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Loosening the Grip 7

posted by xscot mcknight

Our post today is written by Mary Veeneman, a member of our BTS department here at North Park. Her chp focuses on the 3d chp of Race: A Theological Account. She’s got some good questions at the end.
Recently, I attended a panel on politics and voting in light of the upcoming election at North Park. The panel involved three faculty members from three different departments: Philosophy, Biblical and Theological Studies and Political Science. All three faculty members discussed grappling with the issue of how one should vote as a Christian given that the two major presidential candidates can be seen as each advocating policies that are very much in concert with the values of the Christian faith and policies that ultimately oppose the values held by the Christian faith.
Of course, it is nearly impossible to discuss the current election without getting to the issue of race, and it certainly came up in the course of this discussion, though perhaps in a somewhat unexpected way. One member of the panel mentioned Rev. Jeremiah Wright and questioned the judgment of anyone who would be closely connected to him. Another member of the panel made a claim which was likely seen as very provocative by most of the people present. He argued that Rev. Wright likely reads the Bible in a manner much closer to the way in which Jesus read it than the dominant white evangelical culture does.
Underlying this claim is a central component of Catholic Social Thought often referred to as the preferential option for the poor. This is the idea that because the original audience of the New Testament was an oppressed and often poor people, the poor and oppressed in the contemporary world have an advantage in biblical interpretation in that their social status is somewhat similar to that of the original audience. As a result, the Catholic Social tradition has called on the faithful to take very seriously the way in which the poor and oppressed read the Bible.
I bring up this instance not to weigh in on the claim made by the panel member. Certainly Rev. Wright has been controversial and I have no desire to ignite a discussion about him here. What I found interesting about this exchange is that it reinforces in different ways some of the same claims made by J. Kameron Carter in the third chapter of Race: A Theological Account, titled, ?Historicizing Race.?
In this chapter of the book, Carter discusses the work of Albert J. Raboteau, whose most well-known work is Slave Religion: The ?Invisible Institution? in the Antebellum South?. Raboteau, a scholar who researches American Religious History, has taught at Princeton University since 1982. Carter, in this chapter seeks to trace a development in Raboteau?s thought from Slave Religion, which he published in 1978 to An Unbroken Circle (1997) and finally to some lectures he gave in 2003. In tracing this progression, Carter is attempting to examine the relationship between faith and history in Raboteau?s thought. During the twenty-five years between Slave Religion and the aforementioned lectures, Raboteau?s position on the relationship between faith and history develops from his initial view that sees faith only vaguely touching history, where faith is essentially beyond history or any kind of historical analysis. Later, Raboteau will argue that history can challenge faith and help faith to appreciate both that which is unique in the faith and that which is particular to the faith.
Of course, history has another role for Raboteau and this is the role that Carter notes is particularly central to his own arguments. Raboteau discusses the tradition-making activity of history. This is the activity of locating the members of a particular group or country within that group or country?s history. In this way, then, Carter says, ?history does the work of identity formation? (145). Through history, he says, we read ourselves ?dramatically? as ?participants in a drama? (145). American history has failed to include African Americans in the drama of American history in any way other than as simply a problem for the narrative, according to Raboteau, and Carter adds that religious faith and Christian faith in particular has not improved upon this situation. In fact, he argues that both history and Christianity have promoted a religious myth of whiteness. This is particularly the case when Christianity is tied to and is used to support nationalism.
Question: In your learning of American (or your country’s) history, how much focus was there on ethnic minorities or marginalized people? Were the voices of such persons muted? valued?
Some people argue that the slaves and slave children essentially gave in to their masters in taking up Christianity. Carter argues that a more compelling case can be made for the realization, on the part of the slaves and their descendants, that ?American manifest destiny? (147) was based on problematic historical foundations. It understood America as the New Israel and equated the migration of Europeans to North America as an escape from Egyptian bondage into the Promised Land. In other words, Americans were understanding the move of their ancestors to North America and then the move west across the continent as the same as the move of the people of Israel from Egypt into Canaan.
Of course, the slaves did not read the movement of their ancestors from Africa to North America in the same way. America, in their eyes, was not Israel but was Egypt. American slaves appropriated the story of the people of Israel in Egypt to understand their own plight. Carter quotes Paul Gilroy who paraphrases historian Vincent Harding in making a point that is particularly apt: ?It is an abiding and tragic irony of our national history that white America?s claim to be a New Israel has been constantly denied by Old Israel still enslaved in her midst? (147).
The question Carter asks in reflecting upon this is, ?What kind of consciousness (and unconsciousness) is at work? These differences of interpretation ?result from the fact that history has served in the past and still serves today to establish and legitimate the identities of various communities…?? (147).
To return to the earlier anecdote, the panelist who made the claim about Rev. Wright?s reading of the Bible further argued that there are things in scripture that people who come from a privileged group (whether racial, economic or otherwise) will have a very difficult time seeing. His point seems to be that it is far too easy to pass through a passage of scripture, thinking that we know what it is about when we may have missed the main point altogether. This is exactly what happens with nationalistic readings of scripture that support what Carter has called the ?religious myth of whiteness.?
The questions I want to leave you with are:
1. How are some of our contemporary readings of scripture supporting this religious myth of whiteness?
2. What are other ways in which we read scripture too quickly and miss the underlying truths? These could be instances in which our initial read is not wrong per se, but has missed something important along the way.



