Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just. Now is the time to speak up and to wear as a badge of honor the opprobrium of bigots. Now is the time to confront the weak core at the heart of America’s addiction to optimism; it allows too little room for resilience, and too much for fragility.
—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi (The New Yorker, December 2, 2016)
‘This is not a game. We are not going to win.” Recently I heard myself saying those words to myself and leaders in the Racial Justice Task Force at the congregation I serve. Collectively, we are just about the best that the liberal church has to offer. Our racial justice leaders come from different backgrounds and different generations. We are learning and struggling at the intersections of class, race, gender, and ethnicity. We are multiracial (though still predominantly white), we are committed, and we are steadily advancing both in our own consciousness and our capacity to combat the injustice of the world. And still, even knowing that we are assembled and self-selected as the people called to bring one liberal church closer to living out its own values, we have to be reminded that the way forward sure isn’t straight.
To the very best architects of an anti-oppressive future my congregation has to offer, I found myself declaring, “Nothing in the work of dismantling racism and opposing white supremacy is inherently doable, and nothing that you or any of us bring into this work will ultimately result in what you might perceive to be a perfect outcome, especially one so gloriously ‘successful’ that people of color among us will line up to give the white people among us gold stars for all of our efforts.”
We are not going to win.
Nothing we do will be perfect. And it will not always, or even very often, feel good to be in the trenches of the fight to decenter white normative culture in our congregations and in the world.
Most of the time when the work is at its most essential, you will not personally be having a great deal of fun. It will break you open if you’re paying attention, and your heartbreak will not always be directed “out there,” but sometimes right at home, into the very deepest recesses of your soul, where you and I and all of us will come to the dawning realization that we are not now and have never been innocent or perfect or pure.
We are not going to have a perfect strategy.
And the strategy we ultimately follow cannot be a strategy that the white people among us, speaking with the authority we have come to expect in the white-centered institutions we have contrived to build, can set for ourselves.
We are going to stay in it, even when it’s hard. For as long as we can, to the extent that our hearts can bear, we are going to stay in it together.
I preach some version of those words repeatedly—not just to the best, most loving, and most broken-open leaders in my congregation, but also to myself.
I must preach these words like a little litany every time I gather in spaces that are not mine to control, every time I choose to let myself feel the discomfort of my own confusion, every time I am called in and called out for the limits of my own perception.
You are not going to win at this, I remind myself in silent moments. You are not going to get an A+ at allyship. You are not going to go on in one endless motion toward perfection to build the liberal church into an anti-oppressive entity that chooses not to center whiteness. You are not going to get it right, not even close.
Liberal religious people not only tend to believe that we are called to perfection, but we also believe that we are already basically perfect.
It is a litany that I have never stopped needing to hear, because the counter-voice has been so deeply ingrained in our tradition that I hear it, too. Underneath the will to mutuality, there is a will to perfection, a will to be personally justified, a will to be effective, and, in the end, through all of our carefully calibrated strategies, a will to win the game that was never meant to be a game at all.
There is an idolatry of expectation that drives us in the liberal churches to imagine that the dismantling of oppression was ever achievable through the limited mechanism of our own personal efforts. Only hubris tells us that social change can be articulated on a spreadsheet and our anti-oppressive credentials can be listed on a flyer.
Part of the reason that we in the liberal church need to preach such humble litanies repeatedly is that this historically high theological anthropology of ours—our belief in the “inherent goodness” of human beings, our confidence in reason and self-culture and personal rectitude—has set us up. Across racial and ethnic spectrums within the church, it has constructed an expectation that we are not only to perform our middle-class, have-our-shit-together perfectibility for one another, but that we will be transmogrified by our own performance into actual morally perfect people.
Liberal religious people not only tend to believe that we are called to perfection, but we also believe that we are already basically perfect, already basically converted, and already basically blessed. At times, we like to imagine these things without allowing for further conversions that might impinge on our freedom to be exactly as we already are and to do exactly what we have been doing all along.
This is especially true for the white liberals among us. Thus, the moment that the supposed ontological goodness of those same responsible white liberals is called into question by voices at the margins of congregational or societal power, a form of guilt arises that can be all but paralyzing.
Speaking from my own social, racial, and ethnic location, I can acknowledge that white people in predominantly white churches generally don’t like to play games that we cannot win. We don’t like to follow strategies that we did not set. We don’t like to enter vulnerably into work at which we will not definitively succeed. As white leaders in the liberal church, our historic theology and lived experience of privilege have doubly conditioned us to these tendencies, and it too often results in our retreat into defensiveness or resignation.
However committed we may be to share liberation, white liberal church people too often fall back on the middle-class comforts of our privilege at the first lived experience of failure. Because we have been taught that we were meant to be perfect, our lack of perfection brings deep fragility to both our spiritual lives and our partnerships for justice.
