Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month Christian Scharen reflects on issues of race and justice, and argues that theology does (and must!) have something to say about the pressing concerns of contemporary society.
I mention in my book, Fieldwork in Theology, that I spent time doing research in an African Methodist Episcopal church in Atlanta. It was Big Bethel, on historic Auburn Avenue, and I was working on my dissertation at Emory University. I loved learning about and worshiping with the AME church, and listening to the lives and experiences of its members as I did interviews.
I remember vividly my interview with the elderly Mrs. King, the informal church historian of Big Bethel. She told me the story of the infamous KKK leader and owner of Stone Mountain, a Mr. Venable. Since men of the congregation worked as laborers in his granite quarry on Stone Mountain, he gave the church a “deal” on granite—any broken pieces, $20 a wagon load. Looking today, you can see the variable granite pieces which make up this citadel for the mercy and love of God in the world. The story is a parable for God’s power of salvation: the stone which the builder rejected became the cornerstone” (Psalm 118; Matthew 21).
Founded as a church because of white supremacy, the AME has never been far from the costs of the struggle for freedom and dignity. Yet when I heard the horrible news of the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston SC, and that the shooter, Dylann Roof was a young member of my own Lutheran denomination, I cried out in anguish. A pastor-activist I greatly admire, the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, pastor of Middle Collegiate Church in New York, went to Charleston to deliver some of the thousands of prayers and words of comfort generated by a national campaign in support of the congregation.
Her words captured in a simple phrase what I and so many others were feeling, and it became a popular hashtag for expressing a faith-rooted response to the shooting: #PropheticGrief. She spelled it out by naming the two sides of her complex emotions: tears falling heavy, and activism that ends racism. For me, the grief was over the senseless loss of more innocent African American lives and over the depth of divides between peoples in this nation which claims to offer “liberty and justice for all.” The divides are very personal. I am, after all, a white man, a member of the same denomination as the shooter, and it struck me how profoundly our worlds shape our perception, our ability to really love our neighbors as ourselves.
Here, my book might help as it unpacks Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concept of “having a world” and the way such formative experiences of our world as we are taught by our family, friends, and local culture, shapes our living in that world (53). Bourdieu picks this up in his notion of the social embodied within my habits of living.
Racism is a prime example here—Dylann Roof may have had personal racist beliefs, but those beliefs were formed in him by virtue of being formed by a white supremacist world he inhabited. While such habits are anything but natural, they seem natural—that is, as “the way things are”—until they are challenged. Unfortunately, for white people in the United States, habits of white privilege that seem natural are the result of a world which is stacked in our favor, one which treats African Americans as plunder (on how African Americans have been seen as plunder, see Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me).
My first two blog posts in this series, on “waking” and “listening,” both prepare the way for this post on “performing.” I don’t mean preforming in the sense of doing something false or inauthentic, as in: he’s just performing. Rather, I mean it in the sense of the deeply true ways we perform our social world and its patterns and practices in our own lives.
Rowan Williams argues that what Jesus offers us is a performance of God’s love for the world so compelling, so true, that in his person we meet God’s love and are transformed in the encounter (59). In the end, my broken, sinful, racist performance can be transformed into one in which God’s justice and mercy for the those on the margins become my own. I hope Fieldwork in Theology will help the church to be more deeply transformed its performance of Jesus’ way of self-giving love so that the world would know, through the church, the beating heart of God.
Christian Scharen (PhD, Emory University) is vice president of applied research at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. He previously taught at Luther Seminary. He has authored a number of books, including One Step Closer and Faith as a Way of Life, and is the book review editor of Ecclesial Practices. An ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Scharen has served congregations in California, Georgia, and Connecticut.