominations went so far as to bar virtually any activity that was fun or leisurely. Actions were condemned as indulgences – a waste of time that should better be used for pious living and good works. Work – constant hard work  – and the avoidance of temptation were the only paths to salvation.

Churches also developed judicial processes because of their concern for doctrinal purity and the dangers of heresy. The process was not one of judgment, forgiveness and rehabilitation. It consisted of condemnation and punishment. Individuals decreed heretical, and therefore sinful,4 were found guilty, expected to be repentant, and punished in any case. Our secular legal system was adapted directly from canon law; such concepts as punishment, testimony and repentance demonstrate its Christian roots.

Today, after centuries of external enforcement, most people subjected to this framework have internalized it and now monitor themselves. As Lillian Smith noted, once the concept of sin is internalized, it can be seamlessly and unconsciously transferred to any behavior those in authority want to enforce. In order to avoid sinful behavior (and for many, sinful thoughts) a person has to constantly evaluate whether they are transgressing i.e. misbehaving.

Am I working hard enough?

Am I getting enough done?

Am I pretty enough? Thin enough? Strong enough?

Am I successful enough? Caring enough? Competitive enough?

Am I spiritual, religious, or activist enough?

A judgmental framework makes it difficult to feel fundamentally good about oneself. One way to compensate for judging oneself inferior is to pass judgment on others and feel superior or righteous as a substitute for feeling OK. This leads to a climate of shame, blame and separation from others. I have found from my years of conducting workshops with diverse groups of people that many have difficulty even describing others’ behavior without condemnation. They may describe their children (or other people’s) as lazy, spoiled or rebellious. They may describe their colleagues as self-serving or hypocritical, their partner as self-centered. When those being described are further removed from their direct experience because of race, class or religion the verdicts get harsher, using words like terrorist, evil or barbaric.

The critical voice in people’s heads overrides acceptance and love and makes it hard for them to work with others. Instead of identifying problems and solving them, judgmental people easily end up blaming others and polarizing relationships into situations where they are right (and therefore good) and someone else is wrong (and therefore bad). The judgmental attitude makes it difficult to avoid condemning people who make what we label bad choices or who don’t meet our expectations.

Loving people in their vulnerability, complexity and imperfectness is not always easy. Yes, individuals are responsible for their choices. But holding a belief that everyone is a sinful individual can be toxic; it too easily leads to condemnation of others – and of one’s own habits. Moreover, because judgment generally accompanies the belief that an individual with enough strength of character can overcome anything, it assumes each person is completely to blame for any perceived imperfection or lack of success. Based on these beliefs we have created a punitive society with millions locked in prisons, jails and other detention centers – and with a constant stream of self-judgment in our own psyches.


Modernity became a “secular theory of salvation.”5

After the Papal Reformation of the 12th century when the promise of salvation was reinterpreted as something to be fulfilled not on earth but in the afterlife, there was a complete philosophical reorientation within Christianity. For the first time in its 1,100-year history, Christianity offered guaranteed salvation after death to those who fought in the Crusades and the promise of salvation to anyone who was free of sin. Purity, including chastity (sinlessness), on earth became the key to eternal life in heaven. 

Salvation is part of judgment in two ways. Salvation is what God grants through his final judgment. It is also what is needed to save a person’s soul to prepare for that event. When a person decides another’s beliefs or actions are leading that person into moral danger, they feel entitled to advise them about how to save themselves. After all, when another’s eternal life is at stake, one has an obligation and a responsibility to give advice, to critique, to help them for their own good. Because the object of such a salvific intervention may not think they are in danger, much of Christianity is vested in saving people from themselves. This intervention also accrues Christians good moral standing because they are acting virtuously and charitably towards others. However, constant fear of moral peril short-circuits one’s ability to simply listen to others, to be fully present for them without anxiety and to resist the need to give advice.

The compulsion to save others is widespread today. Those who would not describe their actions as saving ones might use secular language such as helping others, but if help is premised on the inadequacy of the person receiving help, assistance only increases disempowerment and dependency. I believe with support, most people have the ability to figure out how to solve their own problems. However, if one feels responsible for the salvation of others, it can be difficult to trust the personal strength, knowledge and wisdom of those other people. 


Within the Christian imagination, sin is often conceived of as dirt, pollution or a dark spot on the soul. Since sex is a primary sin we use phrases like dirty thoughts, dirty feelings and dirty pictures in association with it. To be free of sin is to be pure: innocent, uncontaminated or clean. Why do we use the phrase “clean and sober” if not to remind us that there is a deeper stain from sinful behavior that cannot be removed by simply refraining from alcohol or other drugs?

