Skip to content

on (liberation) theology and (white male) privilege

Blogger Rachel Held Evans recently posted about the intersection of theology and privilege:

I’m not saying white, educated men are uniquely biased. I’m saying we’re ALL biased (myself included!), and that our theology is made richer when we engage it with a diversity of people, especially those to whom Jesus first brought the gospel. The problem is, in our culture, white/male/Western is often considered the “default setting,” with other perspective relegated to niches or discounted as too personal/emotional/biased..theology matters and belongs to everyone, not just the privileged and not just those who do it for a living.

I think her point is a salient one, and I find the conversation about where privilege intersects with theology to be fascinating, so I wanted to write a few thoughts and observations here.

As Rachel observes, being a white man is often treated as the “default” setting in society.  Notoriously, whites and white men are simply seen as “people,” while everyone else is a “______ person,” with a variety of other “secondary” signifiers branching out from there.

While I agree that no one approaches the Bible with an entirely unbiased lens, I think it’s too generous to suggest that the most privileged groups are not “uniquely biased” in their approaches.  That is, there remains something particularly dangerous about the potent combination of privileged identities (male, white, etc) when it comes to teaching theology as Christ demonstrated it.

As Christians, we have been taught to look to white men to teach us proper theology.  Historically, our most popular and intellectually-acclaimed religious thought comes from male theologians working in European settings and entirely white contexts.  Theological “contributions” from Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and other regions of the globe have not been centered, but dismissed and “contextualized” as important to their own particular time and place, shelved as secondary for not being as objective and Enlightened as White thought.  (Thinking here of the time my old Bible study leader told me to avoid “the Korean and black churches” because their theology was “not as pure” as Bill Bright’s.)

What is unfortunate about the constant re-centering of exclusively male (and white) writers by the mainstream Church is this: when people in relative positions of societal power offer their theological reflections, as brilliant as they are, their readers receive a very limited package.  Not only are a) other diverse voices absent from the conversation, but b) the very idea of trickle-down theology simply isn’t the way Jesus went about things.

claudio

Earlier this week, I interviewed Brazilian American liberation theologian and liturgist Claudio Carvalhaes for the Theology of Ferguson project.  Many parts of our conversation stuck with me.  One thing in particular that Professor Carvalhaes–who grew up “a shoe shining boy in São Paulo“–continued to insist upon was this idea that “theology starts where it hurts.”

Liberation theology (which notably did not emerge among white European theologians) echoes this commitment to searching for the lost voices when it comes to beginning theological discourse.  Some call this logic God’s preferential option for the poor–primarily fielding the concerns of the oppressed before airing the complaints of society’s upper echelons.

For liberation theologians like Claudio, scripture’s polemics against the powerful aren’t simply trite cautions against excess or flashes of ultimate eschatological hope.  Rather, declarations like those found in Mary’s Magnificat–God’s promises to scatter the proud, cast down the mighty from their thrones, exalt the humble, and send the rich away empty–represent God’s commitment to starting theology with those on the margins.

This must remain core to what the Church teaches when we’re having modern conversations about privilege and who’s instructing us on how to live.

This is why I believe that (contrary to traditional wisdom) classically-trained white men might be among the least capable of teaching sound theology.  Those who hold positions of unqualified social privilege must naturally be counted among the last to declare freedom from outside influence when it comes to proclaiming the good news (which centrally, in Christ’s own words, is “good news for the poor“).

While many individuals (especially LGBT persons, immigrants, people of color, women, and those with disabilities) are traditionally disadvantaged in numerous spheres of daily life, white men since birth have been soothed and affirmed by American society at every turn.  They don’t “start at the bottom” of the social ladder, so they’re spared bumping up against the grain of dehumanizing scandal and humiliation.  Instead, they can remain “impartial” and begin at the top of the food chain, already with a seat at the table.  In this, they are indeed “uniquely biased” to talk about a kingdom where the first become last, where the honored guests are the beaten and disenfranchised.

Think of how many of our highest-lauded preachers and teachers fit this mold.  Think how few exceptions there are to this rule (and here, progressive churches have been performing as atrociously as conservative ones).  I’m not doubting the talent, earnestness, and intelligence of white men in teaching theology, but I am calling for them to a) make room for other voices and b) examine how their social advantages might uniquely blind them to the struggles of the poor and the maligned (read: Christ’s own people).

What would it look like for (educated, straight, English-speaking, able-bodied) white men to humble themselves by intentionally stepping aside and creating space for traditionally marginalized perspectives in theology?  This move should not be motivated by outside pressure (or by some misguided sense of liberal guilt) but because the homogeneity of the privileged in Christian theological discourse is literally distorting the beauty and application of the gospel.