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Jeremiah Daniels

posted October 31, 2008 at 1:18 am


Beyond a doubt, we read Scripture according to our experiences (economic class, ethnic/racial history, education, etc.)
So, it would follow that you read Scripture through all of those.
Unfortunately, you usually cannot see those readings until you either a) have someone point them out to you b) experience a role reversal of some kind that allows you to see things from another person’s perspective.
I’m having a real struggle coming up with some way that *I* view scripture in a ethnic or racial way. That does not mean I do not! I’d love to hear what other people feel that they observe it.
On the second question, I think its rampant. Take various readings on divorce and remarriage for instance. If you came from a stable, healthy home, it is difficult to understand why someone would want to divorce their partner. But, divorced people find it rather easy to read scripture in a different way.
Unless you’ve felt it, you won’t think to look a little deeper at the principles behind the Scriptures.
This does look like yet another fruitful discussion!



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Diane

posted October 31, 2008 at 5:53 am


We do read the Bible through the lens of our position, and yes, I’m convinced the Bible is less for privileged people than for those who have been oppressed. In my world, the Bible is often criticized and rejected because of its violence and judgmentalism. Many of my friends want a completely loving, peaceful, joyful, serene and beautiful text, all halos, rainbows and angels. I was struggling with this one day as I reading the OT–why so much violence, why is it so depressing?– when I had a flash of illumination: this isn’t written for ME, this is written for oppressed people in the world, people who’ve suffered genocide in Rwanda and other like horrors, who NEED to hear about a God who will judge sin harshly, throw the perpetrators into a fiery pit to gnash their teeths and in general avenge the powerless and set the world aright. They need to hear about justice as well as mercy. It’s not about whether a bunch of privileged women with little shawls around their necks and architectural earrings and summer homes in Maine have a Bible that reads like Gerard Manly Hopkins poem. Of course the Bible uncomfortable for us privileged people: Despite our walls of denial, we know on some level the judgment is aimed at us.
Because of my work, I have a spent great deal of time on the gay issue in the church. I’m convinced there’s something we’re too blind to see on this issue and that we’re completely misframing it. The one thing I’m certain of is that homosexuality should not be ripping the church apart. I’m too blind, too much product of this time, place and culture to see the distortion, (I’m sure in 100 years, people are going to think we were all nuts) though given my insight that Third world people may be privileged in understanding the Bible, I lend a good deal of weight to, say, the African Anglican rejection of gay rights. And it tears me up, because I live in a world with gay friends I love, etc. etc. So, yes, I think we need to read the Bible with a great deal of humility and consciousness of our limitations.



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Jeremiah Daniels

posted October 31, 2008 at 6:08 am


At its core I perceive a kind of balance that is striven for in the Bible.
Those who have take care of those who do not. People should work for their own way unless they cannot.
Judgment should be impartial: neither favoring the rich because she is rich nor the poor because he is poor.
My perception is that the human problem is that its far too easy for us to pick an extreme and make it the right choice. Maybe the truth is the cultural / historical reason behind the law or example found in Scripture and not the law or command itself.
If my interpretation of a passage breaks with the great principles of Scripture (love God; love my neighbor), then my interpretation is wrong.