Since 381 C.E.,6 dominant Christianity has attempted to enforce doctrinal purity. The phrase heretical filth, used to describe Cathars and Waldensians, was echoed over the centuries by references to Jews as filthy, women as unclean, Indians as vermin, Bolsheviks on trial as filthy scum and Nazi depictions of Jews as rats who carried disease. Almost all campaigns of violence were attempts at purification by the elimination of filth or pollution. Cleanliness was indeed next to Godliness and physical cleanliness was often seen as a substitute for or representation of moral and spiritual cleanliness. For example, individuals may feel dirty or sullied by thoughts or behaviors they have been taught are sinful, or by contact with people they’ve been taught are contaminating. Since white is the color of purity and cleanliness, white Christians may conclude people of color are dirty or contaminating. The source of pollution may change over time – Jews are no longer accused of poisoning wells; people now fear recent immigrants of color contaminating our society – but concern for purity remains. We see fear expressed in public policy discussions when homosexuals are accused of spreading AIDS or of defiling the sanctity of marriage.

The valuation of purity leads many to work for the so-called cleansing of society through prohibitions on sinful behavior and elimination of contaminating groups. Those who promote such campaigns believe they are virtuous and doing God’s work, which easily leads to a feeling of self-righteousness. Since one is helping purge the community of evil, one identifies as a moral crusader, an “ordained agent of purification.”7

However, to maintain one’s claim to virtue and justify feelings of self-righteousness a person must maintain their purity. A plea of innocence is not only a denial of responsibility; it can also be a failure to acknowledge complicity. Our society is based on inequalities of wealth and power – multiple, intersecting systems of oppression. Many people are in great need. No one is disconnected from these problems; innocence and guilt are not useful referents. As Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”8 The dominant Christian focus on moral purity leads many people to feel guilty about injustice but unable to act responsibly because they want to claim innocence. Instead they may support campaigns of purification rather than efforts to address the roots of injustice, allowing themselves to maintain a sense of personal purity or innocence.      

Public health campaigns – from the prohibition of alcohol to abstinence-only sex education programs – highlight how many see the pursuit of purity as an antidote to sin. Rather than acknowledging the complexity of social issues, Christian-dominated thinking urges us to adopt single issue campaigns based on a binary sense of all or nothing, sinfulness or purity.



The Christian concept of charity as an individual act that brings salvation to others is a variation on the savior narrative on a personal level. The world is God’s creation. Therefore, one challenge given to Christians is to carry out God’s will by doing good works (charity) and spreading the gospel (missionary work). This limited vision of in-the-worldness suggests that one can do holy works in the world even though the world is not sacred. Through charity, a person shares their love of God.21 The world is the site of one’s acts of charity and service, but the world’s transformation is not the goal. This contradiction can lead people to be more concerned about their good intentions than the real impact of their actions.

The concept of charity was dramatically transformed in the mid-19th century. The role for increasing numbers of white women, as they were being confined to domestic roles in middle-class households, became not only care of children, but also a new humanitarian mandate to care for the poor, the infirm and all of those who were called primitive people (such as slaves and Native Americans) who needed Christian love and salvation. During this period, white women’s efforts to provide services for the indigent and disenfranchised increased dramatically.22

White women were thought to speak with female moral authority because they possessed a humanitarian sensibility deemed appropriate and unique.23 In a period of no government assistance, their work was helpful in providing a network of social services for those who needed them. At the same time, they became symbols not only of gender-based moral sensibility but also of racial superiority. Even as they worked for abolition, women’s suffrage and services for immigrants and the poor, they consolidated the power of white Christian civilization and caring as the highest form of human morality. The privileges allowing the middle-class and wealthy to be generous were materially dependent on the unpaid or low-paid labor of the very population they were helping. With that relationship obscured, what was called (and still is called) humanitarian work served to maintain the dependency of those in need. Charity is a one-way relationship, not a reciprocal one, and it reinforces unequal power relationships between those with privilege and those without, while at the same time reinscribing larger hierarchies of race, class and gender.

