Theological Reflections in Light of the Injustice of Trayvon Martin’s Murder

“For the gospel proclaims that God is with us now, actively fighting the forces which would make man captive. And it is the task of theology and the Church to know where God is at work so that we can join him in this fight against evil.” – James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power

 

“There were other faces, and I remember them also—in church, office, library, or school, or newspaper office. Tired faces, often, and of a slow charm, and gentle, with voice soft-spoken and of profound hesitation, or sometimes urbane and witty. These were the faces you saw of men who feared the ‘outbreak of violence,’ who wrote editorials suggesting things must change slowly, who read poetry or wrote it, who said, ‘You can’t turn the South upside down overnight,’ who said, ‘Whatever is done for the Negro—and things should be done—must be done under the system of segregation we have lived under all of our lives.’ These faces belonged to men loyal to their ‘white mothers’ and loyal in a secret, deep-rooted way, to their dark ones also, loyal above all else to the conscience their mothers gave them, men who clung to their white culture as a cripple clings to his crutches; whose passion and memories had been deeply repressed, and who had put up signs long ago in their unconscious and had forbidden themselves ever to trespass them. Tired liberals.” –Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream

 

While there is undoubtedly a great deal to be said about the utter, deplorable, abhorrent injustice of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, I still find myself short of words.[i] In terms of my own, still very inchoate, thoughts, I’m finding myself still stuck in quite an emotional place. In short, I’m tired y’all. Angry tired. Angry tired at so many of my fellow white folks and especially white feminists for not saying, and doing, more;[ii] angry tired at so many in the LGBTQ community who don’t even see the ways in which we’re perpetuating race and class oppression in the name of our own ‘equality’ (see, for instance, Amaryah’s and Katie’s posts for more great insight on this); angry tired at myself for all the reasons I’m angry at others and then some; and, perhaps most of all, angry tired at the order of things in theological studies. I’m angry at the ways so much of theology has not only failed to challenge the systems and structures of oppression and injustice and failed to preach/teach/embody “the Good News” (cf. Isaiah 61, Luke 4:18-20), but has reified and supported—wittingly and unwittingly, through its words and its silences, and, dare I say it, so often in the name of “orthodoxy”—the oppressive and unjust order of things.

In A Theology of Liberation, Gustavo Gutierrez writes that the “denunciation of injustice implies the rejection of the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order” (69). I agree entirely, but I have to admit, I haven’t seen this happen much in my readings and studies. I have some—I mean, I’ve been incredibly lucky to study with Willie Jennings and J. Kameron Carter, with Mary McClintock Fulkerson and Amy Laura Hall, and now with Ellen Armour (as well as Stacey Floyd-Thomas and Melissa Snarr), all of whom I think very much embody this type of work. However, while I perceive that Jennings’ and Carter’s scholarship, especially, is being received a bit differently by many in what I would call “the theological mainstream,”[iii] so much of this “type” of work gets relegated to the margins, as “black theology” or “feminist theology” or “queer theology” or “social (read: not theological) ethics.” Implied if not stated in such modifiers is that these subfields aren’t theology proper: not the theology that is “the queen of the sciences,”[iv] not systematic theology, not orthodox theology, and thus not as valid or important.

How exactly has much of theology functioned to affirm, rather than reject and refute, the established order? This is beyond the scope of this meager blog post, but here are a few thoughts:

1)   Theology has affirmed the established order by ignoring it entirely.  So much of theology fails to connect to the real world in any way, but instead focuses on arguing about esoteric philosophical and metaphysical claims. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that this is unimportant, at all! Many of my most beloved scholars in feminist theory have been accused of similar things (e.g., “feminist theorists debate so much amongst themselves regarding the nature of discourse, performativity, materiality, etcetera, and thus ignore real feminist political concerns…”). What troubles me about this lack of attention is the lack of acknowledgement of the ways that bodies and/in power function. I actually talk about this in detail here, so I won’t repeat myself.  To build on that, though, this isn’t something that “liberal theology”[v] is exempt from, a point James Cone demonstrates in The Cross and the Lynching Tree in his examination of Niebuhr’s work and how it not only failed to address racism but in many ways condoned and perpetuated it.

