Symposium on the theological Interpretation of Scripture

Re-imagining the Tradition in the face of White Distortions

Transmission of the Tradition and incorporating new groups and peoples into the Body of Christ is a complex process. The second chapter of Ephesians uses a number of mixed metaphors in giving an account of this process, which is ultimately bringing together Jew and Gentile as the church, a living temple.  This process builds a temple of those who weren’t citizens of Israel with those who are citizens.  This building is founded upon the apostles and prophets, but the building is ongoing as the Temple/people of God grows (an organic living building), through the continual addition of peoples.  What Ephesians doesn’t have in view is how human participation might facilitate or muck up this process.  Raymond Aldred’s presentation for NPTS Symposium 2015, Race and Racism, on indigenous reimagining of repentance and conversion, in part demonstrates how the process described in Ephesians was distorted for indigenous peoples.  Aldred’s reimagining I suggest offers a way for the indigenous and any group oppressed by White distortions of the Tradition, embrace the reality of God building the church by incorporating new people into Israel, the Church the Body of Christ.

Aldred’s paper didn’t have in view the ecclesiology of Ephesians, but was attempting an account of repentance, which values indigenous spirituality and experience as able to provide a deepening of Christian theological concepts.  Through valuing of indigenous spirituality and experience and reimagining repentance Aldred liberates the concept from White distortions of repentance and conversion. However given the oppressive distortion of the concepts of conversion and repentance by white Europeans,  I suggest that Aldred’s project is made possible through the divine act of building the Church throughout time and with all peoples as describe in Ephesians.

Aldred offered a reinterpretation and reimagining of repentance for indigenous, specifically Cree, Canadians.  He reinterprets repentance as a decision to turn and embrace the life Creator has provided, have sorrow for a lost identify rejecting the shame put upon indigenous people, and taking responsibility to work towards healing all relationships.  He argues that this reinterpretation fits with traditional and Biblical definitions of repentance that can be summarized as a contrite turning from, sin essential for conversion, and for living out of the day to day Christian life.

A substantial portion of Aldred’s paper gives the historical (some very recent) reasons why this reinterpretation is necessary. When the Newcomers came, these Europeans presented to the indigenous populations an equation of Whiteness and Christianity.   The Newcomers teaching on repentance and conversion was to teach an absolute rejection of indigenous culture based upon the absolute identification of European and Christian.  To my ears Aldred’s indigenous reimagining seems more a retrieval of the true meaning of repentance and conversion and a rejection of the heretical idea that Europeans were the Church, the people of God.  His approach to retrieving repentance for both First Nations and Newcomers, suggests a method for a retrieval of the Tradition after White ideological distortion of the tradition.

Aldred’s “method” in the paper could be stated this way (though he doesn’t so summarize nor even acknowledge a method): Identify what is the Tradition of the Church that was received by the Europeans, Identify the distortion(s) of that Tradition by Whites in their encounter and oppression of those who aren’t white (in this instance the indigenous populations of North America) the reimagining of the traditional categories through retrieval of the Tradition which is also an enculturated expression,  and thus rescues the Tradition from White oppressive distortion.

Ray Aldred’s approach suggests a need to reexamine how we conceive and talk about transmission of the Tradition of the Church through the age of European conquest and colonialism. We often speak of European interpretations of the Tradition as legitimate enculturation that becomes oppressive or illegitimate upon transmitting to other cultures and peoples the Tradition as enculturated by Europeans.  However, what Aldred’s limited account shows is that the situation we find in European colonialism isn’t merely a failure to allow enculturation of the Tradition among those who aren’t European, but a distortion of the received Tradition by the ideology of White Supremacy.

What is this distortion?  In the attempt to assimilate indigenous into Newcomer culture and society, Christianity was used to condemn indigenous culture and lift up Whiteness.  Repentance and conversion is explicitly and at times intentionally distorted for both indigenous and Europeans, through the claim that repentance involves turning away from the entirety of indigenous culture and conversion then is seen as becoming European. As I’ve said being Christian and being White became synonymous.