When we gather around the pulpit or the communion table, it is our imperative to ask: who is missing here?  What voices are being talked over?  More importantly: who might we need to move aside (the answer may be ourselves!) and what tables need to be flipped (once again, it may be ours) in order to welcome the dispossessed into the body of Christ?

Instead of privileging (maleness and) whiteness above all other theological perspectives–a philosophy sometimes called white supremacy–may we learn to follow God’s heart in showing preference for those who are poor and despised; not only for their sake but also for ours.

a small smattering of words I hate

It’s been a really busy couple of weeks.  I’ve been swamped with work, classes, event planning, and trying to tread water in the complicated soup of human relationships that is life.

I thought I’d write a little fluff post to allay some of the anxiety that crops up whenever I don’t write frequently enough (who decides what “enough” means is beyond me).  Below are a small collection of words that, over the past few months and years, I have begrudgingly learned to hate.  If interested, one could probably tease out the trajectory of the various ideological groups (eg. hardcore, wrath-fetishizing Calvinists, swaths of ignorant w**** folks, homophobic schoolyard bullies, grammar blunderers) that have contributed to my current discomfort with many of these terms.  But I’ll admitthat although the way many of these words are applied is enough to make me cringe whenever I hear them, each of these words is innately valuable and can be redeemed through reframing it in proper discourse.

So here is a small smattering of words I hate:

holiness

sovereignty

depravity

unbeliever

elect

submit

help-meet

lifestyle

ex-gay

queer (when it’s being used in the bullying, old-fashioned way)

sissy

homosexuals (PS, looking at you, Gagnonhomosexualists and homosexualism aren’t words)

exotic

colorblind

all-the-facts

self-defense

creationism

divisive

birthright

reverse-anything

snitch

civility

broken

trickle-down

should

slut

thug

fat

not-all-_____!

crusade

microinvalidation

proud (when referring to Native people)

hardworking (when referring to Asian Americans)

inspirational (when referring to people with disabilities)

“normal”

re-ocurring

ickspecially

redirection

* * *

Hmm, that’s all I can think of for now.  How about you? What are some words that you hate?

10 distinct pleasures (and pains) only an RA knows

I wrote this post last August but forgot to publish it for whatever reason.  It’s still appropriate, although this year I have fewer residents and I’d like to think I’m a bit more seasoned to the wise ways of the RA.  Here’s the post – may it serve as a snapshot of my mind approximately one year ago today.

floor

my old floor. love each one of these guys.

It’s easily been one of the most stressful weeks of my life.

I haven’t gotten a lot of sleep lately, my skin is breaking out, I’m failing at being a good brother, my classes are moving forward and I’m still struggling to catch up.

I’m wondering how to balance being a resident advisor on top of all my commitments.  But I’m soothed by some things I’ve noticed on my floor lately, so I wanted to write about them here.

Here are ten distinct pleasures only an RA knows, ten reasons I know my residents and I are going to get along just fine:

  1. Brushing your teeth and one of your residents walks in to the bathroom and stops and starts looking at you.  You’re like “what’s up?” and he’s like “oh, I gotta take a huge dump but I don’t want you to have to smell it so I’ll wait for you to finish.”
  2. Walking down the hall and seeing residents who stop in their tracks to read your new bulletin boards.
  3. Seeing residents out and about on campus and having them give you not only the acknowledging up head nod but also the respectful down head bump.
  4. Knowing you have early classes tomorrow but hosting around 15 residents in my room to either play cards against humanity or fishbowl and having a blast anyway.
  5. Getting to practice the things I’m learning in my social work coursework with my floor: how are you feeling today?
  6. Small talk.  Hearing lifelong friendships begin to seal and cement in real time.
  7. Being a role model.
  8. Not having your door decs torn down or vandalized.
  9. Meeting so many international students – I have residents from Japan, Australia, Spain, China, and Korea.  There are so many languages going around, and we have even created stickers to label items on our floor for our Japanese student Kazuhiro.
  10. Seeing all the random objects – shoes, socks, trash bins, scotch tape, and shower caddies – that residents use to prop open their doors, as you proudly walk down the hallway.

As a fun addendum to this article, I’ll add 10 distinct pains and annoyances only an RA knows, which I wrote just now:

  1. When your residents try to sneakily keep (weird) pets – gerbils, frogs, ball pythons – in their rooms hidden under their beds.
  2. Hearing echo from the bathroom that persistent, annoying hrrrrrcgh clearing-of-the-throat sound.  Having it infect your dreams. (This may happen more on male floors)
  3. Paper.  Work.  They misbehave – and you have to write a detailed incident report about it.
  4. The sickly sweet sour smell of freshmen frequenting fraternities vomit.
  5. Knocks on your door at 3am for the most absolutely asinine reasons – my pet died! I’m locked out of my room in a towel!
  6. Finding unflushed toilets and piles of body hair in the showers.
  7. Getting severe written redirections from your supervisors for giving charitable interviews to your school paper (just me?).
  8. Planning an exquisite, creative floor event and marketing for it for weeks only to discover that no one shows up.
  9. Having to send your significant other six floors away to find an opposite gender bathroom.
  10. Learning to distrust more than anything else the smell of fresh Febreeze on a Friday evening.

