Note to Readers: this is a reflection containing my opinions. Anyone is free to disagree with me. All I ask is that you hear me out and respectfully consider my perspective. I do not believe there is a uniform political position that all Christians or progressives should hold. Thank You.
The rise of Donald Trump as a serious political option should greatly concern us. One of the questions that now confronts U.S. Christians committed to justice is the following: What if Trump were to become president? Imagine. What if Trump were to become president? What would happen?
What if Trump were to feasibly deport nearly 3 million immigrants? What if he helped cover up corruption and brutality in police departments while closing down public schools? What if Trump supported overthrowing democratically-elected governments in Central America and considered deporting unaccompanied minors fleeing these countries? What if Trump, while claiming to fight for regular people, defended Payday loans which often charge well over 100% interest rates to those in struggling circumstances? What if Trump favored the most militaristic and interventionist foreign policies? What if Trump promised further militarizing the state of Israel while downplaying the suffering of Palestinians?
The list could go on and on. Wouldn’t all of these things be horrible? Well, I think many of us need a reality check. All of the things I've just mentioned, things that Trump might do, have already been done by Democrats within the past 7 years. And I'm not talking about fringe Democrats or exceptions to the party line but I'm talking about Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, Debbie Schultz, and Hillary Clinton, the upper echelon and power-brokers of the Democratic Party.
Obama’s administration has deported over 2.5 million immigrants and is only increasing detention and deportation raids at the end of his tenure, including mass deportations of Muslim asylum seekers. Emanuel, as mayor of Chicago, has come under fire for covering up corruption in Chicago's police department and for cuts to public education. Clinton supported the 2009 military coup in Honduras, has called for deporting recently arrived unaccompanied minors, has earned the reputation of being one of the Democrats’ greatest war hawks (a proud mentee of war criminal Henry Kissinger), and recently gave a speech in which she promised to further militarize Israel while implicitly calling Palestinians the oppressor. Schultz, the current chair of the Democratic National Committee, has been working to gut rules intended to reign in predatory payday lending.
My point is not to demonize Democrats or well-intentioned voters but to raise some serious questions. I’m afraid that many of us, myself included, have welded our faith and political witness too deeply into the ideology of an increasingly right-wing party. In the name of overcoming the problems of the Religious Right, progressive Christians have given Democrats an easy pass. So when Bush goes to war and pushes the Patriot Act, we condemn it but when Democrats extend the Patriot Act and position themselves for more needless, imperial wars, and regime-changes, we consider it the trade-off, the small price to pay in order to stop true evil which is always Republican. When Trump declares the things that he wants to do, we are appalled. But when Democrats have already done, are doing, and will do similar things, we look the other way.
What Trump has said and stands for is terrible. I don’t need to go into detail here since there are plenty of stories, articles, and blog posts that cover that. But I think it’s important to not condemn Trump and Trump’s followers in a one-dimensional fashion.
Last summer, I did my field education placement at a church in rural, western North Carolina. Every morning, I woke up to a Confederate flag raised across the street from the parsonage house where I was living. For a New Yorker who’d never lived in a truly rural area, it was a different experience to say the least. While getting oriented to this new town, I noticed a lot of places with the name—I’ll call it—“Flenca.” Flenca middle school, Flenca park, Flenca lake etc. etc. I asked my supervisor what this Flenca thing was all about. He explained to me that there used to be a factory named Flenca that used to employ a large percentage of the town. Many years before, the plant had left and many in the community hadn’t fully recovered economically ever since. I saw the effects of this legacy up close.
Part of my summer involved working with churches that distributed food and other forms of aid to trailer park communities. In these settings, I saw white poverty like I had never seen it before. These were people forgotten and left behind, both by Republicans and Democrats. And I finally understood why many of these same folks were socialized, by conservative leaders, to blame migrant workers and immigrants. Racism had deep roots but racism was also politically expedient. Because if they didn’t blame foreigners, they’d had to point the finger to the CEOs of Flencas, to the leadership of both political parties, and to an economic order that didn’t even work for all white people.
Jonna Ivin, wrote an essay that deeply moved me called, “I Know Why Poor Whites Chant Trump, Trump, Trump,” in which she talks about her own experiences in poverty and seeing how racism and class compound to divide people. She writes about the history of Virginia and how white indentured servanthood was replaced by black slave labor and how white elites strategically pitted poor whites against blacks.
To be sure, the racism of Trump and his followers can’t be excused. But neither can the indifference to poor people, to workers here and around the globe. In hasty efforts to denounce Trump, it’s important to be aware of the anger and frustration that he’s tapped into, anger that sometimes is actually based on real problems but nevertheless directed in disastrous directions.
As Chris Hedges reminds us, the classic temptation of fascism is to tap into the anger of disaffected people while scapegoating foreigners. Liberals are in the awkward position of having to admit that half of what Trump says about trade agreements is true even if he himself is a walking contradiction. As Christians who live in the most powerful nation in the world right now, for better or for worse, we have a responsibility to think not just about the vulnerable people here but the vulnerable people everywhere who are impacted by what is done or agreed upon here.
My heart is naturally divided across the Americas. Most of my family is in Colombia so when I think about “progress” or “lesser evils” I can’t help but think about what U.S. policies might mean for my cousins down south. The Colombian Free Trade Agreement, which was passed in the most duplicitous of ways under Democratic leadership, not only hurts workers in the U.S. but crushes Colombian workers and does little to help with the high count of labor activist assassinations. Then there’s Plan Colombia (the Mexican version is the Mérida Initiative), a highly militaristic approach to cracking down on drug cartels/gangs/guerrillas which has been debatably effective but has proven to precipitate high numbers of human rights abuses. Not only has Democratic leadership supported this approach, Clinton is eager to implement Plan Colombia in Central America. I’m no strict, doctrinaire pacifist, but I think other, more peaceful approaches are possible and necessary.
I start to wonder, does “intersectionality” ever apply beyond the U.S. borders? I think about Berta Cáceres in Honduras. Cáceres was an Indigenous and environmental activist who was assassinated in March. An outspoken critic of the post-coup Honduran government (which upheld an absolute ban on abortion), United States’ complicity, and transnational corporations, she died organizing the Lenca people in the protection of their ancestral lands and rivers. She is just one example. Neoliberal economic policies are a real thing, hurting the most vulnerable, predominately Afro- and Indigenous people in Latin America, and others around the world. Moreover, U.S. foreign policy continues to devastate our brown siblings in the Middle East. White supremacy is a global phenomenon. Does “intersectionality” apply to them? What does the lesser of evils look like to them?
So what? Some might reply: these are all fair points but it’s a mark of privilege to not choose the less evil Democrat compared to Trump! I’d reply: less evil for whom? On what issue? But local elections matter more than general elections! As someone who’s worked for a civil rights non-profit on Long Island and tuned in to affordable housing efforts in Durham, I’ll be the first to tell you that local politics matter. But many Democrats don’t necessarily transcend these problems on a local level (e.g. consider the problem of gentrification and affordable housing in many “blue” cities). Even more reasons to build long-term alternatives, as Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow) has been suggesting. Even more reasons to support grassroots, independent movements such as Black Lives Matter and Fight for 15. Indeed, there are limitations to electoral politics. But we need to stop Trump at all costs! Just support the Democrats this once or try to reform the party from within. Just this once? So the ultra-right, reactionary forces won’t keep on conjuring up monsters after Trump? And about reforming the Democratic Party from within, it’s important to keep in mind past efforts that tried to do this very thing.
So what do we do? There are no easy solutions. What I do know is that when the options continually presented to us are extremely problematic, it’s crucial to keep thinking about alternatives.
Two years before her death, Cáceres was asked about the repressive Honduran government and the dangerous social situation. She provided a profoundly insightful response in one line: “They want to prohibit us from dreaming.”
They want to prohibit us from dreaming.
Many will say today that our imagination must begin and end with Donald Trump. That stopping him and stopping Republicans is the sum of any electoral political witness for social justice. Some will say that to imagine more, to wish more of not just Republicans but of Democrats is to be idealistic, to be unrealistic.
Yet, if any people are technically utopian it’s disciples of Jesus Christ who pray that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Liberation theologian Franz Hinkelammert has talked about the great illusion of neoliberal economics which came to represent itself as mere realism and any challenge to it as idealism. Nonetheless, it is this hegemonic economic vision which has expanded the incredible gulf between the wealthiest people and the poor and which is currently threatening this very planet. From the waters in Flint to the waters in Honduras.
And yet people sing:
Tú no puedes comprar al viento.
Tú no puedes comprar al sol.
Tú no puedes comprar la lluvia.
Tú no puedes comprar el calor.
Tú no puedes comprar las nubes.
Tú no puedes comprar los colores.
Tú no puedes comprar mi alegría.
Tú no puedes comprar mis dolores.
The reality is that we are currently confronted by political and economic powers which are, in fact, already utopian. They declare that things can go on as they are. That more and more wealth can be amassed as an increasing amount of people go under. That the exploitation of this planet is limitless and without any impending cost. That nothing is too public or sacred to be privatized. That philanthropy will save us. That more weapons, prisons, and police, will help our communities rather than investing in education and health. This is the dream we are up against.
Martin had a dream. Martin had a dream, like Kendrick would say. Berta had a dream. And so I ask myself, have the Christians who stand for justice in the U.S. stopped dreaming? Have we lost our salt and our prophetic bargaining chips? Do we preach the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection on Sundays but preach the Gospel of T.I.N.A., the news that “there is no alternative,” throughout the week? We can’t let anyone take away our salt, not the Democrats, not Bernie Sanders, not anyone. The vision of a world in which we love our neighbors, care for the most vulnerable, pursue peace instead of violence, this is a vision with which we should challenge and press all politicians and candidates.
