Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory?

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Amos 5:24

United Methodist Deacons are at it again, stirring the waters of justice. In the second in a series of workshops on the theme “Becoming an Antiracist Community,” the Orders of Deacons of the Peninsula-Delaware and Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conferences dove into a study of intersectionality. We began with basic questions: What is intersectionality and how can this concept help us address racism? Even though the idea of intersectionality is part of critical race theory, we refused to let fear be our guide as we navigated these dangerous rapids.

Many people, including many of us, did not know much about critical race theory beyond the fact that some US politicians and faith leaders are vehemently against it. In September, the Trump Administration banned federal agencies from using critical race theory in anti-bias trainings. Subsequently, prominent white leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention garnered national headlines for rejecting critical race theory and intersectionality as “secular ideologies” incompatible with their faith. However, these white faith leaders did not offer a description or explanation of what they spoke against.

Critical race theory views our struggle for racial justice through the lens of history. Simply put, we cannot fully address racial injustice today without understanding the laws, customs, and events that led up to this moment. Law professor Priscilla Ocen observed, “Our government at the moment is essentially afraid of addressing our history of inequality and if we can’t address it, then we can’t change it.” Critical race theory is a disciplined way of learning the underside of our social, legal, and cultural history of racism for the purpose of redressing those injustices.

Intersectionality is a key tool of critical race theory. Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director and co-founder of the African American Policy Forum, coined the word “intersectionality” in 1989 to describe how discriminations based on race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics overlap. For example, Black women may face workplace discrimination in ways that neither white women nor Black men face. Intersectionality helps us see that there are forms of discrimination not based on gender or on race alone. Crenshaw explained,

“Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there.”

There are multiple ways in which power can be wielded unjustly.

To help us understand intersectionality, we turned to one of the videos in the “Dismantling Racism Panel Discussions” series sponsored by the General Commission on Religion and Race in partnership with the Council of Bishops, United Methodist Women, the General Board of Church and Society and United Methodist Communications. We discussed the video, “Intersectionality: Dismantling Racism Panel Discussion,” in which Erin Hawkins facilitated a conversation between professors Miguel De La Torre and Traci West. Both promote liberation theology, which considers “the consequences . . . for the most vulnerable” persons in our communities the priority in making ethical decisions.

Who is the most vulnerable, though? One of the challenges of justice work is to avoid the temptation to engage in comparing oppressions or sufferings. Critics sometimes depict intersectionality as a “hierarchy of victimhood.” Whose oppression is worse? Which form of discrimination should be prioritized as the most unjust? However, Traci West asserted,

“intersectionality is about power . . . not about identity. . . . Intersectionality is about systems of power and the ways in which those systems of power operate in multiple ways at the same time.”

We do not have to choose to address one discrimination over another, as if there were a waiting line for justice. Intersectionality exposes the ways in which systems of privilege foster competition among oppressed groups as a way of maintaining those privileges. De La Torre observed that justice for other ethnicities is often pitted against justice for African Americans, as if there were a limited supply of justice to go around. He countered,

“My Latino life will never matter until Black lives matter. It’s connected. It’s intersectional. The success of the current power structures is to keep us divided.”

Erin Hawkins was forthright in her assessment:

“The tactic of keeping these matters [of oppression] siloed is a function of . . . white supremacy.”

An intersectional lens on injustice quickly becomes uncomfortable for institutions that systemically discriminate against certain classes of persons.

The United Methodist Church currently discriminates against gay and lesbian persons in the church. Discriminatory practices have been embedded in church law for decades. The Traditionalist Plan enacted by General Conference, February 2019, further heightened the severity of penalties for dissenting clergy and congregations. West identified the UMC’s “deep hypocrisy of naming a commitment to racial justice” while enacting the Traditionalist Plan. She and De La Torre were in agreement: “If we’re going to claim racial justice in the church, it has to include the full equality and inclusion of LTGBTQIA+ peoples.” These are challenging words to many members of the UMC.

We found ourselves entering the deep waters of justice. How should we use the tools we were learning? Hawkins described the conversation about intersectionality as “the invitation to decolonize our faith.” Critical race theory provides a way to see the history and origins of our current systems of injustice. West encouraged, “We must draw from our resistance history,” a theme in her most recent book, Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality. Our faith tradition is full of resources for and examples of justice-making. Most importantly, to address racism and other injustices, we must be willing to change. De La Torre challenged white majority congregations:

“If you’re going to invite me to be part of your church . . . you’re inviting me to radically change how you do church.”

Racism cannot be addressed through token representation. The structures of racism are too deeply embedded in our institutions. Becoming an antiracist community requires true transformation.

