This week, I went to the New Room Conference being held in Brentwood, TN. As an
During the conference, however, something from one of the talks struck me. My bishop from the Mississippi Annual Conference, James Swanson, was part of a conversation on racial reconciliation,
There is a litany of thoughts that struck me about that conversation. For instance, why we do we hear about “black theology,” such as in James Cone and Black Liberation theology, but not “white theology?” Prevailing social groups with power tends to label way of thinking of minority communities with explicit markers of their social identity whereas they fail to identify their own thinking with such explicit, contextual description of their social identity, which can sometimes be with a condescending, implicit view of “that is how YOU think” whereas “we see things as they really are.” By failing to mark the social identity of the prevailing body of thinking, one a) reinforces it as a controlling ideology that b) has an
But, my focus here is not to analyze the specifics of theology in terms of its actual social context. Rather, I want to take a step back and make a broader observation that can then be useful in analyzing the relationship of theological systems of beliefs/knowledge and social context: the relationship between theology and identity.
A few definitions are necessary, however. Firstly, the concept of identity stands in relationship to the concept of self. By “self,” I mean the total experience of a person in a specific moment, including most notably their experience of their own exteroceptive senses (the classic five senses),
Identity stands in relationship to the self in that it is some aspect of our self that we become specifically aware of. For instance, ethnic identity combines awareness of certain salient ethnic features shared by a group of people, like skin color, along with one’s own memories of the significance of that feature, like being negatively judged for this feature and hearing stories of other people’s similar experiences. Identity as a product of our own conscious attention and awareness never defines all that this happening, nor is it derived from the present moment, but identity derives from a narrow range of our memories in
By analogy, theology stands in
If my definitions are apropos descriptions for the things we refer to when we talk about self, identity, faith, and theology, then this means something important: theology is tightly connected to our identity. It isn’t the same thing as identity; this is not a proposal that our God-talk is merely projection of our own self onto God. There are some differences as (self-)identity is explicitly about ourselves whereas theology takes God as its object of knowledge, but insofar as our sense of who we are is impacted by our relationship to this God we trust in and seek to know, then our theology emerges in a similar fashion to our sense of identities.
And how does this emerge? Identity/theology emerges by us focusing on certain salient experiences of our self, including our self as we trust God. As a consequence, as we focus on some aspects of our experience and memories we cease to pay attention to other aspects. For instance, for a non-theological example, I who has an identity as student at a university doing research, will focus on the parts of my memory and present experience that are relevant for my dissertation research. I will not spend as much time in those moments focusing on experiences that are relevant to other identities such as being a friend, a son, etc. So, I
This also happens in theology. Our theology begins to express what is most important for our identities. I focus on my relationship to God that is immediately relevant for my own self-understanding. If I think of myself as a broken person, I may pay attention to my past memories of this brokenness and focus in the present moment on some healing from God for this brokenness. However, this means, as a consequence, we can in that moment block out other understandings of our past and present. The most salient blocking out is when we think ourselves broken, we can overlook how we broke others, as this is the very opposite of our own experience. Consequently, my identity as a broken person can, if I tightly clasp to this identity, makes me avoid seeing myself as a person who breaks others. How can this manifest itself? By a diminished role of repentance in our theology. My theology will be formed in such a way to account for my own victimization and hardships, but not to incorporate my own sense of sin.
I think this is very relevant for the analysis of “white theology.” We white Americans and Western Europeans, bearing membership in the prevailing social group that has intellectual prestige and readily denounces challenges to its status, have construed theology more in terms of the experience of our empowered status. With power comes a sense of entitlement, where there are things that ought to be done for us and to us because of who we are. Consequently, empowerment is prone to see how people fail to meet these expectations and thus is highly prone to
(White) Evangelical theology is better to a degree to accepting personal responsibility for one’s own negative actions, but by no means avoids the problem. Because evangelical theology is more constrained to a literal and whole interpretation of the Bible (whereas liberal theology jettisoned these principles in what may be remarked as a Bultmann-
This is where black theology comes in; as a theology of the oppressed addressing its oppressor, it can create a sense of resistance from white Christians with our white theology. It is rooted in one’s own experience of self of being oppressed because of one’s skin color, which then expresses itself in resistance to the power that white people have had over them, including white Christians. Our sense of status and entitlement has made us pay attention to our own grievances for increasingly superficial reasons in comparison to the often egregious oppression African-Americans have experienced over the years, thereby making “black theology” often uncomfortable to us. It rouses us as white Christians to stop seeing ourselves in terms of our own status as entitled, and therefore easily aggrieved and “broken,” and to recognize that we are part of the people who participate in making people broken.
If I may speak more clearly here, it is through theological witnesses like the black theological witness that a more robust sense of repentance can be restored to white evangelical theology. But it can be a hard word to hear, as we as whites are inclined to think we ourselves in our whole being are being resisted, particularly those of us who have more status and affluence, when in fact it is commonly our actions that are being called out. The black theological witness can help us as white Christians restore a more fuller sense of our self in faith, including in our need for repentance for our sins and to place truth in the faithful God to restore us and redeem us. Our theology has focused more on abstractions of ideas about God, as people in power tend to focus on abstractions more, often times unconsciously reinforcing our sense of identity and expectations for people like us; there are times where our theology needs to be radically concretized and called to deal with the realities of our lives and actions rather than living in the realm of imagination of abstract ideas that can serve more as a distraction than guide. And through this breaking of the scales of our eyes, perhaps we can be people who can pay more attention to a) what God is doing in our midst rather than simply what we want Him to do while b) paying more attention to how we are treating each other.
And this is part of what I appreciated about our time at New Room: we were both called to repentance, fittingly from another African-American preacher, and we were seeking healing for our brokenness. While not being perfect, I found my time at New Room to be a wonderful spiritual experience for myself, both in calling me to repentance to cease to be an aggriever and breaker and my seeking for healing of my grievances and brokenness.