By Edward Donalson | Current Student, Doctor of Ministry (DMin)
As I consider the question of how seminaries and schools of theology should respond to the current racial climate of America and in particular the effects of the history of Black bodies in the North American context, I realize that no answer could accurately reflect neither the whole of the Black experience nor all seminaries. My call is particular both in my own location and to what I believe is the task of theology. Ethnic relations (as the only race is human) globally and domestically have a long and storied history, and the current climate reveals a dark and dismal present. It is a daunting task to consider the radical nature of oppression as experienced by Black Americans, especially in light of the devaluation of individuals and the community by structural evil. The future narrative of human relations is what justice-loving people are actively in pursuit of crafting. What the global community will look like going forward depends on how we let the anger of injustice inspire us to reshape and reform our society. We as a society, and particularly our seminaries and schools of theology, must have actionable strategy to bring humanity to a greater consciousness grounded in the ethic of neighbor love as taught by all the major religions, with a focused intentionality toward dismantling systems of oppression that are the direct result of American slavocracy. The task of theology is to critique and revise the language of the church. This includes not only the language of uttered speech but also the language of radical involvement in the world. (Cone 1997) As a Bishop in the Lord’s Church during this time of great national tumult, I am concerned that our institutions of higher learning are not adequately preparing students for work of Public Theology. As a Black student in the doctoral program at Seattle University, I am particularly concerned with how our institutions of higher learning acknowledge and address how the people on the margins engage with those at the center of power and privilege. It should be clear that the Black experience in America is not monolithic, nor is the response to the current state of affairs. My call to religious education is what I see from my very particular location. It is important to say , we take on the immense task of wrestling with some of the most challenging questions of our time—and not just wrestling! We attempt to take them on and learn how to make some type of impact in our spheres of influence, maybe even with far-reaching ripples to the national and global conversation.
It is true that, religion is never incidental to the culture and every theological formulation must be seen against the culture that produced it if that theology is to be understood. (Lincoln 1974) In fact, viable religion is one that has working reciprocity with the culture that produces it or with which it interacts. (Lincoln, Race, Religion, and the Continuing American Dilemma 1984) In light of this truth, the task of any theological training center is to equip its students with language about God that engages the culture while marrying history and eternity with immanent praxis. While one in fifteen Black children have an incarcerated parent in the United States, one in one hundred and ten white children share this plight; these are the cultural realities our seminarians must be prepared to engage with both fresh theological language and practical ministry strategies. (Stevenson 2014) The crucial task of the theologian is helping the religious practitioner make sense of the everyday experiences of the world around them, and in order to do that they must be equipped to see the world around them. Much of the theological training offered in our Divinity schools is largely based on Eurocentric models both in structure and language which may not completely serve the best interest of students preparing to engage a multicultural world. The present model fails to help students engage the question of what it means to be other than the dominate elite. Otherness and difference are considered and often dismissed through the lens of hegemony. The ongoing subservience to European models of Jesus damages the psychological health of Blacks, who face racism in a society where the overwhelming majority of authority figures and people with power are White. (Hopkins 1999)
As we observe the current human relations crisis in America (which manifests itself in ethnic confrontations), it is particularly important that our schools of theology begin to focus resources and academic attention in the direction of justice making. Specifically we should make greater effort to raise awareness of Black liberation and womanist theologies among all students on our campuses. Black liberation theology considers the following question: What does it mean to be Black and Christian for a people situated in the midst of American racism and called by God to be full human beings? (Hopkins 1999) This is not a question to be reasoned through only by the Black students of theology; it must constantly be held in conversation with all students and particularly students from the dominant culture, for it is in the relationship matrix that wholeness is birthed. Womanist theology asks where is God in the lives of Black women and how do Black women name God. (Mitchem 2002) Together womanist and Black theology also recognize that God, through Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit, works with the poor as they learn to love themselves enough to practice their total freedom and create their full humanity on earth as it is in Heaven. (Hopkins 1999) There can be no real work of social justice or training in that discipline without engaging this aspect of Black liberation theology. If we do an honest exegesis of our current cultural milieu we must honestly consider moving this theological lens to core curriculum in our institutions of ministerial training. We must begin to consider that the radical nature of particularity is the foundation of ethical theological formation.
Next our schools of theology and seminaries must maintain well balanced representation of the black community in faculty positions. It communicates loudly and clearly to all students when there is a lack of Black core faculty that hegemony is acceptable and that the standard of excellence in the academy is white. Josiah Royce spoke of the beloved community as “a perfectly lived unity of individual men joined in one divine chorus”, however it is clear in many seminaries across the nation that while Black people are allowed to sing in the chorus they are unable to teach the music. (Marsh 2005) Black faculty bring the lived experiences of Blackness to teaching all subjects in the same ways that all faculty bring the particularities of their social location to the classroom. Students are enriched by a diversity of lived experiences and we do a grave disservice to all students when there is a lack of ethnic diversity in the teaching staff of our religious institutions. It is not enough to have visiting lecturers and guests speaker who share Blackness, core faculty set the tone and tenor of academic life. These positions of power shape both the trajectory of learning and the depth of lived experience of the students they serve.
In an effort to make our schools of religious study places of beloved community we must be mindful to intentionally engage Black culture in the fabric of every institution. What I mean by culture is that which comprises any people’s social heritage, including language, ideas, habits, beliefs, customs, social organization and traditions, arts, and symbolism, crafts and artifacts. (Douglas 1999). It is not enough for our schools to have guest lecturers come in and talk about the Black Church as some exotic and romanticized entity to be held up for curiosity. We must move to cultural inclusivity in every way from the décor of the school to the chosen hymnody in ecumenical worship experiences on various campuses. Celebrations and observances of holidays should not be limited to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it is an insult to Dr. King’s memory to hold such observances while Kwanzaa is completely ignored or dismissed. The conversation about theodicy must include both the Jewish holocaust and the maafa. The text of our courses must include Howard Thurman with the same consistency as Reinhold Niebuhr. At all cost we must work to dismantle the idea that the privilege groups establish the norm.
Our schools of Divinity have the responsibility of being paradigmatic in the ways in which we show equality and equanimity. The response of our seminaries and religious institutions to the moral catastrophe of racism should illuminate a path to a better and more peaceful world for all people. We fail to bring the Gospel message to the world if that Gospel is not liberating those who have dedicated themselves to the study of the Gospel. Moral action is based on a broad, robust prophetism that highlights systemic social analysis of the circumstances under which tragic persons struggle. (West 2014) If we are to see social redemption and justice then our seminaries must take the lead in promoting such moral action. We must never forget that the vocation of the intellectual is to let suffering speak, let victims be visible, and let social misery be put on the agenda of those in power. (West 2014)
Cone, James H. Black Theology and Black Power. MaryKnoll: Orbis Books, 1997.
Douglas, Kelly Brown. Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999.
Hopkins, Dwight N. Introducing Black Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999.
Lincoln, C. Eric. Race, Religion, and the Continuing American Dilemma. New York: Hill and Wang, 1984.
—. The Black Church Since Frazier. New York: Schocken Books, 1974.
Marsh, Charles. The Beloved Community. New York: Basic Books, 2005.
Mitchem, Stepahine Y. Introducing Womanist Theology. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2002.
Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A story of Justice and Redemption. New York: Spiegal & Grau Trade Paperback, 2014.
West, Cornel. Black Prophetic Fire. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014.