Today is Martin Luther King day, and the activity of King and other civil rights activists, the inaction and maintenance of the status quo by most Christians, and the outright racism and violence practiced by some, all illustrate a key point: actions put theologies to the test. Morgan Guyton wrote a post on that theme in connection with the anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World, that deserves to be considered more generally and not just in connection with Columbus. And so I thought I would highlight it today, as a way of getting at this larger issue. Here is a rather long excerpt from an even longer post:
To me, colonialism shipwrecks the simple orthodoxy of apostolic succession and original catholicity, because it reveals that Christian orthodoxy failed the millions of African, American, and Asian natives who were massacred by the colonialism that justified itself with Christian orthodoxy just as Columbus did. The litmus test of my orthodoxy is: what would someone like Christopher Columbus have needed to believe to see the natives he encountered as equals who were worthy of his respect and honor? I don’t think the brutality of colonialism is avoidable given the nihilistic Augustinian account of human nature we call “original sin.”
The ugly witness of colonialism compels me to imagine a Christianity that does not claim exclusivity, but recognizes a form of Christ in ways of living that emulate Christ even in cultures that do not know the Christ that I know. The Christianity that demands submission to my salvation narrative using my terminology in order to avoid eternal damnation is the Christianity that is capable of dehumanizing the other sufficiently to justify enslaving and killing them for their own good. That’s the awfulness I am confronted by.
It is partly because of the witness of our colonial past that I have come to a different understanding of the nature of sin. Colonial Christianity understands sin as a deformation innate to human nature which in turn justifies the dehumanization and conquest of non-Christian cultures who are without hope of moral virtue unless they receive the Christian gospel specifically.
I do not see humans as deformed by nature but rather as corrupted by their socialization into demonic social systems such as patriarchy, nationalism, white supremacy, and individualist consumerism. Salvation describes my liberation from mindless enslavement to sinful social orders. I understand my salvation to occur through my crucifixion and resurrection with Jesus Christ. It is not merely something he did for me, but rather a spiritual transformation he inaugurated that I am invited to participate in. Galatians 2:19-20 is every bit as much a part of Christian atonement as Romans 3:23-25 is.
Paradoxically, I’ve found that an essential part of this salvation involves the renunciation of my need to have the right religion. A need for Christian exclusivity belies a justification that is found in doctrinal correctness rather than Jesus’ blood. If someone else is delivered from their culture’s corrupt social orders through some other mechanism, I don’t see why I shouldn’t rejoice with them in their liberation rather than tell them they have to do it my way. And furthermore, I don’t see how the latter can avoid creating a colonialist impulse that is only held back today by the secularization of European civilization which has basically saved Christians from our own genocidal legacy.
So this is where I find myself theologically. I cannot believe in the Christianity of Christopher Columbus that colonized and terrorized the non-Western world. And I don’t believe that Christianity has to be that way. So I dare to imagine a Christianity that loves and respects the indigenous other, that refuses to think like a conquering empire.
One of the most important tasks Ray and I will seek to accomplish early this semester is to convince the students that the Nazis were not aliens, monsters, or mutants. To consider them as such is to remove the possibility, at least theoretically, that we share anything in common with them. We assign significant portions of Mein Kampf, study the NSDAP’s “Twenty-Five Point Program” (the Nazis’ socio-political “platform”), and consider the lengthy chapter on Hitler’s tortured childhood from Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good, because understanding the Nazis requires first understanding that they were human beings just as we are. Human beings with histories, experiences, commitments, worries, fears, desires, hopes and dreams. Human beings who hoped for a better world than the one they believed had been unjustly imposed on them by outside forces. Studying the Nazis is remarkably relevant to studying our present political and social situation, because in both cases we are studying the same thing–ourselves.
The policies and actions of the Nazis flowed logically from clearly stated premises and assumptions; the fact that these premises and assumptions differ sharply from those that most of us profess to be committed to does not prove them to be wrong. Ray and I urge our students to realize that dismissing the Nazis simply because they believed so differently than we do spares us from doing the difficult and important work of identifying exactly why we are committed to our beliefs and assumptions. Only if we recognize that the Nazis were human beings with whom we share a host of things in common can we truly begin to consider carefully what went so monstrously wrong. As Alice Miller writes, “all that it took was a committed Fuhrer and several million well-raised Germans to extinguish the lives of countless innocent human beings in a few short years.”
For those who believe that their religious faith provides them with a firewall against the elements of human nature regularly on display during the Nazi era, think again. The story of the Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, in Germany during the time of the Nazis is both sobering and disturbing. People like Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Franciscan priest Maximillian Kolbe are examples in our colloquium of persons who exhibited grace and truth during the Nazi era, but they were voices and persons of resistance. A significant majority of Christian pastors and priests, ministers and bishops, as well as the majority of the good citizens in their their German Christian congregations, not only supported the policies of Hitler and the Nazis but also truly believed that this support was sanctioned and supported by their commitment to their Christian faith. It did not turn out to be that difficult for millions of good Germans to find a way to be both believers in Christianity and supporters of Nazism.
That post is also worth reading in its entirety. Of related interest, Beth Allison Barr tackles a related topic in her discussion of “white Jesus” having blood on his hands, while Libby Anne addresses links between domestic violence and Calvinism. See too John Wilkins on “bad faith” and its symptoms.