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RJS

posted October 31, 2008 at 6:48 am


Good stuff Mary, this chapter was interesting – not quite as earthshaking for me as the last. But Ch. 2 set me up to try to read Ch. 3 (and what follows) with an open mind.
Question – How are some of our contemporary readings of scripture supporting this religious myth of whiteness?
A while back Scot presented a passage where Jesus told and interpreted a parable and then asked his readers with whom they identified in the passage. I found the ensuing discussion very interesting. I think that careful thought along these lines – with whom do we identify and to whom is the passage actually addressed may go a long way toward identifying our unconscious cultural assumptions – including the myth of “whiteness” and the justification of “prosperity” and so forth. The white evangelical protestant mentality seems to be to identify with Jesus or the speaker/preacher/prophet/king. It appears that Diane’s comment (#2) is thinking in this direction as well.
Interesting.



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Rob

posted October 31, 2008 at 7:09 am


#2 – Great thoughts Diane. I would have to say though, that even the “privileged women with little shawls around their necks and architectural earrings and summer homes in Maine” are oppressed….they are oppressed by a system of consumerism that defines worth by possessions. I’m making a sweeping statement here, but my point is that all humanity is under some form of oppression, but it takes, as mentioned in another comment, someone from outside our context to challenge us and show us how our reading of the Scriptures is influenced by our positions of power, gender, or ethnicity.



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Rob

posted October 31, 2008 at 7:42 am


As far as question number 1, I think a reading of the Scriptures that reduces the Gospel to ONLY a message about our spiritual destiny in the hereafter contributes to the myth of whiteness. It does this by attempting to “flatten” and subsume the experiences of oppressed people with the promise that Jesus makes it “all better”, and this is not our home, and heaven awaits, etc. To me, it doesn’t take seriously the contextual and cultural shaping that makes us human, and denies the “incarnational” nature of God and the Gospel to speak to, and redeem, lives in the present.
It flattens and subsumes so that it doesn’t have to listen to the voice of the oppressed. To do so would be to challenge the hegemony of the Western (mostly male and mostly white) interpretations of God and the Scriptures. It is a threat to those in power. My $.02 of course.



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John W Frye

posted October 31, 2008 at 7:55 am


Mary Veeneman,
Thank you for not only the review of chapter 3 of *Race,* but also the peek into the panel discussion. I am 60 and well-schooled in some of our finest evangelical centers, yet these posts are opening my eyes to the sad reality of a “theology of whiteness” hitherto unknown to me. Yes, I am aware of and participated in racial reconciliation endeavors, but the underlying privileged forces at work are new to me. I was struck by the simplicity of the two and opposing visions of the “new world” (USA)—whites coming to the promised land and blacks being shipped into Egypt. Egads! There it is…captured in the so-called “Negro spirituals.” While I agree that redemption does not respect persons, the angle at which the Scriptures come at redemption is from the poor to the rich. That is undeniable.



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Scott W

posted October 31, 2008 at 8:02 am


All great posts in this thread so far! Something that needs to be kept in mind is what’s at stake here theologically:the very notion of who the god of Creation, YHWH,is. Met. John Zizoulias in his lectures on the biblica conception of God notes that God is personal,by that he means that YHWH is known by his (covenantal)relations to people and peoples. YHWH is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,his “son” the people of Israel and of Jesus the Messiah. Thus YHWH is revealed in relation to his history with people,that is,in ahistorically and socially-embedded reality.The defining moment of this,the theological fulcrum of this is the Exodus,where YHWH revealed His personhood and being in taking his son,Israel,from bondage,thereby forver defining who He is. YHWH reminds His people in the Torah that if they become like the Egyptians and oppress others in the same way,they will meet the same fate. It’s no accident that the exodus theme and trope is central to Christian reality in the salvific work of Christ. African American slaves understood the centrality and theological implications of the Exodus in the “reading” of Christian moral and ethical reality, as a part of the biblical narrative.



