Remarks on Tactics for White People Joining the Protests Against White Supremacy

This post requires a few remarks to frame it and in some sense to disempower it. First, while I have been involved with different coalitions and have participated in protests every year during my adult life, I do not claim to be anything more than just another body on the street standing with other people. I am not an organizer, I am not a leader, and though I think about things a great deal, I don’t know that my theoretical work has ever been of much use to anyone who is organizing and leading these coalitions. I know where my strengths lie (teaching, academia) and I do my best to affect the community I am a part of (the department and university I teach in and the discipline I work within). All of this means that I invite people, especially Black theorists, Black activists, and other theorists/activists of color to push back against what I say, to share wisdom, and, if they feel it worth their time, to add their voice to the conversation (if one starts).

Secondly, while this is a post directed at a certain white reaction to protests, I do not think these protests should be about the white reaction to them. I have written this post simply because it would seem strange to write about the Black community or what the appropriate Black response should be, when I am not embedded within that community nor a major dialogue partner there. It seems to me that, while I would hope for a future in which ideas can be shared without some unconscious or unintended white centering, today is not that day. So, it is not my intention in writing this that it be about white people as such. If I could summarize what I write below it would simply be: “white people who want to show solidarity, stop worrying about purity and just show up, keep quiet, and listen.” It’s a message not to the tone deaf white folk of the intelligentsia or the brocialists itching for another photo op where they look badass screaming at a cop, while making other folks who aren’t ready for that confrontation unsafe. It’s a message instead for those who feel a bit paralyzed by the recognition of their privilege and an attempt to help them see that such paralysis is still caught up in that structure, still a form of narcissism.

So, with that said, here are some thoughts that strike me as sound for white folks who are engaged in a certain amount of handwringing about how to participate in protests and other actions regarding the recent reaffirmation of America’s structural racism. Some may feel that their presence is not wanted at these protests. That may be true to some extent, but there is a kind of way of being absent even in your presence and some of the tactics outlined here may be a form of becoming-imperceptible in terms of one’s whiteness and the effects it may have on the coalition of protesters. For one thing seems very clear: coalitions are needed in these protests and these coalitions should be led by Black people. And lucky for you, whatever city you are in it is likely that leaders and activists from the Black community have stood up. So you should go. You should do what they ask. And when you do go and you do what they ask, simply don’t make it about you. Don’t be concerned about your feelings. Whether those are feelings that get hurt if you hear “mean things” being said about white people or it is your own anger which drives you to try and confront the cops if and when the Black leaders have called for non-confrontation. If such confrontation happens, it gets messy, and if you can put yourself between activists of color and the police, you should do that. And if Black activists tell you not to do something, then don’t do it.

Simply put, our individual white guilt doesn’t help shit. But, maybe your body being there can. So put your body there, but mostly stay quiet. Recognize that this is not an exact science and that you might screw up. It also strikes me for white people who are committed to listening that you are going to find there are a lot of views on the ground that don’t match exactly what is said on your Facebook or Twitter. For example, some Black participants at the recent Philly protests said that we were bothering the folks in the neighborhood and so they weren’t going to march. Others started chanting “all lives matter”. In each case it was a very small group, but regardless in each instance it was not my place to challenge their ideological correctness. Whereas I would have and you should if that happens with white participants. Don’t put that responsibility on the Black activists to do all the work, but do your best to educate these white participants and encourage certain practices foremost amongst them to just shut the fuck up and listen while they’re on this march.

At bottom, to get past this handwringing, you need to trust. Just trust your Black comrades. It’s the whitey in your head that makes you worried. Whether it’s worry over if you should be there or worry that someone isn’t going to say or do the thing you think they should. Know that there is a lot of noise right now. A lot of click bait, a lot of rhetoric, a lot of people working out their power best they can through the mediums available to them. But to know what to do, talk to the activists who organized. Ask what they want. And then follow. That’s the tactic for now. If you don’t like the overarching strategy you have to form a relationship, and go to meetings, and be open to disagreement while inhabiting a disempowered place that will make you feel uncomfortable. But taking up that space at meetings is going to be far fraught. More fraught with the haunting spectre of  reinscribing white supremacy and white centeredness than going to a protest. And the only way to deal with that, to disempower that whiteness, is make yourself available.

