In a year of monotonous repetition, reality TV has become an escapist salve in our household. Most nights, my sister and I curl up on the couch/office that we vacated a couple hours ago, popcorn in hand, our small dog curled up between us. We have come to know the Bravo franchises quite well—all the housewives from New York, New Jersey, Salt Lake City, and the Potomac area; the employees of mega yachts on Below Deck; the chefs on Top Chef. And, of course, there is the black hole of ABC’s dating franchises The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.
Before the pandemic, I merely dabbled in reality TV. But before the pandemic, I had other things to do on weeknights and could maintain some manufactured moral high ground by not watching hours of women fighting, rumors flying, and produced romance. But the crushing weight of the mundane coupled with the chaos of the past year has rid me of all such illusions. And I have been grateful for the activity and departure from reality that these shows, perhaps ironically, provide.
Although many of my evenings are dedicated to watching interpersonal dysfunction unfold, I spend my days as a seminary student. During the era of remote learning, this mostly includes reading and writing and Zooming from various positions around my small house, including the aforementioned couch. Therefore, it is not completely surprising that an article for my ethics class brought to mind the most recent season of The Bachelor, which aired earlier in 2021. The article explored how antebellum America defined sin, and the reality show captured our nation’s prejudice in 2021 when photos circulated of a leading white contestant dressed in racist costumes. In an odd cacophony spanning centuries, the cultures of the 1800s and today seem to raise the same questions to white America: What is the hurt of racism? And how are we to respond?
As a white, cisgender woman raised in a wealthy home, I feel these questions being asked of me. As someone studying Christianity with the hopes of offering spiritual guidance and space to others, I hear these questions being demanded of the white church. And as a Jesus follower who ultimately believes in reconciliation, I am learning that before we can hope for or imagine unity, we white Christians first need to sit with these questions, and so here they are again:
What is the hurt of racism?
And how are we to respond?
Antebellum Racism and Christianity in America
In her 2010 essay in Church History, Molly Oshatz paints a picture of American Christianity as the country moved toward the Civil War. Abolitionists, while not perfect, were beginning to think ethically about slavery and argue against it using Bible verses, whereas slavers maintained that there was a hierarchy of beings in the Bible and that they were doing holy work by offering God and civilization to their enslaved people. Amid these opposing forces, Oshatz homes in on how the middle ground of white, Christian America responded. That is, in an attempt to maintain a connection with both abolitionists and slavers, moderate Protestants developed a whole new understanding of sin.1
Up until this point, US Protestantism defined sin as an individual’s act of disobedience to God. Sin was a person choosing to drink, cheat, kill, and so on. Abolitionists said slavery fit into this definition. Defenders of slavery said it did not. So moderates like Francis Wayland, Leonard Bacon, William Ellery Channing, Horace Bushnell, and Edward Beecher introduced a third option: the sin of slavery was a systemic evil. It was a sin for which society itself, rather than the individual, was responsible.
This new understanding of sin was an attempt to open the door for compassion toward Christian slaveholders. Moderates agreed with abolitionists that slavery was a great evil. But they used their new articulation of enslavement as systemic and not individual sin to argue that the burden of its wickedness could not be placed on slaveholders. The moderates asked: What if slaveholders did not realize that they were participating in an evil system? What if they grew up in a slave economy and did not consciously choose their lifestyle? What if a slave master inherited rather than purchased their enslaved people?
And so, moderates argued that “truth and justice had to be balanced with patience, meekness, and forbearance” when dealing with slaveholders.2 In time, they believed, God would reveal the sinfulness of slavery to slaveowners and convict their hearts to make changes. Accountability and societal change lay with the Holy Spirit, not with American Christians.
Racism in 2021: Reality TV and Social Media
After finishing Oshatz’ article, the mantra that “truth and justice had to be balanced with patience, meekness, and forbearance” echoed in my head. I had just read those words, at least a similar version of them, hours ago as I skimmed the latest Bachelor news update on my phone. Unless I am procrastinating a paper or some other tasks, I am usually pretty good at ignoring click-bait headlines promoted on social media, but this one was as irresistible as it was shocking. Chris Harrison, the nineteen-year host and producer of The Bachelor, was taking a step back from production because of racially insensitive comments he had made in a recent interview.
To understand the true impact of this interview and comments, I need to clarify the plot of the franchise and the simultaneous timelines of reality TV.First, in the Bachelor franchise, multiple contestants vie for the attention and wedding proposal of one man or woman. And second, episodes are filmed months before they are aired, which means that the bachelor and the finalist are already in a relationship hidden from public view by the time America watches episodes of The Bachelor. Sometimes, this means that information will come to light as America is watching the show that was not known at the time of filming.