Drenched in these words of justice, we considered the panel’s call for us to work on communication, listening, and building relationships. One of our deacon sisters, Christinah Kwaramba, reminded us, “What is important is the human condition”; empathy for persons suffering should guide our response. United Methodist Women’s 2021 Spiritual Growth Study, which I authored, offers an in-depth discussion of empathy in the work of justice. Listening deeply to others is a profound act of love. Encouraged by Kwaramba, we concluded our discussion by considering how we can use our power to empower others to speak up for themselves.

If you feel called to a lifetime ministry of love, justice, and service, consider exploring the several avenues of diakonia available in The United Methodist Church: deaconess, home missioner, and deacon.

Previous event in this series: “The Role of Anger in the Work of Justice and Love.” November 2020.

Next event in this series: “The Racial Politics of Immigration,” led by Carlos S. Reyes Rodríguez. February 20, 2021.

Suggested Readings and Resources

Biewen, John. 2017. “Seeing White.” Scene on Radio, 14-part documentary podcast. http://www.sceneonradio.org/seeing-white/

Breakdown Whiteness. Resources to Dismantle White Supremacy, Brick by Brick. https://www.breakdownwhiteness.org/

Stephens, Darryl W. 2020. Bearing Witness in the Kin-dom: Living into the Church’s Moral Witness through Radical Discipleship. New York: United Methodist Women.

The United Methodist Church. 2020. “Intersectionality: Dismantling Racism Panel Discussion.” Erin Hawkins, Miguel De La Torre, and Traci West. Video, October 26.

Welch, Skot, and Rick Wilson, with Andi Cumbo-Floyd. 2018. Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, and a New Way Forward. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald.

West, Traci C. 2006. Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

Collaborating to End Racism

Faith seeking understanding must not be confined to scholars seeking an audience. If we desire to transcend the “fantastic hegemonic imagination” of racism, as described by Emilie Townes, we cannot proceed alone, either as scholars or as a group of scholars. We must expand the conversation of the feminist study of religion beyond the academy.

Elizabeth Soto and I describe our theological method in this blog post: Colaboración as an Antiracist Methodology in the Feminist Study of Religion (@theTable: “Racism and the Feminist Study of Religion”). Read more here.

Scholarship conceived as the lone academic expert seated behind an isolated oak desk continues to limit our ability to address systemic, social oppressions. We argue that antiracist scholarship cannot be achieved by reproducing the structures that brought us here. Liberatory methods are required to achieve liberatory ends. To effectively address racism, we advocate an antiracist methodology of colaboración (collaboration) arising from and transcending our past and rooted in a broad-based community extending beyond the academy. . . .

Defining Bivocational Ministry

The term “bivocational ministry” connotes different things to different people. For persons in non-white or immigrant communities, it may be the usual way ministry is done. For persons in white-majority settings, it may indicate falling short of a goal, namely, the model of a full-time pastorate. For others, it may represent the cutting edge of leadership for the missional church, reaching out into the world in creative, entrepreneurial ways. For many, it begs definition. The range of possible meanings and connotations of this term provide an opportunity for religious education, leading Christian congregations to imagine new ways of being church.

In this newly published article, I view the ambiguities and uncertainties about defining bivocational ministry as an opportunity for theological reflection and religious education. In it, I propose intentional bivocational ministry as a practice of the entire faith community. Bivocational ministry can become the congregation’s curriculum.

Read more: 2021. “Bivocational Ministry as the Congregation’s Curriculum.” Religions 12 (1), 56. Special Issue Practical Theology & Theological Education — An Overview. https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/12/1/56.

For related writings, see my current research page on Bivocational Ministry and Missional Vitality.

From Vital Congregations to Healing Congregations

Since the 1970s, North American mainline denominations have monitored and measured the markers of congregational vitality in an effort to halt if not reverse denominational decline. The Vital Congregations Initiative of The United Methodist Church (UMC) serves as an illustration of the metrics of vitality, exposing the limitations of a quantitative approach to evangelism and congregational health. Viewed in the context of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, it becomes clear that congregational vitality requires healing and transformation, not simply church growth. A congregation must recognize its own woundedness as the body of Christ to receive the transformative healing offered by the Great Physician. Only then might this healing congregation offer Good News to a world hurting from corporate and social sin. This article, therefore, offers the idea of healing congregations as a corrective to the metrics of congregational vitality that has taken root within North American mainline Protestantism.

Read more: “Healing Congregations: A Corrective to the Metrics of Congregational Vitality,” Witness: The Journal of the Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education 34. September 2020. (This article is freely available, but you have to create a username and password on the site to open it.)

