Posted by: dacalu | 29 September 2009

A Theology of Us

As I think about the best ways to do theology, one thought I keep returning to has to do with theologies of us and them. It seems to me that a large number of theologies have been constructed for “Them,” be they foreigners, minorities, women, children, gays and lesbians, or any other group of outsiders. Theologies of them generally take one of a few tacks:

1) “They aren’t really human/created in the image and likeness of God.” This appears in various racist theologies as well as certain responses to people with mental health issues. Once you’ve denied their humanity, you needn’t worry about certain ethical obligations (including “love your neighbor”). While this may seem alien to modern Americans, the idea that non-whites and/or women were lesser forms of humanity has been tremendously popular in western history. The debate over the humanity of fetuses and non-human animals will be a more tricky contemporary example.

2) “They don’t exist.” Many societies will simply deny the existence of non-conformists. Strangely their existence is often tolerated “so long as it does not become widely known.”

3) “They have given up the right to a common humanity.” When forced to confront people who claim to exist, some theologians (professional and amateur) will fall back on the idea that these individuals are mistaken. The prominent example here has to do with the question of whether homosexuality is an identity or a choice. Many theologians will say that these individuals are mistaken about the necessity of their condition. It’s like saying these individuals have voluntarily surrendered their position in creation, and could have it back if only they’d make the right choices.

4) “They need to be protected.” The so called “White Man’s Burden” argument claims that certain groups, while fully human, need the protection of more enlightened humans.

In all four cases, theology is done by the privileged elite on behalf of the others. Theology of Them.

I would claim that theology of them will never work. Rather, we are beholden to God always to construct theologies of us. What does this mean in practice?

1) All stakeholders must be invited to the table. I know it makes conversation harder, but I genuinely believe that the Good News really should be good news to everyone, which means that theology must engage the problems real people face. We cannot know those problems unless we ask them. This doesn’t mean that everyone is involved in every discussion. It means that if a theology is intended to serve a group, that group needs to be there. Women must be present when we discuss the place of women in the church. Gays and lesbians must be present when we talk about how they should express their sexuality. Married couples must be present when we talk about the meaning of marriage. Children must be present when we talk about the place of children in worship.

To be explicit, this does not mean they will have the final word. (I’m nowhere near that liberal). They still might not be happy with the result, but at least they’ve had their perspective heard.

2) The final theology must benefit all. In other words, a theology should never be constructed in a way that allows one group to come closer to God, but pushes another group farther away. I like to analogy of soldiers and police. Soldiers serve the interests of one state (nation/country/government) at the expense of the interests of another. Police attempt to serve the interests of everyone they meet. Soldiers interact with the enemy; police interact with the citizenry. Very different perspectives. I think theologians should be like police.

Once again, this need not be as liberal as it might appear at first blush. There will be times when a theologian can only speak for a single constituency. If we waited for a single perfect theology, we’d be waiting for the end times. Rather, theologians must be conscious, conscientious, and honest about who their theology serves and straightforward about the fact that it may not be Truth for other groups. It will be a useful tool for some, but not for others.

3) Perhaps most importantly, a theology of us will always lead people to identify with as many other people as possible. It will never construct others as enemy/adversary/slave/tool. It will rely on love of neighbor as self.

These ideas may seem very simple, but I suspect they could be most helpful in keeping theology in the way of Christ, the man (God) who never repudiated even Judas, but loved all. I hope each of you who reads this, will think carefully about the beliefs you hold, the doctrines, dogmas, and disciplines and ask, which of these are “theologies of them” and which are “theologies of us.” Only the latter (in my opinion) bring us closer to God.

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