How does this distortion happen?  This is more than enculturation.  This is an identification of the People of God with being European and White.  This is a subtle but drastic move from enculturation to actual heresy, a misapplication of the understanding of The Church as the people of God and continuation of the Work of God begun with the people of Israel.  To fully trace out this movement is, of course, beyond the scope of this post.  However, prior to this distortion as new peoples were incorporated into the church and received the Tradition it was acknowledged that any people had witness of God in their own culture.  While there were demonic elements in each culture (primarily identified with idols of the god’s of any particular people) as a people converted to Christ and were joined with the people of God the church, there was a process in which the witness of God to people was sought out in the culture.  This process often was fraught with conflict, a well-known example of this is the bringing in the insights of Greek philosophy into the Church and Tradition, opposed by Tertullian by his famous phrase “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem.”

For the Church and the Tradition this process has a twofold necessity.  First the Church and the Tradition it transmits is in continuity with the People of Israel. Paul speaks of this with the metaphor of cultivation in which a branches from one tree are grafted into another tree. Israel is the cultivated domestic olive tree, into which all other people are grafted into through faith in Christ.  Second, while the Church is the continuation of the people of Israel as the people of God, the people of God are no longer a racial, or ethnic or national identity, but a coming together of all peoples through incorporation in Christ.  In this view, no longer can any particular nation, people or race claim to have a special relationship to God based on such identity, only being in Christ makes us members of the Israel of God.  This process was interrupted and distorted by an identification of White and European with being the people of God, the new Israel.

By this misappropriation for themselves of the designation of the New Israel to a particular people, the White race, Europeans, no longer could transmit the Tradition, nor be agents of incorporation into the body of Christ. Thus, reinterpretation, reimagining and retrieval along the lines of Aldred’s reimagining of repentance for indigenous and newcomers in Canada is need across the board if we are to regain some semblance of church and Tradition as Whites.  In part this means accepting that God has been at work, in spite of heresy incorporating peoples into Christ, and aspects of the Tradition have been received even when there is such distortion and great heresy.

Privilege, Privileged, Privileging

Once again this year at the North Park Theological Seminary Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (this years theme The Human Response to God) I have found my thoughts turning to privilege.  Some of the presenters have directly or indirectly addressed the problems of privileging certain aspects of the human over others which then  can undermine our seeing an other human as fully human.   White and male privilege haven’t been addressed directly  which was the subject of this post of mine around the symposium last year.

I want to sit with these words: privilege, privileged, and privileging.

As I grew up my parents would give my sister and I privileges.  These “privileges” were at times things we could earn, say by doing our household chores without grumbling and without being reminded by Mom or Dad that we should do them.  Also, what we termed “privileges” in my family had to do with allowing us age appropriate freedom that  also challenged our ability for self-regulation: meaning that if we abused the said privilege we could lose it.

My having a certain set of privileges didn’t affect my sister having the same or other  privileges.  So, If I had privilege X it didn’t mean of necessity that my sister didn’t have said privilege.  Also, as far as I recall, our privileges (nor our responsibilities at home) weren’t doled out based on gender (though, I suppose to be sure of that you’d need to corroborate that with my sister.  As evidence though I submit this short list some of my responsibilities growing up: cooking supper, doing laundry, and mowing the lawn.)  My point is that privilege in my family was a bonus that was something good for you but receiving the privilege didn’t negatively affect others in the system.

In this system it also meant the opposite of a right: a privilege was something granted, by my parents, that could be revoked. For instance use of the family car once I had my drivers license was a privilege.  As a privilege I couldn’t assume I’d have access to the one or two family cars we had at the time (there was a period in high school when we as a family only had one car for three potential drivers).  Failure to come home with the car when I did or taking the car without permission would have meant losing the privilege of using the family car. Privilege, in my family’s usage, was context dependent and something I couldn’t demand or assume.

I might also say something like “I’m privileged to know you.” or “It is a privilege to know you”.  If I say this it means that I have something others (those who don’t know you don’t have) but having the privilege of knowing you isn’t bound up in others lack but in the quality of your friendship.  For the phrase to make sense to be privileged is to have something others do not have and in a different context I might not have and which I find valuable.  However, there is also an element of gift in this phrase, the acquaintance isn’t something I can take credit for and depends on the addressee having given the gift of their presence to me.  Others lack is implicit here however again the privilege is granted and the phrase expresses that the privilege that has been granted can’t be assumed or taken for granted.