RIP: Otto Maduro (1945-2013)

Word has been moving around the interwebs this morning about the passing of Otto Maduro, and Drew University’s Facebook page just announced his death.  Although I did not have him as a professor at Drew University, I did meet him and sat in some of his lectures and he worked with me as a mentor when I was selected as the speaker at my commencement. I particularly have a deep resepct for the way he connected his scholarly work to the world of lived faith.  He was very active in the AAR and his work with hispanic seminarians and pastors has , and will continue to have, a major impact on their church communities. Read the rest of this entry »

A Brief History of Latin American Liberation Theology

This post is my transcription of a recent lecture by Ted Jennings, with some minor additions, posted with his permission.

Latin America has a unique situation that distinguishes the theology that is done there from the theology that is done elsewhere. In fact, very early on in the development of Latin American liberation theology, there was a book by the Protestant theologian José Míguez Bonino, translated in English as Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation. It’s a wonderful book that was published before Gutiérrez. Bonino was involved in the human rights movement in Argentina. He pointed out that what was happening and needed to happen in Latin America, including the kinds of questions that had to be addressed, were fundamentally different from the questions in European theology, even among the political theology of figures like Moltmann, Metz, and Söelle.

The distinctive character of Latin America theology is the hegemony of Catholicism. Until quite recently, the Catholicism of Latin America could be characterized as Pre-Tridentine, that is, the kind of Catholicism that was characteristic of the Late Middle Ages prior to the council of Trent. Read the rest of this entry »

Class on Liberation Theology

I wanted to make a shameless plug for a class I’m teaching at First Presbyterian Church in Arlington, VA on liberation theology. The class starts next Sunday on January 15th from 9:45-10:45, and I anticipate the class will wind down by late April. We will be reading Elizabeth Johnson’s text Quest for the Living God. The text covers important theological developments from various perspectives: political, liberation, feminist, black/womanist, Hispanic, interreligious, process, and ecological. I also am planning on covering other liberation movements that Johnson fails to cover in her text, especially queer liberation theology and a liberation theology of disability. Let me know if you’re interested and I can provide you with more information. Anyone in the DC area is welcome to attend.

Posted in liberation theology, Shameless Promotion. Comments Off

Christianity, Homosexuals, and the Emergent Church

I wanted to direct readers to a recent debate I’ve been having with some folks on the emergent church. I criticize “postmodern Christians” who attempt to overcome the liberal/evangelical divide by offering some third way. Ultimately, I believe the emergent church is a failure because it values tolerance, conversation, and unity over justice. I try to make the case that liberation theology (not process theology or some pseudo-Derridean theology) should be the future of the church. I also make the controversial claim that Christians who support LGBT rights should formally break ties with fellow Christians who oppress and deny LGBT peoples membership to the church. One reader found this rather upsetting because apparently Christ preached peace not division, which would explain Christ’s statement in Luke 12:51: Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. Here are my latest comments in response to those who found my position offensive:

I’m annoyed that people, who responded to my comment, are aghast that I would consider breaking ties with Christians who oppose LGBT rights an actual option. What’s the greater injustice: denying the admission of LGBT members into the body of Christ or denouncing and parting ways with Christians who actively persecute them? I’m sorry, but I don’t see it as a sin to break unity in the face of injustice. King once said, at the end of his life, to Belafonte that he worried he was integrating African Americans into a burning house. I don’t want the church to be on fire, but it is undoubtedly ablaze with the fires of injustice as long as it denies Christians (gay/straight/bisexual) access to the eucharist. We need to be careful here, and I don’t see pseudo-unity as being preferable to injustice. There are things that merit division. The American church was obviously divided over racial issues, and I doubt many of us would explicitly condone the white supremacy that haunted (and continues to haunt) the American church. We condemn that oppression, yet we’d rather maintain solidarity with fellow Christians who demonstrably deny the teachings of Christ by oppressing LGBT peoples?

I’m curious to hear people’s feedback or others reactions to these comments. This whole fad of post-evangelicalism is fascinating and bizarre to me in many ways. Ultimately, I worry that its counter-identification with evangelicals ultimately over-determines the movement.

My AAR paper: Negri and Gutierrez on Job

[I presented this on Saturday, November 19, under the auspices of the Bible, Theology, and Postmodernism group. I admit that my last couple paragraphs are somewhat self-indulgent, but my audience was forgiving.]

