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Bowens-Wheatley Sets Stage for Continuing Conversation on Race, Class and Theology at Urban Church Conference

(Chicago, IL, March 10, 2001) Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley gave opening comments on the subject of race, class and theology for the Urban Church Conference in its second full day of meetings in Chicago. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley serves as adult programs director for religious education on the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) staff. Previously, she worked with UUA congregations in Austin,TX and at New York City.

Rev. Bowens-Wheatley said: "When Tracey [Robinson-Harris] asked me to reflect on the broad topic of this conference, my first inclination was to decline, because of the impossibility of saying what needs to be said in the short time I was designated. But when I began to think about the relationship between race, class, and theology, I realized that for me, it boiled down to three points-three "simple" points. As I thought about it, I had to acknowledge that theology is never simple. Nevertheless, here they are:

  1. The world was created for all of us to live together and share its resources. At the heart of the universe is love-love for all creation. Or to proclaim the language of a theist, God created the world in love, and with concern for the well-being of all of us.

  2. Not everybody agreed with God. Some people thought they deserved more than their fair share, and began to systematically exploit and dominate others at will. In this country, it was manifested not only as personal superiority, but as colonialism, slavery, neo-colonialism, and imperialism-which in these modern times, gets translated as "globalism."

  3. These systems of exploitation are supported by racism and classism. These and the other "-isms" are rooted in the practice of "other-ing;" that is, holding up some people as superior, and putting others down as inferior. To make someone "the other" is a form of domination, power-over (rather than power with …). Most institutions in this country, including religious institutions, have been part of a system of structural domination, which is a form of violence. Structural violence is evil, and thus it is a theological problem that calls religious people to respond. The Rev. Barbara Hebner suggests that the antidote to domination is "the one and only commandment:" thou shalt not other, which she says, covers absolutely everything, and how to treat everybody (and here I would add no matter their class, racial or ethnic background.

"We have forgotten who we are-that we are brothers and sisters in covenantal relationship with each other and with the creative forces of the universe. We have bought into the dominant narrative: that individual effort will lift people out of class or racial oppression; that individual interests are more important than the interest of the whole community; that capitalism is the best-indeed the only-system that "works" and we could go on and on. But where is justice?

"I believe that what we need is a new narrative-a theology that empowers people to remember what Dr. King said: that none of is free until all of us are free; and to understand that we can unite across all the artificial boundaries that divide us from each other and from God.

"The new narrative cannot ignore the fact that we live in a capitalist society, and to a great extent, are controlled by it. Latter day capitalism has, in effect, become a false God, which the power brokers hold up as the answer to all our troubles.

"Let me mention briefly some of the factors I think prevent us from remembering who we are and why we are here, that we are sisters and brothers-even across class, race, ethnicity, gender, or other differences. And here I'm going to cite two of the nearly thirty theologians, ministers, scholars, and activists who participated in a consultation on Antiracism and Theology sponsored by the UUA this past January, which I had the privilege of convening. (I should mention that these papers and several of the responses will be published under the title, "Spiritual Resources for the Journey.")

"The intersection of class and race, it seems, are among the most difficult conversations we will engage in, partly because they are theological problems. Several of the participants at the consultation said that what inhibits us from addressing race (and by extension, class) is fear. The opposite of love is not hate, but fear. Fear of sustained engagement with others, said participant Paul Rasor, is one of "the barriers we erect around ourselves in the name of individual autonomy". It is what keeps us from loving those we label 'the other.

"Rebecca Parker's paper reflected a similar sentiment-that if we are to address racism and classism in a meaningful way, then we need a theology that brings us into relationships of deep engagement with those we have labeled "the other." Such a theology is often transformative.

"The gap between rich and poor, between people of different class, ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds continues to carve walls of division between us. The way out, I believe, begins with remembering who we really are and why we are here; that we are spiritual beings, connected to something larger and more trust-worthy than ourselves or the differences that divide us. If we want to see a world in which we are not divided by race and class, then we must also work to create a social and an economic system rooted in justice. But to work for this change, we must do more than sing "Where is our holy church where race and class unite." We must answer the question with conviction, with a prophetic voice, and with action that lead to justice."

Following Rev. Bowens-Wheatley's remarks, conference participants began exploration of a variety of questions for consideration in small groups and shared their feedback as part of the continuing dialogue on the subject of race, class, and theology. The Urban Church Conference concludes on Sunday, March 11.

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Last updated on Thursday, August 23, 2012.

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