A Neo-Free Methodism: Shadow-Work as a Model for Racial Justice

May 29, 2020

Having the tools to heal pervasive and spiritually damaging racism requires our best thinking and practice.  In this work by Free Methodist scholar Rev. Dr. Liz Simmons, as a specialist in spiritual formation, we find a persuasive adaptation of Jungian “shadow work” to assist us in identifying and repenting from these suppressed and repressed projections.

Simmons work is stated clearly in her abstract:

“The increase of racial and ethnic minorities in the United States is on a trajectory to shift the demographic of the Church over time to majority non-white. Because of the abolitionist spirit of its genesis, Free Methodist church contexts have the historical and theological foundations to become hosts for multicultural communities and culturally engaging conversations leading to racial justice. The homogeneous demographic of many Free Methodist churches today, however, results in blindness toward privilege and resistance toward social engagement, reinforcing an insulated identity narrative.”(x)

“…this dissertation seeks to answer this question: What could it look like for white people to do their own internal work to take responsibility for their part in racial justice, particularly in majority-culture churches where the surrounding community is also majority white? First, this research recovers and analyzes the inception of the Free Methodist movement in order to understand the gap between its abolitionist beginnings and its present reality. Second, this work identifies the need for a theology of liberation in Free Methodist churches by reviewing the strengths and challenges of Liberation Theology. Third, this research engages the imprecatory psalms and what their presence in Scripture means for our engagement with our own emotion. Finally, this research analyzes Carl Jung’s understanding of the human shadow in order to consider the implications of shadow-work on race relations in the Church. Ultimately, this author intends to develop a strategy for church leadership in majority-culture Free Methodist contexts to give vision for a way forward in the efforts of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Church.” (x – xi)

The research provides a thorough and compelling presentation for what could be accomplished were we to take seriously the resistance within ourselves individually and collectively within the denomination and nation as a whole.  Simmons explains:

“There is an internal work that precedes a practice of lament in the church—or minimally, goes hand-in-hand with it—and its result is a greater sense of familiarity with anger, sadness, fear, and joy.

Discomfort with harder emotions can cause majority-culture Christians to cast those emotions into the shadow—for psychologist Carl Jung, the shadow is that which is unconscious to us—and then to negatively project those harder emotions onto those who bear the right to be angry, to feel rage, or to fear. According to Jung, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.”5 He continues, “By shadow I mean the ‘negative’ side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide, together with the insufficiently developed functions and the content of the personal unconscious.”6 Throughout this work, I suggest that a Christian’s inability to acknowledge and reckon with her personal shadow thwarts any attempt a local church may make toward racial justice; further, the US-American Church’s [read: Euro-American] failure to consider its collective and national shadow “takes the form of scapegoating, racism, or enemy-making.”7 Without shadow-work, without getting at what lies below the surface of human consciousness, there can be only failed attempts at true justice.” (3-4)

Providing an overview of the history of the Wesleyan tradition and Free Methodist in particular, Simmons notes in a section titled: B. T. Roberts, Charles Finney, and the Abolitionist Movement

“Three streams emerged in the abolitionist movement, accommodating culture by varying degrees. The “ultraist view” understood all slaveholding as a sin against God and humanity, and those who participated “had no further rights to fellowship in the believing community.”42 The second view agreed with the first but held that slavery ought to be abolished through proper channels of government and legislation, so this view had more patience for the process than the ultraist view. The third view asserted that “Gradually, without radical upheaval,” slaves “could be assisted educationally, religiously, culturally, until slavery was abolished.”43 This view valued what could be done for slaves in the meantime over and against the urgent pursuit of abolition in the immediate. While there were many white Methodists at the time that resonated with the abolitionist movement, one pastor, B. T. Roberts, emerged as having taken hold of the ultraist view with an undivided constancy.”

The solution to racism is difficult and attempts have often caused more difficulty than success.  For example, Simmons notes:

“Far too often, those in the majority culture begin moving toward reconciliation long before people of color have had the opportunity to express the truth of the pain behind their lived experience.” (46)

“Not only did US-American theology fail to address the lived experience of the suffering of blacks in the United States, but—if it had anything to say at all—it also spoke without fervor or zeal. Cone writes, “When it has tried to speak for the poor, it has been so cool and calm in its analysis of human evil that it implicitly disclosed whose side it was on.”14 Black Theology, and its neighbor, Liberation Theology, has emerged as a necessary response to the experience of oppression. The vilest sin of US-American theology is its compatibility with racism. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news, but if it is not good news for everybody, then it is not good news for anybody. James H. Cone defines the two failures of US-American theology as “defining the theological task independently of black suffering, or by defining Christianity as compatible with white racism.”(49)

“The holistic nature of true liberation results in freedom for both parts, oppressor and oppressed. This is how the Gospel becomes good news for everyone. The interconnectedness of life in God means that what impacts even a single part impacts the whole. While some remain oppressed, none can be free. In his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian author and educator Paulo Freire describes the relationship between oppressor and oppressed. He writes, ‘As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanized. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression. It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors.'” (61)

After exploring the lessons of lament in the Psalms, Simmons ends with the utilization of Jungian Shadow Work within the church to bring the darkness to light and truth to freedom.  She says, in part:

The Human Shadow

The shadow can be described as the parts of the self that are hidden, repressed or denied, or as “the location for the hidden or repressed aspects of the self.”21 Humans put into the shadow anything perceived to be out of step with what is expected socially, whether by culture, by families of origin, or even by the collective unconscious of society. The shadow is not inherently evil, but it is, as Jung has described, “simply the whole unconscious.”22 Robert Bly describes the human shadow as “the long bag we drag behind us….” (103-104)

“The problem with the shadow is not in having one, for “everything with substance casts a shadow,” but that what gets put into the bag does not remain there neutral but regresses and devolves.26 Robert Bly writes, “Every part of our personality that we do not love will become hostile to us….”

