Theology in Living Color
Recently, I was at a missions event at a conservative Christian university. There, I met a white missionary who had been working in India. As we talked, he spoke patronizingly of the Hindu temple and the many gods displayed. So I took out my phone and Tweeted:
An important goal of evangelical mission work is to share the gospel and to win the world for Christ. That said, huge assumptions often are made about what that gospel really is and what message it offers. Throughout history, and still today, it has often been assumed that white theologians possess the definitive and correct theological understanding of what that message is and what it means for God’s people—all of us.
But the church needs to recognize that there are different ways to categorize theologies. We often talk about liberal theology, conservative theology, fundamentalist theology, etc. But there are also black theologies, feminist theologies, Latina/o theologies and yes, even white theologies. Each of them has strengths as well as weaknesses. When I speak of “white theology,” I am acknowledging that people are a product of their socialization, which influences the way they read scripture. And in the United States, many people have presumed that “traditional” evangelical theology—which mostly has been developed by white theologians and forged within the framework of dominant white culture—constitutes what is truly “Christian.”
I therefore believe it’s best to put an additional, honest label on “traditional” theologies, whether they are liberal, conservative, or something in between. We need to name them for what they truly are: white theologies. After all, we have no problem labeling certain theologies as “black” or “feminist” or “queer.” But we’re not used to labeling theology as “white”—even though it has largely been developed by people who are, in fact, white.
Lutheran theology? White theology. Calvinist theology? White theology. Anglican theology? Very white theology. Congregationalist theology? You get the idea.
Here’s why this matters: When you don’t label “white theology” as culturally and ideologically “white,” you give it privilege and continue to perpetuate the idea that it is normative, standard, and, therefore, closest to “The Truth.” This approach—of seeing scripture, doctrine, and tradition from the perspective of white historical and cultural power—affects how you see theology in a way that most white people won’t readily admit.
The fact is, mainstream theology has been developed mainly by white men who hold positions of power within Christian institutions (seminaries, denominations, etc.). Historically, less attention has been paid to Christian thinkers who are operating in places like Latin America or within communities of color in the United States. This is unfortunate, because our individual and collective ideas about scripture, doctrine, and Christian spiritual traditions tend to be skewed when the diverse voices at the theological table are not recognized and heard.
Theologies developed in Latin America and black communities come to an understanding of God from places of deep pain. They connect deeply with the “suffering and justice” passages of scripture. Black subjugation, LGBT discrimination, systematic poverty, and other types of suffering: All call for liberation and justice, and all create a yearning for God’s Kingdom that differs from the type of Kingdom yearning experienced by people who enjoy positions of power or comfort. Put simply, white theologians from privileged backgrounds tend to ask different questions of their faith traditions and scripture than their non-white and/or non-privileged colleagues. They also arrive at different conclusions.
Various theological interpretations of the Beatitudes, including diversions between the gospels of Matthew and Luke themselves, make this clear. As most people know, the gist of the Beatitudes is that those who mourn and are persecuted are blessed, while those who are “well off” will inherently have a harder time entering the Kingdom of God. But the gospels use different language to get that point across: While Matthew expresses concern for the “poor in spirit, ” Luke offers a bald-faced, direct warning: “Woe to you who are rich …”
For affluent people with power, Matthew’s message is certainly easier to digest. Rather than being forced to contend with the real-world implications of Jesus’ revolutionary teachings, privileged readers of Matthew’s Beatitudes can argue that all they really need to do is tend to their own spirits and prepare for eternity … even as less-privileged readers look to Luke’s open critique of economic disparity and injustice for hope.
Our social status affects the way we read scripture.
So, again, when I say “white theology,” I am talking about a theology that emerged from places of Christian institutional power and skews a person’s ability to understand suffering and justice. In my mind, the term “white theology” is not just about race. It is also about how social and economic privilege has been mapped to race—to whiteness—in America.
Let me give an example. In Luke 4:18, Jesus says that “I came to set the captives free.” When interpreting this passage, readers who view it through a lens of racial, social, or economic privilege may emphasize the quest for spiritual freedom; they may overlook or not recognize the call to liberate actual captives who are physically suffering here on earth. But to a person of color who has suffered much, Jesus’ words resonate in a different way. “Salvation” and “liberation” mean something physical when you’ve been subjected to random, often violent police searches. Similarly, for an LGBTQ person who has experienced harassment and bullying, or witnessed horrific, murderous violence, the stakes of “liberation” are very different. To attend to the real and present suffering that exists in this world is not to dismiss the Christian promise of life after death (and spiritual freedom). Rather, it is to see that salvation and the Kingdom of God also matter on this side of heaven.
White systematic theology has tended to favor sets of beliefs over practices of liberation—to honor “rational” ideas over “felt” experience. This is why so many institutions huddle around propositional statements as their identifying markers, rather than actions of love and unity. All too often, systematic theology’s emphasis upon receiving and believing certain things about Jesus has not been accompanied by a call to bring liberation to those who suffer in very practical, material ways.
James gets right to the heart of this in Christian teaching when he says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
This is why I say there is no good news when you push white beliefs without also engaging in actual practices of liberation. White theology that doesn’t pay attention to concrete experiences of liberation ends up becoming yet another form of white colonization, where oppressed people continue to be objects of study—curiosities—who remain marginalized in the reality of everyday life.
It is important to note that when I talk about “white theology,” I am not saying that missionaries of European descent are inherently evil, or that white theology is only advanced by those of European descent. You could be Filipino, like me, and operate with a white theology, if “white theology” is simply a system of beliefs developed, in large part, by white, straight, cis-gender men holding positions of power within Christian institutions. (Historically, many theologians of color, women, LGBTQ people, and others from traditionally marginalized groups have sought to change their personal status by adopting a white theological perspective.)
My hope is that we will recognize our social biases and be inclined to listen to the voices of the whole church—and especially to the voices of those who have suffered much (Latina/o theologians, black theologians, feminist theologians, queer theologians, etc.). Instead of advancing a “color blind” theology, I offer one that actively recognizes that the Kingdom of God, which Christ indicated is all around us right now, is blessed precisely because it embraces and gives voice to the beautiful diversity of God’s whole creation. Moving beyond the white theologies of the past opens the whole church to theologies beyond belief—to theologies of living color—that illuminate the truest expressions of love and justice in our faith traditions for the world today.