There is so much work to be done. Electoral politics are limited. A lot can take place outside of it and beyond it, and still it matters. Regardless of what form our politics and social justice work takes, we need to keep dreaming.
There are many Christians who believe that multicultural congregations and ministries are the antidote to the problem of race. In this view, if only more Christians from different racial and ethnic backgrounds worshipped together and befriended one another then the foundations of racism would crumble. But what if this strategy is not only ineffective but actually exacerbating the problem?
Most multicultural churches—in spite of the best intentions—still center white experiences and require people of color to make bigger sacrifices in adjusting themselves to white norms. In The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches, sociologist Korie L. Edwards draws on both qualitative and quantitative methods to support her claim that the majority of “interracial churches work to the extent that they are, first, comfortable places for whites to attend.”
Additionally, multicultural ministerial frameworks strongly emphasis the power of personal relationships to undo racism while either ignoring or de-emphasizing structural realities. In the 2015 study “United by Faith? Race/Ethnicity, Congregational Diversity, and Explanations of Racial Inequality,” sociologists from Baylor University, University of Chicago, and University of Southern California conclude that “Whites in multiracial congregations are just as likely as Whites in predominantly White congregations to question the importance of social structure in accounting for Black/White inequality and emphasize the importance of Blacks’ own motivation.” Moreover, “Blacks who attend multiracial congregations are less likely to afﬁrm structural explanations for racial inequality than Blacks in non-multiracial congregations.”
What do these results reveal? Astonishingly, multicultural churches have been better at making people of color approximate white attitudes and perspectives on race than challenging Whiteness itself. Part of the issue lies with how race and racial categorization itself is understood. Like popular reconciliation paradigms, multicultural paradigms mistake racial separation and lack of diversity as the heart of racism when these, in fact, are symptoms.
Jennifer Harvey, in her book Dear White Christians, writes:
But the racial problem, or the problem of racism—the actual racial situation in our faith communities—is not separateness itself. And togetherness is certainly no solution. Separateness is merely a symptom. The real problem is what our differences represent, how they came to be historically, and what they mean materially and structurally still.
Harvey argues that the identities of “Black” and “White” are not parallel or historically symmetrical. Moreover, the problem of Whiteness is central to racial injustice and this is something that multicultural visions—which tend to put “White,” “Black,” “Brown,” and “Yellow” on a categorically level plain—struggle to address. Whiteness is not simply a problem of one racial group mistreating another one but is about how White identity itself came into existence through constructions of systems which subjugated and categorized black people, indigenous people, and the wider world.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s words that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning” are employed as a justification for integrated churches being the silver-bullet to racism. Yet, King’s vision of Beloved Community, as it matured, was never reducible to this and was both sensitive to structural problems and in solidarity with liberation movements globally, as evidenced by his work on the Poor People’s Campaign and his Riverside Church speech.
Sometimes multicultural frameworks go so far as to explicitly or implicitly condemn all-Black or all-Latino churches for practicing the same segregation that White churches do. Within the assumptions of multiculturalism, this charge makes sense. If the racial hierarchy that has developed over the past 500 years is condensed to the issue of, “Why are all the black people sitting together?” then having everyone sit side by side in the pews becomes the solution and not sitting side by side is the problem. Yet, this downplays the different circumstances under which “ethnic” churches have developed and resisted oppression. Similarly, this account overlooks the ways in which churches such as Latino ones are often already multicultural and multiracial.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for “segregation” but for a critical evaluation of what gets lumped together under that banner. And to be sure, cross-racial/cultural relationships are important and beneficial in many ways but insufficient by themselves to undo racism. Relationships and group-dynamics need to be held within a larger context. More than a superficial multiculturalism which boils down to demographics, we are desperately in need of Christian practice that is liberative and decolonial, that attends to structural realities and exercises long-term memory.
Demographics are important but don’t tell the full story. For example, a few years ago, I attended a multicultural church for a couple of months. This was truly one of the most diverse Christian congregations I have ever seen in my life. There were people from all over the world, across socio-economic lines, men, women, and youth. The church was majority people of color with a strong white contingent still present. Musically, diverse worship styles were solidly represented even if there was still too much Hillsong. When it came to leadership, the church’s staff had Whites, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and the head pastor was Latino. A slice of heaven on earth, I thought.
Yet, in spite of the church’s incredible diversity, I had an uneasiness I couldn’t quite put my finger on initially. Eventually, it dawned on me. In his sermons, the pastor almost exclusively quoted white, male [conservative] theologians and biblical scholars. Week after week, when the pastor would make a substantive theological or biblical point, he would incorporate the commentary or framework of white, dominant voices. This experience spiritually shook me. I saw a great multitude of colorful people worshiping a culturally adept Jesus but Jesus was still White.
1. I Believe Love
I believe love is radical, the roots of something revolutionary.
I believe love is the strongest force in the universe, the strongest weapon against hate and injustice.
I believe love is survival because life began with love.
I believe love is not losing your tenderness.
I believe love is always a risk but that the alternatives are riskier.
I believe God made the world in love.
I believe Jesus Christ is the loving face of God come to earth.
I believe the Holy Spirit is the fire of love which permeates all things.
I believe love made us, love preceded us, and love will outlast all the evils in this world.
2. To Love in Times of War and Terror
What does it mean to love in times of war and terror?
Amparo Ochoa said: “It is to conjugate and feel the verb ‘to love’ without borders.”
So I’m left asking: where are the borders to your love? And what are the geographies of your compassion?
Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus were looking.
And God keeps coming back to us, searching.
3. Love as Key to Scriptures
St. Augustine once wrote that if you think you’ve understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that this understanding doesn’t build up the twin love of God and neighbor, then you haven’t yet properly understood the scriptures.
I wonder: how often do we understand the bible?
Do our interpretations of the bible lead us to love God and love our neighbors, all of our neighbors, more?
If not, then we undermine everything that the law, the prophets, and Jesus hang on.
These reflections originally appeared in audio-visual form at Thirty Seconds Or Less.
Warning: Spoilers Included Below
Warning: Spoilers Included Below
Warning: Spoilers Included Below
1. How Will Luke Respond To Rey?
In the last scene of The Force Awakens (literally a cliff-hanger), we see Rey extending Anakin/Luke's lightsaber to Luke Skywalker. Will Luke take the lightsaber? Will he let Rey keep it? What will he say to Rey? Will he train Rey as an apprentice? What will their relationship be? (Do they already have a relationship unbeknownst to Rey?)
2. Did Luke find the first Jedi Temple?
Were the ruins in the last scene, the remains of the first Jedi Temple that Luke was rumored to be searching for? Did Luke find the first temple somewhere else?
3. Who Are Rey's Parents?
Han and Leia? Luke? Someone else? My hunch is that she is somehow related to the Skywalker/Solo/Organa dynasty.
Rey's origins will probably also help explain her giftedness in the Force. Some fans speculate that Rey was being trained to be a Jedi as a child and that this is why she quickly develops Force powers in Episode VII.
4. Who/What is Snoke?
Is Supreme Leader Snoke a Sith Lord? Appearing in Hologram form throughout Episode VII, what does Snoke actually look like (he is most likely not a giant)? Many fans think Snoke might be Darth Plagueis.
5. What does it mean that Kylo Ren's training "will be completed"?
Snoke mentions that Kylo Ren's training will be completed. In killing his father, Han Solo, Kylo definitely passed a major test. Will he officially become a Sith Lord?
6. How will the relationship between Kylo Ren and Hux play out?
Kylo Ren and General Hux, leader in the First Order, don't like each other.
7. Will we learn more about the Knights of Ren?
It looks like we get a brief glimpse of the Knights of Ren in Rey's vision. They are killing the rest of Luke's students? Will we learn more about them? What happened to Kylo's mates and what are they up to?
8. What happened to Maz Kanata?
We last saw Maz when her planet was being attacked by The First Order. While we see Han, Chewie, and everyone leave the planet, we never see Maz again. Nevertheless, she seems like an important character. When/where will she reappear?
9. How did Maz get Luke's lightsaber?
Han asks and Maz says that this is a story for another time. How did she get the lightsaber? Although she is not a Jedi, Maz seems to be highly Force-conscious.
10. How will Finn develop in the ways of the Force?
Finn is first to use Luke's lightsaber in Episode VII but it becomes clear that Rey is probably the next "chosen one" in the Force. Does Finn have unknown/undeveloped Force talents? How will Finn develop?
11. Was Luke standing by a Grave?
In the last scene, Luke is apparently standing by a grave. Did you catch that? Whose grave/tomb might this be?
A Rough Draft of Preliminary Thoughts
“Él no es verdaderamente Latino,” she said while staring right at me from across a table. Those words cut me like nothing else. She was one of my Mexican-American classmates in a pre-college summer program I was enrolled in with minorities from across the country. Being judged as “too Americanized” or “not Latino enough” wasn’t necessarily new to me but it was never spelled out that bluntly. I never knew why she felt the need to pass that judgement on me. Was it my broken New York Spanglish? All I knew was that this kind of rejection was extremely painful. To be rejected and excluded by white worlds was a given. But other brown people too?
Over the years, I discovered that experiences of rejection, cultural confusion and disconnection were part of many Latin@ experiences. My parents emigrated from Barranquilla to the U.S. and I was born and raised in NY. I’ve been “back” as in for-the-first-time to Colombia once in my life. Most of my family is still there. I thought I was pretty culturally confused. But friends who I thought were “unquestionably Latin@,” because their Spanish was madd good and they went back to the motherland all the time, shocked me when they would talk to me about how they felt they could never truly belong anywhere. Maybe being judged as not being Latin@ enough or the feeling of culturally falling short is a rite of passage for actually being a U.S. Latin@?