Not necessarily certain
When liberal congregations engage in anti-oppressive and antiracist work, leaders are met over and over with the same exasperatingly familiar responses. Those with historically granted privileged identities ask why it is that they must be “made to feel” so guilty for the trauma visited upon people of color. They lament the ways in which racial justice work distracts from the personal, spiritual, and individual soul food they have come to expect from congregational life. They question if there is a place for them in a congregation that continues to challenge basic assumptions about their own inherent responsibility and goodness.
As a pastor, I can’t ignore the fear, discomfort, and even alienation that is voiced by the people I am called to serve. I also can’t put myself in a place of remote and self-righteous dismissal when I encounter it. The transformation of institutions, theologies, and self-understanding is profoundly difficult. It proceeds at the pace at which trust is built, and not faster. It is the work of ministry, and it is deeply and profoundly pastoral in nature. After all, transformation is scary, and none of us is entirely sure how we’ll get to the kingdom once we’ve pointed our steps in its direction.
Like the people I love and serve, I’m not always so sure of where we’re headed, especially when the center of liberal religion finally moves away from our long-standing fealty to whiteness and respectability. I am not even necessarily certain what the next steps are for my own congregation, which has entrusted me to lead alongside them through this transition. I do not have a ten-point plan.
We can be both broken and called forth. We can only be converted from what we have been if we are also loving enough to bless every single awed but humane thing that went into building our capacity for that conversion—including our periods of resistance and the occasional descent into our fears.
After all, we don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to be God’s own image to be worthy of continuing the work, and we don’t have to be paragons of fearless virtue to deserve the simple grace of second chances.
Flawed people can be afraid; they can fail and try again. People of privilege aren’t broken irreparably by that privilege. The will to personal power doesn’t negate the will to mutuality. There is always another chance and a different story to tell about who we think we’re meant to be in this beautiful and tragic world.
Theological anthropology for the faithful and the faithless
People are reimagining theological anthropology—the doctrine of human nature—inside and outside of the liberal churches. This work spans the spectrum of theistic and atheistic worldviews and picks up where most of our misguided expectations of perfection leave off. The work behind that reimagining is being done by diverse leaders from multiple theological viewpoints, and while it does not assume innate goodness on the part of human beings, it makes a few alternate assumptions.
One of the most important of those assumptions is the idea that we human beings do in fact have a great deal of agency. We can make choices. And the choices we make, like the stories we tell, make us. If we build from this framework, human beings are not likened unto angels or demons, but created repeatedly by the exercise of our own agency and the relationships that constrain and define our lives.
An emerging theological anthropology for the liberal church can also be in conversation with various theologies and philosophies about the exact measure of this agency. How free are we, really? How independent are our choices? What is the measure of our dependence on sources outside of our individual selves?
Mutuality is a given. Perfection is nonsense. And so, the only motions we can choose are motions toward inclusion or mutual destruction.
If we are going to rebuild a doctrine of human nature that allows for brokenness while also regularly experiencing conversion toward a will to mutuality, we must acknowledge that the converse will to power does not necessarily emerge from any force outside of our own human agency and experience. There are no devils here. No demon forces our hand.
Process theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki writes, in The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology, that the capacity to violence itself is built into our species as an extension of our struggle for survival. In her thinking, the pull away from mutuality and toward self-centeredness is partly formed by a basic biological will to make it through another day.
The morally neutral manifestations of this will are evidenced most acutely in the lives of those whose survival is regularly called into question, especially by an oppressive state or system of genocidal destruction.
It stands to reason that the will to survive is not, in and of itself, an expression of evil or evidence of an inherently corruptible nature. It is an expression of basic human need that can be stated in either purely scientific or largely theological terms. We don’t want to be destroyed. We do violent things to stay alive.
To Suchocki, however, the turn from a morally neutral response to a threat and toward a morally damaging choice to create danger for others has everything to do with our human freedom. This turn comes when humanity’s tendency toward violence is expressed as an unnecessary and altogether avoidable will to consolidate greater power and greater autonomy for the individual person or the tribe.
When the violence innate in the biology of being human is expressed as a choice that has nothing to do with our own survival, Suchocki is bold enough to name it for what it is—a sin.
In this way, human beings do not fall from grace, but to violence.
Pulling from a tradition of feminist and womanist scholars before her, Unitarian Universalist minister Molly Housh Gordon has defined sin as an individual or collective behavior that denies or violates our connection with other humans, other creatures, or our planet. A sin, she says, is “an action that is not ‘in touch’ . . . with our mutual relationship to other beings and with the whole.”
Gordon explains that sin is a process of “domination or exercise of control” that denies the lived experience and unique identity of another human being. It is a falling away from the greater whole, a willful choice to engage with the powers that destroy rather than the mutuality that sustains.