By the end of the 19th century, the United States began to define itself not just as a nation of generous individuals, but a benevolent nation helping benighted peoples such as Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Filipinos. Of course, we had to take over those countries and exterminate many of their citizens to exercise our generosity. But as President William McKinley stated so explicitly, it was both our generosity and our god-given responsibility to help them become Christian and civilized.24

Even today, these relations of rescue, whether individual or national, continue to justify interventions that are rarely beneficial to those receiving such so-called help.25 Many people are socially engaged, of course. And they may be guided by Christian values to be so. But when we respond to suffering only in the form of individual acts of compassion, we neglect examining the underlying system that distributes resources in such a way some people prosper and others languish. The causal connection between the accumulation of wealth by charitable individuals and the people whose problems may actually be caused by the exploitive accumulation of wealth is obscured.

In addition, charitable acts are useful to the recipients in the short term but provide no long-term solutions to social need. A million charitable donations to soup kitchens or homeless shelters will neither provide living-wage jobs to eliminate the need for soup kitchens nor construct affordable housing to eliminate homelessness.

Christian charity may be felt to be an obligation, but it is a discretionary one. Once one has been charitable, one’s obligation has been fulfilled. In an effect labeled moral credentialing, researchers have found that some people, after performing what they consider to be a good deed, may feel that next time they get a pass. They become less likely to act charitably in future situations because they have already established their virtue.26

Some Christians work for social change rather than only for social service. But groups from Abolitionists to contemporary peace and environmental activists, always a minority, are often persecuted by other Christians. As religious researcher and sociologist Stephen Hart notes, “… many Christians invest more energy and concern in their faith and churches than in anything else outside their families and jobs, and non-Christian bases for public involvement are strong for only a small proportion of Americans.”27

I am not critiquing Christians’ participation in abolition, suffrage, anti-Indian removal, anti-poverty and other efforts. However, I would contend that because they did not understand how their values shaped such efforts, despite their intentions, much of these activists’ work remained steeped in attitudes of benevolence which ultimately undermined their efforts. The actual impact on those being helped was not always examined, and people operating out of a charitable framework did not necessarily understand their interdependence with those they were “helping.” The same concerns have been raised today about the complex impact of the paid and volunteer work large numbers of people perform in the nonprofit sector providing services to local communities, and in NGOs “helping” those in other countries. Without examining the structural roots of social problems, people doing such work may only be providing a palliative for the impact of corporate and governmental policies which benefit them.28


1. Lillian Smith. Killers of the Dream. Norton, 1994, p. 84. I thank Sally MacNichol for her article “We Make the Road by Walking: Reflections on the Legacy of White Anti-Racist Activism” in Jennifer Harvey, Karin A. Case and Robin Hawley Gorsline, eds. Disrupting White Supremacy From Within: White People on What We Need to Do. Pilgrim Press, 2004 which drew my attention to this quote.

2. Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. Beacon Press, 2009, pp. 115-168.

3. Jeffrey Richards, Sex, Dissidence, Damnation. Routledge, 1994, p. 23.

4. Heresy was a kind of sin, an intentional defiance of God’s will as defined by the Church.

5. Ashis Nandy. Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias: Essays in Politics of Awareness. Oxford, 1988 quoted in Sardar, Postmodernism and the Other, p. 31.

6. In 381 C.E. the Roman emperor Theodosius declared that there was only one set of beliefs that counted as orthodox and all others were heretical (dangerous and punishable by religious and secular law).

7. Jonathan Kirsch. The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God. HarperCollins, 2008, p. 238.

8. Abraham Joshua Heschel. “Toward a Just Society” in Susannah Heschel, ed. Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1996, p. 220.


21. The root of “charity” is caritas, a Latin word for love.

22. Peggy Pascoe. Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, 1874-1939. Oxford, 1990. pp. xvi-xxi.

23. Thomas L. Haskell. “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility, Part I.” American Historical Review Vol. 90#2 (1985), pp. 339-61 in Tracy Fessenden. Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature. Princeton, 2007, p. 247, note 22.

24. While trying to decide what to do about the Philippines, McKinley stated that he got down on his knees and prayed. He then realized that “there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” Quoted in Howard Zinn. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. Harper Perennial, 2001, p. 313.

25. Pascoe, Relations of Rescue quoted in Susan M. Ryan. The Grammar of Good Intentions: Race and the Antebellum Culture of Benevolence. Cornell, 2003, p. 76.

26. For the original work on moral credentialing see Benoît Monin and Dale T. Miller. “Moral Credentials and the Expression of Prejudice.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 81#1 (2001), pp. 33-43.

27. Stephen Hart. What Does the Lord Require?: How American Christians Think About Economic Justice. Rutgers, 1996, p. 132.

28. For insightful articles about the impact of nonprofits and NGOs see: Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. South End, 2007.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.