In this episode, Brandi is joined by Scott Hall to unpack what white supremacy is and how it manifests in theology. This is an intro as we get ready to launch into next week with specific values and how they shape our life and theology.
Special thanks to Scott Hall, Jasnery Fletcher Valenzuela, and Cassie Chee.
Music: "Let's Get High" by Sanchez Fair
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Taking our theology back from ideas and systems that oppress.
RECLAIMING MY THEOLOGY, EPISODE 1
Brandi: Hey everyone, and welcome to Reclaiming My Theology, a podcast seeking to take our theology back from ideas and systems that oppress. I am your host, Brandi Miller, and I couldn’t be more excited to start this journey together. Thank you for trusting me with your time and your life in this way.
I’m excited to have my friend Scott Hall on in just a bit, but I figure some introductions are in order. So, by way of introduction, my name is Brandi, and I’m a cisgender, heterosexual, biracial Black woman. I grew up in rural Oregon—yes, you heard that right—in a white family—you also heard that right. I grew up conservative; I come from a family with a military history; and I found faith through a highly evangelical youth group in the early 2000s. I’m able-bodied, light-skinned, and college-educated, and know I carry privilege in all three of those things, among many other things in my life. I have a degree in Ethnic Studies and have spent much of my adult life thinking about how identity works in the way of Jesus. I’m a Christian, but, maybe more accurately, I’m a follower of Jesus, and I’ve been in college ministry full-time for the better part of a decade. I tell you all of this so that you know where I’m starting from; because where we start from will always determine how we move toward a more just and liberated way, and I think we can do better.
I’m starting this podcast because it wasn’t until my adult life that I became aware that theology isn’t a monolithic thing, that we all read scripture and know God through cultural lenses, and we are usually, at least in part, shaped by the dominating power structures and ideologies in our world. And when our cultures and histories are built upon oppression, power, and domination, our theology is almost doomed to capitulate to those values as well.
I’m starting this podcast because I grew up thinking that white theology was just objective theology and not subject to a lens. I wish someone had helped me to know better.
I’m starting this podcast because I didn’t see a woman or a person of color, let alone a queer person or anyone at the intersections, teach from the pulpit until I was grown. I know that my cultural myopia was a primary barrier to me seeing a more full, good, and expansive kingdom of God. I want our theology, the work of the people, to be more accessible to others than it was to me or to people before me. I want better for our future.
I’m starting this podcast not because I have answers, but because I have a lot of questions and thoughts about the Christianity that I was presented with. I have questions about a Christianity that is bearing the fruit of violence, domination, control, and one that has laid the road for our current political reality in the United States.
I’m starting this podcast because I believe theology cannot only remain in the hands of cis heterosexual white men and the structures and systems that they create. We are collectively better than that. Jesus is better and bigger than that. And, to be honest, I’m just bored of hearing the gaggle of mid-twenty to fifty-year-old church planting book-writing white guys with Hebrew forearm tattoos that have primary access to pulpits. We’ve heard what they have to say, and the world doesn’t seem all the better for that kind of homogeneity.
So, as we begin, we will be working to reclaim our theology from white supremacy and the values that uphold it. White supremacy and the culture it creates is the idea that white people—the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people—are superior to that of people of color. White supremacy is white people saying, whether in word or deed, that the questions they ask, the things they are interested in, and the values that they center are the only ones that matter.
In theology, it means that white values and views of God are seen as truth or central, and that other people groups and theologies are seen as optional or elective at best, and at worst they’re seen as heretical. It places whiteness close to godliness and at the center of the world. White supremacy culture presupposes that white theology is a neutral and infallible lens with which to view the scriptures. White supremacy in theology happens when you have the equation of highly contextualized theology, in this case white theology, plus the power to enforce it personally, culturally, and systemically, particularly, in our case, in the church and in public life.
This week, we will be doing a primer conversation on white supremacy with my friend, Scott Hall. Each subsequent episode, we will take a different value of white supremacy culture, like individualism, defensiveness, paternalism, worship of the written word, competition, and more, to look at how those values have become lenses for how we view the scriptures instead of the other way around. With this approach, I think that we can tease apart how those values and all the ways they’re read into the text and then lived out in our religious structures work to privilege white people, dehumanize and oppress folks of color, and, ultimately, harm all of us in our humanity.
So breathe in…breathe out…and let’s begin to reclaim our theology from white supremacy with this intro interview with my friend and colleague Scott Hall.
Brandi: Hey Scott! Thanks so much for being on the show today. I really appreciate it.
Scott: Absolutely, Brandi. It’s my pleasure to be here.