Throughout the twenty-fifth season of The Bachelor, twenty-four-year-old Rachael Kirkconnell was a clear frontrunner for “Bachelor” Matt James’s heart. But halfway through the airing of the season, several photos surfaced on social media that showed her dressed up in Native American attire with friends at college and attending an antebellum-themed, invite-only fraternity formal. Such photos would provoke ire at any time, but they were especially explosive in James’s season—a twenty-eight-year-old real estate broker, entrepreneur, and Black man, James is the first male lead of the franchise who is not white.
Almost a week after the photos came to light, producer and host Chris Harrison sat down for an interview on the entertainment news show Extra. Rachel Lindsay, the first Black “Bachelorette” in 2017 and a special correspondent for the program, conducted the interview. During the conversation, Harrison downplayed the seriousness of Kirkconnell’s photos and called for compassion toward the young graphic designer, who was facing a huge online backlash.
“We all need to have a little grace, a little understanding, a little compassion,” the franchise host said. “Because I’ve seen some stuff online—again this judge-jury-executioner thing—where people are just tearing this girl’s life apart and diving into, like, her parents and her parents’ voting record. . . . The woke police are out there and this poor girl [Kirkconnell] has just been thrown to the lions.”
Lindsay, who was conducting the Extra interview, continued to press Harrison about the reality of the photos saying, “The picture was from 2018 at an Old South antebellum party. That’s not a good look.”
“Well, [Lindsay], is it a good look in 2018? Or is it not a good look in 2021? Because there’s a big difference.”
“It’s not a good look ever,” Lindsay said. “If I went to that party, what would I represent?”
“You’re 100 percent right in 2021. That was not the case in 2018. And again, I’m not defending [Kirkconnell]. I just know that, I don’t know, 50 million people did that in 2018. That was a type of party that a lot of people went to. And again, I’m not defending it. I didn’t go to it.”3
In the days following Harrison’s interview, Kirkconnell released a statement on her social media channels apologizing for her ignorance and actions and calling them “racist.” Lindsay declared her official separation from the franchise. And Harrison announced that he would be “stepping aside” from The Bachelor franchise “for a period of time.”4
The irony of Harrison’sinterview, for those familiar with the franchise, is all too clear. The Bachelor/Bachelorette has a history of featuring only white contestants and tokenizing racial issues. Matt James’s season, which followed a season of The Bachelorette featuring Black and Latina Tayshia Adams as the lead, was meant to mark a change. ABC even promoted their hiring of a diversity consultant. Harrison’s comments, which downplay Kirkconnell’s actions and suggest that racism has become an issue only in the past several years, communicate that not much has changed in the franchise.
The Invitation to the White Church in 2021
“We all need to have a little grace, a little understanding, a little compassion,” said Harrison. Isn’t this the same call as the antebellum Christian moderates? “Truth and justice [have] to be balanced with patience, meekness, and forbearance.” To be fair, Harrison is not a religious leader, and The Bachelor/Bachelorette is not religious programming. But both responses capture the thinking and response of white culture in a moment of critical thinking about race. And both call for compassion before action, forgiveness rather than denouncing the harm of bigotry. The responses are incredibly similar. Are white Americans really having the same conversation about race all these years later?
Of course, exploring the nature of racism in America is difficult; it requires conversations without easy solutions. When we engage with the reality of racism, we have to drive down to the very foundation of America, the disparity between the claim in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and the arrival of enslaved Africans to Point Comfort in 1619. Beyond that, such conversations must address the very nature of power and morality and the human condition.
Looking at my own life as a white person, it took me thirteen years of education before I even realized that racism was a problem that needed to be addressed. Even now, with a degree in Black studies and a collection of master-level classes exploring race, God, and the American church, I still struggle to find the right words. Growing up in a white, wealthy suburb of Pittsburgh, I assumed, learned, and absorbed that the appropriate method for dealing with race was colorblindness or not addressing race at all. After all, I thought, the civil rights movement was successful, right? Race should no longer be a problem in America. How could it be when, during my days as a high schooler, America elected its first Black president? I wrongly assumed that differences in income, education, and jail time were due to personal choices and not intentional failures in social systems.
I had no concept of systemic racism and exclusion, these layers of discrimination that lay like sediment on the lives of Americans. I didn’t see how things like wealth, opportunity, housing, and access to education and health care build from one generation to another upon that sediment. Learning about these forms of institutionalized racism was incredibly influential for me. I learned that what was important wasn’t necessarily whether or not I was a racist but how I handled the knowledge that whole systems were configured to benefit me because of the color of my skin.
