Our human siblings of the dominant culture far too often insist upon continuously descending to their lowest estate by committing acts of terror in houses of worship. These terrorist acts seek to dehumanize minoritized people and separate them from any notion of Imago Dei. In the Christian and Jewish traditions, Imago Dei is the theological concept (based on Genesis 1:26-34) that God made the first people in a way that very much resembles God’s own self. The doctrine purports that humanity is made in God’s image and, therefore, the individual is of sacred worth (Lightsey 2015). Further, the doctrine of Imago Dei postulates that humanity in its authenticity is united with God in character and nature—even if brokenness and sin, in some theologies, has transgressed this original nature (Ruether 1993). This same concept is found in some form in every major religious tradition. In light of this, our task—as people made in the image and likeness of God—is to overcome the temptation not to love and appreciate all those whom God has called good (Lightsey 2015). Supremacist terrorist choose to carry out their egregious acts of mayhem and murder in places of worship precisely to eradicate any hope that marginalized people will see themselves as anything other than objects subject to the control of their will.
Black Churches, Synagogues, Temples and Mosques provide marginalized people the space to give voice to their deepest feelings and expression of their theological prophetic imagination. These minoritized spaces with their own forms of religious worship is a world uninvaded and unmolested by the gaze and governance of the dominant culture (Frazier 1974). Religion poses the biggest threat to systems of domination because it emboldens the adherents to see themselves as powerful subjects rather than oppressed objects. The Black church was held as the exemplar institution in the Black Community to resist the opportunity-hoarding of the dominant culture in ways that further disinherit Black people. Opportunity-hoarding, a practice of the dominant group, keeps good things like
education, jobs, and capital within their social network (which is most often predominantly white). This habitual way of acting reproduces racial disadvantage (Glaude 2016). In this way, most religious spaces that serve the marginalized function in ways that promote this life empowerment to the community. The solidarity fostered within these religious communities threatens the dominant power structure to the degree that they are willing to turn these Holy sites into sites of terror.
Arrogant elitism and shameless privilege have come together in the most traumatizing way in our culture and the blatant manifestation of it has come to bare in shootings, bombings, and burnings of houses of worship. Much of the current horror that has been inflicted upon religious sites is connected to a sense of entitlement that has grown among the privileged. When you have been in power and privilege for an extended period of time, anything that seeks to decenter your extreme advantage feels to you like persecution. The response to this rage is manifesting in murder. This is not a new phenomenon, particularly here in the United States of America, where the foundational economy was built on a structure that depended on cheap, exploitable, rightless labor and required the subordination of a whole race of people.
The mere suggestion that those people be given basic human rights was called an attack on the southern way of life (Anderson 2016). The cowardly burning and bombing of churches has long been the path of weak minded people steeped in a culture of dominance and supported by theologians who are complicit in the worse form of spiritual abuse.
So, I write to remind the church of our primary task in this hour as we face the reality of a culture of hate. The purpose of our religious spaces must be to assist people in plumbing the depths of their own humanity, where transcendence, mystery, being, and even love are discovered, and to bring those qualities found in the center of life into the world (Spong 1998). Our communal gatherings must formulate patterns and rituals that bear hope for the liberation of all people. We must not shy away from being the moral voice of the nation and the world, calling all people to carve out a culture of resistance, that speaks truth to power and disallows the principles of justice and holiness to be hijacked, abused, and overlooked. We must have the courage to find the truth in our traditions and then have the courage to be true to the truth.
Non schola, sed vitae,
Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Anderson, Carol. 2016. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. New York: Bloomsbury.
Frazier, E. Franklin. 1974. The Negro Church in America . New York: Schocken Books.
Glaude, Eddie S. 2016. Democracy In Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. New York: Crown Publishers.
Lightsey, Pamela R. 2015. Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology . Eugene, Or: Pickwick Publications.
Ruether, Rosemary. 1993. Sexism and God Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press.
Spong, John Shelby. 1998. Why Christianity Must Change or Die. New York: Harper Collins.