At the symposium last week the first two presenters talked about privileging qualities and privileging certain persons when examining the nature of what it means to be human (remember we were talking about the Human response to God, to some extent one’s definition of humanity might decide your sense of a human response to God.)  The presenters sense of privilege in this context does entail exclusion. To privilege something or someone in this context is to exclude other things or certain people.  To privilege say reason as the quality par excellence of what it means to be human is then to exclude and ignore other qualities.  In this sense privileging means something or someone looses out. It though also means an assumption of superiority of a particular quality, say reason.  That is qualities that aren’t reason thus aren’t considered when defining human being.  Thus, the problem of “privileging” in this sense of the term means that other qualities that might be attached to human being aren’t considered as expression of the human and thus those qualities and certain set of humans lose out.  Privileging then as used above entails assumptions of superiority without regard to context and in the act of privileging others lose out automatically.  Privileging is preferential and as such entails that the other can’t have the privilege that the act of privilege bestows upon the object of the privileging.

I contend that in this brief  examination “privileging” comes closest to what we mean when we are speaking of White and male privilege.  White privilege is an act of privileging.   By definition to have white privilege is to have something that those who are not in the constructed set “White” do not have.  In addition these assumptions are assumed and in the system that constructs race. As an assumption the privilege isn’t seen as gift that could be given to any in the system but a right that is intrinsic to the set “White”.  Similarly this is what is at work in male privilege.

privilege, privileging, and privileged in usage has a range of meaning may cause some confusion when thinking and reflecting on how to address White and male privilege.  For instance if we assume White and male privilege are like the privilege of using the family care when I was in high school, we may say that White privilege should and could be used for good and the betterment of others.  By way of example, I could have in high school used my privilege for merely selfish and self-centered activities (which I think I mostly did) taking myself and my friends to the movies or party and such.  However, I could have used that privilege (which I think I did on occasion) to drive someone to a doctors appointment who didn’t have a car, or offer a ride to a friend or acquaintance for an errand that I wouldn’t benefit from in anyway.  Or even more pertinent voluntarily taking my sister and her friends to the mall or a movie when I had no intention to shop or see a movie myself. I contend this doesn’t work for White privilege because the logic of the privileged use of the family car didn’t obtain automatically to me because of who I was in the system (ie. oldest male son, once my sister had her license she had the same privilege as I).   The privileges we are referring to when we speak of White privilege are intrinsic to being “White” and depend upon that those  privileges don’t and aren’t granted to those who aren’t classed as “White”.

When I wrote and spoke about renunciation of White privilege it was an attempt to address and confront the intrinsic nature of the privileges of being White.  To use white privilege to reform or change the system is to re-inscribe white privilege in the new situation created by those reforms.  The use of white privilege for the betterment of others who aren’t white has already been part of the racial system we inhabit, it is known as “the White man’s burden.”   If I use my White privilege to reform and change the racist system and that use of white privilege is seen as necessary for the system to be reformed then certain dominance and privileges will continue to pertain to the class of “White” qua “White” if nothing else as the proper subject of the system.   One thing I’m saying is the conditions  for justice to prevail and oppression to end do not depend upon I as “White” (and male) to act.  Rather I’m suggesting that it is when I as White renounce that any intrinsic privilege attends to me qua “White” (though not denying that the system grants both my class and attendant privilege) and as White refuse the burden that will  re-inscribe the privilege that is the source of the injustice and oppression we seek to end.

All this of course is a denial of the claim that the racist system wishes to keep in place namely that the classifications of the system are ontological and biologically grounded, and not a social construction of biology and ontology.

P.S. I haven’t addressed male privilege, though I think one can argue that in the current racist system it is and has been also a sexist system, such that any privileges granted to the White female are derivative from being White and male.

 

 

Privilege, Whiteness, Alienation, Renunciation, and Gospel

At the third session of the Symposium for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Urban Ministry, I responded to a presentation on Raymon and Henry Emerson Fosdick’s relationship to Rockerfeller, I spoke of renunciation (of privilege and whiteness) and  voluntary poverty (drawing on the Monastic Tradition) as an answer to the problem presented.  I spoke deliberately but also knew the potential for misunderstanding (I also knew I was using provocative language that could be misunderstood in a particular way).