In America, there is a reason that the Black infant mortality rate is twice the rate of white infant mortality. There is a reason that 75 percent of the people in state prison for drug conviction are people of color despite the fact that Black people and white people see and use drugs at roughly the same rate. There is a reason, when looking at assets like cars, homes, and debt alongside income, that the median Black American has just 2 percent of the wealth of the median white American.5 These things are true because of the history of enslavement and the development of modern systems that embody the very racism that has been a part of America since its foundation.
After the public, gruesome deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020 and the following months of peaceful protests and demonstrations, white America was forced to confront the history of racism in a new way. During that time, I noticed that many of the white, middle-class people in my life, including friends, family, and congregants at the church where I was working, experienced an opening up to the concept of systemic racism. Similar to my own experience, acknowledging systemic racism was freeing because it didn’t require white people to take on the whole burden of racism. We could say, “I am not carrying active hatred toward people of color in my heart.” But it was also humbling because systemic racism calls us to acknowledge our inheritance and complicity in an evil system. For white Christians specifically, I saw systemic racism bring to life the “principalities and powers” of Paul’s writing—it was an evil alive and beyond our control (Eph. 6:12).
I’ve also noticed that some of the same Christians who have had these epiphanies remain concerned with the concept of compassion that we see voiced by Harrison and the moderate pre–Civil War Protestants. And they do have a biblical and practical point. As followers of Jesus, we are called to love our enemies and those who are opposed to what we hold as true (Matt. 5:44). We believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to convict hearts (Acts 15), and we believe that we are called to have compassion and grace (see Col. 3:12 and 2 Cor. 1:3–4).
And realistically, it takes time and effort to breakdown the racism that we all have absorbed. Mistakes will be made. And these mistakes will perpetuate racism and hurt the personhood of others in very real, sinful ways. But can we expect anything more from someone besides an apology and actions to work toward better self-understanding and anti-racism? What happens, as we saw with The Bachelor, when these apologies feel false or come after real harm has been done?
My worry, and perhaps this is why I can’t let go of the connection between antebellum America’s introduction of systemic sin and The Bachelor, is that when we lean too heavily into social component of sin, we lose agency. When our first response to racism is “We all need to have a little grace, a little understanding, a little compassion” or “Truth and justice had to be balanced with patience, meekness, and forbearance,” we put off the work of anti-racism and let broken systems stand. We sidestep the issue. We uphold racist norms. We dismiss our own culpability and silently defend our positions of power. And we do this at the cost of the dignity of our brothers and sisters of different races.
These are the issues, I believe, that sit at the feet of the white church. In order for there to be a way forward that works for change and racial reconciliation, we need to reimagine how we see the individual and communal responsibilities in broken social systems that uphold white supremacy. It is only in understanding the nature of the sin of racism that we can understand the nature of healing. What responsibility does a white individual hold in a racist society? What responsibility does the whole community hold? How are these two things, individual and social, connected in the church?
The Bachelor Fallout
Kirkconnell, the leading Bachelor contestant whose troubling photos surfaced midseason, ended up winning the reality dating show. While most seasons of The Bachelor/Bachelorette end with a proposal, Bachelor Matt James asked Kirkconnell to be his monogamous girlfriend, and they had a relationship out of the public eye for a couple months until the photos from Kirkconnell’s past resurfaced. In the two timelines of reality TV, we watched in the news and on social media as Kirkconnell was held accountable and condemned for her actions at the same time as we watched her and James fall in love on TV.
Typically, the final episode of The Bachelor/Bachelorette is followed by a live interview with the couple where they demonstrate how their love is still strong months later. This season, the live interview became a place for the franchise and Kirkconnell to speak plainly about their actions. It was sad and awkward to watch the twenty-four-year-old apologize for her past actions or to learn how the photos ultimately broke James and Kirkconnell up. Both stated how they still had feelings for one another but implied that Kirkconnell did not take the photos seriously at first. In an extreme break from norms, America watched as reality intervened in their reality romance.
Explaining his decision to end the relationship, James stated “It was in the context of you not fully understanding my Blackness . . . and what it would mean for our kids when I saw these things floating around the Internet. . . . I didn’t sign up to have this conversation.”6
Kirkconnell’s heart was clearly broken. Yet there was nothing more she could do, nor that James or America could expect her to do, than apologize and take actions to do better. She demonstrated both of these things in this final interview, but her previous actions had consequences—hurting James and other contestants and viewers of color, for instance. It was not their responsibility to assuage her guilt, teach her, or forgive her.7
Although the church of 2021 may not have to bridge the gap between slavers and abolitionists, racism is still a part of our society, just as we saw on James’s season of The Bachelor. And since the church is called to enter and respond to the world around us, we must listen to and learn from the hurt of others. So what lesson does James’s season of The Bachelor reveal for the church?