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Faith J Totushek

posted October 31, 2008 at 8:41 am


1. How are some of our contemporary readings of scripture supporting this religious myth of whiteness?
In the immigration debates, i often hear Christians speak about the culture of the US being a biblical culture based on biblical principles. the fear espoused is that those coming from other countries, Latin American, Mid-Eastern, Asian etc will infect our culture so that it is less biblical.
This next comment is funny because of it’s crazy racist logic. I was discipling a 11 year old in a coffee shop and a man came up to talk about our bible version (NLT) He claimed that his version, the King James was the only true version and that those who translated it had been given the true words. He argued that his version authorized by King James a British King, was superior to all others and empirically trustworthy.
After he left, my student and I processed his comments in the light of ethnicity because she was Latino-American. I asked her why God would give his most accurate message to an anglo-saxon translation and not a Hispanic one? We concluded that God was seeking to speak his message through scripture to a variety of people and that one ethnic group, Anglo-Saxons, did not have the corner on God’s word as our visitor espoused.
I tell that because i think that in this country, we have assumptions about our bible and our way of interpreting it that we think are most accurate–when they are really ethnically and culturally informed or traditionally informed. Sometimes we even lift our own scholarship up above others. Silly isn’t it.



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T

posted October 31, 2008 at 9:00 am


Great post and comments. For me, the “missed” truth in the white evangelical community that comes to mind has to do with money. If I had to use just one word to summarize the (white) evangelical teaching on money, it would be “stewardship.” By contrast, if you had to summarize the NT’s chief concern re: money, it would be idolatry or addiction, speaking negatively, or radical sharing of it, speaking positively. I’ve asked this of my business students (at a Christian university): What happens when you tell a bunch of addicts to “steward” the object of their addiction with little to no accountability? I think the white church of America is the answer to that question. That’s why Jesus’ teachings regarding money was not “steward this better” but “give it away” (and relocate your trust around me). Case in point–the parable of the talents isn’t even about how Jesus thought his disciples should invest money, but that’s the main way I’ve seen it taught.



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Travis Greene

posted October 31, 2008 at 9:05 am


Question: In your learning of American (or your country?s) history, how much focus was there on ethnic minorities or marginalized people? Were the voices of such persons muted? valued?
I would say valued, but I’m young and thus grew up in an educational world dedicated to correcting for past myopia. Which is another way of saying everybody my age (24) did a book report on Harriet Tubman.



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Faith J Totushek

posted October 31, 2008 at 9:30 am


Travis, my first exposure to history of minorities in this country was a book entitled In A Different Voice by Tatakki… it is a history from the underside of power in the US. This was my first class in seminary, I was blown away by a history i had never heard and changed forever in how i saw our country. One can love one’s country and be honest about it’s weaknesses–more reality, less idealzation is part of living in truth. very important.



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ChrisB

posted October 31, 2008 at 9:31 am


In your learning of American (or your country?s) history, how much focus was there on ethnic minorities or marginalized people?
I went to school before things like “black history month” became popular, but in my schooling these contributions were acknowledged, but the simple fact is that most of European and American history, especially the large sweeping arcs, are the product of white people. There is only so much you can say.
?It is an abiding and tragic irony of our national history that white America?s claim to be a New Israel has been constantly denied by Old Israel still enslaved in her midst.?
Can someone please let him know that slavery was abolished almost 150 years ago?
What are other ways in which we read scripture too quickly and miss the underlying truths?
This is one of the reasons I look for things like the Africa Bible Commentary — to give me access to viewpoints that see the world very differently from me. But we also have to be aware of the danger of seeing ourselves in places the Bible doesn’t intend.
For example, there is certainly part of the OT that people who see themselves as oppressed will read differently and more personally than others; but every part of that wasn’t written to them but to the Israelites 3000 years ago. For instance, God’s promises to Israel in Egypt or Exile are not automatically translated to Sudanese Christians suffering under Muslim oppression.
I heard someone say, “The whole Bible was written for us, but it was not written to us.”



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Rick

posted October 31, 2008 at 9:39 am


Like John in #7, I found the Promised Land/Egypt dichotomy interesting and eye opening.
In regards to learning of American history, Travis in #11 spoke well of my education as well. The “melting pot” aspects of America were highly valued and focused upon.
2 elements of this series still have not been resolved my curiosity. The first is in regards to racial issues v. cultural issues. Is the current tension more cultural than racial. If we assume the author’s take on Kant’s influence (racial), should we assume that exact same influence is present today? Perhaps the tension has become less racial and has morphed into more cultural? How we answer that question may impact how we combat the problem.
The 2nd element that still has not been resolved for me in this series is the status of racial theology pre-Kant. Was the period of 500’s-early 1700’s seeing less of a racial disconnect/influence in theology?



