Theology that favors whiteness

Mar 2, 2017 by

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Black theology and womanist theology, the theologies written by African-American men and women, speak to white as well as black audiences. Theology for Mennonites and the still predominantly white Mennonite churches would appear in a different light after engagement with these writings. Here are a few examples.

In her book Sisters in the Wilderness, prominent womanist Delores Williams describes the multiple kinds of “surrogacy” endured by black women — that is, instances in which these women performed services that were rightly the function of others. Enslaved black women were forced to oversee the master’s household rather than care for their own children, do men’s work in fields, submit to the sexual predation of the master while white women appeared above such activity, and more.

After emancipation, black women still performed many of these same roles “voluntarily,” but in new ways, particularly in light of efforts of the Ku Klux Klan to stamp out manifestations of black male power. Williams compares the unjust suffering of innocent Jesus to the unjust surrogacy experienced by black women. Calling Jesus the “ultimate surrogate figure,” Williams suggests that celebrating the undeserved and innocent suffering of Jesus as a sacrifice necessary for salvation validates the unjust suffering endured by African-American women.

Knowing Williams’ critique should call Mennonites to ask when and where our references to Jesus’ saving sacrifice have contributed to the validation of unjust suffering, particular for women experiencing abuse, and then to contemplate the fact that the culmination of Jesus’ work was not death but his resurrection.

James H. Cone is a founder of the black theology movement. In his book God of the Oppressed, he wrote about the early church fathers who authored the classic statements of Christendom, which identified Jesus as “same substance with the Father” (Nicea, 325 C.E.) and as “fully human and fully divine” (Chalcedon, 451 C.E.). Their context was Christianity as the favored religion of the empire, Cone said. They were concerned about Jesus as the “divinizer” of humanity and with how to define his deity and his relationship to God the Father. But they showed little emphasis on the significance of Jesus’ deeds for the poor and oppressed. Thus, Cone’s black theology appeals to Jesus’ life to picture him as liberator.

This emphasis on Jesus as liberator also appeared in the religion of slaves, who heard two voices from the Bible. While slaves were taught that the Bible commanded obeying masters and enduring suffering like Jesus’ did, enslaved people actually heard stories of Moses and of Jesus as stories of liberation.

Womanist writer Kelly Brown Douglas has a similar observation in her book The Black Christ. Douglas wrote that although she learned about the classic statements of Nicea and Chalcedon in seminary, she had long believed that what was important about Jesus was what he did for “the poor and oppressed.” When the Creed jumps from birth to the crucifixion, the implication is that the bulk of the material in the Gospels is “unrelated to what it means for Jesus to be the Christ.”

These comments from Cone and Douglas should awaken Mennonites to the fact that theology that focuses on the deity of Jesus without emphasizing the social component of Jesus’ message as well as his confrontation of oppression is actually white theology — theology that favors white privilege and the white church. Stated another way, acknowledging the import of Cone’s and Douglas’ message calls us to explicit confrontation of assumed white privilege both within the church and in our society as a whole.

African-American theologians have taken Cone’s analysis a step farther. J. Kameron Carter in Race: A Theological Account and Willie James Jennings in The Christian Imagination argue that the problem with racism in theology began when the early church fathers separated Jesus from his Jewishness. This separation is already visible in the description of Jesus as “same substance” as God the Father or as “fully human and fully divine” or as “Second Person of the Trinity.” Such formulations disconnect Jesus from his identity as a Jew and from God’s covenant with Israel. The result was a supposed universal Jesus, whom Europeans could claim was above race.

However, with Jesus defined as above race, they could then see Jesus in their own image, with whiteness as the norm for the image of full humanity. In comparison to the white norm, people of color became varying degrees of inferior, as did their forms of government. And with God’s covenant separated from Israel, Europeans could appropriate chosenness for their own agenda.

This theology of chosenness and white superiority undergirded the worldwide colonial enterprise under the Doctrine of Discovery. It supported the expulsion and killing of the first nations of North America, slavery and legal segregation — and has implicitly supported white privilege.

Jesus’ Jewishness has an additional element. He was the bearer of the covenant with Abraham, but in Jesus that covenant was expanded to include all peoples. Paul emphasized that inclusivity with his mission to the Gentiles. Keeping this aspect of Jesus in mind makes us aware that our various ethnicities matter and that they all belong equally in the people of God.

Further, there is an important learning here about our relationship as Christians to Jews. We are both heirs to the covenant with Abraham. Within that covenant, we disagree on whether Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. This disagreement continued for several centuries in the early Christian era, with neither side expelling the other from church or synagogue. Scholars have never reached a consensus on when the schism became permanent. Without in any way surrendering our Christian confession that Jesus is the Christ, and in spite of other significant differences, we could still be having this discussion about Jesus within the people of God as an in-house, family argument, rather than one where each side necessarily excludes the other.

This discussion of theology from Cone, Douglas, Carter and Jennings has implications for Mennonites. These writers reveal that much of our theology has implicitly favored whiteness; at the least it has allowed us to act as though racism was not our problem. We have begun to take steps toward being more inclusive of other ethnicities in what are to date still predominantly white denominations. Greater attention to the writings of womanist and black theologians would assist our churches greatly in moving beyond this still largely white identity.

While my work has been with black and womanist theologies, parallel insight would come from study of Mujerista theology (by Hispanic women) and theology by First Nations writers. In the current social climate in the United States, being inclusive churches with a clear witness against white privilege is important for the health of Mennonite churches and for our nation. It is perhaps the most important insight of all to be learned from studying these named theologies.

J. Denny Weaver is professor emeritus of religion at Bluffton (Ohio) University. He lives in Madison, Wis., and is a member of Madison Mennonite Church. His most recent book is God Without Violence: Following a Nonviolent God in a Violent World.

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