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Racism, Theology, and the Institutional Church

General Assembly 2000 Event 243

Moderator: Rev. Susan Sochocki Brown; Panelists: Dr. James Cone, Rev. Dr. John Buehrens, Rev. Jose Ballester, Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker

Dr. James Cone is still angry—angry that America is no closer to King's dream of a just society, angry at the appalling silence of almost all white theologians on racism and on religion's historical support of colonialism, imperialism, and segregation, and angry at today's continuing racism expressed in poverty, police brutality and the prison-industrial complex.

He asked whether theology can exist without being anti-black—and why white theologians aren't asking that question. After the Jewish holocaust, theologians seriously considered whether biblical theology can exist without being anti-Semitic. Feminists have challenged whether patriarchy and oppression of women are so ingrained into biblical theology that it must be abandoned, and gay and lesbian theology questions whether homophobia is so much a part of biblical Christianity that it cannot be rescued.

Is it, Cone asked, that white theologians do not know about genocide and colonialism? About the decimation of the indigenous population of the Americas? About King Leopold of Belgium's reign of terror and genocide in the Congo? About the centuries of churches, theologians and divinity school professors teaching the "natural superiority" of white over black?

Saying "There is no justice without memory," Cone suggested that silence is racism's best friend. "Most whites don't like to talk about racism because it makes them feel guilty, a truly uncomfortable feeling." But how uncomfortable does racism make its victims? When oppressive history is hidden, the victims are made the oppressors, and the oppressors, victims.

"No one can be neutral or silent in the face of this great evil. We are either for it or against it." Cone challenged the Unitarian Universalists (UUs) in the packed hall to develop an enduring race critique, embedded in our faith, and to make the analysis so explicit that no one can avoid talking about it.

Expanding on this theme, the Rev. Dr. John Buehrens, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President, noted that the UUA's Journey Toward Wholeness program requires that all UUs become theologians. "For some of us," he said, "engaging with the painful history of oppression makes theology possible again."

He recounted his own history, where direct experience of racial injustice in the 1960s had brought him to a new appreciation of biblical theology, and introduced him to Howard Thurman's theology of Jesus, as opposed to a theology about Jesus.

Buehrens closed his remarks with a warning against the temptations of a false universalism, projecting outward middle class economic success and scientific attainments that are not available to all people.

The Rev. Jose Ballester spoke, too, of his own experience from the 1960s (in his case, it was in New York as an anti-war activist and member of both the Young Republicans and the Young Lords) and his realization of the importance of not just reading and talking about acts, but doing action. He learned accountability, he told those attending, from his Puerto Rican community and family, both of which helped him see the individualism towards which he was drawn, and how it tended to look at why oppression happens, instead of what to do about oppression.

"Justice is what we need to establish," not a theory of justice, Ballester said. "We need to do justice, not talk about it." But he also cautioned that justice can never be achieved at the expense of others, and closed with a strong message to remember that nothing is more important than the community and the family. Only if we have right relationships can we work effectively in the community.

Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker spoke of how black theology has made more space for other critical theology, including feminist theology, with a shared focus on personal experience as the basis for analysis. She spoke of the initiative in California to try more youth as adults and the foreseeable consequences of that, and about the color differences in who goes to prison, the way the prison-industrial complex uses unpaid prison labor in a kind of "neo-slavery," and the fast-growing rate of Latino women in prison.

She noted that the construction of identity as a white person is to become more ignorant, rather than seeing and understanding the world we actually live in. She quoted from James Baldwin that we do not know and do not want to know the world.

Using William R. Jones' concept of "white-ianity"—the idea that Christianity may be inherently about white racism—she noted that Christian theology defines ignorance and innocence as being in right relationship with God. To be in the Garden of Eden, the ideal state, is to be without the knowledge of good and evil. Acquiring the fruit of knowledge forces an alienation from God. The sacrifice of a human being restores right relationship with God, so Christianity blesses redemptive sacrifice and helps us not to recognize that the sacrifice of human life is a crime. "Christianity cannot tell the truth about a fundamental act of violence," she summarized.

Parker noted that theology can bless our ignorance, disconnect us from seeing reality and stand in the way of our doing justice. But, she also noted, theology can open our eyes. She drew from William Ellery Channing's theology of the wonderful array of human power as a reflection of our creation in God's image. Our whole being is divine, and unfolding our powers is our reason for being. Channing came to realize the social implications of that theology: anything that gets in the way of that unfolding is a way of killing God. Slavery, Channing came to see, was an evil because it kept slaves from coming into the fullness of divine living.

As UUs, Parker noted, we value those who stand against their culture with open eyes, people who see more clearly and who dare to say what they see. But she also noted that Channing's congregation had rejected his analysis of slavery, and she asked the institutional question: what would have transformed Channing's congregation? What the collective community knows and recognizes is also important, because people learn from and are supported in community. She shared a powerful story about a congregation on the West Coast faced with the government's intended internment of a Japanese family and the seizure of the family's farm during World War II. The leaders of the congregation offered to buy the farm for one dollar, preserve and maintain it until the family was released and then sell it back to them for the same dollar. This saved the family's farm, illustrating that when a community knows and acts and keeps faith, it can disrupt the power of ignorance and silence to destroy.

Knowledge, Parker closed by saying, allows us to disrupt injustice. To know is to love.

Reported by Jone Johnson Lewis

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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