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John W Frye

posted October 31, 2008 at 9:44 am


“In your learning of American (or your country?s) history, how much focus was there on ethnic minorities or marginalized people?”
Again, I date myself, but when I was in grade school in the South all we learned about was George Washington Carver and his work with peanuts. I entered into adult awareness during the civil rights turmoil of the ’60s.



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Scott W

posted October 31, 2008 at 10:08 am


Rick#14-
The following quote from Carter’s book addresses your 2nd unresolved question regarding the European colonialist period before the Enlightenment and the Kantian deveolopment of a racial-anthropological philosophy:
?[W]hat I engage here is a moment within initial maturing of modernity?s racial-theological vision of the human. I do not discuss the early colonialist vision that took hold about three hundred years prior to the Kantian, especially Protestant, Enlightenment-racial view in the late eighteenth century. The earlier moment had a Roman Catholic, essentially Southern Europen infancy?The Kantian racial-cosmopolitan vision, which was also a theological vision predicated on the extirpation of Jewish flesh, is unintelligible apart from these prior events. Stated differently, the Kantian outlook is only the discursive maturing of the racial colonialism inaugurated in the mid-to-late fifteeth century. And again it must be said that in the middle of it all was theological discourse, mainly of a Thomistic-Aristotelian sort,coupled with the discourse of canon and civil law,which also functioned in relationship to theology. I was unable to engage these important pre-Enlightenment matters here without ballooning even further an already big book. Their theological consideration must therefore await another,not to far off, day.? p.5f.



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Rick

posted October 31, 2008 at 11:42 am


Scott W #16-
Good info. Carter’s view then is that the seeds had been planted, if not already budding in the theology of the day.
I appreciate you providing the quote.



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Scott W

posted October 31, 2008 at 12:33 pm


Rick#17-
The next installment in Carter’s project is to trace the theological roots of modernity and the ideology of white supremecy,which he says goes back to the late Middle Ages/ early Renaissance. This is what he is researching and writing right now.



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Doug Allen

posted October 31, 2008 at 2:00 pm


There’s a parallel dichotomy, I think. Yes, whites found the promised land and blacks found Egypt. Jesus, as man, and his followers were much closer to the role of the blacks. In many states, it was forbidden to teach slaves to read. Similarly, Jesus and his followers were a threat to the status quo. You don’t have to be a post modern to understand that the powerful manipulate institutions of power for their advantage, and that includes religion. Jesus focused on the disadvantaged and criticized many of the powerful with remarkably crafted words, phrases, and parables. In addition, his radical universal inclusion was a threat to elect of his time who were also the powerful. In my view, Jesus’ Christianized messages became the status quo of a dominant culture where many of the powerful used those Christianized messages to advance their own often very materialistic agendas and sometimes to further marginalize those same poor and disadvantaged that Jesus stood with and for.
Doug



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Diane

posted October 31, 2008 at 2:10 pm


Rob,
I agree that privileged people can be oppressed by consumerism and that material wealth can be a form of deprivation. But at the same time, there’s a commensensical level in which the oppression of the privileged is different from that of the underclass.



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rob

posted October 31, 2008 at 4:20 pm


#20 – agreed



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Wayne Park

posted October 31, 2008 at 10:18 pm


Bravo. What a really great post.
The reverse Promised Land / Egypt comparison was spot on.
1. How are some of our contemporary readings of scripture supporting this religious myth of whiteness?
I echo Faith @ #9 – I think the immigration issue is one contemporary manifestation of the jumbled-up-ness of nationalism / faith / ethnic identity. We no longer care for the foreigner in our midst (Lev 19) because we’ve forgotten what it means to be exiles in a strange land.
Again, thanx for the great post



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derek mcguckin

posted October 31, 2008 at 10:43 pm


“In your learning of American (or your country?s) history, how much focus was there on ethnic minorities or marginalized people? Were the voices of such persons muted? valued?”
An alternative history of the United States is Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present”. It is quite controversial but definitely got me thinking and is written from the underpowered point of view.
Derek



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Jeremiah Daniels

posted November 1, 2008 at 2:38 am


Great thread. Amazing how small and civil this particular thread is compared to the others recently running.
Does that reveal something about our community as well?



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Anonymous

posted November 2, 2008 at 4:35 am


President On Best Political Blogs » Blog Archive » Loosening the Grip 7

[…] Loosening the Grip 7 …discussed grappling with the issue of how one should vote as a Christian given that the two major presidential candidates can be seen as each… […]



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