2)   Much of theology has assumed and perpetuated a binary between thought and action, between one’s scholarship and one’s personal life. True, most fields tend to do this, but I can’t help but want to hold theology to a different standard, considering, you know, the subject matter—and that most people who are teaching and writing theology are teaching future pastors. Just yesterday, I found out via a friend’s facebook status that John Howard Yoder was repeatedly accused of sexual harassment and assault (to which he admitted). I bring that up not to attack Yoder’s character (but neither, of course, to defend it—I leave that to those who were victims of his actions and those who are/were in relation to Yoder and/or to those victims), but to address the fact that I went to Duke Divinity School, where Yoder is highly praised and lauded, not to mention very often cited, and I just now learned of this about the man. Not only is it incredibly troubling and painful that it took years of complaints and accusations before the seminary he was at acted, but it is also incredibly problematic that this is not addressed at all in discussion of his work (at least it hasn’t been for me). How in the world, for instance,  can we preach and teach about “revolutionary subordination” without at least juxtaposing it against what he did? How can we uplift his theology of peace and nonviolence in light of the violence he did in and to women’s lives? Sure, we’re all human and we’re living between the already and the not yet, et cetera, but that does not mean we utterly ignore the way one’s life might impact one’s theological claims, and vice versa. As Ted Smith said to his students in his introduction to theological ethics class at Vanderbilt, “Live a life of such integrity that if people get a peak behind the scenes they believe you more, not less.” Or, as Rowan Williams remarked in a lecture on theological education, the “skill that belongs to being a theologically educated person is a very significant part – the skill of knowing what an exemplary life looks like lived in the context of doctrine and worship.” And yet, theological discourse seems to continue to bifurcate thought from action, scholarship from life. It strikes me as profound (and profoundly problematic) that we can call our students and parishoners to a life of discipleship and piety and sacrifice and morality without demanding the same from ourselves and/or from the scholars we cite and utilize—if that’s not a reflection of theology legitimizing the established order, of theology wielding its own power as a form of social control, I don’t know what is. As a dear friend of mine said as I vented about this to him the other day, “It’s just amazing the kind of shit you can get away with when you stick God into it.”

3)   I would also argue, though I am sure many will disagree, that most of the theological discussion of “church as polis” also has functioned to affirm the order of things, despite its claims otherwise. This too is far beyond the scope of this blog post to go into in any sort of detail, unfortunately. I think some of the folks who have done work in apocalyptic theology have begun to explore this in really fruitful ways (see, for instance, Nate Kerr’s critique of “narrative ecclesiology” in Christ, History, Apocalyptic, as well as work by Kait Dugan, Ry Sigglekow, Peter Kline, and many others).[vi] I’m also reminded of Bonhoeffer’s searing critical analyses of a dualistic view of church/world in Ethics.[vii] The church and the world are not two separate realms, he asserts, “but only the one realm of the Christ-reality, in which the reality of God and the reality of the world are united” (58). Thinking in terms of paired opposites such as worldly-Christian, natural-supernatural, profane-sacred “fails to recognize the original unity of these opposites in the Christ-reality” (59) It follows then for Bonhoeffer that “since ethical thinking in terms of realms is overcome by faith in the revelation of the ultimate reality in Jesus Christ…there is no real Christian existence outside the reality of the world” (61). Or, as Bonhoeffer is also credited as saying, “I worry that Christians who have only one foot on earth can also only have one foot in heaven.”[viii]

Many who have embraced a “church as polis” theology have sought to enact their faith in the world but outside of ‘the realm of the state,’ choosing to “not participate,” one of the key manifestations of that being not voting. Tabling whether it is even possible to exempt oneself from participation in the affairs of the state (or if it is, rather, a privileged claim that can’t really be enacted), it was state law passed through voting that was used to “justify” Zimmerman’s actions, a state trial that enabled Zimmerman to go free after murdering a 17 year old boy armed only with skittles simply because he looked suspicious, state laws that ….  Again, this is a far broader conversation than is possible here, but it seems to be a faulty assumption that  participation implies support. I absolutely think that that Zimmerman’s acquittal was unjust and wrong, even if it was “legal.” That’s precisely why I vote, so I can vote against laws that I find to be unjust. Zimmerman’s acquittal seems to point to one of the greatest failures of a church as alternate polis theology—whereas this theology claims a sort of purity[ix] as moral/ethical grounding, this claim loses its grounding, so to speak, when faced with the consequences of inaction, in this case, the legal absolution of Zimmerman.