Brandi: So, I realized that a lot of listeners may not know who you are or know your work. So, I’m just curious—how would you describe what it means to be you?
Scott: Well, I’m a middle-aged white man. I’m forty-eight years old; I live in the Seattle area; I’m married; I have thirteen-year-old boy-girl twins. I was raised in Oakland, California, which has been super formative for me in my own understanding of myself. I moved to a really wealthy white neighborhood in Denver in high school, went to college in LA, experienced the 1992 LA Riots that shaped me—so, I’m kind of a patchwork of a lot of different things, but that’s a little bit of who I am.
Brandi: I’m curious if you could also talk about your work, your sense of vocation—why do you do what you do, and what do you do?
Scott: Yeah, yeah. I want to college pre-med, biology major, and in 1992, I was in an African American Studies class, and the LA Riots happened, and my professor completely changed the curriculum to look at the history of racial violence and tension and uprisings in Haiti and in the United States, and it just launched me on a trajectory. So, there’s a few different things I do for pay and for work, but I think the heart of my sense of vocation is to be a white voice to help white people humanize the stories of their colleagues and friends and neighbors of color.
Brandi: And how did that happen for you? You say it’s a life-long trajectory, but there’s a strong gap between African American Studies major and then being a part of the work that you’re a part of now. Can you give us, like, a few pit stops on your way to who you are now?
Scott: Sure, I’d love to. You know, not everyone—certainly not every white person—will identify with this, but I grew up in Oakland, but I lived in the hills, and everyone in the hills was white or, like, wealthy Asian Americans. But I always went to public school. So, I was like with the kids—in Oakland, the term would be, like, in the flatlands—and they’re all Black or Latino or maybe Filipino kids. And I always knew there was something weird about the economic disparity, but no one ever talked about it, not in school, not in friendships, not in church. And so, I think there was this unanswered question.
So in 1992, when I was in college in Los Angeles, when Rodney King was beat and when the two white officers were acquitted and the city went up in flames, I had a mentor that said, “What Jesus would be doing is entering into the fray.” And, literally, we jumped in his car and found ourselves at the corner of an intersection with burning buildings, and we’re rushing in, and me and my roommate were helping a woman rescue her kids and her television from her tiny apartment that was about to go up in flames. And for me, there was a moment where I just felt more alive than I ever had, because suddenly my faith and the real world were starting to intersect. And I came back to college, I changed my major to African American studies, because it just felt like all of a sudden, all the parts of my life came in harmony. And that sort of just launched me on the journey. I ended up living in South Central Los Angeles for about 20 years as the only white person on my block. Those relationships formed me; seeing life through the eyes of a lot of youth that I invested in…it just changed me forever. But I also realized those kids don’t really need white leadership; my leadership probably needs to take its main stage with other people that look like me.
Brandi: Well, what I love about your story is that it feels a lot like the story that a lot of white folks are experiencing right now. That as we see uprisings and protests for reform around the criminal justice system, around police specifically, I realize that a lot of white folks are probably seeing that kind of intersection of their lives play out, and that might be kind of confusing. And I realize that this podcast is actually not about necessarily discipling white folks; it’s about naming what’s happening for white folks and trying to figure out how is our theology and our values been co-opted by white normalcy. But for folks of color, for me, it’s been incredibly important to understand the nuances of how whiteness tries to make me think of my life and my theology in a certain way, and how it tries to shape my view of God. And, so, I feel like your story is probably an active story for a lot of folks.
So, I actually want to jump off there. Because I’m aware that, as Christians, or as people who are in a nominally Christian value ideology formed country, that we’re not necessarily given the tools to believe or understand what’s going on right now. We, like all cultures, have adopted language that creates a lot of distance between what is reality and what our theology is. Christians in my spheres, at least, use a lot of language like reconciliation, unity, forgiveness, we’re one body, and leaned on that level of forgiveness and Christian niceties more than on what was actually happening to people’s bodies in real time.
So I’m curious; for you, what do you think is happening for Christians as they scroll through social media right now and see language like “white supremacy” and “anti-racism”, and what do you imagine might be happening for folks as we’re seeing that language and experiencing the dissonance from what our cultural expression of Christianity has taught us is the way to engage?
Scott: Yeah. The first thing I will say, and everything you shared is – I think – what you’re describing is folks of color have been gaslit by white people for most of their lives, um, so – I’m sorry, Brandi, repeat the last question that you asked me again.