Truthfully, the identifier of “Latin@” covers such a wide spectrum. People more in tune with Latin America. People more in tune with the United States. People more Caribbean than anything else. Recently arrived immigrants. 3rd and 4th generations. The super assimilated. The semi assimilated. The fluctuating assimilatedness. The unassimilated-able. Whites. Blacks. Indigenous. And all shades of caramel (I wish I could use the adjective sun-kissed but some of our caramels come from things far more tragic or unknown than the sun). With all of this, what can Latin@ possibly mean?
One of my friends once expounded to me his “Goya Theory” of how the main function of the Latin@ umbrella term is to basically sell us products. In other words, it may be hard to see ourselves in textbooks or included in various ways throughout our country….but when it comes to selling cell phone plans and cars, you know they got us covered with a Latin@ pitch!
I think there’s a lot of truth to this. But a part of me also wants to go beyond the reductive cynicism of the Goya Theory which my friend expounded to me. Can Latin@ identity also mean something else? Can it be a positive thing which names the nexus of The Americas—Conquests—and-Out-I-come—ness? Yet, if Latin@ identity covers such a wide swatch of experiences, then how will it be defined? Who will be made to be in and who will be made to be out?
It’s a bad idea to reduce Latin@ identity to the Spanish language and to the performance of the Spanish language. To be sure, it’s sad to see the first-tongue or mother-tongue of many Latin@s denigrated and discouraged by some kind of American-English imperialism. And it’s horrible—trust me, I know—to have assimilationist educational methods which encourage English, white history, and strip brown kids of Spanish and their histories. In these contexts, Spanish can be a form of resistance, a way of maintaining connections to our loved ones and our roots.
Nevertheless, it’s quite another thing to allow the Spanish language to become a policing tool to determine who’s really in and who’s really out of the “Latin@” identity. It's then a weapon for purity. We can’t forget the fact that the Spanish and their Spanish historically excluded indigenous and African peoples brought to the Americas who spoke other tongues. It’s ironic or perhaps re-fulfilling prophecy that a language of conquest imposed upon subjugated peoples could be used today to exclude a number of Latin@s who either don’t speak Spanish or don’t speak it “up to par.” In this context, Spanglish and No-Spanish and Quechua are resistance. The policing use of Spanish is colonialism internalized. The Spaniards left. But we kept their colonial ideals.
Honest discussions about Latin@ identity must tackle gendered colonial legacies and the problem of whiteness. How people define the ideal “Latin@” identity is often caught up in hierarchical, racialized ideals. The tricky thing is that this can often come wrapped in nice language about “multiculturalism,” “unity,” and “reconciliation.” Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, who teaches at Duke, has forcefully argued that Mestizaje in Latin America (i.e. the idea of racial mixture) was/is used to maintain white supremacy. Mixture was encouraged by nations while approximating whiteness (having “fairer skin,” “better hair,” or “more civilization”) was simultaneously the conscious or unconscious goal. In other words, Afro- and ingenious people could all sit at the table and perhaps could sit higher and more prominently at the table if they came to resemble the ideal form of Spanish whiteness.
Intersectionality means that Latin@s can themselves harbor deep anti-black and anti-indigenous biases against other Latin@s. Colonial aesthetics can impact who is considered “civilized,” “well-mannered,” and “well-spoken.”
The very term Latin@ can be used to exclude trans and gender non-conforming people which is why some prefer the term Latinx because it includes a broader, non-gender-binary spectrum. I—and I don’t know if this is right; I’m still thinking through this—like using both terms. We need Latinx. And maybe we can also remember that the @ in Latin@ is open and not a completely closed or proper a/o for a reason? Idk.
With all the problems and policing associated with “Latin@ identity,” I still have prayers about it being a redemptive thing, a way to name the messy colonial history of the Americas from which many of us come, a way to resist assimilation. The legacy of the United States would have us forget who we are and where we come from. That’s how whiteness works.
If there are problems with excluding certain people from the marker of Latin@ then there also exist problems with some people who include themselves in that marker. For example, is it okay for people to check the Latin@ box for admissions when they don't strongly identify with Latin@ identity/culture outside of the application process?
What about people who are half Latin@, mixed, or who through no fault of their own, or perhaps through faults of their own, are very disconnected from their roots?
The reality is that for many of us, our connection to our “roots” is always a tenuous one. A combination of our agencies and external forces have created deep distances. Our histories fade fast in the optimistic American Dream for which there is only Present.
For some of us, we are not simply a people displaced. We are people for whom our very being is displaced. We live an exilic existence. There is no home. And from that vantage point, we dream about heaven. We are still looking for a city with different foundations that can include people like us. Cuz it's clear, so many of the places we're in were never built for us.
I don’t think Latin@ identity should be reduced to some form of cultural or linguistic “mastery" of performance. That would simply re-play the worst tragedies of our colonial pasts. There is no purity. There are gradations of impurities. The Spanish came with the purity.
But neither should identifying as Latin@ be taken as something lightly, as something expedient that simply gives an edge on applications.
Some have drank the Dream and burnt the bridges. The tenuous ties have been cut. Maybe how some Irish did it. Idk.
It’s one thing to be ashamed or profoundly indifferent towards the realities that Latin@ identity includes and then to randomly use ancestry for expedient purposes. It’s another thing to be searching. To be trying. To resist. And the resistance ain’t another form of mastery. We are all trying. There’s room for all of us. There’s that part of us that we don’t want to die. Better to suffer than accept a living death.
I like family gatherings and church gatherings where all sorts of people are together. The elders. The kids. Motley crews. And those times when the kids get over making fun of their parents who can’t say STOP but always say EH-STOP. And those times when the kids aren’t called gringos. Spanish. English. Spanglish. Broken versions of all of the above flying throughout the room. Spontaneous Translators (or interpreters, for you sticklers). And there is an understanding. A stretch to understand and leave nobody behind. There is love. People breaking tongues in love.
In the spirit of Upworthy/Humans-esqe hagiography:
Two street evangelists sat next to each other on the subway. One asked: “Excuse me, do you have a personal relationship with God?” The other responded:
“Let me ask you: do you have a structural relationship with God? Have you accepted Jesus Christ into your neighborhood as your stranger, as the one who is hungry, sick, and imprisoned?1 If not, it’s never too late because God has a wonderful plan for this world.2 Many people today have a personal relationship or spirituality with God but lack religion.3 Faith ends up being an emotional concert or theoretical equation that does little to change the concrete circumstances of the orphans and widows who are distressed around us. Seeking personal prosperity or productivity/stress-relief via some form of mediation, many personal-relationships-with-God fall neatly into the patterns of our world’s consumption. In America, communities are segregated by race, finances separated by those in debt and those who profit from debt, but personal Jesuses are evenly distributed and mostly keep everything in place.
You should consider having a structural relationship with God. What if God cares not just about your personal heart but your community’s physical hearts, like the kind of hearts impacted by a neighborhood crowded with WacArnolds yet lacking healthy, affordable options? Having a truly structural relationship with God doesn’t allow us to talk about freedom, freedom from personal addictions for example, without including freedom for those brutalized by police and oppressed by immigration laws and the criminal justice system.4
Does your God care about everything that’s happening in the world? There are powers and principalities in this world and unless you have a structural relationship with God, you won’t detect them. I’m not sure how you can ignore, and sometimes even benefit from, the violence and inequality of our country and still consider yourself personal friends with God.5
It’s never too late to change. Accept Jesus into your society. Begin by looking at the least desirable people.”6
 Matthew 25:31-46
 John 3:16-17
 James 1:27
 Luke 4:18
 James 4:4
 Isaiah 53:2
Sermon: What does Faith look like Spatially? Daniel José Camacho Delivered at Dwell Church NYC on 10.12.14
I’d first like to say: it’s a pleasure to be here tonight and to be able to worship with your community. I’m grateful that your pastor Pete Armstrong, who I consider a friend and mentor, extended this invitation to me. I come to you by way of the LIRR, from Long Island, or “Strong Island” as some like to call it…now, I don’t know what you’ve heard but just to set the record straight: Long Islanders are authentic New Yorkers, you know, just in case you had any doubts. It’s the folks upstate who raise questions…I’m just kidding. Before I continue, I’d like to say a short prayer.
Dear God, open our hearts to hear your word and allow it to impact every area of our life. And may the words of my mouth and the mediation of my heart be acceptable to you, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Recently, this movie about the end of the world—with Nicholas Cage in it—came out. Based on a popular book series called Left Behind, the movie depicts one interpretation of the so-called end times. Everybody in the world is going along their merry way and all of a sudden a lot of people vanish. Like woosh. Half of the people on the crowded airplane are now gone. Cars that were being driven are now driverless. Chaos ensues and there’s lots of abandoned clothes everywhere. God is planning to destroy the world in an apocalypse and decides, in the final moments, to snatch up a select group of true believers into heaven. Everybody else who didn’t go up in the rapture is left behind to suffer in a world that will soon be annihilated. That’s the gist of the plot. In case you’re interested, film critics have already slated this movie and Nicholas Cage’s performance to be big winners at the next Razzie awards.
Nevertheless, as fantastic as it may seem, Left Behind is based on an idea that still has a strong hold in many imaginations. The notion that the earth, that this world is collateral business. What really matters is getting into heaven. The spiritual life is about the inward heart and the afterlife, and we shouldn’t get caught up in the politics and mundane matters of the neighborhoods and physical spaces we occupy. Our focus should be on escaping upwards towards heaven.
It’s interesting to note that the prologue to the Gospel of St. John—which we’ve just heard—presents to us almost the exact inverse of this vision. In one of the most profound passages in all of scripture, God comes down to earth. The eternal Word, the source and sustenance of all life, who enlightens all people, takes on flesh and enters into a particular space in time.
