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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.


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.

thoughts? leave a comment here

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