Alumni Spotlight

Honored to be recognized today by the Laney Graduate School of Emory University as a noted alumnus. In this interview, I talk about my recent research on trauma-informed pedaogogy and how the pandemic has impacted my writing and research.

In the last issue of the Alumni Connection, we asked alumni and
friends to share updates on their accomplishments during the
pandemic. This issue we are proud to spotlight Rev. Darryl W.
Stephens, a 2006 graduate of the LGS Graduate Division of

Monica Polisetty, Senior Director of Laney Advancement and Alumni Engagement

Emory University Laney Graduate School, Alumni Spotlight | Darryl W. Stephens, December 5, 2020. https://gs.emory.edu/happening/alumnispotlight/dstephens.html.

Sermon: Parable of the Day Laborers

Preached by Darryl W. Stephens at Lancaster Seminary, October 28, 2020

In this sermon, drawing on Matthew 20:1–16, I depict a rich young man wrestling with existential questions, searching for meaning in Jesus’s parable. The man clearly seeks to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. Tinged with references to “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe, the sermon unfolds as a conversation between the man and Jesus as the man tries to view the shadows of his existence in light of this text. May you also find good news in this encounter!

Let’s start with the ending. “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” . . .

The Role of Anger in the Work of Justice and Love

Are Christians allowed to get angry? Can anger and love work together? What do we do with feelings of anger when we are trying to promote justice in the world?

With these questions, United Methodist deacons gathered November 7 via video conference to strengthen their ministries of combat racism. This was the first of a series of anti-racism workshops planned by the Orders of Deacons of the Eastern Pennsylvania and Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conferences of The United Methodist Church.

The idea for this work was inspired during our annual day with the bishop, a virtual meeting held September 19. After spending time with Bishop Peggy Johnson and hearing her proclamation of the gospel, we proceeded to discuss that which was most pressing on our hearts. One of these concerns was, “How do we deal with anger in our justice ministries?”

“Anger is a theological issue,” asserted Christinah Kwaramba, former elder of the Zimbabwe East Annual Conference who recently transferred to Eastern Pennsylvania as a deacon. So is hate, added Carlos S. Reyes Rodríguez, Coordinator of Hispanic-Latino Ministries for the  Peninsula-Delaware Conference and Missionary from Global Ministries.

Nikki Kleinberg then suggested we come up with a shared method to being an anti-racist community. “Our theological understanding of anger and hate in our context” began with the following assumptions:

  1. God is angry at the injustice evident in the world today.
  2. Injustice puts each of us at risk of harm in different ways, depending on our individual and community experience.
  3. As deacons, we lift our experience to God and join in God’s anger at injustice and commit to seeking justice in our context.

The recent workshop, “The Role of Anger in the Work of Justice and Love,” was one result of this discussion. As Chair of the Order of Deacons in Eastern Pennsylvania, I facilitated the discussion.

To prepare ourselves, we read from several sources. We began with Howard Thurman. In chapter 4 of Jesus and the Disinherited, he wrote about hate as a protective mechanism for both oppressor and oppressed. Hate enables the oppressor to treat others inhumanely; hate is a survival strategy for the oppressed. Yet, “Despite all the positive psychological attributes of hatred we have outlined, hatred destroys finally the core of the life of the hater” (p. 86). Thus, asserted Thurman, “Jesus rejected hatred” (p. 88).

Hatred and anger, we decided, are very different emotions. So, we turned to the writing of Beverly Harrison for guidance.

The moral question is not “what do I feel?” but rather “what do I do with what I feel?”

Anger is not the opposite of love. It is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us. . . . anger signals something amiss in relationship . . . Such anger is a signal that change is called for, that transformation in relations is required.

Anger denied subverts community. . . . where feeling is evaded, where anger is hidden or goes unattended, masking itself, there the power of love, the power to act, to deepen relation, atrophies and dies.

Beverly W. Harrison, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love

If we cannot deny our anger, what do we do with it? To turn our anger into positive, productive channels for justice requires a lot of attention, spiritual discipline, and preparation. Deacon Mary Elizabeth Moore, dean of the Boston University School of Theology, provided us a path to action.

Today is a good day to be angry about things that really matter, as Jesus did. . . . Anger is Holy when it is addressed to wrongs against God and God’s people and creation. It is powerful when it is not a stopping place, but a starting place toward “never again” – toward healing broken lives and broken systems!