“All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” In the person of Jesus Christ, we are reminded that God has made everything. People often like to compartmentalize faith and make it a matter of choosing one sector of life over another, of choosing scared affairs over “secular” affairs. But tonight’s biblical passage explodes this neat division. Because God made all things, all things matter—including what’s usually considered the mundane affairs of this world. Indeed, it was Jesus who taught his disciples to pray, in the Our Father: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven.” And the most quoted and probably most superficially understood bible verse, John 3:16, reads: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” The problem is not the world as such, or our bodies and desires as such—remember God created everything and it was good—but whether or not these things allow us to love God and our neighbor.
If this world matters, then our specific places and neighborhoods are spiritually significant. Let me tell you a story: I’ve recently been doing some community organizing and social justice work on Long Island. As you may know, Hurricane Sandy really devastated New York when it hit two years ago. Many people are still recovering from the damage. In the south shore of Long Island, there are poor communities of color that have been slow to receive help and slow to receive aid, even for many environmental issues that existed before Sandy. As part of my work, I met with a community advocate from one neighborhood to talk about ways in which we could inform residents about their rights and resources. Needing a space to organize this, I asked her if there was a church that would be open to hosting a community meeting. She told me: “There is a church nearby but I don’t think they’d be open to this. In the past, they’ve been resistant and I think that the pastor is focused on church stuff and doesn’t want to mess with political neighborhood stuff. Look, Daniel, I’m not religious myself, but I wish I could ask him: who are you going to pastor to when your community is swept away?”
Her words have really stuck with me. What does the Gospel that we believe and practice as a Christian community mean if there is no good news that overflows into the neighborhood? John chapter 1 says: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The verb here, lived, is meant in a very strong sense: lived as in to abide, to dwell in (a very appropriate word for this particular church). Jesus Christ is also Jesus of Nazareth. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus does not simply push some self-interested mission but is deeply invested in the concerns, celebrations, fears, and hopes of the people, all sorts of people, even people who the disciples and religious authorities considered sketchy or insignificant. Jesus makes food for the hungry and also brings extra wine to the local wedding party. What would it mean for the problems and joys of our neighbors to also become our own?
The Incarnation takes on powerful meaning in our own age of social media, distraction, and loneliness. Now, I’m going to resist the urge to talk about some of the problems that arise with social media. A lot has already been said and viral YouTube videos have been made. But I will say this: I think now, as much as ever, we desperately struggle with our need to be known and loved. Presence really means a lot, especially in the hustle that is New York. Think about it. Some of us spend so much time working, and if you don’t have a fun, loving crew at work, then who’s loving you besides the cat or Netflix? Sometimes it’s not even the words or what you bring, but doing basic things like checking up with people or showing up become a big deal. How can we be present for our neighborhoods and the people in our lives?
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” In the original language, the verb “live” here, literally means “to pitch a tent” or “to tabernacle.” The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. Early Jewish readers would have quickly picked up this reference. The Torah describes God dwelling with the people of Israel in the wilderness after they had been liberated from Egypt. Exodus 33 says: “When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down, all of them, at the entrance of their tent. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” The tabernacle was a tent in which God’s presence dwelled and followed Israel wherever they went. When John 1 says that “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us,” it is a reaffirmation of this presence. In the Incarnation, God is dwelling with the Jewish people, who now find themselves not under Egyptian but Roman occupation. Yet, something different is also happening with Jesus.
“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” Jesus, who is Jewish, extends the mission of God to include all people, including the Gentiles or non-Jewish people. It’s crucial to see that God—in Jesus—is not abandoning Israel but fulfilling the promise that stretches all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, the promise that Israel would be a blessing to all peoples. This is important because those of us who are Gentile Christians need to understand who our faith is indebted to: to the God of our Jewish brothers and sisters.
“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…” Why does it say this? Become Children of God, but isn't everyone already created as a child of God? Doesn’t the text say that everyone is already enlightened by the light? Jesus reminds us that we must become children of God not because some of us are and some of us aren’t children of God but rather because we are constantly unbecoming children of God, doing things that are unbecoming of God’s image, finding sophisticated reasons for treating certain people as if they are not children of God.
Some of us may laugh at the Left Behind series and the escapist mentality that it represents, but it’s not just a matter of being involved in the world but how we’ll be involved. The history of colonialism, of Jim Crow, of urban planning contains religious people who were very much invested in this world and in the creation and protection of particular communities. Once we realize that places are spiritually significant, the question then becomes: what kind of community do we want and who will we let in?
“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” There is only one requirement for becoming a disciple of Jesus: faith. Not blood. Not a particular kind of body. Not the desires of a man. But faith. This stands in stark contrast to a world that has often been organized around the blood of nationalism and racism, around particular bodies considered the norm, around patriarchy and the interests of powerful men. But the community of God’s children that Jesus is gathering is different. It is the “Beloved Community,” as Martin Luther King Jr. would describe it.
Right now, I can’t help but think about Ferguson and all of these people recently killed or brutalized by police, and how these situations expose the fault-lines and inequalities that run throughout our country. We desperately need communities where all lives matter, where development benefits everyone, not just the rich, and where our schools, our homes, our hopes, our tears aren’t so dramatically segregated.
Let me not exclude the fact that the new family that Jesus is forming is also connected to the welfare of God’s creation. Romans chapter 8 talks about nature groaning and waiting eagerly “for the revealing of the children of God.” Dealing with some of the environmental issues on Long Island has reminded me that the health of a community is often intertwined with the health of the land, the air, the water, and the creatures around us.
The title for this sermon series has been: “Connecting the Mission of God to the Bowery.” John 1 shows us that God transforms not only our hearts but changes the way we see our neighborhoods and our geography. The Bowery matters. The places close to us matter. God took on flesh, dwelled in space, and—in Jesus—is gathering children of God for communion that transforms space. So, we are invited to explore this question: what does faith look like spatially? Whether it’s town meetings, community gardens, local businesses, sports leagues, advocacy, potholes, streetlamps, knowing a few names in your apartment, the arts, our involvement in the neighborhood is a sacred task. Amen.
Does the burden of proof lie with black liberation theology? That is one of the questions I considered in a recent post in which I engaged the public theology of Anthony Bradley (who proceeded to make unfounded assumptions about me here) . In light of America's history & persistent struggles with white supremacy and American theology's complicity with this legacy, I think many still fail to appreciate black theology's important place and [not necessarily "unbiblical" or "unorthodox"] concerns. Catholic and Womanist theologian M. Shawn Copeland wrote an excellent article this summer for America Magazine called "Revisiting Racism." Copeland discusses black theology's history and its attempt to make sense of Christianity's entanglement with chattel slavery and antiblack racism in the United States. She writes:
Despite the passionate language and polemical tone of Black Theology and Black Power, James Cone’s theology remained a Christian theology, taking into account the complex religiosity of the enslaved Africans and their descendants as well as the tradition of radical advocacy of the historic black church. Professor Cone sought to give voice to the seething pain black people felt at the betrayal of the Gospel through the indifference and racist behaviors of too many white Christian clergypersons and lay people. Thus, he distinguished sharply between sacred Scripture as the word of God and sacred Scripture as it had been manipulated to serve the social and cultural interests of white Protestant and Catholic churches and their memberships. Black theology demanded a new consideration of the cultural matrix that is the United States in light of God’s revelation in Jesus of Nazareth.
Read the rest of Copeland's take here.
I share my thoughts on "James Cone, The Persistent Widow, and Theological Responses to Riots" over at the Reformed blog, The Twelve:
The situation in Ferguson made me recall something that James Cone had written in 1975. In the book “God of the Oppressed,” Cone recounts his disappointment with Christian responses to the Detroit riot during the summer of 1967, responses which simply deplored “unrest” and failed to see the fundamental issues at stake. He writes:
I knew that that response was not only humiliating and insulting but wrong. It revealed not only an insensitivity to black pain and suffering but also, and more importantly for my vocation as a theologian, a theological bankruptcy. The education of white theologians did not prepare them to deal with Watts, Detroit, and Newark.
I wonder how much has changed. What in our theological formation has prepared us for Ferguson?
Read the rest of my post here.
Back in 2008, at the height of his extraordinary tirade against Barrack Obama, television personality Glenn Beck delved into discussions about black liberation theology. Looking for an expert to corroborate his views, Beck invited theologian Anthony Bradley onto his show. Drawing upon a series of essays that he had written for Beck’s newsletter, Bradley goes on in the segment to dismiss black liberation theology for its apparent “victimhood” and Marxist ties. Beyond theologically buttressing an extreme right-wing attack of Obama’s political and religious legitimacy, Bradley has continuously displayed a fascinating track-record that encapsulates what I like to call theologies of respectability.
Currently a professor at the King’s College in New York City and a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute, Anthony Bradley’s first major work was Liberating Black Theology (2010). In it, he disparages black liberation theology and its founder James Cone. Bradley’s account of black theology in this book is so dismissive in nature that even a positive review from a fellow conservative Christians expressed concerns about fair treatment: “he rarely summarizes BT without inserting his victimology critique.” From the beginning, Bradley reduces black theology to a pathology of victimology, a theology that only views people as perpetual victims.
Bradley’s insistence that black theology is nothing more than a delusional victimhood mentality leads to bizarre critiques such as this: “As late as 1984, Cone still maintained that people of color were, in general, being oppressed by white Americans, Europeans, and South Africans” (77). In Bradley’s eyes, Cone succumbs to victimology when he claims that people of color were generally being oppressed by whites in apartheid South Africa. Ultimately, Liberating Black Theology presents the theology of 19th century Dutch Calvinists such as Herman Bavinck as the solution to black theologians trapped in victimology.