It seems clear that the individual bears responsibility and the individual requires forgiveness. But sin never exists in a vacuum. The sin of racism, for instance, is inherently personal, defying unity and community. This stands in contrast to the biblical call to justice that is fundamentally built on relationships. As Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez reminds us in A Theology of Liberation, “To know Yahweh, which in biblical language is equivalent to saying to love Yahweh, is to establish just relationships among persons, it is to recognize the rights of the poor. The God of biblical revelation is known through interhuman justice. When justice does not exist, God is not known; God is absent.”8 In other words, a relationship with God collapses the false dichotomy between the individual and the social. There is no sin that does not bleed out and affect those around us, that is, those God calls us to love. There is no salvation that occurs apart from bringing God’s love and justice into the world through personal relationship.
Perhaps for reconciliation to happen, the white church needs to sit first with the sin of racism, learning the hurt it perpetrates and the role we as parts of a system and as individuals have to play in it. As we focus on the ties that bind us, we can approach those who have perpetuated racism and hurt others with compassion while still holding them responsible for their actions. We can approach ourselves with kindness and accountability. And as we acknowledge that sin lies in our lives like a sediment, building and stacking on top of one another generation after generation, we can learn to humbly seek right relationship. Relationships that span class, gender identity, and race can heal us, and the church can be the space for this to happen. But first, we, the white church, need to believe in both accountability and kindness, individual and social sin.
Of course, God is all powerful and can do the work of reconciliation without us. But perhaps it is the grace of God that allows us to join together and exorcise the evil that buries itself in our own individual and communal hearts. Perhaps it is the grace of our all-powerful God to use love and relationships to bring divine justice into the world.
As a seminary student in a pandemic, I have the luxury of thinking about all of these things theoretically as I read, write, and Zoom around my small house, and I find myself complicit in the web of modern racism—I am invested in the world of reality TV, a world that is built upon the appeal of judging other peoples’ lives and replicating social norms, including racism. And yet, TV shows like The Bachelor also remind us that reality is something we can construct. As a Christian, I find wonder and hope in that reminder because we serve the God who makes all things new, the God who is challenging us to construct a new reality, a true reality that does not gloss over our harmful history but laments it and builds something completely different. We serve a God calling us to reimagine sin as both systemic and individual, to have compassion for sinners and to confront sin, and most importantly of all, to let love govern both our actions and our systems.
- See Oshatz, “No Ordinary Sin: Antislavery Protestants and the Discovery of the Social Nature of Morality,” Church History 79, no. 2 (2010): 334–58, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27806397.
- Oshatz, “No Ordinary Sin,” 342–43.
- Elyse Dupre, “The Bachelor’s Chris Harrison Defends Rachael from Controversial Social Media Accusations,” February 11, 2021, https://www.eonline.com/news/1236873/the-bachelors-chris-harrison-addresses-controversial-social-media-accusations-against-rachael.
- Marianne Garvey, “Chris Harrison ‘Stepping Aside’ from ‘The Bachelor’ after Controversial Interview,” CNN, February 14, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/13/entertainment/chris-harrison-the-bachelor-interview-trnd/index.html.
- Division of Reproductive Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, “Infant Mortality,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, September 10, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternalinfanthealth/infantmortality.htm; Center for Law and Justice, “New Jim Crow Fact Sheet,” Center for Law and Justice (Center for Law and Justice), accessed April 28, 2021, http://www.cflj.org/programs/new-jim-crow/new-jim-crow-fact-sheet/; and “Wealth Inequality,” Inequality.org (Institute for Policy Studies, April 22, 2021), https://inequality.org/facts/wealth-inequality/#racial-wealth-divide.
- Eric Deggans, “The Bachelor’s Cluelessness About Race Comes To A Head In Season Finale,” NPR, March 16, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/03/16/977841254/the-bachelors-cluelessness-about-race-comes-to-a-head-in-season-finale.
- Note that as of July 2021, Kirkconnell and James are back together. The couple told People magazine that this reconciliation was the result of a lot of work and communication. See Dory Jackson, “Matt James and Rachael Kirkconnell on Overcoming ‘Difficult’ Time in Their Romance: We’re ‘Better,’” People, July 12, 2021, https://people.com/tv/matt-james-and-rachael-kirkconnell-on-overcoming-difficult-time-in-their-romance/.
- Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, ed. John Eagleson, trans. Caridad Inda, 15th anniversary ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 110–11.