After acknowledging and affirming anger about racism, Moore suggested that anger appropriately channeled should promote moral awakening. “If anger is to be powerful in the work of love, it needs to awaken people to the realities of abuse and suffering endured by persons of color.” This awakening requires attentive listening by those of us who benefit from white privilege.

“[Awakening] is hard work, and even more so for people of white privilege (like me) and/or any kind of privilege. People distanced by privilege need to listen long and hard . . . We need to listen to the hard realities of discrimination in health care and housing; abuses of immigrants; and racial slams in streets, stores, schools, and homes. Awakening requires hours and days and a lifetime of listening to the voices of people who are aching and terrified for their lives and those of their children.”

Deacon Mary Elizabeth Moore

Anger. Awakening. Then what? Moore concluded by insisting that anger and awakening must be followed by action. But what kind of action?

As deacons, we are commissioned and ordained to ministries of Word, Service, Justice, and Compassion. It is easy to get overwhelmed with the extent to which the world fails to live up to the standard of God’s justice. It is easy to get discouraged with the enormity of the task of anti-racism. It is tempting to dwell in our anger, feeling righteously indignant. Yet, we find sollace, encouragement, support, and accountability within the covenant community, the Order of Deacons.

We remind each other that we are already engaged in action. Deborah Tanksley-Brown shared about her work in the community, bridging segregated neighborhoods. Allen Keller shared about his advocacy for persons in a hospital setting. Lisa Flores shared about leading a book study of Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew Hart. Carlos Reyes Rodríguez wrote a powerful poem entitled, “Liberating Hate, Oppressive Love.” I wrote about racism and injustice in the 2021 Spiritual Growth Study of United Methodist Women. Each of us is already on this journey of anti-racism.

Action to fight racism is not a single step. It is a praxis, a cyclical process of anger, awakening, and intentional response. Our responses are individual and contextual as well as coordinated and timely. Our ministries are both indepent and interdependent. We provide each other nuture and accountablity. And for these reasons, we agreed to meet again and again to consider how the Order of Deacons can continue becoming an anti-racist community.

We closed this workshop with words from Moore: “Even as we recognize our limits, we can direct our anger to the work of love, to awakening, and to action. God does not ask us to save the world, but merely to give ourselves to the world-loving, world-saving work that is God’s.”

Amen and amen.

If you feel called to a lifetime ministry of love, justice, and service, consider exploring the several avenues of diakonia available in The United Methodist Church: deaconess, home missioner, and deacon.

Suggested Readings and Resources

Breakdown Whiteness. Resources to Dismantle White Supremacy, Brick by Brick. https://www.breakdownwhiteness.org/

General Commission on Religion and Race, The United Methodist Church. “GCORR Real Talk.” Links to resources.

Harrison, Beverly Wildung. “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love.” In Making the Connections, edited by Carol S. Robb. Boston: Beacon.  

Hart, Drew G. I. 2016. Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press.

Moore, Mary Elizabeth. 2020. “Anger, Awakening, Action—A Message from Dean Moore.” https://www.bu.edu/sth/anger-awakening-action-a-message-from-dean-moore/

Practicing Democracy: https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/practicing-democracy-project/features/view/28915/practicing-democracy-through-advocacy-and-outreach

Reyes Rodríguez, Carlos. 2020. “Liberating Hate, Oppressive Love.” Video. https://youtu.be/MP3oArm-GeI.

Stephens, Darryl W. 2020. Bearing Witness in the Kin-dom: Living into the Church’s Moral Witness through Radical Discipleship. New York: United Methodist Women.

Thurman, Howard. 1949. Jesus and the Disinherited. New York: Abingdon. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.260684/page/n85/mode/2up.

The United Methodist Church. 2020. “Intersectionality: Dismantling Racism Panel Discussion.”  Erin Hawkins, Miguel De La Torre, and Traci West. video.

United Methodist Women. “Charter for Racial Justice” and “Racial Justice: Advocacy and Education.”

New Book for Living into the Church’s Moral Witness

New book release!

My most recent book, Bearing Witness in the Kin-dom: Living into the Church’s Moral Witness through Radical Discipleship is now available for $10.00 + $7.40 shipping through United Methodist Women.

Book description here.

A special word of thanks is due to those persons who shared stories of their ministry with me for this project: Garlinda Burton, Liz Fulmer, Eunice Musa Iliya, Cindy Andrade Johnson, Tweedy Sombrero Navarrete, HiRho Park, Jenny Phillips, and Marilyn Zehring. I would also like to thank Pamela Brubaker and Jane Dutton for allowing me to quote material from their sermons.

This work was fully funded by United Methodist Women.

