In many ways, I’ve been a theologian my entire life. I remember sitting in Catholic school religion class pondering, “Whose beliefs are right? What if what I believe is wrong? Am I going to hell?” Those were the internal ramblings of a child trying to figure out what denomination “got it right.” Raised Baptist and having attended both Episcopalian and Catholic schools by the time I was ten, I was very well aware that despite referring to Christianity in the singular, there were in fact more than one way to be Christian. What my elementary mind and theology didn’t understand at that time was that the differences in Christianity were bigger than denominational practices. Often those differences were about worshiping different gods.
In Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Kelly Brown Douglas describes two different gods: the enslavers’ God and the transcendent God. Enslaved Africans were aware of these different gods. The “awareness of God’s transcendent freedom enabled enslaved men and women to know that the God their enslavers spoke of was not truly God. They recognized that their enslaver’s God was as bound to the whips and chains of slavery as were their own black bodies. The enslaver’s God was for all intents and purposes a white slave master sitting on a throne in heaven keeping black people in their place as chattel.”
Black Christians are often criticized for worshiping the God of their oppressors…and for many (unlike their ancestors who recognized the ungodly character of the oppressor’s god) that has become true. Many of us have chosen to worship a God who resembles the white slave master, a God focused on controlling behavior, policing sexuality, and keeping people in their place, a God aligned with the capitalistic, white supremacist, sexist, and patriarchal values of mainstream America. But that isn’t the only God we have access to.
In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, liberation theologian James Cone discusses the differences between the White Christ and the Black Christ, pointing out that “the black church tradition has not been careful in making a distinction between the two Christs…The White Christ gave blacks slavery, segregation, and lynching and told them to turn the other cheek and to look for their reward in heaven. Be patient, they were told, and your suffering will be rewarded, for it is the source of your spiritual redemption.”
The Black Christ, on the other hand, identifies with the marginalized in society, specifically Black lynching victims. “There was no place for the proud and the mighty, for people who think that God called them to rule over others. The cross was God’s critique of power—white power,” Cone wrote.
God is transcendent, a God of freedom. God wants you free, liberated in love. God doesn’t want you marginalized or kept in your place. Likewise, God doesn’t want you impeding on the freedom of others.
Understanding that God stands with the marginalized in society – that the cross is a critique of power – is a reminder that we are called to do the same. As followers of Christ we must stand with and advocate for those at the margins, not use our religion as a weapon to exert power over others. That means standing with immigrants, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, teen mothers, etc.
We can no longer use our religion to exert power over other people. We can no longer use the Bible to exclude people from God’s table. We cannot continue to serve the God of the enslavers. We cannot allow our theology to be bigoted, manipulative, or controlling.
The reality is that God is NOT a God of exclusion. God is a God of inclusion. God brings people to the table. And our theology must do the same.