The responses of the presenter and respondent in this session were challenging and i feel showed a misunderstanding that I partially expected to elicit .  The presenter (Amy Hall of Duke) responded by talking about white male self-flagellation, and the problem of a theology of suffering that must create or invent suffering for the privileged individual when there is little or no suffering.  She saw this as a harmful self-denial, and an unwillingness to face oneself.  And I agree.  But renunciation and voluntary poverty in my mind aren’t such things.  Renunciation and holy poverty are about clearing the spiritual landscape of  barriers to one’s authentic self.  Reggie L. Williams response honed in on my suggestion of renunciation of Whiteness.  If I understood him correctly the claim was that one could only renonce a choice one makes not properties given to one by an overarching system.  I found this a strange claim.  As i see it, renunciation concerns precisely those things that are dictated to one by an hegemonic and demonic system, that demands my allegiance as a mere fact of life.  If I’m turning my back on something that has to do with my own choices, I’d use the term repentance.  It’s true I can’t repent for being white only for what i do or have done as a white person, and I can personally repent from the sins of a racist system of which I share in as privileged by that system.

I’m not married to this idea of renunciation of privilege and whiteness per se.  But what I was trying to get at was that monasticism and stories of early monastics like St. Anthony, were often stories of privileged Christians turning away and giving up their privilege and power (wealth that in the ancient world was used also for the civic good) to become powerless in the terms of that privilege, power, wealth and  status given by the system.  I’d argue that St Anthony and many early monastics from privileged and wealthy families were, through choosing voluntary poverty and the ascetic life, renouncing the sort of influence that the Fosdick’s had through their whiteness and  maleness and ties to  wealth and privilege of  the Rockefellers.  Sure there is suffering in these stories and we could see them as self-inflicted, but the point was something larger:  freedom before and  in relationship to God, which leads to being able to be authentically for others.

Bonhoeffer was also briefly referenced, and I’m alluding to him above.  Such allusion is appropriate Bonhoeffer is a footnote to this story of Riverside Fosdick, Rockefeller, and Harlem. I mention this since Bonhoeffer is in the back of my thoughts around this, and was, at least in my mind, a footnote to our discussion.

I do understand the objection though.  And I do question the path I have chosen.  There are dangers to what I have said, and there are difficulties if this were taken systematically or as some form of one size fits all prescription.  What I’m talking about needs to be based in an address, conviction, and call from Christ and the Spirit

However, the responses seem to say that the authentic place of someone with privilege and who is white is the embrace of that privilege and status.  But what if privilege and the category of privilege is alienating?

I at least have experienced it in this way.  As I have attempted to understand the cultural situatedness of my attitudes and upbringing what i have found is that being white erases all particularities and histories.  the systemic structures of privilege and race and class both give me a privileged status but at the cost of particularity.  In part it seems to me that whites tend to assume others have ethnic foods or accents, or culturally bound theologies and not themselves not only because “white” is normative but because white like the other categories of a racist structure,  masks or erases difference and particularity of those within the privileged class.  To be white I must deny that being German or Swedish is anything more than kitsch and food choices at Christmas.  Granted the system does this more destructively and insidiously with the minority or underprivileged groups, but this doesn’t deny that even as a white person, I have a particularity that “white” can’t and isn’t intended to encompass.  In fact I’m to ignore particularity in identifying as white. the privilege I hold as one who is sorted into the category of “white” is dependent upon my not viewing myself as other than other white people.   From my observation of my family and others who are 3  or 4th generation European Americans, it is precisely being white that keeps us from connecting the injustices suffered by our immigrant parents, grandparents and great grandparents with what asian, hispanic and other immigrants suffer today.  White identity by definition it seems to me prevents solidarity with  people sorted into the other categories of this racist system.

This leads me to wonder about the authenticity of whiteness.  Why wouldn’t privileged persons in a system of privilege be called by the Gospel to renounce that privilege for their salvation, that is to encounter before God their true selves.  If the issue is loyalty (As Reggie Williams asserted in his response to Hall), and identity and loyalty are closely tied, it seems to me that identifying as white and seeking to use that identification to change the racist system, is an exercise that may cosmetically change things, but will also re-inscribe the system and its categories on the altered situation.

 I must also admit that while being european or more to the point Swedish and German (which by the way is not free of sins of colonialism etc. so I’m not attempting to escape complicity ) makes sense.  Choosing this identity doesn’t free me from ethnocentrism or even the risk of assuming that my Swedish, or German or European American ways are just the way things are.  So this isn’t an attempt to ignore the possible continuing collusion of a European identity with a white racist system and its injustices.  

