Dismantling Theologies that make Blacks "Niggers" and Dalits "Untouchables"

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(The following is a written version of the address that Billy gave at a convening of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. The convening called together Black and Indian theologians and scholars to consider how churches can resist the rise of authoritarianism, nationalism and racism. Specifically in the context of the oppressed Dalit Christian community in India. This convening took place in Bangalore, India and Bangkok, Thailand over the course of the last several days)

Admittedly, when I was asked to attend this consultation I gave serious thought as to whether or not I should attend. Primarily because I have a nine month old daughter that I wasn’t looking forward to being away from for 10 days. I imagine right now she is probably wondering where is that guy with the beard that everyone calls my daddy? But I also struggled with coming because as we speak there is a very real social fight for civil rights and voter protections happening where I live in the southern United States. And I along with other organizers are on the front lines of the fight, trying to defend the civic rights of our people.

So when I heard about this gathering, I had to think seriously about whether it was wise to go learn about the freedom struggle in someone’s else country, when there’s such an important struggle raging in my own country. 

But then I began to read and become more acutely aware of the Dalit Christian situation in India. And I must say, upon learning about the fight for equality that my dear brothers and sisters here in Southeast Asia have been engaged and it became clear to me that the fight against the waning power of white supremacy in the form of voter suppression and rebranded white nationalism in the US is deeply connected to the struggles of the Dalit community in India. It is this connection and the compelling of the Spirit that brings me here today because I still believe that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Without question, what brings and binds us together for this occasion are the shameful acts of injustice that have been committed against our communities by the so-called powerful. But what also brings us together is also our collective belief as scholars that represent these oppressed communities in North American and South Asia that the Christian gospel, if it is useful at all, must contribute something to this fight against injustice that we speak. It must inspire us to bear witness to the truth and tell the story of those who suffer at the hands of injustice. Because as James Cone once said, "there is no justice without memory."

So we’ve come here together to theologically tell story because silence and muted mouths is the best friend of injustice and social domination. We’re here to tell the story because when the history of oppression is hidden, very often the oppressed are made the villains, and the oppressors the victims.

So then, what is the theological story we’ve come to tell? I submit that part of the story we have come to tell is that discrimination, authoritarianism, and misguided nationalism, aren’t just political, cultural, and geographical issues, they are also profoundly theological and dare I say moral issues. This is to say that claims made about God and how God relates to and orders creation have helped to shape and spread the casteism, racism, discrimination and social domineering we currently face. 

For this reason we must wrestle together with the problems that theology poses for the human fulfillment of so-called oppressed communities, in hopes that doing so might lead to the development of more effective theological resources in the fight against global manifestations of cultural imperialist oppression. 

Let me quickly note that for the purpose of this presentation I will refer collectively to the destructive “isms” that this consultation has been called together to address as “cultural imperialism” because I believe it best describes the reality of the domineering threats that we face. Cultural imperialism is defined as the creation and maintenance of unequal relationships between civilizations or within social orders that favor the more powerful. It is the practice of promoting and imposing a culture over a  group for the purpose of maintaining social and political power. 

What’s interesting and important to note is that cultural imperialist oppression operates not through military force but through the governing power gaining consent to its rule from those it subjugates either through allowance of shady democratic processes or widespread citizen acceptance of the status quo. In other words, cultural imperialism is when tyranny prospers because a significant portion of citizens have the misguided notion that somehow its in their best interest to accept it or that they can’t do anything to change things. 

This is how the systems of casteism and white supremacy have been allowed to function so long because the spaces that Black and Dalit communities occupy are saturated with people who think that the current oppressive condition either works to their benefit or requires their submission. This is why poor whites will support white supremacy even though it doesn’t support their economic interests. Because it gives them the right to say “at least I’m not a nigger.” This is why so called Shudras in Indian society accept the Brahmin oppression. Because it gives them the right to say “at least I’m not an untouchable.”

This my friends is how cultural imperialism works. It works through miseducation. Because to quote Carter G. Woodson, “if you can control a person’s mind you don’t have to worry about their actions. If you make a person feel they are inferior, you do not have to compel them to accept inferior status, they will seek it for themselves.”  And this is why our being here together as scholars of various kind is so important. Because we are charged with the task of helping our people to get back, claim and keep their righteous minds because in my cases they (we) have clearly lost them. 

In my assessment the primary reason that cultural imperialism prospers is through the ungodly trinity of fear, suppression of truth and religious miseducation. Time will not allow for me to deal with each other these so I’ll spend the balance of my time dealing with the one most relevant to our being here__ religious and theological miseducation. 