the peculiar gnosticism of Andy Crouch

Last year, Andy Crouch (executive editor of Christianity Today) published an article called Sex Without Bodies (non-paywall), where he publicly mused on the “LGBTQIA coalition” and the “challenges [it presents] for the church.”  In his post, after clearly rhetorically demarcating “the church” as an entity entirely separate from its “LGBTQIA neighbors,” Crouch pointedly levels the charge of gnosticism against queer people and those of us who believe that same sex relationships can be blessed by God.  According to Crouch, members of this camp are not faithfully attempting to revisit scripture in light of new anthropological evidence, but instead simply embracing a very old heresy – ideological detachment from the physical world.

Before I address how valid his particular charge is, it’s worth noting that Crouch’s argument here isn’t at all surprising; by his own admission, LGBTQ individuals are gaining societal ground, an influence which certainly extends to the church.  The unspoken aim of his article, then, seems to be to galvanize his fellow nonaffirming Christians, urging them to resist and continue to stand strong against ever rethinking their theology and sexual ethics.  Crouch’s clarion call comes across loud and clear to conservative readers: even when the ground beneath their strongest biblical arguments falls away, “the church” must still disapprove of homosexuality because unlike those people, we believe that bodies matter.

What this rhetorical shift here should signify is a trend that has long been operating in many evangelical circles – as careful biblical scholarship continues to erode at the traditional ways in which nuanced scriptural passages have been unilaterally weaponized against an entire class of people, nonaffirming Christians are forced to increasingly rely on extra-biblical arguments.  Okay, they concede, the Sodom and Gomorrah story isn’t actually about gay people.  And maybe the Levitical purity codes don’t apply to Christians in the slightest.  And sure, it’s also increasingly questionable how relevant Pauline New Testament condemnations of licentious, selfish same-sex behavior are to a conversation about consensual, committed, Christ-centered unions.

But, injects Crouch, even if we can no longer responsibly make the case that the Bible unambiguously denies queer sexual and gender identity (not to mention intersex people, who do not fit into neat male and female categories) the Man/Woman bond is obviously established in our bodies and is therefore universally demanded by God.

This move away from the Bible is disheartening, but not entirely surprising considering Crouch’s entire argument consists of vaguely appealing to hazy, inexact notions of “male–female complementarity” to cement his unique commitment to excluding LGBTQ bodies from the body of Christ.

Christianity Today

If asked what specific aspect it is about Christ-centered same sex relationships that violates any established biblical precept or command, Crouch’s answer would probably include the hallowed words “gender roles.”  And yet as Bible scholar James Brownson has pointed out, nonaffirming Christians often mean very different things when they roughly gesture at the Bible and slap the “gender roles” sticker on the queer Christians in their midst.  Rather than ending all dissent, this move often signals the beginning of a very confusing conversation.  (Update: I just discovered that Professor Brownson has actually written a post where he addresses Crouch in part here – and does so far more elegantly than I could ever hope to.)

For example, when Crouch affirms “embodied sexual differentiation” – invoking a form of the old Adam-and-Eve-not-Adam-and-Steve argument to condemn LGBT relationships and identity – is his reasoning truly physical anatomical complementarity?  Is homosexuality a sin because of what scholar Robert Gagnon callsthe glovelike physical fit of the penis and vagina“?

Or when he singularly promotes “normative sexuality” and calls an entire swath of the church disordered, is Andy Crouch talking about procreative potential?  That is, is he affirming the Catholic church’s commitment to “Natural Law” and subsequently labeling all non-procreative couples as “distorted“?  And when Crouch refuses to define imprecise phrases like “the significance of male-and-female creation,” is he writing off gay couples because of their inability to sexually reproduce(?), or because the union of their bodies somehow violates the hierarchical Husband/Wife corollary extrapolated from St. Paul’s Christ/Church metaphor in Ephesians 5?

I think you understand my point.  Simply, the position that Mr. Crouch is doubling down to defend is not nearly as united as he would presume.  The fact is, Christians have opposed same-sex (as well as non-procreative heterosexual) acts for many disparate reasons throughout the centuries – because of claims that same-sex acts are the result of not orientation but sexual excess, worries about the future reproductive success of the species, myths regarding sterility, concerns that any man could be “turned gay;” because of an aversion to violating culturally-established gender norms, a fear of disrupting “honorable” patriarchal commitments; because of supposed demonic possession, or beliefs LGBTQ people are purposefully choosing their attractions and to embrace a harmful “lifestyle.”