“Ken Wilber writes that humans “learn slowly, inexorably, that the key lies in the dark, that if we could embrace that very thing we most despise in ourselves or others, it might make us whole.”29 This process of embracing that which we despise most is how we learn, as Wilber writes, to “re-own our projections.”30 Shadow-work is essentially the work of taking back the traits and characteristics humans have negatively—and sometimes positively—projected onto others and taking responsibility for them as our own, as belonging to us….”

“The human shadow is not simply the result of one individual hiding, repressing or denying parts of him or herself; humanity also has a collective shadow, and perhaps for the purposes of this work, a national shadow. In this way, racism is understood as United States’ long shadow, and the parts of the collective self that have been put into the long bag dragging behind us result in racism. As Reeves writes, racism “is a form of shadow projection, in which a dominant segment of society refuses to see a disowned aspect of its own nature,” so it “sees [the disowned aspect of the self] in a racial or cultural minority” instead…”(106)

“Unpacking the United States’ long bag of racism is not unlike “unpacking the invisible knapsack” of white privilege, for in Peggy McIntosh’s work, the invisible knapsack carried by the majority culture is filled with the ingredients of shadowed humanity.33 In the knapsack one can find power, access, mobility, an ability to improve one’s situation, common humanity with others, and a basic trust from others. These elements carried unbeknownst to the majority culture are shadowed, essentially part of the collective unconscious of dominant society….Racism, the systematic oppression of one race to the advantage of another, is understood best through Ibram X. Kendi’s more nuanced approach in How to be an Antiracist. He writes, “Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequalities.”(107)

“The problem with this racial scapegoating, however, lies in the complexity of power. While the tendency to project the unwelcome parts of oneself onto another is common to humanity and is not tied to any particular race, shadow-projection on the part of the majority culture has serious implications for minorities and recipients of the majority culture’s projections. The majority culture has the power to define other groups in light of those projections versus the reality of who they are, thereby rewriting the narrative of identity.” (118)

“Racism ultimately is about the self; the lack of ability to see where it begins and ends comes from a shadowed personhood, and that shadowed personhood shows up in systems, policies, and hierarchies for the preservation of the self. This is precisely why the imprecatory psalms were canonized for instruction; they teach something about the self as the self is found in covenantal relationship with God.” (120)

Simmons concludes her work with these thoughts:

“Through weekend retreats and spiritual direction where people are invited to get their projections out on the carpet, healing can come. As it now exists, many majority-culture churches in the US are not safe places for shadow-work; however, in local bodies of believers, outside four walls, shadow-work is already taking place and allowing for healing to come. How this kind of work applies to race is significant and unexplored….” (122)

“It is important to note that the focal point at this stage in the work is on white people doing their own inner work in order to take responsibility for their part in racial justice, but perhaps the focal point on white work is a necessary preliminary step. In some ways the emptying of power for the majority culture means there is a long way to fall from the height of privilege. Recalling DiAngelo’s words, “White racism is ultimately a white problem and the burden for interrupting it belongs to white people.”61 While shadow-work is a human endeavor, perhaps its role in the Church is the work of interruption. Though shadow-work may not be able to go the full-distance that racial justice requires, it certainly has the potential to awaken the humanness required to even begin.” (123)

“One can think of the cycles of reformation in the Church; perhaps the Church is sitting on the edge of another wave of necessary change. What does it look like for white people to do their work in a majority-culture church surrounded by majority-culture communities? Soong-Chan Rah has written extensively regarding the role of lament in the Church. He writes, “What is needed is a corporate lament—a corporate acknowledgement of the reality of suffering and pain from which many of us in the United States have benefitted.”11 Rah’s reflections emerge from a place of assumed empathy, that people know how to compassionately respond to distress because they have the ability to feel what another person may be feeling. The call to lament in the Church is more than a call to change a few components of Sunday morning worship. It involves transformation of the whole person; to step into an attempt at lament without the inner work necessary for its embodiment is to do further harm to those who are hurting.” (127)

“The compatibility of US-American theology with racism is epidemic. There are few places in the US-American church where the sin of indifference is not brought to bear…” (131)

“The problem with the Western individual view of liberation theology is that it does not yet understand its own role in the systems of oppression that exist. Because it does not know its role, the temptation is to have a savior complex, to move into the position of liberator instead of ally, further disempowering the oppressed. On the flipside, the assumed extremes of liberation theology and its political agenda in particular can also result in a demonizing of liberation theology, fearing its perceived coup-like nature….” (133)

“Shadow-work must be engaged through spiritual direction and through intensive weekend retreats that are specifically designed and oriented to help people move into embodiment in order to face the disowned parts of the self. This begins first with church leadership, and as leaders receive spiritual direction emphasizing shadow-work and engage in shadow-work weekend retreats, they can learn how to help others do the same and orient their worship services and church programming accordingly. The implementing of this kind of work requires longitudinal change; shadow-work is an extensive and ongoing process, and creating brave spaces is paramount for participants to re-own the disowned parts of the self. While the church leadership does not currently recognize that there is a need for the church to engage in racial justice, the impact of spiritual direction and shadow-work weekends will inevitably result in leading from a place of being more fully human, which is a necessary starting point.” (142)

“A Free Methodist Church context has the theological and historical foundations to become a host for anti-racist work by engaging its role in the work of justice through shadow-work as a model for the recovery and liberation of the whole person. Shadow- work is simply another way to think about discipleship, for the process of becoming more fully and faithfully human like Jesus is recalling all that God intended by making humans in God’s image.” (144)

To access the entire work click here.