4)   Finally, the language of reconciliation, at least/especially as it is couched in the language of moderation and Christian unity also seems to me to be a way that theological discourse eschews justice and embraces the established order. Yeah, change is slow, I get that. But it seems like it’s even slower when those of us who claim to want it don’t fight for it. Over five years ago now, I had just left a doctoral program in psychology—after leaving became the only real option, since the evangelical institution didn’t condone/allow same-sex relationships and I was in one—and was seriously considering doing this thing called the Soulforce Equality Ride, a two month bus trip across the Southern U.S. that visited Christian colleges and universities that have policies that discriminate against LGBTQ students. I wanted to go, and I surely had nothing else to do with my life during that lone semester that I wasn’t a student anywhere, but I was scared. Scared in a lot of different ways, but mostly scared about the trip making me “too extreme” or making me appear too extreme.

I did, and continue to, struggle with what it means to work for change both from within and outside of/adjacent to various institutions and systems. I was all signed up to go, but kept telling myself I wasn’t going to go through with it—that I needed to chill out and work for change more cautiously and incrementally. At the training in Austin, two days before I had my final chance to make an exit, we all went to a fundraising dinner for the ride. One of the people there was Jim Lawson, an incredible civil rights activist and champion of nonviolence who worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr. and who happened to do some work with Soulforce and was friends with its founder, Mel White. I randomly got into a conversation with him, shamefully not really knowing who he was. Between his insightful questions and kind listening, I ended up opening up to him about my fears and worries about whether participating in this thing would engender change or if it would limit it. (Brief aside: I wasn’t “out” yet, so I was narrating all my concerns from the perspective of a concerned but moderate “ally.”) He listened to me ramble on and on (which you too are doing if you make it to this point in the blog, so thanks!), and then, when I no longer had anything to say, offered brief but poignant advice. “I’m sure you’ve already read it, but you should check out King’s ‘Letter to Birmigham Jail’ again,” he said. “There’s a lot of good stuff in there, but I think there’s one part that you might find especially helpful.” And that was it. As I went back to my cheap hotel room that night, I of course looked it up, and I knew exactly the part he was talking about. It was the paragraph that reads:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

King, of course, continues throughout the letter with his criticism of white moderates, with their assessment of the movement as “extreme,” their failure to respond to oppression, how he is especially disappointed with how this manifests itself in the church. I think about this quote often—it seems like in many Christian circles, and in many theological circles, the moderate move is the correct move, the orthodox move—and yet still I lamentably, shall I say sinfully, all too often find myself acting as the white moderate, or, as Lillian Smith puts it, the “tired liberal” who is little talk and even less action. Is the appeal to (comm-)unity, to incremental change—really about theologically-sound change, or is at least somewhat about fear of change, and an affirmation of the way things are?

As I posted as an epigraph at the beginning of this post, Cone writes: “For the gospel proclaims that God is with us now, actively fighting the forces which would make man captive. And it is the task of theology and the Church to know where God is at work so that we can join him in this fight against evil” (Black Theology and Black Power, 39).  I absolutely agree with Cone’s assessment of what the task of theology is.

In light of what theology is tasked to do, and (what I perceive as) it not only straying from this task but in many cases actively (consciously or not) working against it, the question that I’m finding myself stuck on is not where to go from here—like I said, I think Cone’s right on regarding what theology is tasked to do—but how? I don’t have answers to this part, not to mention I’ve already far exceeded my intended word-count. … Right now, I’m still struggling through and sitting with what I’ve experienced as the failure of so much of the theology I’ve encountered and engaged with to not only do the work that condemns and seeks to resist and prevent injustice, not even just to call people to action in light of injustices, but to simply recognize and address injustice and oppression in its various forms.


[i] Or, at least I thought I did before I started writing this blog post… turns out, not so much.