Within conservative and evangelical circles, Bradley has established himself as a provocative public theologian who frequently comments on black culture, politics, and economics. Take, for example, his comments on “negro dialect.” After Senator Harry Reid spoke about Obama’s electability in relation to his lack of “dark skin” and “negro dialect,” Bradley agreed with at least the language component. In the article “Human Dignity, Black Skin, And Negro Dialect,” Bradley writes: “Reid’s comments expose what many know but would not publically confess: namely, that having a combination of dark skin and ‘negro dialect’ is not only undesirable but also damages one’s prospects for social and economic mobility.” Bradley then adds: “Civil-rights leaders would do well to restore the priority of fighting for black dignity so that having dark skin is respected and improving one’s syntax is encouraged.” Reid’s comments about Obama should apparently encourage all black people to improve the way they speak so as to increase their chances of mobility. “A movement,” Bradley continues, “dedicated to fostering dignity in those engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors would have spillover effects everywhere: from streets to the criminal justice system.”
In addition to considering the improvement of syntax in the black community, Bradley has also addressed responses to crime. One of his recommendations: black looters should be publically shamed. Speaking at the Heritage Foundation in 2011, Bradley proposed an idea that he had previously written about:
Every black person apprehended for robbing stores in a flash mob should have their court hearing not in front of a judge but facing the 30-foot statute of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at his Washington memorial site. Each thief should be asked, “What do you think Dr. King would say to you right now?”
Saying nothing about the police brutality and militarization which contributes to social unrest, Bradley claims that black urban youth throughout the country are robbing King of his dream by abandoning virtue and turning to looting. Exercises of public shaming in front of the MLK statue can lead to a new dream, the resurgence of virtue within black youth.
The idea of publically shaming black looters is not the only remarkable thing Bradley shared at the Heritage Foundation speech. He criticizes post-1980 leaders for ignoring the root causes of wealth disparities:
“The most successful minority groups in America were those who pursued economic mobility through the market place instead of politics. So when you look at Asian immigrants, when you look at the history of the Jews in America, you see other sub-dominant cultures who chose the market place as a means of social and economic mobility.” (16:25)
Bradley implies that the black wealth/income gap is stark when compared to whites because blacks, for the most part, have over-relied on the government whereas other minority groups have relied on the market. This is consistent with what Bradley has written in Liberating Black Theology: “Human capital is more than just skills…personal and cultural habits toward life and work lead some cultures and groups to excel more quickly than others” (115). Foundational to Bradley’s interpretation of wealth, income, and housing disparities, is his theological understanding of sin. “Structural sin,” he explains, “must be evaluated on the same philosophical ground as personal sin because structures have actors (i.e. men and women) who have a shared solidarity in sin.”
In Keep Your Head Up (2012), a collection of theological essays inspired by Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint, Bradley focuses on the social pathologies underpinning the black male crisis. He is concerned about how young black boys are often “over-mothered.” He writes,
In the absence of consistent fathering, most black males are raised in a world dominated by women. Boys socialized by mama and grandmamma through their teen years and early adulthood are often unwittingly emasculated. (140)
Growing up in a world dominated by women, these boys are supposedly motivated to mistreat women. According to Bradley, “…over-mothering can also turn sons into future misogynists. Boys raised in a matriarchy can often grow to resent the constant control of women” (140). When black women are sexually manipulated by black men, who is to blame? In the amazing turns of Bradley’s logic, the answer is black women. “Men,” he argues, “sexually manipulate women to retaliate against matriarchal dominance” (143).
On the issue of affirmative action and campus diversity, the black student union at University of Michigan gained national attention during the last school year for its protests. Perhaps you also heard about Brooke Kimbrough, the Detroit high school honors student who appealed her rejection from Michigan. In “University of Michigan Should Resist Racial Bullying,” Anthony Bradley chastises Kimbrough as a racial bully. Calling her “an academically mediocre student,” Bradley claims that Kimbrough is undermining the spirit of Dr. King’s colorblind vision in which all should be treated by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. For Bradley, King’s vision translates into a vehement opposition to any form of affirmative action that takes race into account. Bradley’s vision of King inspires him to launch impassioned attacks on minority students, including an honors student from Detroit.
Last but not least, we have Bradley’s commentary on worker’s rights and the minimum wage. This past May, Bradley weighed in on the debate around fast-food workers demanding a raise in the minimum wage to $15 per hour. In “On Wages, McDonald’s Gets it Right,” he begins: “In today’s culture of entitlement people believe that they deserve certain rewards simply because they exist—not because of hard work, perseverance and wise choices.” In Bradley’s eyes, to be a fast-food worker is to simply exist. Considering harrowing tales of single mother workers who can’t make ends meet, he asks: “Is it McDonald’s fault that you are in your mid-30s, unmarried with several children, and have not acquired the requisite skill set to improve your employment opportunities?” Bradley assumes the crudest of meritocracies: those who cannot make a living even while working round the clock have only their own lack of skills and moral failings to blame; those with livable wages can thank their own skill set and moral achievements. In the end, he recommends that “the protestors should also protest themselves for making poor decisions that placed them in difficult circumstances.”
When it comes to speaking comfort to power and castigating the most vulnerable in our society, there is perhaps no public theological voice more eager than that of Anthony Bradley’s. His body of work is a textbook in blaming the victim and reducing problems to pathology. Bradley sees the inequalities in the black community, and other minority communities, primarily as an outgrowth of pathology, an outgrowth of self-sabotaging behaviors, cultural habits, and moral failings. Even though scholars have continually debunked the notion that pathology is to blame for various inequalities, Bradley unflinchingly proceeds to theologize as a color-blind pathologist targeting vulnerable black and brown people. For as long as Anthony Bradley blames black people—and particularly black women—for persisting inequality, he will be a treasured voice in evangelical circles.
At the heart of Bradley’s vision lies something that many find at least initially attractive. The idea that all people can make it in America if they just work hard enough; the belief that all should be treated equally. When applied to race in America, this takes on the form of a color-blind MLK creed. We should stop considering race and only see people as individuals. Ultimately, it becomes a politics of respectability. Comprising a long-stretching tradition, the politics of respectability is a strategy that encourages victims of oppression to “prove” their dignity and improve their condition through personal character and hard work. The difference in 21st century America, according to people like Anthony Bradley, is that there are no more victims. The Civil-Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s dealt with the fundamental racial inequalities and now we have a black president. Today, minorities need to stop complaining about the past and solely blame themselves for any shortcomings. To claim that the game is rigged in any way is to act overly entitled. Moreover, in Bradley and other theologians like him, the politics of respectability become theologically articulated and sanctioned.
Theologies of respectability are more concerned about the possible “over-reactions” to colonialism, slavery, and racial inequality than they are with these legacies themselves. For theologies of respectability, the burden of proof is on James Cone and liberation theologies more than it is on the theological enterprises which underwrote and sanctioned the destruction of black life and subsequently said little of it. In this strategy, personal “reconciliation” to white Christians supersedes reparations, the holistic efforts to address systemic, institutionalized sins.
Ultimately, theologies of respectability fail for the same reasons that the politics do. While they may purport to hold everyone to the same high ideals, they always harbor a double-standard that diminishes the humanity of black people. Bradley wants groups of black looters to be publically shamed in front of Martin Luther King Jr.’s statue, but would he want groups of white criminals to be shamed in front of the Lincoln memorial? When a black single mother can’t make a living wage at her job, she should take full responsibility and blame herself. When a black man sexually manipulates a woman? He can blame black matriarchal dominance. If a black honors student from Detroit petitions her college rejection, it’s racial bullying. If, as it’s been documented, white students continue to benefit from racialized legacy policies, well it’s simply maintaining high standards.
Respectability’s failure is deep down a theological mistake, a flawed theological anthropology. To say that all people are created in the image of God is one thing; to make certain groups have to constantly prove their human dignity is another. Consider these words from Ta-Nehisi Coates:
There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.
Given our nation’s history and persistent struggles, the burden of proof does not lie with black liberation theology—contrary to what theologies of respectability would have us believe. The indictment is upon American Christianity and its traditional theologies. The recognition of black humanity is an article upon which the American church stands or falls.
Daniel José Camacho is a graduate student at Duke University Divinity School.
I'm still thinking about the goal that James scored against Uruguay in the 2014 World Cup. Amazing . Brilliant. I watched it live on Univisión and couldn't believe it. Twitter erupted with praise. With little doubt, the best goal of the tournament so far. In The Globe and Mail, Cathal Kelly wrote:
When first I saw it live, I thought, ‘Goal of the tournament’. After ten more views in slow motion, I thought, ‘One of the ten best goals in World Cup history’. Twenty or so more views, and I’m thinking it may just be one of the greatest goals ever scored, full stop. On this stage, you’d have to reach back to Dennis Bergkamp in 1998 to find a strike of similarly brilliant technique. Given the occasion, given the pressure, given what was at stake, this was the announcement of a generational talent.
Listen to announcers as they react to the goal with amazement, screaming, yelling, tears, prayers...
- Narrado por Antonio Casale
- Colombian radio (Caracol)
- Caracol (extended)
- RCN La Radio
- ESPN English commentators (less screaming)
If that wasn't enough, Colombia's 2nd goal against Uruguay was one of the best team goals in the tournament...and one of the best goals in the history of Colombia. Juan Cuadrado, currently leading the tournament in assists, helped ignite the play and it topped it off with sick, and dare I say Rajon Rondoesque, pass.
Two of the best goals in the history of the Colombian national soccer team were scored yesterday in one game. Crazy.
Colombia officially has a new golden generation. 20 years after the demons of 1994, it looks like Colombia is dancing its way towards a very bright future.
Drawing upon the auto-biographical work of Zitaka Ša (1876-1938) and Sherman Alexie, something I wrote back in the day...
