In the United States of America we are one year away from a Presidential election that begs the question, who are we and who do we want to be as people in the world? More directly the church is being asked, what does it mean to be followers of the teachings of Jesus? What is the relevance of the church and how does the church speak to society? This election cycle finds our nation engaged in a national dialogue that lacks civility, dignity, or morality. All of the existential questions of the human condition are being asked, and the Church has a responsibility to be in dialogue with the collective as we seek to define ourselves in this moment. It is a false narrative that the Church has nothing to contribute to the public discourse our nation currently engages. What is true is that much of the current strife we encounter in the political arena has its roots in theological dialogue. Ideas and policies that serve the racism so fundamental the imperialist white supremacist heteropatriarchy of today’s political landscape is a prime example of how Constantinian Christianity has been a tool of oppressors to marginalize and disenfranchise those not in the dominant group.
American racism, as a body of ideas, is a religious confession with political results. It is a theological dogma grounded in distorted understandings of the Biblical text. American racism emerged as a product of northern Christian intellectual ideologues popularly known as American Puritans (Griffin 1999). The entire system of American wealth is impossible without the slave trade and the forced labor of Black bodies. Chattel slavery and the subsequent forms of legalized American apartheid are impossible without the theological unpinning provided by the representatives of the church. The curse of Ham in Genesis 9:18-27 was interpreted as God’s punishment for sin and therefore slavery God’s intention for the Black race (H. L. Griffin 2006). This practice of twisting Bible has continued to serve the dominating culture.
Race is a social construct with no basis in biology. The putative meanings of “race” are transmitted through a series of durable, transposable, dispositions, that structure, (de)form, direct, and predisposes individuals and groups perception and response to a social experience (Copeland 2010). The artificial social construction of race is deliberately imposed upon people in order to secure exploitation (Douglas 1999). In other words, the church taught America to be racist. Racist is not a pejorative term used to denigrate an individual, a racist is one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea (Kendi 2019). The current political dialogue is racist, and the church is charged with the task of reforming the culture that creates the dialogue.
The task of the church in this climate is to live into her identity as the full people of God. This means engaging the work of being Christ in the world through proclaiming the message of the Gospel (kerygma), rendering services of liberation (diakonia), and by being herself a manifestation of the nature of a new society (Koinonia) (Cone 1997). To engage this current political moment and not retreat is essential to what it means to be church. The church is a set apart public whose life and witness serves the interests of the broader public (Strachan 2015). Our efforts must be aimed at offering responses and challenges to anything in our society that confronts and limits human flourishing, with special attention to the most vulnerable, marginalized, disinherited, and least among us.
We can start by exemplifying what it means to be antiracist. An antiracist is one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea. If racism entered through a theological door, the church is responsible to bring a corrective through the work of theology. Real theology revises and critiques the language of the church to see where it both betrays and portrays the Gospel message (Cone 1997). The church must begin to call anything that comes against human flourishing sin. Sin as a state of being and not only an act of doing. In Paul Tillich’s words, sin is ontological, not moral (Spong 1993). In the human need for power over or the desire for bringing another into a subservient role is the abomination. People who have fallen victim to racism, ableism, sexism, ageism, genderism, poverty, and all the other atrocities perpetuated by imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist, heteropatriarchy may well be served by a fresh understanding of sin. This fresh look at sin may serve as an antidote to the supremacist ideology of dominant cultural values that lift up the norming of white heterosexual male able bodies.
To be saved from oppressive systems does not mean to be saved from oppression. Often disenfranchised and marginalized people still suffer from internalized oppression. It is internalized oppression when any group thinks the same way about themselves as the oppressor. This leads to oppression sickness that causes the oppressed to mimic the oppression of the oppressor. The effort to mimic dominant culture has greatly infected the event those who are members of minoritized communities in church with classism, sexism, heteroprivilege and more. Unfortunately, inferior-feeling groups often seek to make someone else more inferior (Flunder 2005). Church must begin a to look toward an eschatological moment where the Kindom of God comes for all the wretched of the earth.
The Church should be determinative and not reflective of society, especially as it deals with the human body as a theological problem. The DNA of our thinking—those powerful and pervasive prejudgments based on race, gender, sexuality, and religious constructs that comprise an active epistemic framework affecting what we see and how we engage the world—are all bending toward new realities (Kornegay 2013). All theological construction comes out of, and is shaped by, particulars. Particulars shaping theology include, but are not limited to: social, political, economic, cultural, and historical dynamics (Ellen T. Armour 2005). It is time for the church to speak to a changing world as champions of a more just and humane way of being.
Non schola, sed vitae,
Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Interim Director of the Doctor of Ministry | Assistant Clinical Professor
SEATTLE UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY
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Cone, James H. 1997. Black Theology and Black power. MaryKnoll: Orbis.
Copeland, M. Shawn. 2010. Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Douglas, Kelly Brown. 1999. Sexuality and the Black Church:A Womanist Perspective . Maryknoll: Orbis .
Ellen T. Armour, Paul E. Capetz, Don H. Compier. “God.” In Contructive Theology: A Contemporary Approach to Classical Themes, edited by Laural C. Schneider, 19-76. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.
Griffin, Horace L. 2006. thier own recieve them not: African American Lesbians and Gays in Black Churches . Eugene: Wipf & Stock.
Griffin, Paul R. 1999. Seeds of Racism in the United States of America . Cleveland : The Pilgrim Press .
Kendi, Ibram X. 2019. How To Be An Antiracist. New York: One World .
Kornegay, El. A Queering of Black Theology: James Baldwin’s Blues Project and Gospel Prose. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Spong, John Shelby. 1993. This Hebrew Lord. New York: HarperOne.
Strachan, Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen. 2015. The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic.