Theological Monopoly: The Tight Grip of White Theologians

When I vacation with my family it is not strange for us to pick one day and play board games.  After much convincing to plunge into a long game, we often whip out an old favorite… Monopoly. You know the deal, each player is trying to “monopolize” the whole board, until eventually everyone has folded and you have complete control of the board.

In theological circles, the same practice of monopoly has been going on. White western theologians dominate the theological conversation dismissing voices from poorer countries as well as domestic voices as fringe. When they themselves do theology it is self-labeled “classical”, “neutral”, “objective”, and “biblical”.  On the contrary, when others have different insights into the biblical text that they miss, these folks get these labels… “Black theology”, “Latin theology”, “Asian theology”, “pacifist theology”, “social justice theology”, and “feminist theology”.  The intent of these labels is to dismiss these bright theologians by asserting which context they are speaking from, which supposedly explains why the message they speak is distorted. They on the other hand, are “supposedly” not influenced by their race, socio-economics, or culture, and therefore should be seen and understood as neutral in their theological assumptions.

In pushing this agenda, white/western theologians have been able to claim a monopoly on interpreting the Bible. The truth is that much of what is understood as “orthodox” now in evangelical communities was not apart of the understanding of early Christians in the first 300 years of the church. The closest there was to what we have now comes from those who took the “Tertullian” approach, who as a lawyer communicated much of the biblical narrative in legal terms.  Yet even his understanding was very different over all from what is now considered orthodox.  On the other hand, there was plenty of diversity among the theological understandings of the faith back then. They made distinctions between core essentials (trinity, full divinity and full humanity of Christ, etc.) and doctrinal differences.

In fact, the first 300 hundred years of the church was hugely impacted by African theologians.  Nonetheless, theologians from Africa, Europe, and Asia all participated in theological development.  So now as we look at the present situation, I ask my fellow white theologians, are you willing to loosen the grip of monopoly?  Can you step away from being in the center of the theological dialogue and join everyone else around the table where we can all participate as equals?  This is hard, it means denying the privilege and position one has, while simultaneously empowering important voices of those who need to be heard. It is a tough Christ-like and sacrificial act, but it will strengthen the unity, voice, and witness of the church.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).

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.

13 thoughts on “Theological Monopoly: The Tight Grip of White Theologians

  1. My first reaction is to say something I might regret – so let’s just move on to the second thing…which isn’t much better.
    Back in the early 1990’s I was listening to the radio. It was this time of year just before Easter. Chuck Swindoll was on and gave his pitch about Jesus and his stay in the tomb. Right after pastor Swindoll’s program Charles Stanley came on for his program and happened to speak about the very same biblical passage as Swindoll had, only Stanley was 180 degrees the other way about the same passage. The only thing they actually agreed on was how sure they were about their own position.
    I learned something very valuable that day.
    The Bible may be the inspired\infallible word of God but the men and women who speak/preach about it are anything but.
    So, when I have to I sit and I act attentive as y’all spout off about this and that – and when you’re done I get up and dust myself off and I go on with my walk happy to know you had an audience to make you feel good and important about yourselves and your chosen profession. Some professions simply need an audience and I’m happy to play my part. Just don’t ask me to buy everything your sellin.

    1. So. . . I read this blog about the need for majority culture in America to realize that their reading, interpretation, and teaching of biblical text is culturally biased (a daunting task). Then I read that the recommendation given in the blog is that other minority cultural perspectives should be given an equal voice in the discussion -in order to create a more rounded reading, interpretation, teaching of the biblical text.

      Then I read DR response … which stated that he has had his faith in pastors/ biblical teachers ruined because he heard two pastors on the same radio program that had differing interpretations on a passage. Because of this experience he now placates pastors and biblical teachers by sitting in the pews skeptically (but quietly) listening to what they have to say.
      (DR- dont forget, that even the gospel writers in the Bible contradict themselves at times- and they were there!)

      DR, I dont think that your response addressed much of what the blog was addressing, but I will respond to your response nonetheless.
      In spite of man’s weaknesses and imperfection, I believe that God does still choose to show Himself to us- sometimes in nature, in beauty, in the words of children, etc…and sometimes he uses other adults (pastors or otherwise). . . .I don’t think we should be surprised that there are opposing voices, as the mode of transportation (us!) is flawed. All of us have to muddle through and hope that if we ask Him, God will help us figure out what is from Him and what isn’t.
      Good luck!

  2. I actually agree with just about everything you said here… People are finite and fallible. Anytime any individual or group claims to have a lock on Truth there is something wrong. Dont get me wrong, i think God speaks and reveals himself to people everyday, and that is not limited to pastors and preachers. I think anyone who truly seeks after God, God reveals himself to them. However, no one has the full revelation in and of themselves. So from the moment people get their hands on God’s truth, we are at risk because it is in the hands of clay jars and nothing more. It is by God’s grace that his Truth goes forward, because we mess it up. Nonetheless, he has called us (everyone not just preachers) to both study individually and communally, provoking each other to love God and others more and more through his revelation. Also, despite our inadequacies we are all called to be Ambassadors of God.
    There are many things people disagree on… should we therefore have no convictions? Of course not, we must even as Paul explains have convictions and live out what we understand at any given point. At the same time, we all must have the humility to be teachable, hearing from others assuming that we don’t have it all right (and neither does the person we are talking to) but also that there is something that we can learn from others. This of course is all done with a discerning Spirit and us studying the bible for ourselves. And for me, I believe that we need to also be guided by the core essentials that have shaped and guided the historic and global church from the start.

