Getting Off Theological Welfare

From 1619-1865, I imagine that the African slaves that were either on route in the middle passage, standing on the auction blocks, or in the burning hot cotton fields of Alabama were doing theology. Yes, they wanted to know if God was present when they were being whipped, if God’s love could sustain them through another raping, if God valued the life of the young man who was castrated after receiving too much attention from a white lady. They wanted to know if they could call on Jesus in the midst of their suffering, and would he be there. Would he liberate them from their slavery and oppression? Simultaneously, the slave masters were also doing theology. They wanted to stress that it was by faith alone that one was saved, and not by works. They pondered on whether it was worth improving someone’s life on earth, which was needy, when this life was temporal. They theologized on the priority of eternal salvation over temporal earthly relief. Volumes of “Classical theology” were written in this time, emphasizing the need to save the soul of the Negro, rather than improving his standard of living.Theology has never been a neutral or universal practice. Theology has always been done from a context and perspective.

Our theology can never equate the knowledge of God; we are finite and limited beings, while God is infinite and limitless. We cannot offer up an infinite, limitless, and universal gospel, our finite, limited, and contextual selves will not allow it. For the last four hundred years, those who have been the most rich, powerful, and main stream have offered up a “universal theology” that is good for everyone. Yet this universal approach did not have an answer for those who were chained up like chattel crossing the mid-Atlantic. It did not have a theology developed for the 5000 lynching’s that took place post slavery. And it still does not have a theology developed for the unequal education, housing, health care, employment opportunities, police brutality, prison sentences, and discrimination that many people (especially of color) in urban centers live with year after year.

My beef is not with the Bible; actually I really believe that it is the answer. Rather it is with the interpreters that conveniently “overlook” the passages permeated throughout the whole bible that speak on justice, liberation, and empowerment, while only interpreting the things that are beneficial for their particular context. It would actually not be that bad, except that it has been forced down upon us as “Universal Theology” for all people in all contexts and situations. When black people share a different perspective, it gets labeled black theology, Latinos do it and it gets labeled Latin Theology, when Asians do it is called Asian theology, yet somehow when white folk do theology it translates into “universal theology” because it lines up with what other white men in the 1500’s said which somehow is called “classical theology”. It is as if white theologians are conveniently unbiased as they read the bible, and they get to referee as we all take a shot at it. They get to decide who is in bounds and out of bounds. And surprisingly, every time someone questions the injustice and oppression that often caricaturizes the systems they live in and benefit from, that person has left universal truth. This is not an attempt to claim all white people are racists, nor is it to dismiss the authenticity of some people’s faith journey. What it is though, is a challenge for us to get off of theological welfare. That is the theological dependency that we have grown accustomed to because of our laziness of not doing our own theology.

We continually wait for the next “IT” book. At one time it was the Prayer of Jabez, then it was Purpose Driven Life, and I am sure there is another one by now already. We wait for these Pastors from Mega-Churches in the suburbs of Texas to tell us how we are to live, and how to be successful, how to fulfill our desires, and what God’s purpose is for us. Yet they do not know our context, our community, our story, because they are limited by theirs. That is not to say that they cannot say anything meaningful, but it would be even more relevant to your life for you to read and interpret for yourself. For you are able to interpret the bible for yourself as well you can interpret your context.

Better yet, read and interpret in community with others. Since none of us are capable of attaining knowledge equal to God because we are all finite in our attempts. We can allow our strengths to pick up where others miss, and where we miss others can catch with their strengths. When we allow “iron to sharpen iron” we can all hopefully grow in our journey together. Just imagine if the slave masters and slaves got together and eagerly sought to learn from each other. Where would we be today? It all starts by each of us doing theology by reading and interpreting scripture while also fully understanding the context and realties that surround us.