Gutierrez and Negri on Job:
Between Theology and Materialism

Adam Kotsko
Shimer College

For those of us who have been following the burgeoning trend of radical philosophical readings of the Bible, Negri’s Labor of Job may represent something of a breath of fresh air, not least because a major philosopher has finally chosen to focus on something other than the letters of Paul. More significant from my perspective, however, is the fact that Negri brings a voice into this dialogue that has often been neglected by recent philosophical interpreters: liberation theology.

Read the rest of this entry »

Review of Jennings’ Transforming Atonement

Jennings’ Transforming Atonement is an excellent work. Unlike other liberation theologians that generally focus on ethics or politics, Jennings’ political theology of the cross is grounded in Biblical exegesis. In Part I he focuses upon the historical context of Jesus’ ministry and death along with Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed and the sinners of society.

I want to focus this review on the last chapter of Part 1 and last chapters of Part 2. Many Christians view Jesus’ death as a peace offering to appease a wrathful God that hates us. Jennings argues quite persuasively that it is humanity that needs to be reconciled to God, according to Paul. Humanity is angry and “we are the ones who have a “beef” with God” (128). However, God takes the initiative to reconcile us. God has come in Christ to remove our alienation from God.

In chapter nine, Jennings asks “[w]hat are the implications of the theology of the cross for our understanding of God?” (199). Jennings worries that older formulations tried to protect the Godhead from the death suffered by the Son by insisting that only Jesus’ human nature was impacted by crucifixion. However, this splitting apart of Jesus’ two natures potentially threatens the unity of the Godhead. [That’s why it’s always been no surprise to me that Lutheran theologians have been able to proclaim that God is dead since they tend to err in the other direction away from these Nestorian Christological formulations]. This would contradict the Biblical witness that God was “present in the fate of the crucified Messiah” (203). This splitting apart of the Godhead ultimately encouraged the idea that the Father was “an agent rather than as sufferer” (203) in the death of the Messiah. Jennings then briefly reviews other theologians who have likewise critiqued the idea of an impassible God such as: Whitehead, Bonhoeffer, Kitamori, Moltmann, and Altizer.

Jennings then turns to discuss Heidegger’s famous remark that “only a God can save us” and Derrida’s critique of the sovereign God of onto-theology. Jennings writes, “only with the idea of a nonsovereign God, a vulnerable God, indeed a God who can die, can humanity be rid of the dreams of invincible power that has consigned our history to violence and suffering” (213). Jennings recognizes that his position is very close to Altizer’s gospel of Christian atheism, which is the idea “that God is emptied into history as the coming sociality of mutual care, of justice, generosity, and joy” (214). This coming community is the only thing that can save us.

In the closing chapter Jennings discusses different atonement theories. He argues that there is no orthodox reading of the tradition. He rejects satisfaction metaphors because satisfaction can function as a substitute for justice, not to mention the whole notion is unjust even if Christ’s death was voluntary. Next, he takes aim at forensic metaphors which he believes betray the Pauline distinction between law and justice. Substitution will not do because it underemphasizes the important ethical implications of the cross. Instead Jennings favors Soelle’s idea that Christ represents us temporarily but is not a substitute for humanity. Although he appreciates liberation theologians’ re-interpretation of the patristic tradition, Jennings is doubtful that these new readings share much in common with older ransom models. Finally, the Abelardian theory is inappropriately individualistic and might encourage abuse since God wills Jesus’ death to demonstrate God’s love.

Jennings believes that all three theories have holes and that any sort of attempted synthesis is doomed to fail. What is ultimately sacrificed is “the divine claim and call for justice” (223). Moreover, what mattes is not a theory but “a confrontation with all systems of arrogance and violence, of domination, and death, of privilege and prestige, that holds humanity hostage” (229).

This work is a bold attempt to argue for an updated political theology of the cross. Although I did not focus on the more exegetical chapters, his mastery of Pauline literature is simple amazing. He is able to navigate deftly through the epistles and to demystify so much of the jargon to explain the heart of the Pauline message. Theologically I am drawn to this work as it weaves together quite convincingly two of my favorite theological traditions: radical death of God theology and liberation theology.

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