Brandi: Yeah! I’m just wondering what do you think is happening for Christians specifically as they scroll through social media and are experiencing the dissonance of the culture at large using language like white supremacy and anti-racism—stuff that probably feels kind of like aggressive or unchristian to them, because it’s being juxtaposed with their sense of what these conversations are supposed to look like, which is unity, reconciliation, and all of that.
Scott: Yeah. It’s so good. I think they’re really confused without knowing it.
Well, I’ll give an example. I got a request yesterday from a white guy who is an elder at his church, and his church is predominantly white but has a few folks of color, and they’re trying to write a statement about, kind of, aligning with George Floyd. And I read their statement—and this is a conservative, Bible-oriented church—and he asked me for input. And I noticed there was not one scripture reference in their statement. And they’re a church. And I suspect that that means that they are operating on two different planes of like relevance in the world and responding, you know, not completely tone-deaf, and then their own theological understanding—and there has been no intersection of those two things, so they don’t even know what scripture is driving their response. But intuitively, they know that they need to be engaging and responding.
Scott: So there’s a huge miss and disconnect, and I don’t even think they realize that now. And my fear is that there’s going to be this snapback. They’re going along, going along, with the trends of conversation, and all of a sudden, something is going to say, “You’ve been co-opted by liberalism. Where is this in the Bible?” And they will realize, “I don’t know.” And, all of a sudden, jump back to a position that doesn’t have any relevance with what’s happening in the world.
Brandi: Totally. Yeah. What I’ve been seeing is a lot of folks—and I’m grateful for this to some degree, that like six years ago, when Ferguson – when stuff was happening in Ferguson, to say Black Lives Matter, to say anything about race, felt like, “Oh, I don’t even know if my church is going to say that.” But I think what’s hard now is that a lot of churches are jumping on and being like, “Yeah, Black lives matter”—but that’s, like, a low 2014 bar, and the bar is now higher. And so I’m seeing a lot of white churches wanting to get credit for saying something that would have been a big deal six years ago, but is really just reflecting that they’re six years behind on following racial justice movements and learning the language of movements that are so core for me, at least, to my faith, that it’s just kind of hard to have compassion for them.
And so even as I hear you talk about that statement, I’m like, “Oh yeah, they think they’re doing something very helpful and very good.” And they need to say something, and that is super important. What you’re saying is true, that there’s a strong disconnect between their perceived goal and the theology that that is operating out of.
So, I actually feel like that’s a pretty helpful transition for us to talking about white supremacy. Because this whole season is going to be about reclaiming our theology from white supremacy. And so, as we talk about white supremacy, I think, for me, a lot of my white friends have, like, a “clutch-my-pearls” moment when we talk about white supremacy, because they have these images of the klan, or of militia men, or some people that are really easy to distance themselves from. I saw that a lot in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Lots of white people were like, “Yeah, white supremacy is bad.” And I’m like, “Oh, I think that you think…that doesn’t mean what you think it means.” Right? It doesn’t mean that.
So I just want us to talk for a minute about what white supremacy is, and then we’ll talk about more specifically what is white supremacy in theology, because that will give us a good jumping off point for the rest of this season to talk about specific values that we need to reclaim our theology from in order to be at least more free of white supremacy.
So, can you talk a little bit about white supremacy and what that is and how you see that play out in your faith?
Scott: Totally. I have to throw in one note, Brandi, relevant to everything you’re saying. I’ve seen this trend on Facebook of white people retroactively apologizing to Colin Kaepernick, saying – I saw this guy, and he was like, “I have military family, I didn’t like what you were doing, I opposed you, and I owe you an apology, because now I see what you were standing for and that it needed to be done.”
And my reaction is like, “That’s very convenient to have an in-the-past conversation with Colin Kaepernick,” and my immediate response was like, “Ok, that’s great, but then I think you need to ask him today, how does he think you should be responding right now?” And it echoes of this way that Dr. King’s words get used to pacify people in the present, when Dr. King doesn’t get to stand and say, “Wait, wait, wait, that’s not how I would say it.” There’s this convenient retroactive taking ownership and responsibility that really is too cheap and easy.
Brandi: Yes. In white Christianity specifically, if you say, on social media, in a place Colin Kaepernick will never see it, “I need your forgiveness,” it’s just this virtue-signaling. It’s saying, “Oh, look, I’m on the right team now, guys, look how humble I am.” And I want people to have public declarations of their ability to change; however, it’s a very Christian thing to do, like a very western, U.S., white Christian thing to do, to experience your, we’ll call it sin, in abstraction, but not have to have any kind of action behind that that actually changes how your abstract sin affects real-life people’s bodies.