Crouch’s proof-texted thesis that the Church must Continue to Defend God’s Unchanging Truth™ on human sexuality – supposedly calcified throughout thousands of years of static ecclesiastical history – is really much less coherent than one might expect.

same love

my friends Phil and David stand together in prayer at a recent Gay Christian Network conference

Finally, Crouch’s invocation of the heresy of gnosticism is an interesting one given the author’s own stance on this particular issue.  Gnosticism, as we know, is the ancient philosophical school that proved itself heretical by rejecting the good gifts of our created, physical world in favor of embracing an ethereal, spiritual, ascetic, and supposedly more enlightened existence.  The gnostics were the ones telling the early Christians that sex and sexuality, marriage and the sacramentality of bodies, was unimportant and should be struggled against and transcended.  In short, they rejected life, beauty, joy, flesh, incarnation, and the sacred Christian teaching that “matter matters.”

Halfway through an article full of uncharitable mischaracterizations of LGBTQ relationships and individuals, Crouch levels against LGBTQ people and their allies our apparent commitment to “the irrelevance of bodies.”  He blatantly asserts that our camp callously dismisses incarnated realities in favor of embracing nonphysical ideals, remarking that we have a “gnostic distaste for embodiment in general.”

But to suggest that LGBTQ people (including queer Christians and queer theologians!) do not care about the importance of corporeality is perhaps the most ignorant accusation one could ever make of the LGBT community.  The hypocrisy of Crouch’s own position is striking.

Really, let’s think about this: one side in this debate is affirming the good spiritual fruits found in the embodied, other-centered romantic relationships that numerous believers are seeking to sanctify under God.  The other side is openly denying the validity of real human experiences, ignoring or dismissing as unimportant or illusory an entire group of peoples’ deep spiritual longings to sacramentalize their carnality and bodily desires through flesh-and-blood covenantal bonds.

One side says bodies and loving incarnated relationships are essentially good.  The other says they are inherently shameful if abstract conditions of undefined epistemological “complementarity” are not met.

Tell me, which of these sounds more like gnosticism to you?

a group of gay Christians in prayer

a group of gay and lesbian Christians and their friends join hands in prayer before a meal.  Bodies, fingernails, friendship, worship, taco shells, bread, and wine…it is all sacred to us “gnostics.”

Whispering Winds Blog

Whispering Winds Retreat Haven... A place to be still and be renewed by the Spirit

Chris Martin Writes

Pressing more into Jesus Christ everyday

Leaving Fundamentalism

Examining Christian Fundamentalism in the UK

Mercy not Sacrifice

The Blog of Morgan Guyton

If you want to sing out, sing out.

And if you want to be free, be free.

The Blog of Andrew Arndt

Bits and pieces... fragments of thoughts on living a quiet life with God

Monologuing Me

when faith and orientation collide

Adipose Rex

Faith, Feminism, and Fat Acceptance

And Now Deep Thoughts With Justin Hanvey

Where Justin shares his (not so) deep thoughts on life, faith, art, etc.

Revolutionary Faith

Taking back Christianity

Sacred Tension

A Story About Dissonance

Ignostic Atheist

Intellectually Sexy

Who Said Life Wasn't Complicated?

Faith. Youth Work. Film. Conversation.

The Heart Divide

Navigating the distance between what my brain understands and my heart longs for.

voyagingsoul

Inhale Glory, Exhale Love.

theophiliacs

amiable. anglican. awesome.

Sketches By Boze

An ongoing exploration of faith, culture, myth, life, art. An advocate for all who are trapped in nightmares.

All Things Rabyd

A blog dedicated to the thoughts, opinions, ideas and random madness of Edward W. Raby, Sr. - Pastor, Theologian, Philosopher, Writer, Bodybuilder and Football Fan. "Yes, the dog is foaming at the mouth. Don't worry, He just had pint of beer and is trying to scare you." This is a Theology Pub so drink your theology responsibly or have a designated driver to get you home as theology can be as intoxicating as alcohol.

Defeating the Dragons

An ongoing journey in overcoming a fundamentalist indoctrination.

Mercy Not Sacrifice

The Blog of Morgan Guyton

The VisionLarry

Idealism without illusions

brandon andress

extending the kingdom of god...

Deconstructing Myths

Social justice is built one idea at a time...

David Westlake

What on earth is God doing and how do I join in

ywammercy

A blog about how to better serve the poor and vulnerable of our world.

Musings&Rants

So what's really going on?

the life of ashley marie

Smile! You’re at the best WordPress.com site ever

Good Deeds Are Easy

Do something good today!

Married in Mile Square City

life & love in Hoboken

Ad Dei Gloriam

My thoughts and work on philosophy, theology, and politics.

Walking Christian

One Way, One Truth, One Life

Thoughts from a Catholic

I've been Roman for a while

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,222 other followers