The Shack and a God of Color

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

When God was portrayed in William P. Young’s bestselling novel The Shack as a black woman it got some white conservatives upset. The same thing happened again last month when the film adaptation was released starring Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures) as God, or “Papa” as she is referred to in the Shack. Apparently when God is portrayed as a lion, that’s totally fine, but when God is portrayed as a black woman this gets some people quite offended. Color me unsurprised.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, and I’m a little bit afraid that it will be a bit too sappy and on the nose for my own personal taste. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of depicting God as a black woman, and I’m convinced there is something quite profound there, if we are willing to look past the “offense of the cross” to see it.

Of course historically, Jesus was unquestionably a person of color, despite the many depictions of him as a blond-haired blue-eyed white man. But there is something much deeper going on than skin color. Jesus explicitly chose to associate with those who were at the bottom of society, those who were considered the “least of these.” To proclaim Jesus as Lord is to say that the Caesar is not. It means the dethroning of the god of empire, dominance, force, wealth. As Jürgen Moltmann put it,

“For Christ's sake I am an atheist, an atheist in respect to the gods of the world and world history, the Caesars and the political demigods who follow them. Only a Christian can be a good atheist.” (The Crucified God, p. 195)

I own a great debt to what I have learned from white male theologians like Moltmann. But I feel compelled to go in a more radical direction. When I look at how white evangelicals in America have abandoned Jesus to follow empire, mammon, hatred, and state violence, I feel tempted to become an atheist, and I certainly do declare with Moltmann my categorical rejection of their false gospel. While in the past I could think that these “hyper-Calvinists” where perhaps a loud and angry minority, I cannot ignore that 80% of evangelicals voted for Trump. 

For decades I have, like many others, attempted to walk a middle ground, stressing that liberals and conservatives both have valid perspectives, and also both have some big blind spots. However, there has been a major shift within conservative Republicanism over the last several years culminating in the most recent political election.  This shift is characterized by a movement away from compassion towards an outright fostering of hatred and fear, seeing those from other races, other countries, other religions as the “enemy.” Really it is a move away from democracy towards something more akin to dictatorship. In light of this, I simply cannot in good conscience maintain a position of being “in the radical middle” politically and socially. I feel that I have a moral obligation to categorically name that movement as representing the polar opposite of Christ and his kingdom values, and openly opposing it in Jesus' name. I refuse to normalize this by acting as if voting for Trump was a legitimate choice for followers of Jesus to make. This is not politics as usual where there is room to be neutral. There is no place to watch from the sidelines, as if I were morally above it all. If I care for the least, as Jesus does, I must stand with them. With the incarnation Jesus shows that holiness does not remain separate, detached and above it all, rather purity requires getting dirty.

Because of this decline of conservative politics into moral bankruptcy, and the evangelical church's blindly following them into this seemingly bottomless pit, I find myself often exclaiming in disbelief, “What is wrong with the church?!” But as I ask this, I have to stop and wonder why it is that I assume that this is the church? As you may be aware, when national statistics refer to “evangelicals,” they exclusively mean white evangelicals. Black evangelicals are not counted. So when I exclaim, “What’s wrong with the church?” or “Why does the church not care about social justice?” there are plenty of people of color who could answer back “Excuse me? What church are you talking about?”

To put things in the starkest of terms, it’s clear that when slave owners worshiped God in their Christian churches, they saw a very different God, a very different Jesus, than their slaves did when they worshiped God in their churches. For those slaves, Jesus was the one who had come to set the captives free. Knowing what I do about the historical Jesus as well as the Jesus of the New Testament, I can say unequivocally that the slaves were much more in line with the real Jesus.

We don’t have institutional slavery anymore in America, and I used to think that racism was a thing of the past, too. Something that we fixed back in the 1960s. Or at least it was something you could only still find in the deep south. I was so very wrong. Michelle Alexander opened my eyes to see the extent of how profoundly broken our criminal justice system is, as well as how wide-spread systemic racism is within our nation’s police force. I’ve learned that nearly all black parents need to talk to their children about how not to get killed by police. As a parent myself that really hit me hard.

While I have just woken up to this disturbing reality, it’s something African Americans have been living with for... well, for my entire life. I see the angry white atheists, and believe me, I understand their righteous anger. But I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to convert to atheism, even in a Moltmannian “Christian atheist” way. I’m convinced that’s a very “white guy” thing to do. I want to do something more radical, and I hope more life-giving. I want to convert and become a black Christian. In fact, I’d like to become a black female Christian. Can I do that? Well, I’m just going to.

Of course I can’t change my skin color (I can’t even get a tan). But I do want to sit at the feet of people of color, and especially of women, and learn from their faith. I’ve done that already in an intellectual way over the years, having read lots of feminist and black liberation theology, and have found this to be tremendously rewarding to learn from this “theology from the margins.” But I want to take that to a deeper place. I feel honestly like my own faith depends on it. 

My faith in the “church” I have known as a white evangelical has been shattered. I no longer believe in that religion. But I see hope in another church. I want to learn how they can hold on to hope in the face of so much injustice. I want to learn to see through their eyes, to learn how to channel this anger and hurt and fear into action for good in the face of an empire that calls itself “Christian” when it is clearly not. I want to worship and trust in the God they have seen all along. 

I am not talking about theology here, about something I can do in my head and in isolation. I am talking about church, about community, about learning from the lived example of others who have been walking for a long time in the place where I have only begun to walk.

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At 7:51 AM, Blogger GD Daley said...

Dear Derek:

As I see it, no one person can answer this question. But methinks that at some point, this discussion is needed:

At what point is the 'confessing' church in fact in an apostate condition?


At 7:04 AM, Blogger Jeremy said...

Derek, this post almost exactly encapsulates the way I've been feeling since the election. Thank you for expressing it!


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