Zitkala Ša’s autobiographical stories (“Impressions of an Indian Childhood” and “The School Days of an Indian Girl”) and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian both show how American [Christian] education—as an acculturating process that exceeds but does not exclude the agency of those who experience it—has been a source of cultural violence and erase for Native American students. The nature of acculturation manifests itself in the formation/deformation that takes place in education for the main characters of both stories. For Zitkala and Junior, opportunities exist beyond their community with the education of the white missionaries or the majority-white Reardan high school. Both characters come to learn and, to a certain extent, master the rules and customs of their new setting. However, this cultural mastery is tragically accompanied by a certain loss of their “Indian” identities.
In Zitkala Ša’s autographical stories, a pivotal shift takes place in her childhood when she encounters the white Christian missionaries who enter her village. Up until that point, she was only familiar with her mother’s culture and only spoke “but one language” (Zitkala Ša, 1090). The missionaries come to symbolize a world beyond filled with more opportunities. They offer to provide native children an education in the east. First, Zitkala begins to hear “wonderful stories” about them from her playfellows (1091). These stories describe “a more beautiful country,” a “Wonderland” where “we could reach out our hands and pick all the red apples we could eat” (ibid). Then, despite her hesitations and her distrust of “palefaced” people, Zitkala’s mother acknowledges the opportunities these missionaries can provide: “She will need an education when she is grown…this tearing her away, so young, from her mother is necessary, if I would have her an educated woman” (1092). The “palefaced” people can provide Zitkala tools she can’t acquire at home: namely, a mainstream American education. Yet, as the Missionaries’ apples symbolically suggest, this education is a temptation fraught with dangers.
Zitkala accepts the offer and rides the train, or the “iron horse” as she describes it, to her new school (ibid). Upon arriving, she immediately confronts an environment with customs and expectations that are foreign to her. Her teachers force her to adapt. Zitkala learns to name things like “stairwell” (1094); she learns when to sit up, sit down, and start eating according to the timing of a bell. In the change of dress, dining, language, hair, and in the days that proceed to the rhythm of new “bells,” Zitkala is acquiring mastery over the ways of ‘civilized’ culture. This will eventually open doors for her. Nevertheless, she describes this education and its rhythm as an “iron routine” and “civilizing machine” (1096). Education, here, is intimately linked with acculturation. Education is also presented as a fundamentally violent thing being done to her. This is best illustrated by the painful scene where Zitkala describes the cutting of her hair.
A specific kind of cultural mastery is something being done to Zitkala. Nevertheless, in some ways, Zitkala also possesses agency in the process. She did, after all, originally decide to leave her mother—in spite of the warnings—and accept the missionaries’ offer. Additionally, after getting her diploma for the school in the east, Zitkala decides to go to college against her mother’s will. Describing her mother’s displeasure, Zitkala writes: “Her few words hinted that I had better give up my slow attempt to learn the white man’s ways…I silenced her by deliberate disobedience” (1099). There was a fear that Zitkala had already become too immersed in the “white man’s ways,” but that did not stop her from continuing her education with the white man.
Zitkala’s education with the missionaries allows her to attend college where she becomes a gifted orator. She has advanced farther than she ever could if she wouldn’t have left her mother. By this time, however, Zitkala already senses that something tragic has also happened to her in the process: “Even nature seemed to have no place for me. I was neither a wee girl nor a tall one; neither a wild Indian nor a tame one. This deplorable situation was the effect of my brief course in the East” (1097). In mastering the tools of the “Palefaces,” she has lost a part of herself. This is something that Zitkala witnesses not only in herself, but also in her mother who has exchanged her Buffalo-covered wigwam for clumsy logs (1091), and in her brother and his friends who now wear ‘civilized’ attire (1098).
With her top placements in oratorical contests, it would seem that Zitkala—in some sense—has ‘made it’. She has capitalized on the opportunities her education has afforded her. Yet, this progress is accompanied by a deep sense of loss. The height of her new triumph, which includes the silencing of a prejudiced group in front of a statewide audience, contains a wound, a “hunger” (1100). Zitkala, in her mind, sees her mom “holding a charge” against her (ibid). It appears that Zitkala has let her mom down. Nevertheless, it’s not clear to what degree Zitkala is responsible for what has happened to her own cultural identity. On the one hand, acculturation—here, in the form of education—is something that has been violently done to her. On the other hand, it seems as though Zitkala believes she can control, or gain the upper hand, in her education/acculturation. Perhaps that is why after her dreadful experiences in the east, she still decides to continue her studies with the ‘white man’ in college. But Zitkala seems to realize, at the end of the statewide oratorical competition, that she cannot control what is happening to her cultural identity. She has picked up the white man’s tools to use them, but the tools themselves have worked on her. She has acquired a cultural mastery that has opened up new vistas, but at the price of a violent (imposed and self-imposed?) erasure of her Indian identity.
Similar themes of opportunity, mastery, and cultural erasure appear in Sherman Alexie’s novel. In this story, the protagonist, Arnold Spirit Jr. (Junior), is a teenager living on the Spokane Reservation. Mr. P, one of Junior’s teachers on the ‘Rez’, tells him that he’s going to find, “more and more hope the farther and farther you walk away from this sad, sad, reservation” (Alexie, 43). When Junior asks his parents who has the most hope, their answer is “White people” (45). There is also a vivid carton depicting the “bright future” of the White and the “vanishing past” of the Indian (57). The positive aspects of white identity, “positive roles models” and “hope,” are juxtaposed with the negative features—“History of Diabetes” and “Bone-Crushing Reality”—of Indian identity (ibid). What is communicated through all of this is the fact that opportunities, for Junior, lie outside of the Reservation. Ultimately, the tools and opportunities that Junior needs reside in the education at the majority-white Rearden high school, which is located in the town outside of the Reservation. Reardan’s kids are “magnificent,” “beautiful,” and know “everything” (5). Junior, despite the reservations and warnings from his community, decides to go to Reardan.
When Junior transitions into his new school, he has to master the new cultural rules. His knowledge of the “unofficial and unwritten Spokane Indian rules of fisticuffs” no longer apply here (61). Instead of fighting people, Junior has to learn the different expectations for interactions and conflicts that exist in Reardan. Additionally, he has to learn how to hide his poverty: “Yeah, so I pretended to have a little money. I pretended to be middle class. I pretended I belonged” (119). The carton of the juxtaposed White/Indian identity, described above, also proves helpful in illustrating the cultural learning, or mastery, taking place for Junior. The “Ralph Lauren Shirt,” “Timex wristwatch,” and “the latest Air Jordans” indicate the middle class social markers that allow one to fit in. Junior, in spite of his circumstances, is able to adjust to Reardan—even if it involves some lying. He makes a nerdy friend, attracts a pretty girl, plays well for the basketball team, and becomes somewhat popular at school.
Junior’s success does come at a cost. He confesses: “Zitty and lonely, I woke up on the reservation as an Indian, and somewhere on the road to Reardan, I became something less than India. And once I arrived in Reardan, I became something less than less than Indian” (83). Junior’s transition and adjustment to Reardan has resulted in some kind of loss in his Indian identity. It is important to note that this is something that has happened “somewhere on the road” (ibid). In other words, Junior can’t pinpoint when and where exactly this change happened. Also, Junior’s feeling of being “half Indian in one place and half white in the other” is exacerbated by his home community’s criticism (118). Most of the Indians on the Spokane Reservation interpreted Junior’s move to Reardan as an act of betrayal (e.g. His best friend, Rowdy, stops talking to him; the crowd turns their back on Junior during the basketball game). Consequently, there exists this external pressure that makes Junior feel less Indian. Once again, the question of the agency of the character experiencing acculturation is a complicated matter. Junior wanted an education at Reardan and he wanted to fit in. Yet, his sense of loss and in-between-ness is something he did not control, and something that was as equally thrust upon him by external pressure.
In Zitkala Ša and Sherman Alexie, the main characters show that educational opportunities can elicit a cultural mastery that results in cultural erasure. The acculturation process is not neutral; it involves the negotiation of one’s own identity. The culture that is attached to the dominant educational “tools” inflicts significant violence on non-dominant cultural identities that attempt to appropriate those tools. This process of acculturation, this violence, is something that exceeds but does not exclude the agency of those who experience it.
Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.
Zitkala Sâ. Impressions of an Indian Childhood. Atlantic Monthly, 1900.
Zitkala Sâ. The School Days of an Indian Girl. Atlantic Monthly, 1900.
In the past year or so since I started reading him, Coates has been thoroughly and systematically breaking my heart…
When it comes to public intellectual work, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ June 2014 cover story for The Atlantic—The Case for Reparations—is as good as it gets. It’s true that Coates does not necessarily say anything new, anything that African-American scholars and good students of American history didn’t already know, but this doesn’t minimize the importance of his work. Part of his brilliance lies in his ability to touch the central nerves of our highly ahistorical 21st century debates with the medicine of translated history. Coates disarms the color-blindness of the Obama era with cold-blooded history and the most beautiful of prose.
I believe I was first introduced to Coates via his analysis on race and the Obama presidency, Fear of a Black President. My online education continued when I dug up his 2008 piece on the audacity of Bill Cosby’s conservatism, This Is How We Lost to the White Man. Then, as I started to read more of his stuff, Coates’ words started to jump off of my computer screen…
It is painful to say this: Trayvon Martin is not a miscarriage of American justice, but American justice itself. This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended. To expect our juries, our schools, our police, to single-handedly correct for this, is to look at the final play in the final minute of the final quarter and wonder why we couldn't come back from twenty-four down.
A capricious anti-intellectualism, a fanatical imbecility, a willful amnesia, an eternal sunshine upon our spotless minds, is white supremacy's gravest legacy. You would not know from reading Richard Cohen that the idea that blacks are more criminally prone is older than the crime stats we cite, that it has been cited since America's founding to justify the very kinds of public safety measures Cohen now endorses. Black criminality is more than myth; it is socially engineered prophecy. If you believe a people to be inhuman, you confine them to inhuman quarters and inhuman labor, and subject them to inhuman policy. When they then behave inhumanely to each other, you take it is as proof of your original thesis. The game is rigged. Because it must be.