The only true identity and the only loyalty that will free me to be my authentic self isn’t any human particularity, but is Christ.  If I renounce and turn aside from any identity for anything other than Christ and Christ’s body, the Church, my action is futile and the height of foolishness.  I thus wonder if Hall’s observation of some white males and their self-flagellation is that they were attempting to be good liberals, or good humans, in their renunciation, rather than seeking to turn to Christ, and the Church.

 

 

God Money/Wealth/Mammon: NPTS Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture

North Park Seminary’s Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture this year (September 30th – October 1st) dealt with the “Money and Possessions” in Scripture and Christian Tradition.  It was a challenging time.  Part of the challenge was because, as Hugh William pointed out in his paper, the Scriptures don’t  provide a singular perspective on wealth (money) and Possessions.  Though, perhaps surprisingly common threads are traceable through the textile of the Scriptures.   The being wealthy and having possessions isn’t necessarily condemned, however  the Wealthy are often condemned as those who have often unintentionally gained their wealth and comfort through oppression of others.  Also, consistent is the sense that those of means are to use those means to care for the poor and marginalized, and are not to gain their wealth in exploitative and oppressive ways.  God blesses with wealth and calls the poor blessed.  Generosity and justice are the marks of God’s people.   Money, Mammon, wealth is a power easily can become that which we serve and worship, at times without our realizing it.  Around our possessions, wealth and money we can find ourselves in a place of self-deception believing we can control our wealth possessions, not noticing that our possessions are actually a power that controls us and whom we serve.

To ask about what Scripture and Tradition say about wealth and possessions reinforced for me they ways in which, even for the middle class and poor in this country,  seeking to save money through inexpensive consumer items might be a part of a system of dishonest wealth, ie. wealth dependent upon oppressive and exploitative means. Do we know, do we make ourselves aware of, the conditions under which an item is made and finds its way to us?  Also, those exploited and those who consume the inexpensive consumer products are at times the same people.  Are we aware of the ways in which those with less in this country benefit from the cheap labor in other  countries.   Wealth, exploitation, oppression become a messy question when we begin not only to look at what Scripture says but what those Scriptures mean for us in our context.  And as one begins to probe it is perhaps not so easy to disentangle oneself from the reality that much of our wealth in the US and the West is based on less than just treatment of others, and the exploitation of labor.  This is complicated by the reality that even if one isn’t relatively speaking very wealthy, one to some degree benefits from certain exploitative practices.  But it would seem from scripture that it is less important how much one has, but what one does with it and how one has what one has.

As one who seeks to be knowledgeable of how people are treated in the production and delivery of my goods and services I have to admit that there is much I don’t know.  Living in a New Monastic community I am realizing, thanks to the symposium, that at best I limit my involvement in our system that creates wealth through unjust and “dishonest” means: I have been and continue to be a beneficiary of exploitative processes.  In part because I have bought that debt is the way to prosperity.  I have been tempted and at times in my life bought that “making money” is what is needed to have a living.    I’m coming to see that we have handed over (perhaps it was always in the hands of these powers, I don’t know) our livelihoods and our futures to those whose only purpose is the making of and managing of money.   Unfortunately it seems that we have believed we could control Mammon, and are currently in a situation of being fed up with the god money, but are unwilling to admit that we as a culture and society already bowed down to that God.  Repentance and the sign of repentance in seeking other ways to live without financiers, and speculators and the stock market seems the way forward.  But we are entangled and more entangled than we have yet been willing to acknowledge.   We need to not only attempt to address injustice of the current system but create alternatives that exist within and along side the system of the power of  Mammon.  Ultimately, it is the Kingdom of God that is that alternative.

My “Questions to Occupy America” post in the Priestly Goth Blog is in part a fruit of this symposium.

North Park Theological Seminary Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture

I try to make it each year to NPTS’s Symposium on the Theological interpretation of Scripture though that actually means I on average make it every other year.  This year the theme is “Money and Possessions.”

Last time I was there I live blogged the Symposium in 2009 as well as wrote a couple of reflections.  This year I will try my had at tweeting the symposium. #NPTS$&stuff.

The presenters of papers this year are: Mark Husbands, Hugh Williamson, Gary Hoag, Kelly Johnson, Javier Comboni, Bruce Longnecker, Helen Rhee, Jonathan Bonk. William Willimon is preaching at the Saturday morning worship.

I will also post here my thoughts over the course the next few days.