    So please don’t buy everything I’m sell’n nor any other person, but let us hopefully despite our own selves try to hear others out. I know personally that it has been hard to really listen to others from different theological perspectives than my own, but the times I have have been real rewarding.

  3. R & D,
    Pastor Swindoll and Pastor Stanley are two examples of the “white Theologians” in question. If they can be so diametrically opposed on the same point as to cancel one another out – why would anyone want to say that they are the people who hold all the cards and they are the people who are holding others back?
    People only have the power you give up to them.

    On another angle: Why all this crying about others having to give up in order for others to have. The whites have striven for their form of Theological excellence and the blacks can’t? Why should one be unable to speak truth as they see it just because another is doing so? Why can’t both occur at the same time? Jesus walked the country side and spoke to ordinary people face to face – the blacks can’t? We’re crying here about being published or being seen as having a certain “standing” or being criticised among peers? I think Jesus had words for the apostles when they were comparing among themselves…
    How come it’s not good enough to speak as He did and to be satisfied to let the chips fall where they may? Besides – you’ll know you’re really doing good when they bring out the stones or the cross with your name on it. It’s time to fear when you are hailed and praised for your own words and thoughts besides those of your peers.

  4. Do you really believe that “people only have the power you give up to them”?
    I believe that there are many voices in our society and in the world’s society that are not heard- and not for lack of trying. We can discuss this further with specifics if you really want, but this seems obvious to me.

    Another point- you wrote “why should one be unable to speak truth because another is doing so”. I do not think that Drew was referring to people being “unable to speak”. There are many many black and other minority theologians that are speaking. The question he poses, is “who is listening?”. The challenge is for white Christians and theologians to listen to voices of those other than themselves. The challenge is given to the ears of the majority not the voices of the minority. And the challenge is toward the end result of the benefit of all.

    Also, I think it is interesting that you say “let the chips fall as they may”. I almost dont’ know how to respond. Would there ever have been a civil rights movement with this attitude? Where would women be? surely not voting. The native american’s put up a fight, but things would have been a lot easier on the Europeans if they had had the attitude of letting the “chips fall as they may”. Should we protest abortion and fight for the rights of the unborn? Should we speak up about anything that seems to be unfair or unjust?

    I am not really going to address what you said regarding “Jesus and the disciples comparing themselves to one another” other than to say that I dont’ think the analogy works. We are talking about equal voice for the betterment of the whole. There has not been mention of who’s voice is better.

    I feel I am becoming repetitive, but in response to your last paragraph- I dont think the issue addressed in the blog is the content of what the minority theologians have to say; whether they are praised or stoned for their content is irrelevant. The issue is whether anyone is listening at all.

  5. Renee,
    Somewhere you asked me if I know of James Cone…

    “Black Power and Black Theology” The author of American Black theology I believe you said and that most whites don’t know of him.
    In an interview, Black Pastor Eugene Rivers (of Azusa Christian Community, Boston) quotes from a research paper stating that only about 10% of blacks know of Cone.

    You say Cone’s work is ignored by many Whites and the question is “who is listening?” I would contend that many have heard Cone and maybe for saying such things as what I’ve copied below – he has been thoughtfully rejected for being too much of a loose cannon at times and therefore an unreliable source of consistent healthy theological fruit.

    Hear him in his own words:
    “Black theology refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the Black Community.
    If God is not for us and against white people, then he’s a murderer, and we had better kill him.
    The task of Black Theology is to kill gods who do not belong to the Black community.
    Black Theology will accept only the love of god which participates in the destruction of the white enemy.
    What we need is the divine love as expressed in Black Power which is the power of Black people to destroy their oppressors here and now by any means at their disposal.
    Unless God is participating in this holy activity, we must reject his love.”

    Mind if I ask you to listen to him for 20 minutes?
    Tell me how he is so admirable when he says that “some blacks aren’t black” (because they don’t agree with him!)
    Tell me how Jesus on the cross is the picture “only” of the poor powerless black on the lynching tree (as Cone states) while ignoring the fact that Jesus was the richest of beings before and after the cross and only became poor and powerless because he chose to be (Therefore showing himself as an understanding savior to both the rich and powerful as well as the poor and powerless.
    Oh, and Dru said in the post that it’s the whites who label the minority’s points of view and yet in the interview there is Cone saying he was the one who created and labeled it “Black Theology” – the very first reference Dru listed… ?