Scott: Absolutely! I mean, that’s the story of the United States, in my opinion, and since this is a theology-oriented podcast, we need the words of John the Baptist: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
Scott: Show me, don’t tell me.
Brandi: Yes. Yes. And don’t write another statement, don’t do another listening group; show me that you believe what you say you believe now, because if you don’t, then it’s just – I’d call it a clanging gong. You say love, but there’s no action behind it.
Scott: Yeah, and I don’t want to go too intense too fast, but Jesus and John the Baptist had a lot of words for those that would say one thing and practice another thing.
Brandi: Yes, definitely. Yeah. So, as we talk about reclaiming our theology from white supremacy, it’s important for us to know what white supremacy is in general and then how that plays out theologically. Because I think a lot of Christians have a really easy time distancing themselves or avoiding accountability, again, under forgiveness narratives or grace narratives, that we don’t actually deal – we don’t learn about white supremacy because we don’t feel like we need to be accountable around it. And, so, I’m curious if you could just talk a little bit about what is white supremacy and how you see that play out in our theology and faith.
Scott: Yeah, that’s great Brandi. And, you know, we’re of different generations. Uh, I am certainly Gen X, though my kids like to call me a Boomer, just ’cause I’m old—I’m a Gen X-er—and at least for me, growing up on the West Coast, white supremacy was this thing that was a part of history—maybe it happened in the South, it was the klan, it was a few, like, hardcore punk neo-nazis, it was maybe, like, a white prison movement…but it was, like, a less than 1% existence and reality. It was, like, a hyper violent, irrational person that could totally be discarded.
Scott: And, for me, it was in 2014 in Ferguson, being led by an African American pastor and activist, where I came to just have that definition morph, in terms of the ubiquitous-ness of how white culture is elevated above other cultures, whether intentionally or unintentionally. And as I understood that definition—and I could give even my more full best understanding of how I operate with what white supremacy means—it was that recognition of the omnipresence of the elevation of whiteness and white culture that helped me understand and kind of open my eyes to the prevalence of white supremacy today.
Brandi: And it sounds like what you’re saying, in some ways, is that white supremacy sometimes comes through the front door, with, you know, a swastika, a burning cross or whatever, but more often than that, it’s people saying, whether in word or deed, that the questions they ask, the things they care about, the values that they hold, are the things that matter, are interesting, and that systems need to orient themselves around. That white supremacy elevates values like individualism, the right to comfort, defensiveness, competition, hierarchy, and says, “Oh, those aren’t just a part of white culture—they’re a part of theology, too.”
And so, for me, the marriage of white supremacy and theology makes it so that white theology is simply called theology. It’s seen as superior or supreme and thus becomes the truth. And historic white supremacy, or I guess what we would call then, even in another definition, the elevating and privileging of white people—and men specifically, we can’t have this conversation without having a conversation about patriarchy—means that white people have had access to so much academic space to make theology that they’re just so intertwined. And when you think about, like, the academy, research, publishing, all those things just reinforce the idea that white theology is truth.
And, so, I’m curious if you can talk a little bit more about how you see white theology playing out in the world.
Scott: Good, and Brandi, maybe I can ask a question before I answer. Do you want me to target specifically white American evangelical theology?
Brandi: I think that it is very challenging to have this conversation without doing so. Um, because I do think that there are some listeners right now who might be hearing this and going, “Well not all white theology,” or, like, “My episcopal church” or “My, like, really liberal Lutheran church” or, well, a lot of mainliners are really, like, “My UCC church—we don’t think that way.” But it doesn’t mean that the ideologies of centers of power don’t have impact or shape how we operate.
So, I’ll let you go wherever you want, but I do feel like that is – I can hear some of like the implicit question that listeners might be asking of, “Not all white people!” And I’m curious to how you might respond either way.
Scott: Yeah, and I think my most generic response would be: All of us have cultural lenses. And if we are white and have grown up in the United States, there’s just implicit assumptions that we carry that create a lens through which we understand scripture.
Now, the particular challenge that exacerbates that for white evangelicals in the US, is we as white evangelicals have this sort of swagger about, “We go to the source. We don’t have an intermediary priest or bishop. We read the scriptures ourselves. We see the words of Jesus. My Catholic brothers and sisters, some of them can’t even quote the scripture!” And, you know, maybe you’re an evangelical that’s never thought or done anything like that. But I’ve heard that said before.
And the challenge of that is that it means—because anthropology is still true—that we all have a lens through which we read the scripture. So, what white evangelicals do is they’re released to read the scripture for themselves, without adequate training of their own cultural lenses, that they therefore project onto Jesus and the scripture default assumptions of our own context of our own culture.