I insist that the irrelevance of black life has been drilled into this country since its infancy, and shall not be extricated through the latest innovations in Negro Finishing School. I insist that racism is our heritage, that Thomas Jefferson's genius is no more important than his plundering of the body of Sally Hemmings, that George Washington's abdication is no more significant than his wild pursuit of Oney Judge. I insist that the G.I Bill's accolades are inseparable from its racist heritage. I will not respect the lie. I insist that racism must be properly understood as an Intelligence, as a sentience, as a default setting to which, likely until the end of our days, we unerringly return.
There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.
For many Americans, it’s difficult to know what to do with these words. They ring true but are also deeply unsettling. I think Coates is kind of a nightmare for both conservatives and progressives; I can see them hand-waiving and emotionalizing but not actually out-arguing him. That’s why some of Coates’ biggest critics have resorted to criticizing his line of thought simply as “pessimistic” or “fatalistic.” Instead of using history and studies to show a viable alternative, I guess it’s easier to say that someone is sad, or angry, or oppression nostalgic.
TNC can be a hard pill to swallow because he cuts through our sentimentality concerning race and reconciliation. We would rather keep our innocence. It would be easier to just talk about racism, the goodness of diversity, microaggressions, and transformed hearts than it would be to talk about the totalizing force that white supremacy has been, is, and will likely continue to be.
Reading Coates’ articles, some themes emerge for me. First, the way in which many debates in America remain deeply ahistorical. Second, the failure of respectability politics. Third, the humanity of black people. This perhaps is most important. I see Coates as re-narrating America’s [theological] anthropology. A classic—and very much traditionally Christian—move has been to blame black poverty on pathology and culture. Within this framework, taking oppression/white supremacy into account leads to victimhood and an overdependence on government. What is needed instead is virtue, private charity, and the transformation of hearts. This view makes some sense—if white supremacy didn’t exist. Coates’ insistence on the humanity of black people, and critique of the double standards placed upon them, is nothing less than a debate about the Imago Dei in the history of America.
When I read Ta-Nehisi Coates, I sense something deeply spiritual/theological going on. I’m aware that Coates has identified himself as an atheist. Yet, I’m intrigued that he closes his The Blue Period: An Origin Story with a prayer. Contra conservative criticisms, you hear more than a simple demand for “government handouts” when Coates writes: “What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal…An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.” In 21st century America, Coates is exorcising demons we thought we outgrew or forgot we ever had.
I suppose it’s easier to focus on the “goodness” and “preservation” of institutions when they have historically been built for people who look a lot like you. For various reasons, my questions about institutions have mostly revolved around issues of inclusion and incorporation. How do I inhabit institutions that were never constructed with people like me in mind? What does it mean to honor a tradition and simultaneously work to extend it beyond itself? There are times when I’m surprised by what I find inside of a theology book. Such was the case with Brian Bantum’s Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity. Bantum’s work is a creative, interdisciplinary take on Christianity and questions of identity, drawing on literature, history, sociology, church history, and systematic theology. Ultimately, this book is about Christology and identity. Yet, tucked within the book’s chapter on baptism are claims that—in my opinion—have very direct and practical implications for Christian institutions.
“…in this baptismal moment there also lies the profound transformation of the community, for with every new member comes the possibility of transformation, change, and adaptation in its inclusion not only for the one welcomed, but for those who welcome. The body of Christ shifts and moves and learns new languages as it adds new members. Its body becomes new as the person becomes new. This transformation is not without shape or purpose. It is a body that recognizes it exists within that in which all difference is found. The church is that transgression of God’s mercy against humanity’s refusal and disobedience. It is God’s presence in the midst of humanity’s unfaithfulness. The church thus witnesses to the possibility of creation’s transformation in its own transformation and its own incorporation of difference within itself.” (159)
Discussing baptism as a social performance, he continues:
“This communal performance, this harmonic of Christian discipleship, is integral to the baptismal moment as the baptized becomes a song added to the hymn of faith…However, the nature, the timbre of the song carries with it a particularity that is not incorporated into the harmony without necessitating an improvisation in the communal song. The reception of the individual is the reception of their particularity and requires the reimagining of communal identity. It is here that the Christological claims regarding Christ’s mulattic character and the necessity of transformation become exhibited through the baptismal moment…The community itself must adapt its timbre, its instrumentation, and its arrangement in its incorporation of the newly born.” (161)
Bantum, one last time:
“Baptism is the entrance into a life of transformation. It is entrance into a life pregnant with the possibility of speaking in new tongues and receiving those people and those practices that once seemed alien…The reception of a person requires the possibility of a reception of their particularity and their hopes, the fullness of their despair and their triumphs…The ecclesial community similarly takes on the life of its newly born and turns itself to them as itself becomes something new in the process. We cannot enter into this body and deny the difference among us. To be in Christ is to enter those strange bodies in our midst, we must be baptized into Christ and bound to one another.” (163)
For me, Bantum’s words about baptism apply broadly to conversations about diversity, multiculturalism, and institutional inclusion. I find that many institutions want the kind of diversity that they can manage, control, and keep at the periphery, not the kind of diversity that fundamentally transforms what they are. Yet, this sketch of baptism shows that genuine incorporation is a two way-street that requires transformation for everyone involved. Without the openness of improvisation, institutional attempts at incorporation are more likely to function as forms of assimilation—the absorption of difference in the reproduction of itself. The breaking forth of the Spirit in the joining of peoples is different than the maintenance and reproduction of institutions conceived as naturally good organisms. In other words, institutions too need to be born again.
As I think about these issues, I must admit that I continue to be haunted by this open letter that Prof. Denise Isom wrote to a Christian college in 2007. The letter reveals Isom’s efforts to negotiate her identity—as an African American woman—with the environment and requirements of the Christian school employing her. There is a certain affect to reading her words, already knowing the subsequent result of her appeal (it was rejected). Beyond being just a matter of tradition, requirements, and compliance, Isom’s words are of profound theological significance, displaying a deep theological struggle that resonates with Bantum’s concerns about communal identity and the “strange bodies” in our midst.
The problem of diversity and institutional inclusion is of utmost theological and philosophical importance. To belittle these kinds of questions as nothing more than “liberal political correctness” is to throw smokescreens. To reduce all of this to tolerance/intolerance, sensitivity, and feelings is to continue headstrong in anti-intellectualisms concerning the flesh. That’s because the joining and coming together of peoples has to do with the Spirit, with Gentile existence; how we receive the bodies in our midst is directly related to how we perceive and receive the very body of Christ.
The PolicyMic piece “National Geographic Concludes What Americans Will Look Like in 2050, and It’s Beautiful” has been trending quite nicely. Over the past few days, I’ve noticed many people sharing it enthusiastically as a sign for optimism in America’s future. It features a colorful cast of interracial faces, including what will become the “average American” face in 2050. Yet, something noticeably absent from this spread of photos is people with darker skin. Additionally, this piece suggests that increasing amounts of interracial unions and their offspring might, in essence, end racism.
While many are gushing over America’s beauty in 2050, this vision has also come under heavy criticism. Writer Gene Demby, in my opinion, has provided great commentary on twitter. Here’s one tongue-in-cheek tweet from Demby: “Entrenched inequality getting you down? What you need is a boo of a different [race] and [a] beige child to untether you from our histories.” Participating in the conversation, Erika Nicole Kendall tweeted: “My features are beautiful when they come wrapped in fairer skin?”
It’s troubling to see America’s future beauty predicated on the absence of black people with darker features. From a whiter person’s perspective, the photo spread might look like his own diversification. But from a darker person’s perspective, it looks like she is desired more when she’s become lighter. The aesthetics and assumptions behind this piece on America’s future “beauty” are deeply problematic. What it shows and reminds us is that interracial realities and futures can be built upon a disdain for black bodies.
I see this piece on 2050 as part of broader and increasing conversations about America’s predicted demographic changes. Besides 2050, the other hot-topic year is 2042. That’s when white Americans are supposed to become a “minority” in this country—though I think it's more accurate to describe America as becoming a plurality and not a new majority/minority, unless you think all minority groups are the same or unify in the way that white people do. To say nothing about those who see 2042 as doomsday, I’m deeply puzzled by those who hold up 2042, and the demographic changes it represents, as a solution to the problem of race in America. It’s as though the demographic change in and of itself will make the importance of race disappear.
Just today in the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza has written a post titled “Is Barack Obama 'black'? A majority of Americans say no.” in which he suggests that increasing rates of interracial marriages will make race a moot point in coming years. I’ll add this, along with the piece on America’s 2050 beauty, along with many others, to the catalogue of arguments that I like to call “Demographics as Destiny.”
For those who see demographics as destiny, the increasing number of non-white Americans and interracial unions will practically eradicate the negative consequences of race. America’s multicultural future from now through 2042 and beyond is one of linear progress, not discounting hiccups along the road. But is this true? Can America literally screw its way beyond race?
I’m not convinced. Consider Jamelle Bouie’s piece, “Could America Become Mississippi?” Bouie highlights a study conducted at Northwestern University that shows that white Americans become more politically conservative when they learn that demographic changes are putting them in the minority. Using this, Bouie points to American history and argues that increased segregation is a possibility in America’s future. Granted, this is somewhat of a worst-case scenario. But what I think Bouie demonstrates is that demographics alone can’t predict a more equitable future. Demographics still need to be interpreted. Changing demographics can lead to a number of results.
