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Ask Dr. Cobb

May 2011 Question

After a thorough study of all the 'alternative' theologies [womanist, liberation, black liberation, queer, etc,] I come across process. I have this question of all of these people: how is it no one has yet taken on the task of countering the global institution of racism and its siblings: classism and sexism. How is it that white male [and female, of course] Christian theologians can move so smoothly from one 'school' of thought to another and ever so blithely continue to ignore the evils that they [their forefathers, ancestors, etc] have created, which still exist, under which people try so hard to prosper? This is my question. I hold these people responsible and summarily reject these peoples ideas, ideals, their declarations, in all forms.

Dr. Cobb's Response

This question would be easy to dismiss as being too much like the question to an innocent husband, “Why don’t you stop beating your wife?” The similarity would disappear if our questioner listed only mainstream Euro-American theologies, including process theology. We Euro-Americans could claim that we have repented of our neglect of racism and now include it in our concerns. But the fact remains that most of us most of the time proceed along our several ways with a primary focus elsewhere. But to ask womanist and black liberation theologians why they ignore the evils that they and their ancestors have created seems, at best, odd.

We have to ask, what is it that our questioner is looking for? To her credit, she recognizes that race is not the only fundamental question. She mentions class and gender as well. She cannot be saying that the theologies she lists, even process theology, say nothing about any of these matters. Further, those who have spoken on these issues have been heard by the wider church. One can find in denominational literature and actual policies and practices very considerable change. In my own denomination ethnic minorities are well represented in all levels of leadership – as was certainly not the case before “alternative theologies” appeared. Our hymnbook and our liturgies have also been affected. We have made real efforts to overcome our racism or, at least, not to let our racism determine our institutional structures and practices.

But that probably does not seem important to our questioner. I suspect that she looks for a strong movement dedicated to overcoming the structures of power in our civilization. And she is correct that such a movement does not exist. Our rhetoric is greatly improved, and so is the internal structure of our churches. But our churches have not raised the flag for turning our society upside down. They have accepted the values of the secular world as determinative of public life, and limited themselves to proposing and promoting particular reforms.  

Meanwhile the exploitation of the poor continues and, indeed, grows worse. Racism is subtly exploited to gain support for these policies, and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in the “lower” classes. The law no longer supports racism, but its administration certainly does not end it.

What might have led the questioner to a less hostile reaction? Perhaps if the churches were in the vanguard of serious discussion and action oriented to overturning the power structure in the world, or even just in this nation, she would have responded differently. But it is hard to imagine that today. In their decline the denominations formulate their critique of the secular world moderately so as not to offend its adherents are still sitting in our pews. Even the moderate critiques are rarely given serious attention in local churches. The overwhelming impression is that the church accepts the structures of society and largely adjusts to them.

We may ask whether anything else is possible. The answer is that it is. The early church was a countercultural institution. Again, toward the end of the nineteenth century the American churches made quite central to their self-understanding and collective actions a critique of the exploitation of workers in the newly industrializing cities. The “social gospel” remained an important expression of church life and thought down to the Second World War. Since then the church has not taken the lead in any visible and effective way for the oppressed against the oppressors, but when a serious movement for change came out of the Black church, the mainstream churches gave serious and visible support. Probably if the churches were now working as seriously for overcoming racism, classism, and sexism in our society as they worked for justice to workers during the social gospel period, and for the end of segregation under the leadership of Martin Luther King, our questioner would not have been so harsh.

But we must notice that she does not speak directly of what the church as a whole does. She is accusing the alternative theologies of failure. What would she have them do that they are not already doing? Of course, I am guessing.

Perhaps she looks to these theologies to plan and promote organization for action to change society. She sees no promise of that kind of activity. Theology as such may seem to her to have become a largely “academic” activity.

That is not quite fair to the alternative theologies. They have aimed at change. The black theologians certainly wanted to change the thinking of fellow Christians by their writings, and they were in fact remarkably successful. They also inspired and participated in “caucuses” that planned to change the policies of the churches, and in this effort too they were remarkably successful.

Still our critic may object that they did not even try to lead the churches in a major effort to change the society in which they exist. These churches were guided to support some good legislation. But for one who feels the oppressiveness of the modern world and is looking for leadership in liberating the oppressed, even womanist and other liberations theologies fall short.

I may be projecting my own concerns on the questioner. I would add to the list of evils she identifies the globally suicidal behavior of our national and world leaders. I believe the current global economy, managed by transnational companies and especially the privately-controlled central banks, and supported by neo-liberal economic theory, is driving the whole global civilization to self-destruction. I was truly pleased to see that at a meeting in Accra in 2004, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches accurately described what is happening and condemned it. That was an important and truly courageous step. But at most the Accra Declaration is oriented to changing the thinking of Christians. One does not expect, or even hope, that such a declaration will lead to serious planning and organization to bring into being a different form of world order.

There are many reasons that the Protestant churches do not organize themselves to save the world from disaster. In general they do not want to be “political.” Their first concern is to create communities of shared conviction and mutual support. Their aim is to witness to a way of being that is different from that of the secular world. They do not aim at control over that world. They recognize that there are many complex factors in the secular world about which their allegiance to Jesus Christ gives them no authoritative knowledge. If they reach out to the world, it is to share the good news and to minister to obvious human suffering.

I wish, however, that something more were possible. I look back to the social gospel period and the civil rights movement as providing some models. The world missionary movement at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth also provides some models. If our best leaders could agree on the accuracy of the Accra Declaration and meet together to discuss how the system there denounced could be undermined and overthrown, they could consider also the role of Christian individuals, congregations, and judicatories in that process. Moving from such planning to action would still be a great step. But at least we could then say that the church was seriously engaged in trying to save God’s world. That would give me great joy. Perhaps it would change the view of our questioner.

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