And so, we wouldn’t say Jesus is white, most of us, but there’s an implicit assumption of the whiteness of Jesus, of Jesus being from mainstream culture, of Jesus, you know, probably didn’t have a college degree? What are you talking about? Um – and even as I said that – you’re like, “I don’t know, I never said Jesus had a college degree.” Yeah, but you didn’t assume and recognize that he didn’t.
And so, we have all these assumptions, and so, therefore, we read scripture out of context. And I think what’s so significant about that is we look at Jesus, and we think we’re going right to the source. And I – and I ask white Christians this a lot: So was Jesus shaped by the reformation? No. Was he shaped by the age of enlightenment? Of course not, Scott, come on, that’s like 1500 years later. Was he shaped by the industrial revolution or capitalism? No. But we were. And the faith that we received, predominantly from European theologians, from our European ancestors, it’s looking at Jesus through all of those lenses.
And we have to come to terms with this. Our white American Christian ancestors, with those lenses as they read scripture, were comfortable exterminating native peoples, enslaving Africans as property, and using Chinese and Mexican people as a commodity of labor with almost zero human rights. Our Christian ancestors did that in “good faith” and as Bible-believing Christians. And I think that just exposes, you know, things that would be abhorrent to us to this day, but again, historic critique is very convenient. What kinds of cultural assumptions do we have as white Americans in our theology that we’re living out and inadvertently weaponizing to diminish folks of color, to elevate ourselves, and then maintain control?
Brandi: And what feels, um, very challenging for me to be gracious about is that – what I see happening with a lot of—and especially in the United States, right?—white Christians having access to power and control, through all of the things you just named, interpret the scriptures, and then use the power and money and privilege that they have to write books and start media companies and magazines and all of these things, that then create a critical mass of content that they can point back to and say, “See, all of us are saying this thing about the scriptures, so it’s true.” And so it effectively uses wealth, power, privilege, and violence to erase the possibility of presence for other theologies, especially from folks of color.
Like, I didn’t grow up in the church, but insofar as I did, again, I – the people that I was taught that were, like, the right people to listen to were like the C.S. Lewises, the John Piper, you know. N.T. Wright is like the new version of that where people can be like, “Yeah, that guy!” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s great—read some folks!” But we can’t assume that the Bonhoeffers of the world have some kind of historic orthodox hold on theology—but I think that white Christians love to say that, to go like, “My faith is historic” but because folks of colors’ faith is interpreting modern things that it’s somehow less valid, and that has been really wild to me.
So I’m curious if you could give us a couple of examples of how you see, like, can you give us – um – some – help me – give me some white Biblical interpretations, Scott! Like how do you see that playing out in how white people interpret scripture?
Scott: Um, the easiest one that most quickly comes to mind is the cultural lens of individualism and taking scripture that’s predominantly written in sort of a collectivist mindset and a communal orientation and picking something out as individually replying to me. And that’s the Christianity I grew up with, of like I pray the prayer, I cross the bridge, and now I’m with God, and I will go to heaven.
And it overlooks — So then, when someone says something, like, about, “Hey, white people, let’s have a corporate conversation about your abuses of power from the perspective of biblical principles,” I can push back against that and say, “You’re mixing politics and faith. That’s not biblical. My faith transcends politics. You’re getting political” and therefore ceasing to be a conversation of faith. Why can I do that as a white person? Because my faith has been individualized. I have an individual relationship with Jesus and I get to distance myself from any kind of corporate entity and therefore I don’t have any responsibility for corporate things that have been done by white people.
The irony is, white people never do that with Black folks! They have a Black person in their church, and they say, “Will you please tell us about the plight of Black Americans in the United States right now?” Well we suddenly jumped out of that individualism! We didn’t say, “Well this is an architect who has three children and lives this certain lifestyle, so what would they know about these other people?” No, we suddenly — we’re comfortable to jump there with other people. But for ourselves, we maintain individualism as a defense against convictions that we want to keep at a distance.
Brandi: And it feels like in, oh, I don’t know, I — you can tell me what you think about this — but I think that there’s ways that — you use that word “defense” and I think because defensiveness is such a strong part of white theology — I just want to talk about it a little bit, because, right? When I hear you say that, what I’m hearing is that white people have created a bunch of defenses for themselves and for their theology where it makes it easy to individually not take accountability for things but then to point outward and say like the phrase “Those people [blank]” over and over again.