The Violence of Unity

“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”

Jeremiah 6:14, NRSV

Distrust. Acrimony. Abuse. Division. This is the current state of The United Methodist Church. Yet, amid all of this, I heard my bishop “calling the church to be united in love.” Hours later, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference voted to approve my congregation’s request for disaffiliation from the UMC. I was one of architects of our Grandview Church’s disaffiliation resolution. Nevertheless, my heart remained heavy, pondering the mirage of unity and the violence it engenders.

Church unity is an elusive goal. Christians have divided themselves throughout the entirety of our history, beginning the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Paul and Barnabas ultimately could not continue to work with each other: “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company” (Acts 15:39a). Early ecumenical councils, such as Nicaea in 325, were significant as much for who they excluded as for the consensus they reached. Declaring the four marks of the church as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” in 381 did not make it so. Orthodoxy is determined by the winners, it seems. The Great Schism of 1054 saw the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church part company. Luther’s 95 Theses posted in 1517 precipitated the fracture of the Western church into multiple, competing, protesting sects. US Methodism, it cannot be forgotten, parted ways with Anglicanism as soon as US political independence was secured. Despite Jesus’s Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John, in which he prayed “that they may be one” (17:21), his followers have not, in fact, achieved this elusive unity.

In the meantime, what violence we inflict when we insist on unity at all costs! We preach “unity, unity,” when there is no love. We call for peace without insisting on justice. We strive to maintain the structural integrity of an institution whose moral integrity has long ago deteriorated.  

For example, a number of United Methodist leaders from Africa, Europe, and the Philippines issued a call for denominational unity December 18, 2019:

We are stronger together. Being in mission together as a global church celebrates our unity in diversity and positively impacts the different contexts we represent. While diversity is a challenge, we do not believe dissolution is the right way to heal the wounds that cause us pain as Christ’s Body. A truly global church committed to be in mission together embraces its differences and allows for self-determination. It is able to find common ground in affirming how we do effective ministry in places we serve. Acknowledging that our different contexts need different solutions is a better way forward and fosters mutuality. This path affirms a stronger common witness to the global community. God’s grace is present everywhere and in everyone. We are called to humbly respond to this grace in recognizing its many expressions around the world. This call we do best together.

A Christmas Covenant: Our Gift of Hope

I wholeheartedly agree with much of this call, which celebrates “unity in diversity,” seeks “common ground,” affirms universal grace, and asserts contextualization and mutuality as essential to carrying out the church’s mission. This call is based on several “guiding principles and values,” the first of which is, “We are all children of God,” meaning we must “consider one another siblings of equal stature and rights.” Amen. However, to move from this first principle to the conclusion that the UMC must remain intact as an institution is a commission of violence.

The UMC, as it stands today, does not, in fact, ensure “equal stature and rights” among its members and leaders. The burden of our maintaining ecclesial unity is not equally shared. This denomination categorically discriminates against married gay and lesbian persons called to ordained ministry, despite our doctrinal standard asserting that clergy shall “marry at their own discretion” (Article of Religion XXI). This church categorically denies same-sex couples the right to marry, despite asserting in our Social Principles, “equal rights regardless of sexual orientation.” These structural injustices within the UMC cause real violence to real persons.

To insist on church unity under these conditions is analogous to insisting that an abused spouse remain in that relationship in order to “preserve the marriage.” In a situation of spousal abuse, the marriage is already broken. The marriage vows were violated at the first physical blow, the first psychological terror, the first emotional coercion. To leave an abusive relationship is to recognize the reality that unity has ceased to exist and to love oneself enough to say, “No more!” To counsel someone to remain within a situation of intimate partner violence is cruel. The loving response is, first, “do no harm,” by offering protection and, second, empower the survivor-victim to take control of their own life again, initially by removing themselves from the situation of abuse.

Friends in the UMC, this denomination is already broken; it is already wounded; members are still being abused. To the authors of “A Christmas Covenant,” I counter their assertion, “we do not believe dissolution is the right way to heal the wounds that cause us pain as Christ’s Body,” by proclaiming that neither is unity the right way to heal these wounds. I join my bishop, for whom I have great respect and appreciation, in “calling the church to be united in love.” But love without justice is not love at all.

Grandview Church recognizes the violence of this continued call for unity and is choosing to say, “No more!” Disaffiliation is no more the salve for these wounds than divorce is the answer to repairing a broken marriage. Others have made this argument before. But when “estranged beyond reconciliation,” it is, as our Social Principles declare, “a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness.” We cannot treat this wound carelessly, “saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14, NRSV). Love with justice requires treating “one another siblings of equal stature and rights” as a precondition to unity.