Thursday, August 13, 2015

Multiple Consciousness: Challenging the Sloth of White Theology

Early in his book The Politics of Jesús: A Hispanic Political Theology, Miguel A. De La Torre, Cuban professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology, tells the story of of being pulled over on a drive to New York City for being "under the influence" of being Hispanic. Similarly, when he was younger, a teen working at Burger King, he was stopped and frisked while walking home after his night shift. Both were examples of ethnic profiling.

Neither encounter ended badly, and De La Torre remembers having a rather complex reaction to the events, puzzled to have been stopped but also thankful to the police for keeping his community and streets safe. It was only much later in his life that he realized his own perspective on those encounters, and therefore his self-understanding, were deeply shaped by forces outside of him. "My mind was so colonized that I did not, I could not, see how my identity was being constructed through the gaze of those in authority" (22).

All members of oppressed communities share this in common, to some degree or another: they know how to think out of their own cultural consciousness, and they have learned, been taught, have had forced upon them, the consciousness of the dominant culture also. They exercise at the very least a double consciousness.

De La Torre offers this example: "Religion scholars of color are required to master the theological and ethical analysis of Euroamericans in order to be awarded a coveted PhD, while no one from the dominant culture needs to learn anything about the Hispanic margins to earn that same degree. One can argue therefore that Latino/as (along with all who are marginalized) hold an epistemological privilege over and against Euroamericans. This does not mean they are smarter or holier, just that they master the world of the dominant culture and their own marginalized spaces. Hence, their understanding of Jesus is much broader, richer, thicker, and more complex than those who only master the official Eurocentric canon. The multiple consciousness possessed by the disenfranchised generally makes their perspectives closer to any type of 'truth' that the opinions and views of those who benefit from how society is structured" (17)

I remember vividly sitting in the seminary library memorizing Hebrew vocabulary with classmates from places like Madagascar and India. Not only had these students learned at the very least two languages in addition to their heart language (such as their regional dialect, plus the national language and English to study in the United States); they also needed to learn all the languages required by the Eurocentric canon, which in almost all cases includes German and French. Plus the biblical languages.

The other languages they had already learned did not "count." But more significantly, I as a white student born in the United States was not required to learn any of the languages my international student classmates had learned to earn the degrees they were earning.

This is an example of the extent to which our culture still quietly but surely oppresses those on the margins.

Noticing this teaches me something, if I will listen. Nobody will require me to do anything about it. This is the leisure and freedom inherent to being born into the dominant culture. Significantly, I was not required to read anything at all from the liberation theology canon while in seminary, though I was required to read 'white' systematic theology and the Lutheran confessional documents. But it would be the height of dominant culture privilege to blame my own seminary for not getting the academic training and personal experience I need to overcome my own white fragility. I mean seriously, I have libraries and can travel.

I can take responsibility to do something about any lacunae in my training myself. And I should. I have no excuse not to. I can avoid what I might call white sloth, the sin most endemic to white supremacy.

The form of this responsibility is straightforward--seek multiple consciousness. Listen long and hard enough to inhabit, inasmuch as possible, the perspective of the disenfranchised from their own perspective. Not to colonize it. Not to change it. But instead to learn, as best I can, how to accompany disenfranchised communities in their shared life living in the way of Jesús.

This is why I'm reading De La Torre's book right now. It's why I try to read lots of theologians, be they Palestinian, or African-American, or women, or gender queer. Because as a white male, it will take lots of work, even more work than the disenfranchised, who gain multiple consciousness as a matter of course in their regular lives, for me to be able to think from the perspective of those who are not white and male.

Of course, the more typical way white males attempt to buttress their consciousness is by doubling down on what they already know. The dominant culture enjoys nothing more than attempting to make their single consciousness so thick that they can assume it is the perspective of the whole world. If you want proof, look no further than Donald Trump.

But those on the margins can see this for what it really is--a kind of weak-minded timidity, so thin as to be almost transparent. All the bluster is a flimsy facade.

What I love about De La Torre's new book is its focus on Jesús as Hispanic. Nothing can prepare a white reader for an awareness of how white their Jesus is than reading this book. By the time you finish the book, you are exposed to a Jesús who was colonized, lived the migrant experience, grew up in the barrio, was poor, and, in my favorite new term from the book, an ajiaco. This term, a kind of soup, which ethnographer Fernando Ortiz first used to describe the Cuban diverse experience, will stay with me.

Notice that in the gospels, Jesús frequently speaks in a language outside the dominant language of empire. The gospels quote this often. He speaks Aramaic most frequently, and in a way similar to Spanglish or other bilingual communities, the gospels periodically quote this Aramaic mixed with the Greek.

Here's a funny thing. When lectors read these texts in worship, these short phrases, the Aramaic, are the terms most frequently dropped or avoided by readers. I doubt anyone does this maliciously, they're probably just uncomfortable with pronunciation, but it does illustrate the point. Those who speak the dominant language, those who have ever only learned one language, are deeply uncomfortable allowing their tongues to speak "not their language."

And yet Jesús does. As the living word, his words cannot be contained by Greek, or Latin, or English. Jesús will always sound like the people he is.

Here's a subtle distinction: if you are troubled by the loud protestations of minority communities about their plight under the structures of empire... and notice that even "loud" as an adjective there serves notice of an assumed bias... let me suggest this. You don't have to immediately jump across the aisle and agree with them. But if you are a member of, enjoy the privileges of, the dominant culture, in order to stand on the same ground as the disenfranchised, to be able to speak with any kind of comparable epistemic integrity, you at least have to try and learn one more language. Just one more. Stop wasting breath attempting to inflate the one language you speak into a balloon large enough to dupe you into thinking its the language of the whole world.

Instead, join that great One Jesús in the beauty of bilingüe. Because stubborn shouting in the silos of fortified dominance is a trap, bondage, in comparison to the freedom of many languages, crossing borders, accompañamiento.


  1. Total rubbish. Anti-White and pseudo intellectual refuse unfit to read seriously.

    1. Yep. There goes John trying to make his single perspective "thick" via trash talk.

    2. Yes indeed. Garbage in. Garbage out. Of course, this is racist to the core. Some writers today are so hateful of white European culture and values that they must keep banging the drum for this old tired theme. . I repeat. Rubbish. I am sick of hearing this repeated nonsense from " oppressed minorities" who have benefited from the contributions of white people.