I decided to be a theology major after the first four weeks of college. I didn’t know much, but I knew I loved studying books about God and learning how humans speak about him. For me,
Theology was focused on the reconciliation of sin. It centered on Christ dying on the cross to save each of us from our sins.
Theology was primarily intellectual. It had its own bank of terms and terminology, and it was a highly academic exercise.
Theology was for everyone. The beliefs that were being formed worked for all people and could be applied to all people.
So I arrived at college and studied and debated and filled my bookshelves with the names that made me feel really smart—Erasmus and Luther and Calvin and Chesterton and Lewis and Piper and Driscoll and Keller and on and on and on.
I was becoming theological.
After college I enrolled in a seminary which prided itself in the type of theology I went to college wanting. I packed up my car and drove across the country, arriving to a campus bursting at the seams with the books I entered college longing to read.
Books about theology: objective, sin-centered, intellectual, and all-encompassing.
I took seven classes and was assigned thirty-four books. Out of those thirty-four, thirty were written by white authors and four were written by people of color. I signed up to take an online ethics course; all five books in the class were written by white men.
I went home and scanned my bookshelves; I looked at Erasmus and Luther and Calvin and Chesterton and Lewis and Piper and Driscoll and Keller and on and on and on. Most of my books had authors much like me, reflecting lives much like mine.
Something about my theological tradition began to not sit right.
I signed up to lead YoungLife just up the coast in a small town—America’s oldest fishing port. Throughout the two years I led there, I got to know some amazing high school kids—highschoolers far removed from the pristine halls of my new seminary.
I stood in front of them and shared the story of Jesus dying on the cross.
I looked at my high school friend who walked into his brother’s room one morning and found him passed away from alcohol poisoning. What did my theology have to tell him? I was trained to tell him about substitutional atonement, that he was a sinner who needed God.
But what about his suffering?
I looked at another friend who lived with his uncle. His parents weren’t around and his siblings were addicted and he and his uncle lived in the government housing by the Wendy’s. All he wanted was a mother to look at him and say, “I love you.” I was trained to give a good theodicy of suffering, but that felt all-too-hollow when I looked at him.
Another face, another story: online bullying, suicidal feelings, opioid dependancy.
Where was my theology for those?
I was a sixteen-year-old who learned how to drive in an empty parking lot and took my test in that same empty parking lot, never being instructed or tested on the streets, surrounded by intersections and traffic signs and oncoming cars.
It was then, in those moments facing my sweet, loving, amazing high school friends, that doubt began to take hold of my theology. It wasn’t a doubt of Christ or God or the Bible. It also wasn’t a doubt of theology in general.
It was a doubt of my particular theology—my suburban, white, privileged theology—the theology that claimed to be objective, sin-centered, intellectual, and all-encompassing. The theology that claimed to be absolute.
I had a professor at the seminary—Dr. Emmett Price III—who told me there was another way to do theology. He introduced me to Black Liberation Theology—a theology that didn’t come out of a pristine room but from a people group oppressed by American society and shoved out of the national and theological conversation. I read books by James Cone that said “to be Christian means that one is concerned not about good and evil in the abstract but about men who are lynched, beaten, and denied the basic needs of life” (Black Theology and Black Power, 140-1).
I had gotten it wrong as I had entered college. My theology was incomplete because it took too much pride in how intellectual it was. But to be Christian means not being stuck in an intellectual theology but living out a theology concerned with high schoolers surviving abuse, addiction, and online threat. High schoolers sitting in empty homes. High schoolers getting high to take the edge off of the fear.
High schoolers hanging on crosses of suffering, of shame, of every torment aimed at their sweet, mourning souls.
I took a class from a different seminary in Boston on the life and ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. I learned of a God who “dwells with us in life’s most confining and oppressive cells” (Strength to Love, 96-97). I learned about a God who intimately understands suffering because he submitted to it.
I thought about my experience in high school. I sat in church each week with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, convinced I had it because I didn’t trust God enough. I heard sermon after sermon about Jesus dying on the cross for my sins, but I didn’t hear sermons about Jesus dying on the cross for my suffering.
If someone would have preached the theology I was learning from Cone and King—a theology of God sitting in solidarity with those suffering—it would have been a balm of healing for my aching and anxious heart.
So, in that fishing port, I stood there, looked at each of my high school kids, and learned how to speak the specific truths of Jesus on the cross, of Jesus relating with suffering, of Jesus keeping his scars in the resurrection as reminders of a suffering identified, a suffering embraced, a suffering conquered.
From these courageous black men, I learned that the cross exists so that Jesus can hang in solidarity and save sins.
I’ve been calling the theology I entered college with “theology.” In hindsight, though, a better name would be “white theology.”
It comes from a tradition shaped by the people in charge of societies, and, historically, it hasn’t listened to people like James Cone or Martin Luther King, Jr. Even though it was created by one type of person, it claims to be for all people.
But, before I get any farther, it’s important to say that the truth is the truth is the truth. This theology preaches Christ died and Christ crucified. Churches in this tradition love people deeply and serve their communities. There is so much beauty in churches preaching this theology, and the baby need not be thrown out with the bath water. A rich doctrine of atonement is beautiful; I am not suggesting everything must go wholesale.
However, there is such an opportunity for growth and change. This theology isn’t full or complete. It is broken just like all of us and has a blind spot for suffering. Any theology which has been limited to a people in power will be incomplete.
It’s time for white theology to humble itself and begin the process of no longer being privileged, of learning to listen and be led by Christians of color. It’s time for white theology to practice being a part of a body bigger than itself. It’s time for white theology to take the time to read books which, historically, haven’t been a part of its canon (I’ve included a list at the bottom).
It’s time for white theology to learn about the Christ who suffers with the oppressed and burdened, who suffers with amazing high schoolers in America’s oldest fishing port. And, I deeply believe, in learning about a wholistic Christ—a Christ who died for sin and for suffering—we will enter a freedom we haven’t yet realized.
A (Short) Book List:
-Strength to Love by Martin Luther King, Jr.
-The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity by Soong-Chan Rah
-Roadmap to Reconciliation: Moving Communities Into Unity, Wholeness and Justice by Brenda Salter McNeil
-Blessed are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by S. Jonathan Bass
-God of the Oppressed by James Cone
-The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone
-Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
-Let Justice Roll Down by John Perkins
-Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson
-Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
-Lynched: The Power of Memory in a Culture of Terror by Angela D. Sims
-Reading the Bible from the Margins by Miguel A. De La Torre
-Global Dictionary of Theology: A Resource for the Worldwide Church