And as I think about what that does is I think there’s a pretty natural through way to disembodiment there, where I can believe whatever I want in my heart and my mind, and do whatever I want as an individual, but I don’t have to care about other people out there and what’s happening to their bodies because it’s not my – it’s not my issue. And if I didn’t, myself, harass or harm a person of color, then I’m not accountable for the things that have happened, in, you know, slavery, or any of the historical things we’ve talked about—I’m not accountable for those things because my faith gives me grace, it gives me a defense, it gives me Jesus himself in my interpretation of scriptures to hide behind.
So I feel like as we enter these conversations about white supremacy and theology, there’s probably a lot of folks who are going to feel pretty defensive, because it’s going to be the first time that folks will have heard, “Maybe my truth, my individual truth, isn’t the universal truth of God.” And there’s a certain type of arrogance that exists very strongly in white theology that says that my individual interpretation gets to be cosmic truth. And to me, that is, uh, a wild reality that I don’t see as present in other communities of color.
Scott: Yeah, and what you’re making me think of, Brandi, is, um, you know, one of evangelicals’ favorite scriptures – it was to look at sort of the journey of the early church, and to look at Acts 2 and Acts 4, but it’s interesting so like where does that go? It might be about “We need the Holy Spirit,” it might be about, “With the Holy Spirit, our evangelism numbers can explode and grow”—but when you see the effect of the Holy Spirit, one of the things that jumps out at me as I’ve been growing is, “They held all things together in common.” And you see later that it’s like, “The rich disciples are laying at the apostles’ feet all of their values so that they can be distributed.
Do we read — just, to look at that, like — that is, if you read that rightly, you have to go, well then America is unbiblical. Because the essence of who we are — that’s called socialism, or that’s called communism — and it’s interesting, Christians are really quick to jump on, “That’s socialism! Attack socialism!” And yet, we can’t look at that and go, I live an unbiblical life because I take my resources and I say they are mine to do what I want with, and if my pastor were to say, “Oh, you’re a believer now? Please make me a cosigner on your checkbook, because we are going to now pool all our resources in this congregation,” we would leave them, and I think we could call them a cult. We would certainly not say, “Well, I left because they were too biblical for me.”
Brandi: Definitely not.
Scott: And I think just there’s a — it’s a real slippery fish, Brandi. And – and I think even this conversation, it’s difficult to have in the context of US culture because it’s – the air that we breathe is the centering of whiteness, and therefore the faith that we received, again, it’s just utterly enmeshed. And, so, it can be really hard to pick out or tease out, “Well what aspect of my theology is specifically white and European?”
But then we can look at the effects and see, “Oh, I’ve been very comfortable to filter out aspects of scripture that don’t fit with my culture.” Well, early white Christians and missionaries, when indigenous people did that, they called it syncretism. Oh, you’re burning sage and praying to Creator? That’s syncretism and you’re going to be whipped for that. Well how about having—and I’m stealing this from Richard Twiss—how about having an American flag up next to the Christian flag in most churches in the United States of America? Is that not a dangerous syncretism of linking a national identity and a Christian identity? Which one’s worse?
Brandi: Yes. And in that, like, at this point, we might as well call American Christianity a trademark, like its own specific thing. My friend Carlos tweeted recently, and I think this is an interesting example of what we’re talking about, like, because the question we’re asking, really, is where does whiteness end and theology begin? And can white Christians actually pull that apart, and can folks of color who have been embedded in a white supremacist country and Christian culture reclaim some sense of Jesus and, like, the gospel and a more just faith from that total cluster?
And, so, Carlos tweeted, and I’m trying — So Carlos tweeted, “American Christianity allows you to be these things”—and then he lists these things—“empowering of white supremacy, supportive of the death penalty, addicted to consumerism, okay with children in cages, comfortable with sexism, irresponsible with creation, an evangelist of homophobia, and still be called a follower of Christ.” And, so, he names all of these systemic things. And someone on my page posts, “I know, it’s amazing, right? While I was yet a sinner, Christ died for me.” And I was like, “Oh, I think that is an embodiment of white Christianity—white American Christianity—in its highest form.” It takes systemic realities, takes a disembodied salvation narrative, to not take responsibility for what Christians have done and created—and then says, “Isn’t it great that Jesus died for me?”
Scott: Oh my god.
Brandi: And to me — Go ahead.
Scott: Yeah, Brandi, I think what’s dangerous and truth-filled and Biblical about what you’re saying is that the white Christian gospel, certainly at least in the United States, it says my salvation releases me from any responsibility, any social responsibility. And what we do is we go, “Wait, now, Brandi, now you’re talking about works theology. You’re saying I’m trying to be saved by my works, and I, you know, the scripture tells me I’m saved by grace, through faith.” And in that scripture, right before, it’s saying, “We are God’s workmanship, created for God’s works in Christ and saved by grace.” So we use the one at the exclusion of the other, when the whole point of the grace is forgiving us so that we can be better and do better and repent. Jesus himself said, “Not one part of the law or the prophets, I’m, like, coming to fulfill them, not to oppose them.”