[ii] I was particularly struck by Crunk Feminist Collective’s facebook status the other morning, which read: “Calling all white feminists allies: Where are y’all? <looking far and wide> Your silence around the Zimmerman Trial speaks volumes. Six white women (some say five) decided that a young Black man was responsible for his own murder, and they believed that a young Black woman could not be a credible witness. Where is your (OUT)RAGE?! Where is *your* intersectional analysis about white privilege, thatnot only calls out the operations of racism, but the particularly gendered operations of racism in the hands of these white women jurors? Where is the accountability? Where is the allyship? Why AGAIN do we have to ask you to show up? It is time for y’all to do the work. We refuse. We are tired. We are choosing to take care of ourselves and our communities. Signed, Crunk Feminist Collective”

[iii] While this blog may speak in semi-broad, and likely too broad of, strokes about what “theological studies” does and/or does not do, I realize that my claims imply generalizations that don’t adequately express the diversity of even “mainstream” theological discourse. I do not mean or intend to reify the very theological claims that I am trying to challenge in my very naming of them as theology proper. My claims about theology here are, of course, formed from my own encounters and experiences of what counts as theology, what is marginalized, and what doesn’t even count at all, and thus this post is speaking from that particular context.

[iv] This is a whole other conversation—cue discussion about colonialism, etc… And it is not that I want theology to be that, which is kind of my point….

[v] Which I mean in the broadest sense of the term— socio-politically and/or theologically.

[vi] While I (obviously) find much to be hopeful about in “apocalyptic” critiques of narrative ecclesiology, I also find that the ways in which some strands and aspects of apocalyptic tends to mirror much of what it critiques ironic at best; that in the midst of ( despite?) the claims of the radical in-breaking of God in the world and the call to participate in/witness to this transformative, liberative work, the conversation tends to be predominately—though of course not solely–comprised of white men and similarly focused on the same kinds of metaphysical and philosophical arguments.

[vii] I also want to credit/cite/thank J. Kameron Carter here in helping me think through the ways in which the binary logic of church/state or church/world were particularly salient in light of Zimmerman’s acquittal. Because it was a conversation that was had on facebook, I feel weird citing it verbatim, but nevertheless, he pointed to the ways in which said dualistic logic not only potentially contributes to a disavowal of political involvement, but contributes to a disconnect between one’s sociopolitical actions (or lack thereof) and one’s faith commitments/worship/witness. Carter also pointed out Bonhoeffer being an exemplary example of this critique.

[viii] I say credited because, although I recall reading this in his writings, and am finding it attributed to him by a lot of people, I can’t seem to find a direct citation.

[ix] Yet another topic that is important—see, for instance:  Foucault’s discussion on purity and biopower in Society Must Be Defended, as well as Carter’s discussion on purity and theology that builds on Foucault’s claims in Race: A Theological Account. 

3 thoughts on “Theological Reflections in Light of the Injustice of Trayvon Martin’s Murder

  1. Angry tired at so many of my fellow white folks and especially white feminists for not saying, and doing, more;[ii] angry tired at so many in the LGBTQ community who don’t even see the ways in which we’re perpetuating race and class oppression in the name of our own ‘equality’ (see, for instance, Amaryah’s and Katie’s posts for more great insight on this); angry tired at myself for all the reasons I’m angry at others and then some; and, perhaps most of all, angry tired at the order of things in theological studies. I’m angry at the ways so much of theology has not only failed to challenge the systems and structures of oppression and injustice and failed to preach/teach/embody “the Good News” (cf. Isaiah 61, Luke 4:18-20), but has reified and supported—wittingly and unwittingly, through its words and its silences, and, dare I say it, so often in the name of “orthodoxy”—the oppressive and unjust order of things.

    I cannot thank you enough for being out with this “angry tired”-ness of yours! You’ve given me – one of your “fellow white folks” – permission or at least some bravery and courage to come out in the same way. This is so personal, and so very embodied, even and maybe especially since I am constructed “white” and sexed “male” and gendered “straight” and much all of that privilege further constructed and reified and supported by my (dominant) theology. Just be quiet, one of my good friends (“not” a fellow white folk) told me yesterday, as he rightly stews about so much “white supremacy…institutionalized.” You may have read his post today, which remarkably starts in some of the ways yours does. I hope you do:

    http://politicaljesus.com/2013/07/18/white-supremacist-talking-points-black-race-riots/

  2. Thank-you. Excellent. I am just beginning to understand how deeply the bifurcation goes in theology. I am also just beginning to orient myself in how to address that as an ordained minister within my ecclesial context. So, again, thanks for putting a finer point on some of these issues.

  3. Pingback: Let Treyvon Come Into My Neighborhood, for Such is the Kingdom of God | Mind Your Language

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