    When I mentioned “Letting the chips fall where they may – It was because I see Jesus preaching and teaching to the crowds and offending them as much as wowing them and he let the chips fall where they would – and it eventually got him crucified – by design mind you. That is what I meant and that is what I would advise the learned theologians to do also. I don’t know how you went to where you did with it but that’s what I meant… That He spoke the truth no matter who listened or didn’t and I don’t remember hearing that he complained that people were labeling him or ignoring him or picking on him. He simply went on to the next town and repeated the process over again and in a matter of 3 years he became and remains (for multitudes) the center of the universe. Not bad for such a simple formula.

  6. PS… Meanwhile as you listen to Cone you hear that his “Black Theology isn’t really theology at all in the truest sense. All he did was to marry MLK’s thoughts with Malcolm X’s and called it Black Theology. Theology is man’s study of god, Cone is studying other men (That’s what Brian Sowers is and does and it’s called something else) Listen to him describe scripture and you will hear him say Jesus failed at the cross (It may be on another YouTube video of him if it’s not all on the one I asked you to listen to, I’ve heard so many) How is a planned event (before the foundations of the world)like the Crucifixion a “failed event”?
    Cone speaks of not necessarily believing the bible is inerrant (allowing for men like him to step in and insert his brand of truth) he refers to the scriptures almost out of absolute necessity because he would rather use his own terminology and focus things through his own hermeneutical lens.
    Actually – I find him scary.

  7. PPS… Scary because he reminds me of someone else who knew the history of suffering his people went through and continued just as badly during his life time. A man so consumed with that suffering and committed to the removal of those responsible through any means (to be read: through military style violence)that he joined a group dedicated to that cause. In the meanwhile he knew of and saw first hand the teachings, miracles and good works of Jesus, but he was either ignorant of or simply rejected what Jesus and the forth-telling scriptures spoke of and stood for. He ended up playing a very important part in the history of Christendom but it didn’t end well for him personally, thus showing that God can use even the angry and the misguided to accomplish what he has planned.

  8. I would read Cone before you completely dismiss him… I don’t agree with everything he says, but he is a lot more complex of a theologian than his opponents would like to characterize him as. Pretty well accepted people like Robert Gelinas author of “Finding the Groove”, Carl Ellis “Free At Last”, and Tom Skinner “Black and Free”, have all drawn from his work. They take the good, leave out the bad.

  9. Drew,
    Taking up your offer to discuss “God of the Oppressed”.

    Allow me to start with this question:

    Was the suffering of Christ unjust?

  10. My second question is about clarification regarding Biblical Christianity vs everything else that claims to be or comes close. What do you use to determine the real from the counterfeit?
    Allow me to say that for me the main point usually boils down to what counterfeits end up presenting: “The bible AND something else” … be it the book of Mormon, or the “authorized version” of the JW bible, etc, etc… which then dethrone Jesus and make him less than God\man and therefore what he did on the cross and through his resurrection is nullified or greatly reduced.
    What do you say?

  11. Seems to be doing two simple things in the book so far (In, as you say, a “more complex” theologian-speak way) I’m about a third of the way through the book (have to keep consulting a dictionary but his game is still quite simple)…
    #1 – Attempts to create “reasonable doubt” in what is and has been doctrinal truth.
    #2 – Then creates a new brand of truth to replace it.
    His quotes from Marx, Marx’s predecessor and those who came after Marx, speaking of truth were quite telling. Cone agrees with Marx about the predecessor who only dealt with truth as being what “is” and therefor deficient and is much more comfortable with what Marx wrote – that truth is what we can create!
    Yes, Cone is worth the read – just for the fact that it’s like walking through a field of strawberries laced with landmines, rabbit holes and snares.
    I swear . . . I know that if this were some white guy saying this kind of stuff – you would dismiss it out of hand.
    I know that there are authors who have quoted from him or given him a mention because as we all know, even a broken clock is correct 2 split seconds every day. God bless these other authors for finding the two tidbits among the rabbit holes and fantasies. I realize they want to support a brother – God bless em.

  12. #1- In one way Dr. Cone is boxing himself into a corner and I’m wondering if he will be able to extricate himself. After spending all this time defining theology as something we arrive at through our life experience, he has so limited his own version of theology that one can only be an American black who was or is the descendant of a slave in order to subscribe.
    #2- The title of the book, “God of the Oppressed” is somewhat of a falsehood so far and I’m wondering if he is going to keep it narrow or expand it to it’s full truth. Such as:
    A)- I have heard no mention of this entire world being under the oppressive thumb of Satan and all that this truth represents. You would think (so far) that the only people who can oppress are the white folk.
    B)- following point A, there has been no mention of blacks oppressing blacks or anyone else for that matter (as if it isn’t happening or ever happened).
    My thought is that if he were to open this line of discussion his whole point would fall apart because with so many people oppressing different people at various times in history – who could God actually be the God of? Cones’ point has been that one most be an American slave or descendant thereof to qualify but what about before America even was? that’s a little over 200 years ago and there is plenty of history before that to account for.

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