Sunday, September 7, 2014

Why I Need Black and Womanist Theology

Eleven years ago, for the first time, in my first year of seminary, I sat in a classroom and heard about Black Theology from Dr. Richard Perry. Though today it is somewhat embarrassing to admit, the truth is: my first and overwhelming emotions, if I remember correctly, were: 

fear and anger and resentment.  

Growing up in the “country,” I went to a mostly white high school in some pretty white suburbs. I then attended college in a similar setting.  I was proud that my group of friends was kind of diverse, and even international. I was proud of myself for calling-out adults on what I considered racism or prejudice, even in my youth. 

I had been taught well by my Sunday School teachers that God always cares for the under dog, and the “least of these,” and I had a gift for sniffing out and naming situations where our human actions were not in line. 

Some leaders in my youth also taught me that the answer to WWJD (What would Jesus do?) was simple: Jesus would vote Republican. Also, just a few years prior I was struggling with the question of wether women should be allowed to be pastors in our church. I was told the Bible forbade such things, and was shown in what places. 

Though I was taught about the “least” and the “underdog” and God’s unending Love, I also understood the Bible to be the last Word. So I was stuck. Struggling. Quite uncomfortable. But luckily finding a few loopholes along the way, as well. 

I was just about to learn about structural oppression, racism, and other forms of Sin that lead to death. 
But back to: Fear… Anger… Resentment… Why?

Not because because the theology was black. That was not disturbing to me. 

Not because of the radical picture of Jesus—that was already a given. 

What was it? 

At the time I tried to make my anger virtuous: I was a prophet, sounding a warning call: I warned the professor, and my new classmates: theology like this—saying stuff like this about white people—it’s going to make the racist’s more racist! Even more inflamed! Even more angry and violent and cruel! I even went on the racist groups’ websites, and looked up their language to prove my point—this kind of stuff is making it worse! We on the good side should not be inflammatory. We should respond only and always in love!

Of course, I was no prophet! 

I was just very, incredibly, naive. 

Incredibly. Naive. 

And worse, I was putting the responsibility for White Racist action and White Racism on those who were the recipients and victims of Racism every single day of their lives! I was placing responsibility on those who had done absolutely nothing to solicit or earn the racism, or discrimination, or fear of their white neighbors, except to exist—to exist as a person, and a people, with black or brown skin. 

I was just about to learn about structural oppression, racism, and other forms of Sin that lead to death. 

“Our faith says to love,” I reminded everyone—as if they hadn’t recently read the same Bible I did. 

But “Our Faith,” as I understood it, again, in my naïveté, was not necessarily “our faith,” not necessarily my white, German, Lutheran faith, justified by Grace, apart from works. 

I would a year or three later come to believe deeply that love had implications when applied to social, political, economic, and environmental spheres, and that those implications always lead to a liberating justice, especially for those oppressed and poor. 

I was only just about to learn about structural oppression, racism, and other forms of Sin that lead to death—thanks to Black and Womanist theologians. 

But still the question: Fear… Anger… Resentment… Why? 

What in Back Theology made me fearful?

Looking back, this is what I think:

I had gone into college four years prior to that class with Dr. Perry with another naive ambition: 

I was going to find Truth! 

The search for The Truth! No matter how many books I had to read, how many hours locked away in a library by myself, on retreat from the world, learning languages, dissecting ancient manuscripts: I would find the Truth, I would be able to articulate that Truth, and that Truth would set me free—or at least grant me peace.  

Certainly the Bible, and Christian Tradition held that Truth. It was there. In the books. Waiting to be uncovered.

On a more experiential level, I had felt something of salvation in the faith—as a young person, and a person who felt a bit “on the margins,” (even if they were rural/suburban margins), the Church, the community of faith, “God’s House,” among God’s people, was the main place I felt both safe, and at home. Further, I had dedicated my life (more than once) to following the Christ that I found in those places, among those people, the Christ that had saved me in a number of deeply personal ways—a Christ, again, who roots for the underdog and cares for the poor. 

I heard black male and, later, Womanist theologians saying (to both A and B, above): 

Your truth may not be my truth, our truth. Those books that you search for truth in are not untouched by racism, patriarchy, and other forms of structural Sin that lead to death. Some, if not most, are thoroughly shot through with it. Truth might not be contained in a proposition. It may be the “setting free” itself that is True. Truth might not be found alone in a library, but experienced together in the struggle, in life, in community…

This was my biggest fear: Was it possible that the Faith that saved me, that I “believed,” might not be True? 