So it’s a both/and, and I think you might be touching on the core — is, wow, if we can abstract ourselves from that, and, you know, put it on, like, a Hitler or someone that’s easy to demonize – isn’t that a convenient theology, that says that my connection to God releases me from all social responsibility, and if you try to twist that, I get to come at you with scripture, to not only to push you away, but to condemn you and tell you that you are being unbiblical and unorthodox. Wow! So that’s how slavery existed in our nation for hundreds of years.
Brandi: And I think it’s interesting because those folks will always come up with the cross for it. Like, “If you say that I am not who I think that I am and that my god isn’t who I think my god is, that you’re devaluing Jesus’s death on the cross for me.”
And it’s so interesting in a capitalistic society that the cross becomes something that’s so transactional. It’s like, “I did a bad thing, Jesus paid the price for me”—and that’s such a modern, relatively modern, interpretation of the cross, of atonement theology, of all of that, that says Jesus died for me.
And when I look at communities of color and theologians of color, almost no one that I see is saying that the cross is simply about Jesus doing something for you; it’s something for the cosmos, it’s for the healing of all things. And for Black folks specifically, I think about James Cone’s work, where he’s talking about how the cross itself is – it’s the lynching tree, it’s the place where God suffers with, not just dies for. And so I wonder what happens when our theology moves from being so embedded that Jesus just did something for me as an individual rather than the beauty that Jesus suffers with us.
And, so, I’m like, I think that communities of color are – I think we believe different gospels, like I think we believe different atonements. But because of the access that white people have had to theological platforms, all of that is seen as heretical or as disingenuous or as a twisting of the scriptures. When I’m like, we’re really happy to read the Acts story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and be like, “Look at the evangelism that the eunuch did,” and I’m like, “But what about the theology that he did?” He took the gospel with, like, no context from where he was, and he took it back home. And I’m like, where are Ethiopian theologians? Who exist, right. Where’s the church’s biblical value for elevating that guy?
And so it’s just interesting that, especially in whiteness, we are so comfortable erasing history of folks who don’t comply, that we eliminate everything so that we can hold the truth—I say “we”…“y’all”—so that white people can hold the truth, but it’s only because we’ve eliminated access for every other space to be seen as valid. Which is like – there’s this whole other piece of disembodiment, but I want us to close up a little bit here.
But I’m just curious, like, if you have any closing thoughts as you think about – and, ’cause, right, a lot of your work, and the reason I love your work, is because you are committed to seeing white people do better and not inflicting white people’s process on folks of color. And so this might be a controversial idea, but, like, do you think there’s hope for white people who have been embedded in white theology — do you think there’s hope for folks to actually be able to reclaim their theology from that, to know—and I’ll say this carefully—a more authentic historical Jesus?
Scott: Yeah, you’re saying so much, Brandi, and I probably sort of represent your listeners a little bit right now, like: “Ahh!” Like, every ten seconds you say another thing that makes a little explosion happen in my mind.
In the way that you phrased the question: Do you think we as white folks can — I can’t remember quite your words — but can we untangle ourselves from this sort of convoluted gospel? And I think, if you’re phrasing the question that way, do I have hope? No. No. I don’t think white people, by ourselves—and that’s my caveat—I don’t think by ourselves, I don’t think we can. Like, how does a fish teach another fish that, like, water is everywhere? I don’t know, I don’t like that example.
I don’t think white people, with white people, can extract themselves from the convoluted sort of white cultural version of the gospel. I think with that you get something like the emergent church: they feel like they were, like, no it’s pure and it’s relevant and it’s hip and it’s young and it’s cool, and like, where are they today? That’s like, huh? It’s like a thing, like –
Brandi: I haven’t heard them in a while.
Scott: Young people on your call will be like, “What’s that? I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
Scott: Because, it’s just, because we as white people need to have the humility to recognize that you don’t know what you don’t know.
Scott: But is there hope for white people? Well, absolutely. As they submit themselves to the leadership of other believers and colleagues of color, and even leaders of color, whether or not they’re identifying as Christian. And I think that’s where – so there’s so much you’re saying, Brandi – a couple, like, when you talked about two gospels. Are there different gospels that folks of color, of what the gospel means for them, and white folks, I think it’s interesting. White folks love to feel like there’s just one gospel, but I think the truth is, you look at Jesus—I believe there is one gospel. One good news. But it means really different things to people in different levels of social position. Jesus was very comfortable asking the rich young man to give up everything that they had. Jesus didn’t do that to the woman caught in adultery. He wasn’t doing that to some of those on the margins that were following him. It meant different things to different people. That’s just biblical.