I find most of the optimism behind 2042, and 2050, to be too naïve. Will conditions for non-whites in America improve? Yeah, sure. Will race and the significance of racial identities go away? That is not determined. Time alone doesn’t dismantle. One just has to look at the history of colonialism. One just has to look at the history of this country, at the fluidity of racial categories, at how whiteness has changed to incorporate many into its melting pot. To remain glibly optimistic in light of all of this is simply to participate in the American evasion of history.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLSfyvOE148 Para mi, Aja Monet representa la complejidad de la identidad Latina en los Estados Unidos. Hay una mezcla de culturas. Ser Latino en EE.UU. no es reducible a poder hablar el Español bien.
One of the biggest regrets of my fall 2013 semester at Duke University was missing the performance of visiting poet Aja Monet. Various things were happening that weekend and I couldn't make it. But I was happy when I found some videos, including this great interview above. In it, Monet touches upon many topics including the life of an artist, motherhood, and materialism. I think Monet is an important voice to hear. Recently, she was featured in the book Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith, which was co-edited by Enuma Okoro. One thing that I appreciate about Monet is the way in which she speaks from the Latino/a experience in America. While many Americans continue to harbor stereotypical views of Latinos as exotic internationals (think Modern Family), Monet demonstrates through her art that the Latino/a identity in America is complex, full of mixture, and not reducible to the Spanish language. I'll admit that, as a New Yorker, my appreciation of Monet may be somewhat biased. But sometimes I think: if America wants to confront its future, it needs a little more NY.
So much of my college’s anti-racism and diversity efforts had to do with white privilege that I was almost made to believe that this was my main issue. I should engage with diverse others because I most likely grew up in a homogenous suburb. I should study abroad because I need to experience other cultures. I should do service projects in order to meet and help people who are not like me. The reality: I was a black Latino from a lower-income, immigrant community in New York who had a difficult time adjusting to the racial/economic make-up of a college campus. For me, addressing race and identity was not reducible to white privilege.
Austin Channing Brown has written an excellent post about “White Privilege Weariness.” As someone with experience in leading conversations on privilege at predominately white institutions, she asks: “Is it possible for us to talk about race, even white privilege, without making white people the center? I wonder if it's possible to bring the narratives of people of color to the center, to hold them for their own sake. I'm trying to recall if I have ever experienced a workshop/training that sought healing for people of color rather than education for white people.”
The problem with the discourse of white privilege is that it often crowds out the concerns and agency of students of color. We are there for the pedagogical consumption of our white peers. Any talk or event that deviates from that as the main purpose is subject to interrogation: “What can I do? How does this apply to me?”
How much of “diversity” and “multiculturalism” is mostly about the negotiation of white identity? I suppose that is why movies like The Help and Avatar, and campaigns like Kony 2012 are so appealing. The “other” is present but the main narrative has to do with white guilt and with the possibilities of white self-redemption. It’s all a kind of solipsism capable of absorbing diversity into itself.
Another problem with the language of privilege has to do with results. How much has privilege-talk, per se, improved conditions for people of color? The language of privilege has accelerated and become mainstream in American society. Yet, it has not necessarily worked to transform institutional inequality. What happened with Macklemore at the 2014 Grammys provided a good example. With all due respect to Macklemore as an artist (heck, I’ll admit that I like the thrift shop song), the truth is that he robbed Kendrick Lamar for best rap album. Those are not my words but the words that Macklemore, himself, texted to Kendrick after the awards. Ironically, Macklemore had already made a song titled “White Privilege” in which he critically reflects on white rappers gentrifying hip-hop and taking away black artists’ profits. Nevertheless, none of this changed the patterns of Grammy voting and results. Neither did it inspire Macklemore to address the problem in his acceptance speech. At the end of the day, what he did do was publicly share a text message showing that he felt bad.
What can we learn about the discourse of white privilege from Macklemore? I think that the theologian Amaryah Shaye put it best in her tweets. Stringing them together, she wrote: "What this event really shows is how useless the language of white privilege is in bringing about systemic change. Making white people aware of white privilege just gives white people more language to talk about themselves with while avoiding any kind of structural redress. Macklemore is probably feeling guilty right now, but what good is that?"
Thinking back to my college experience, what did the incessant focus on privilege do? It did not help me think about my own identity. It did not empower me. It did not increase the retention rate of students of color at my school. It did not change the fact that no faculty of color have ever retired from my college and few have ever been tenured.
Can white privilege-talk be more than a self-congratulatory pat on the back that changes nothing?
I'm grateful to the Perspectives Journal of Reformed Thought for featuring me as a guest writer on The 12 blog.
I wrote a piece, "Common Grace and Race," that addresses the topic of institutional racism and the Reformed/Kuyperian tradition. Here is a snippet:
While the Kuyperian tradition has claimed that common grace is operative throughout the whole world, it has often failed to recognize it across human culture. What would it mean to begin to unhook common grace from the legacy of white supremacy? To start, it would mean listening to and dialoging with marginalized voices. Additionally, it would mean recognizing the cultural contextualizations of Christian discipleship.
Read the whole article here.
On occasion, I’ve heard academics complain about “popular” authors and bloggers who pontificate on theological issues without being formally accountable to the academy or to an ecclesiastical institution. A serious Christian intellectual should be writing in peer-reviewed journals and should earn their stripes within the guild. It would take hubris to make grand pronouncements while ignoring the literature and important conversations that already exist. Beyond a self-invested smugness, I’ve heard a genuine concern about accountability in these types of rants. How can we think and speak responsibly apart from communities of accountability? This complaint, made by some academics, has pushed me to think more broadly about theology and accountability. I agree that accountability is important. Nevertheless, I think that the typical complaints reinforce problematic assumptions. The critics tend to assume that the academic guilds and ecclesiastical institutions, of which they are a part, provide sufficient accountability. Yet, what does accountability mean when the majority of these institutions have historically been centered around white masculinity? Does accountability to circles comprised almost exclusively of white male Christians really count as accountability?
I’ve come to see that you can’t theologize for everyone unless you are willing to be accountable to different communities. How can one think and speak responsibly without attempting to connect with groups of people who don’t look or experience the world exactly like you? How accountability is practiced and what forms it takes is another important conversation to have, but the very attempt at it is crucial.
I started to become seriously concerned about many Christian leaders and thinkers because I began to notice that they, by all appearances, theologize without accountability to communities of color, women, and sexual minorities. It suddenly dawned on me: some of these individuals can continue to publish and publicly speak about “Christianity” with a great degree of professional success without ever seriously thinking about black or brown people. In other words, they can continue to be guild gatekeepers and headline conferences representing “American Christianity” without ever learning from or being challenged by the voices of different Christians. If silences are statements, then the unilateral Christianity of some public theologians/philosophers is confirmed by their loquacity on contemporary issues and silence on stuff that happens to women and darker folks in America. Such theologizing, even when it claims to be for the common good, only perpetuates—to borrow a phrase from Ta-Nehisi Coates—“the irrelevance of black life.”
In the academy, contextual/liberation theologies—instead of being seen as important for everyone and intersecting with all identities—are still often ignored or consigned to an ideological ghetto. The faith and traditions of Latino/a and Asian Christians et al. are reduced to being a niche topic, reserved for the small amount of minorities that trickle through academic guilds. Even when diversity is embraced, it is managed and marginalized as a peripheral ornament that orbits around a truly "substantial" and "rigorous" center. Yet, we as minorities have no choice but to engage the classical canon, the white-Anglo streams of evangelicalism, Radical Orthodoxy, Protestant liberalism, Post-liberalism, and the Christian speakers/writers of the majority culture, if we are to be taken seriously by the “mainstream.” Minorities who inhabit most Christian institutions in America are constantly accountable to white men; we always have been. Now, to be clear, I am not dismissing white men or their theology. After all, some of my best friends and favorite books come from that tradition, and I have spent a good portion of my life patiently listening to and learning from them. What I am opposed to is a form of accountability that is egregiously unequal. Neither am I trying to dismiss the academy, or ecclesiastical institutions, per se. Those believers who practice a freelance Christianity outside of institutions are not necessarily better at being accountable to communities of color. What I’m saying is not attempting to pit the popular blogger against the academic scholar but trying to highlight the danger of narrow, insulated Christian networks across all lines.
Some theologians will say that they don’t have enough time to engage the theological conversations of these other communities, that this is not their area of expertise or concentration. Subtext of excuses translated: “I don’t have enough time to think about Latino/as; I will let the women think about women.” Accountability does not mean expertise or concentration, but it does mean an engagement and openness to others. Being accountable to others does not mean arriving at a simple agreement or consensus, but it does involve openness to being changed.
A theologizing/philosophizing that is not accountable to different communities cannot be catholic, in the sense of “universal.” I think that it is a mistake to reduce the meaning of catholicity to a cluster of historic beliefs and practices. Catholicity in the church is also about Jesus’ call for people to love one another. A Christianity that ignores the faith and theological witness of women, gays, and Native Americans, can be considered catholic only in a hollow sense.
At this point, someone may object: “Instead of talking about all this accountability to different and diverse communities, why don’t you just make yourself accountable to the bible? The bible is what we are all accountable to.” Scripture, itself, testifies to our need for accountability. The new commandment that Jesus gives to his disciples is that they love one another (John 13). Additionally, the story of the early church in Acts can be read as the story of cultural struggles between Jewish and Gentile Christians as they attempt to become accountable to one another. After initially resisting the gentile branch of the church, it is Peter who confesses: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17). In our theologizing, we need to be accountable to different and diverse communities because we are called to love one another. Ultimately, dismissing or ignoring the witness of different Christians resists the work of the Holy Spirit.
Theologizing without accountability is a dangerous thing. Theologies, in this country, that are ungrounded, free-floating, completely disconnected from the black and brown bodies of America will remain complicit and unable to respond to the violence perpetrated on these bodies. If one’s entire theology, entire corpus, and entire public commentary can stand as if little black boys or immigrants (or the planet we live on) didn't exist, something is wrong. Acknowledging and talking about privilege isn’t much. What are you going to do about it?