At the time, by “True,” I meant, “Universal.” It was not hard for me, a white male, to confuse the two. After all, most written theology in the universe reflected a white male vantage point. 

At the suggestion that it was possible that the faith I had dedicated my life to, that saved me from all sorts of deeply personal things might not be Universally True, I reacted. 

With fear, anger, and resentment. 

If the Truth I found so far was not True, was there really a Truth at all? 

More fear. 

Furthermore, I heard the critique that the faith that saved me is RACIST!

That faith that taught me to care for the underdog and the least… That taught me not to be prejudiced… How could it be? 

Again, I was threatened. I was fearful. My whole life had been built around this. And I was not ready to hear that it was flawed, fallible, human—and, yes, racist. 

I was still in denial. About all of it. 

Tension and Turning 

In community organizing, we make a practice of naming our tensions, in the format of an evaluation, after everything we do. 

It was a great community organizer, Cindy Bush, who I first heard say: 

without tension there is no turning.

That class, and the classes I would take with Dr. Linda Thomas three years later, Womanist Theology and then Theologies of Women of Color, were certainly turning points for me. Not only would the writings of Black and Womanist theologians agitate and challenge my faith, they would also help to resurrect it. They would shake me out of my denial—about Truth and knowing Truth, and the like—even if I resisted, with anger, at first. I would eventually budge.

I would certainly not be able to serve in the same way in the context I serve today without Black and Womanist theologies. 

Also: every one of those challenges and agitations were correct:

My Faith Tradition was shot through with racism. My tradition did support hierarchy and racism and patriarchy and other Systems of Sin that lead to death. 

I was taught to care for the poor and the underdog. But me caring was still me at the top, in power, dominating—at the top of a racist system of oppression. That is: the oppressor! 

I was among the powerful that “helped” the un-powerful by remaining powerful—the oppressor who gave out a bowl of soup to the home-less oppressed, and then went to a home, to a fridge, to a bed. Still no equality at the end of the day. 

My theology of Love was actually a theology that perpetuated white dominance over black and brown people, rich dominance over the poor, by saying that love looked only like charity, and not like structural change and the redistribution of power and wealth, so that charity (made possible by injustice) is no longer a necessity. 

My former theology was nowhere near “black people taking the dominant role in determining the black-white relationship in American society ( James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2001), p. 1.),” nor an understanding that “Profound love can only exist between two equals… [and] love without the power to guarantee justice in human relations is meaningless (Cone, p. 53).” Love without power has no meaning, no mean, no center…

My particular truth was not the Universal Truth. What helped me would not help everyone. 

What helped me had hindered others. Had hurt others. 

I needed Black and Womanist theology. To wake me up. 

To shake me out of my denial. 

I need Black and Womanist theology. To wake me up. 

To shake me out of my denial. 

I am in a healthier, open-minded, place as I re-enter the classroom (I pray!) and read, again, Black and Womanist theologies. The readings have already been both challenging and edifying. I come eager to listen.

Among other things, From the start, I am very much struck by the recurrence of the Incarnation, on top of the Christo-centric nature of Black Theology, so far in much of the readings. 

One quotation in particular has been sticking with me:

“Racism is a complete denial of the Incarnation, and thus of Christianity (Cones and Wilmore, Black Theology: A Documentary History, Volume One (Mary Knoll: Orbis Books, 1993) p. 119)."

If the Truth that liberates is that God is within and among all of us—in the flesh, in all flesh, in its many colors and shades—the God of the incarnation is born among the poor, the oppressed, the homeless, the migrants, the 99%, then certainly, "Through Christ the poor man is offered freedom now to rebel against that which makes him other than human (Cones and Wilmore, 131).”

Love for both oppressor and oppressed does not look like charity. Rather, love looks like equality. And equality looks like the redistribution of power—the mountains and valleys of inequality and disparity lowered and raised. 

And love might mean, suggests Cone, the dehumanized and unrecognized and unacknowledged human making her- or himself human, seen, known. The unseen oppressed making herself seen to the oppressor is an act of love—even, Cone suggests, if it looks something like a riot. This piece is challenging, and offering me a bit of tension. So I’m paying attention.

I am excited to look more deeply both into the use of the Incarnation and into the use of the Cross in Black and Womanist theologies—because those stories are central to the life of First Trinity, and because I think that those stories are central and powerful as they connect with common, deep, personal liberative spiritual experiences, and with personal and communal experiences of oppression in many contexts. 

These connections are important to me personally, and as I look forward to writing a thesis. 

So stoked to be back in school. 

Here's to meaning and liberation! 

And to the tension and agitation that leads to turning. 

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