While Gordon does not define this interconnected network in expressly theistic terms, her sense of mutual dependency on a broader sphere of relationship puts us into contact with something so much larger than our individual selves. Nothing we do is accomplished in a vacuum, and the “entanglement” of the choices presented to each human soul every day reminds us of both the extent of our freedom and the reality of our interconnection.
It follows that a renewed theological anthropology for liberal religion does not require thinking of the individual human soul as debased and/or powerless before the corrupting forces of some external demonic voice. It also does not invite us to return to a pattern of nineteenth-century, male-centered self-culture in which the refined soul remakes himself in the studied image of a patriarchal God. That’s not the kind of God we’re looking for.
If it is authentically grounded in love and accountability, our relationship to God in the liberal church is not supposed to be simple. It demands something of us. It compels us to find new courage. Anyone who has ever been in love can profess that it is not generally so cozy a thing. Love—of oneself, of one another, or of God—is bold, heartbreaking, and more than a little scary.
If God’s name is love, then God compels us to resist the fall to sinful violence by pushing back with muscular resolve against the social structures that confine our capacity to care. A universalist God for a tragic era is not a gauzy, hymn-singing force of personal devotion that draws us endlessly toward itself, but a fierce and compelling power that grips us by the collar amid our rebellious descent and calls us to choose the will to mutuality all over again, even when that choice is so risky that it could utterly remake us.
On the other side of the theological spectrum, Anthony B. Pinn is doing some of the most compelling nontheistic humanist theology today. To him, the starting place for a renewed theological anthropology is obviously not in the reflection of God’s image through the created person. Instead, it is in the profound embodied aesthetic of the human experience.
He says that the deepest truths about human nature cannot be known through either sacred texts or the stories extrapolated from those texts. Rather, what can be known of our true nature is encountered through science and in “the development of culturally bound discourse” in relationship to the stories, the experiences, and the knowledge of others. In his view, there is no human being that is not inside of a body, responding to other bodies, and moving together in mutuality. He writes in The End of God Talk: An African American Humanist Theology:
Humans, as embodied selves with will, are flawed, but this does not constitute the grounds for a basic need for ontological reconstruction. . . . The goal of this theological anthropology is to speak of humans in ways that not only affirm perceptions of experience, but also change the ways in which particular categories of embodied selves (e.g., African American embodied selves) are viewed and processed.
In his nontheistic approach, Pinn does not say that the human condition is inherently tragic. He teaches that we are inherently embodied, and that bodies come with limitations.
The ways we view and engage with the various categories of those fragile, beautiful, sensuous, and breakable human bodies constitute the mechanisms of either inclusion or destruction. Mutuality is a given. Perfection is nonsense. And so, the only motions we can choose are motions toward mutual inclusion or mutual destruction.
Since significant human agency underlies both theistic and nontheistic approaches to an emerging theological anthropology, we are the choosers. And our choices are conditioned by the relationships that define us—relationships between bodies, between cultures, and between ourselves and the divine.
Since we are the choosers, we must become aware of both our power and our culpability in the conversion toward mutuality that will make the future survivable for us all. We are indeed powerful. And we are interconnected. And we are responsible for our own damn choices, including the ones that cause deep harm. If liberal religion is to step into a future of engaged, anti-oppressive work, we will be called to serve not only because others are broken or the system is broken, but because, as Bryan Stevenson says, “I am broken too.”
I do what I do because I am broken too, and the truth is that if you get proximate, if you change narratives, if you are required to stay hopeful, if you do uncomfortable things, it will break you.
But I also realized . . . that there is a power in brokenness. It is the broken among us who can teach us the way compassion works. It is the broken who understand the power of mercy. It is the broken who understand the power of justice. It is the broken that yearn for redemption. It is the broken who yearn for reconciliation. It is the broken who need to teach us how we love despite our brokenness. And it’s in brokenness that I realized I’m not just fighting for the condemned. I’m fighting for myself.
Just because we are honest does not mean we cannot be hopeful. Hope, after all, is not just another version of optimism. Optimism tells a preordained narrative. It is an assertion that the scales have already been tipped toward triumph. Optimism is always busy absolving somebody.
Hope is different. Like faith, hope is the exact opposite of certainty. It does not presume an outcome for good or for ill. It lies in the waiting moment when the tug from both directions is not yet fully resolved and when a great many things are still possible. It moves in the humble spaces that open when we allow ourselves to be uncertain and thus not fully self-contained. It is the possibility, though not the inevitability, of a better way.
Adapted with permission from After the Good News: Progressive Faith Beyond Optimism, © 2019 by Nancy McDonald Ladd (Skinner House Books). Also quoted: Molly Housh Gordon, “From Tethers of Captivity to Roots of Flourishing: Collective Sin and Mutual Struggle in the Web that Connects Us” [Unpublished], Prairie Group, November 2015; Bryan Stevenson, lecture, Gadsden State Community College, September 2, 2016.