Scott: And I think the invitation for white people is the invitation to the cross. To not use the cross as the reason why I don’t have to change socially; to look at Jesus’s invitation to his disciples: Follow me. But where was he going? He was going to die. And I think one of the core scriptures for white Christians needs to be Philippians 2. Who Jesus, you know, had this equality with God, this level of privilege, that he left to go be a servant, to go suffer, to go die, to go pour himself out and wash the feet of others. I think that’s the gospel for the social position of white people; it’s the path of humility, the path of using power to lift others up; the path of learning, of listening, of following, not of leading.
Brandi: And I think that as we enter this journey of reclaiming our theology from white supremacy together, to do that kind of lowering will require us to see the values of white supremacy and how they shape every part of how we think. To me, this podcast in a lot of ways is trying to follow the John the Baptizer, Isaiah 40, “mountains made low, valleys raised up, crooked paths made straight, rough paths made smooth” narrative that says, like, “Actually maybe white Christian values, maybe white supremacist values, maybe white cultural values, are the barriers from us seeing God’s good news as being good.” It certainly is for folks of color, and I think it is for white folks, too. Because at the end of the day, racism, yes, at the peak it hurts people of color, it privileges white folks, but it harms all of us and dehumanizes us and does all kinds of things that make it impossible to be who I believe God has made us to be.
And, so, I’m really grateful for you being on today and helping us lay a foundation of just knowing where we’re going. Because each week now — we’re going to have Erna Hackett on next week to talk about individualism and to go deeper with what you’re talking about — and we’re going to spend the rest of the time deconstructing values and then reconstructing from the stories of communities of color and asking, “Is there a different and better way?” That, as you often say to me, isn’t white orthodox or like orthodox in a theological white sense, but in a deeper type of orthodoxy that goes back to Jesus and the early church and says, “How can we pull the principles from there, and say maybe there’s a better way that we can be together.”
So Scott, thank you so much for being on, I really appreciate you doing this. I’m excited for where it’s all going to go from here.
Scott: Oh, I’m so honored, Brandi. I respect your work so much, I’m really shaped by you, and, you know, a lot of what we’re talking about, it’s not just theoretical. I feel like, part of, you’ve been at the core of my own personal growth. And so I’m really honored and grateful to be in this conversation with you. Thank you.
Brandi: Thanks, Scott.
Brandi: Thank you for joining us on this first episode of the podcast. As we move into the values of white supremacy, I’m excited to see how expanding our view of theology might expand our view of God and of each other. Scott and I finished out our time together talking about the gospel, and I’m convinced that we will experience joy from having an ever-expanding view of it. So I leave you today with a gift as we close: some brilliant women of color in my life sharing what the gospel means to and for them.
“The good news is that God is everything you hope he is, and we know that because of Jesus. And that seems pretty basic, but really, when I think about all of the claims that are made within Christianity, when I think about all of the claims that are made about the uniqueness of Jesus and of the Christian worldview, it all boils down to the deepest things that we desire and long for and need are all found in the way that we see Jesus living and moving and having his being.”
“The gospel means God is restoring life for everyone, especially for those who are most vulnerable. Even though the gospel is universal, it must be interpreted for each particular context, otherwise it becomes oppressive. In my particular context, as an Asian American woman in 2020, the gospel means Jesus is transforming us to stop harming one another in our transphobia, anti-Blackness, consumerism, xenophobia, and is inviting us to imagine and co-create worlds where we can all live without depending on each other’s suffering.”
“The gospel is the truth Jesus proclaimed through his words and his life: the truth that everyone is made in the image of God and therefore deserves to be treated with fierce dignity and loving grace, because we all are a part of creation. It is very good, it is justice and love embodied, it is getting a glimpse of the infinite maker of the universe, it is my hope and reason I choose to follow Jesus today, tomorrow, and every day after.”
Reclaiming My Theology is produced and edited by me, Brandi Miller. Our music is “Let’s Get High” by Sanchez Fair. Special shout out to Scott Hall for being on, and for the beautiful words of Tamice Spencer, Cassie Chi, and Jasnety Fletcher-Valenzuela. If you like what you hear, please rate, review, and subscribe, and check out our Patreon at patreon.com/brandinico. Thanks, and see y’all next week.