Without question, theology is one of the age old handmaidens of cultural imperialism. Primarily because it helps make people who would otherwise seek more abundant life accept a disenfranchised state out of some warped belief that it is there God given destiny in life.  As I see it, there are at least (3) ways this happens. 

The first is the propensity to use theology as a tool to sanctify discrimination and social hierarchies of privilege. We see this most clearly in the shameful purity teachings of the Hindu caste system. Convincing people that they should accept lower status in life because somehow God has created a draconian system where Darma and Karma relegates them to this existence because they polluted themselves in some way. We see this in the Christian theologies that make the preservation of whiteness the chief theological end. Therefore making anything not rooted in whiteness inferior and not of importance to faith. We see the effects of this in Black and Dalit churches that hang up pictures of White Jesus, sing colonialist hymns, defend European church structures, and bask in the glory of European worship liturgies while most whites look down or altogether ignore the indigenous theological practices of non-white people.  

Sadly, we have allowed this because misguided theology has taught us that God favors this system, when our good sense should tell us all that God, if God is God at all, is not a respector of persons. The good that God intends for others, surely God intends the same good for you.  Which is why we must boldly say to those who promote casteism and race supremacy that no one can be born into a state of predetermined inequality and discrimination because everyone is created in the image of God. 

The second way theology is used as a tool of cultural imperialism is by making compliance and submission to oppression examples of right standing with God. This happens when we use certain caste system teachings and biblical passages to justify the tyranny of government. These teachings are intended to make people think that somehow God is honored by our accepting the unjust rule of those in power. But such thinking is dangerous and should be resisted no matter the biblical text or sacred writing where it can be found. Any God that requests submission to unjust rule as a standard of righteousness is not a righteous God but a tyrant not worthy of following or worshipping. This we must not be afraid to declare. 

One rather unfortunate theological extension of the demand for compliance is that it creates an “us” vs “them” mentality. This is very useful in cultural imperialist rule because it makes anyone who doesn’t show loyalty to the system  “evil” and/or “heretical”. 

This is why classical reformed theologians should be careful when they too readily invoke the teachings of John Calvin in conversations of social justice without recognizing the challenges that his own theological imperialist practices present for many of us liberation theologians. The fact is in a clear act of theological imperialism John Calvin publicly supported the capital punishment of individuals who promoted theological beliefs outside of the status quo of his day. So how can we use Calvin as a resource for advancing justice (as some scholars have done during this consultation) without naming the oppression of Calvin’s Geneva?

Finally, the third way theology serves as a tool for the advancement of cultural imperialism is when churches treat making justice and the demands of the gospel as a good idea and not a practice.  To quote the womanist theologian Jacquelyn Grant, “the coming of the reign of God is the coming of justice and this is more than a theory. It is practicing righteousness in the way we govern our lives together". Too often those of us charged with being the theological conveyers of divine truths are more interested in talking about justice than doing justice. But as I have been saying everywhere I’m asked to speak lately, “the enemies of our liberation are not afraid of our rhetoric and speeches, they are afraid of our organizing.”

So theology must not traffic in the peddling of esoteric meandering that have no real life consequences or go after the easy work of pushing personal piety. Our people are faced with real challenges and we need real solutions. This means we need theologies focused on building power for oppressed communities and this involves the development of thinking around faith based civic and community organizing. This means teaching people how to use their sanctified imaginations to envision a life not marred by the stain of casteism and white supremacy. To do anything else is to sanctify ignorance, disconnect people from seeing reality and stand in the way of our doing justice. 

This means, it is not enough merely to stand in solidarity or speak up for the poor and marginalized within our communities and congregations. If we are serious about standing up against oppression and how theology has been used to dehumanize those beyond and within our congregation, we must develop an activist-organizing based liberation theology. Because simply talking about change is no longer a viable option. We must actively create change. This means creating freedom schools where we teach the marginalized and young people how to use their faith to shift social power. This means empowering women to lead and be equal partners with men in the theological fight for justice.  This means formulating theologies for pastors around the 3 fold change making strategy of educating, agitating and organizing. 

If we do these things, if we truly pursue justice. I believe theology can be snatched from the hands of cultural imperialism and open our eyes to the beauty of divine social love. So we must leave here and teach people that at the heart of an activist Christian theology are the values of love, justice and power. As human beings we have a wonderful array of love and human power as a reflection of our creation in God's image. Our whole being is divine, and unfolding our powers is our reason for being. Therefore anything that gets in the way of that unfolding is unjust and is killing the divine in us. This is why theologians and Christians world over must boldly declare casteism and racism are ungodly and unacceptable because they keep people from coming into the fullness of divine living.  Therefore we must stand against cultural imperialism and call for people of goodwill everywhere to open their eyes, see the liberating call of God and stand for justice in this hour.