SUNKEN PLACE THEOLOGY
Pastor and theologian Delonte Gholston has written an insightful theological and social commentary in Relevant titled: GET OUT CONTAINS A THEOLOGICAL LESSON THAT IS EASY TO MISS. After noting that the first Black writer to win an Oscar for Best Screenplay and that he created a whole new genre of film being called the “social suspense thriller”, Gholston applies the insights to the church.
In part he says:
A SUNKEN-PLACE THEOLOGY
What does a Jordan Peele suspense thriller have to do with the Church or Christian theology? Well, the reality is that black folk in America are eerily familiar with what I call “sunken-place theology.” As Dr. Curtis Steven Wilder makes painfully clear in his book Ebony And Ivy, the American Church, along with elite colleges and universities, was chief among those who trafficked not only in the kidnapping and commodification of black bodies but also in the development of a theology of black bondage.
We saw new reports recently that our founding father George Washington, who had his very own pew at Christ Church in historic Alexandria, Virginia, (once the largest center of human trafficking in America) quite literally had the teeth of black enslaved people in his mouth. While there is no lack of documentation of how so-called Christians in America quite literally kidnapped and sold black bodies, the Church must still reckon with its theology of black exploitation and the ways in which it continues to manifest itself today.
Few capture the kidnapping, slaveholding theology of American Christianity better than former slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass:
I love the pure, peaceable and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land … We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity.
While slavery formally ended in this country 150 years ago, has the blood-stained theology of black exploitation that Douglass described really, truly changed? Theologians like the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Rev. Dr. Willie Jennings and Rev. Dr. J. Cameron Carter have helped us to see that the thinking behind the “Christianity” offered to African slaves and their descendants has proved much more persistent and resilient than we could have ever imagined.
As we have seen with some 81 percent of evangelical Christians (including a number of black clergy) supporting one of the most racist presidential campaigns we have seen in modern history, much of American Christianity continues to specialize in leaving the minds of black folk in the bondage of the sunken place.
Sunken-place theology is a theology that separates the key matters of the soul from the equally important matters of the body, and in America it privileges a soul-obsessed gnostic Christian whiteness over a biblical Christian witness. Thus any theology that is concerned about a person’s soul but could leave their bodies trafficked and sold is a sunken-place theology. Likewise any theology that remains silent as black people’s bodies are overpoliced, over-incarcerated, brutalized and murdered with impunity by the State not only provides cover for brutality but is a sunken-place theology. A sunken-place theology cries “black-on-black crime” while ignoring that black communities have worked for decades to organize against both peer on peer violence and state violence in our community.
The same is true for the Church. Churches that invite black people and people of color into their “multicultural” worship spaces, but implicitly ask black singers to leave gospel music behind, ask black musicians to leave their hammond B-3 behind or suggest that black preachers need to leave the fire of their “hoop” or preaching passion behind is a sunken-place theology. Any time you can walk into so-called “multicultural” worship spaces and not tell the difference between it and a Hillsong or Bethel worship concert (taking nothing away from Bethel and Hillsong), we have embraced a sunken-place theology.
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