Published by Drew G. I. Hart, PhD

Drew G. I. Hart is a theology professor in the Biblical & Religious Studies department at Messiah College with ten years of pastoral experience. Hart majored in Biblical Studies at Messiah College as an undergraduate student, he attained his M.Div. with an urban concentration from Missio Seminary in Philadelphia, and he received his Ph.D. in theology and ethics from Lutheran Theological Seminary-Philadelphia. Drew was born and raised in Norristown, Pa and has lived extensively in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA as well. Dr. Hart’s dissertation research explored how Christian discipleship, as framed by Black theologies and contemporary Anabaptist theologies, gesture the Church towards untangling the forces of white supremacy and the inertia of western Christendom which have plagued its witness in society for too long. As two traditions that emerged from the underside of violent and oppressive western Christian societies, he found Black theology and Anabaptism each repeatedly turning to the particularity of Jesus in the gospel narratives. From that arises an ethic of solidarity with the oppressed and pursuing liberation in Black theology and an ethic of radical peacemaking and ecclesial nonconformity in the Anabaptist tradition. Each challenge the violent and oppressive logics of mainstream western Christianity and salvage the call to follow the way of Christ. Together in dialogue they deepen our analysis of the churches failures and the need for Jesus-shaped repentance. His work beyond teaching and writing has included pastoring in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, working for an inner-city afterschool program for black and brown middle school boys, delivering lectures and leading anti-racism workshops, collaborating with local faith-based organizers and activists in his city, and doing a broad range of public theology. He is also a co-leader for a local Harrisburg faith-based relational network called FREE Together which has collaborated with POWER Interfaith, MILPA, the Shut Down Berks Detention Center movement, and a little with the Poor People’s Campaign. Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew Hart, has received great reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and Englewood Review of Books. Endorsing this resource, Shane Claiborne said, “This book is a gift from the heart of one of the sharpest young theologians in the United States. Hold it carefully, and allow it to transform you--and our blood-stained streets.” As a text, Trouble I’ve Seen utilizes personal and everyday stories, Jesus-shaped theological ethics, and anti-racism frameworks to transform the church’s understanding and social witness. Trouble I’ve Seen focuses on white supremacy as an overarching framework for understanding racism, with careful attention to its systemic and socializing dimensions. However, unlike sociology textbooks on the subject Dr. Hart also considers the subversive vocation of Jesus and the nonviolent yet revolutionary implications his life ought to have for his followers today. His newest book project is entitled Who Will Be a Witness?: Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance and will be published September 1, 2020. Who Will Be A Witness? invites the church to liberate its centuries long captivity to supremacist practices, and to expand its restricted political imagination in view of Jesus’ messianic reign. The book guides disciples of Jesus into joining God’s delivering presence through scriptural reasoning, historical reflection, practical theology for congregational life, social change theory, and the Christian call to love our neighbor. It is written for congregations, leaders, and students that understand that pursuing God’s justice goes way beyond waiting around for electoral seasons to come around. It is about the ongoing vocation of the Church right now, at the grassroots level, seeking after the wellbeing of their neighbors through faithful, strategic, and concrete action. Drew recently joined the Inverse Podcast team serving as a cohost along with Australian peace activist Jarrod Mckenna. Together they interview interesting people and explore how scripture can turn our ethical imagination and the violent and unjust systems of our world upside-down, which contrasts with interpreting the Bible as a tool for the status quo. Dr. Drew Hart was the recipient of bcmPEACE’s 2017 Peacemaker Award, a 2019 W.E.B. Dubois Award from a Disciples of Christ congregation, and in October 2019, Dr. Hart was chosen as Elizabethtown College’s 2019 Peace Fellow. Each award recognized him for his local and national justice work and public theology. You can find Drew Hart on Twitter and Facebook, or you can catch him as he travels and speaks regularly across the country to colleges, conferences, and churches. Drew and Renee, and their three boys (Micah, Dietrich, and Vincent) live in Harrisburg, PA and attend Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren.

4 thoughts on “Getting Off Theological Welfare

  1. Drew,
    As I was reading your post, I saw you leading a group of mixed-race people who studied Bible passages and gave their contexts and understandings at meetings. And, then you wrote a book about the people, the meetings, the sharing, the understandings!
    I can help with the editing. 🙂
    Pam

  2. Pam,
    Your vision is pretty close to my vision… interesting. And I was writing, although it is temporarily on hold. What I was working on didn’t have the right… hmm what do you call it, I guess umph, that I wanted. Not sure if I will continue or start completely from scratch. And now I got 2 editors for my none existing book! Peace!

    Drew

  3. Drew,

    As a professor of classics and early Christianity, I also am appalled at the idea of calling anything as late as the 1500s “classical.”

    On a serious note, I wonder whether you have thrown the baby out with the bath water. As I see it, the theological contributions of modernity were useful and accurate, but only as regards man’s relationship to God. I suspect you imply this yourself in your post. Where modern theology (note I try to avoid the term “universal”) failed was in the arena of man’s relationship to man. Now, I know my argument can easily be unraveled when one points out that Jesus as man blurs the line between the two, but bear with me. This was where the contributions of more recent(ish) theological traditions, such as liberation theology, are invaluable to the discussion. But, the liberationists went too far in my opinion, and they made God out to be an omniscient social worker, a model I have a difficult time reconciling with other parts of the Bible.

    The heretic in me says that both perspectives are absolutely essential not just for a theologically correct (or accurate) perspective of God-this would be a typical “universalist” position-but also for our ability to do Christianity correctly. For me it’s how one does Christianity that matters, and, to please the universalists, how one actually gets to heaven. I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of slave trading and slave holding Christians found themselves out of sorts when they died. Sure, they cast out demons in Christ’s name but…I guess in sum, theologians have been divided between the issue of an eternal (i.e. heavenly) or a material (earthly) kingdom for the past 2000 years, and I wonder if postmodernity can provide a better “answer”. It is both. I’ve been waiting to be able to want my cake and eat it too, and finally I think it’s here.

  4. Drew, I think you can get the right ‘oomph’ possibly by interviewing people, too, and including photos. I used to co-own a small newspaper. Here is a link to what we did: http://notesalongthepath.wordpress.com/2009/07/03/who-are-you-what-have-you-learned/
    Also, I’ve noticed at meetings when only one person at a time speaks, something truly magical happens. Here is a story about what happened to me: http://notesalongthepath.wordpress.com/2009/06/22/the-talking-stick/
    Take care.
    Pam

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