Theological Diversity is a Matter of Justice, Not Aesthetics

This last week, the misnamed Relevant magazine published a list of 10 books you should read by 25. These works naturally took on a Christian perspective, books meant to aid faith and help spiritual development. Aside from almost completely ignoring fiction (with the exception of one book), the list was also almost entirely comprised of white male authors. The women on the list were white women, with the exception of one female co-author, who is Asian. One could argue that the Bible, which was cheesily #1 on the list, is a diverse library of books by people of color, and that is true. But as Holy Scriptures, the Bible lands itself in a different category of influence than a typical work of fiction or non-fiction that you’d find on bookshelves nowadays.

I don’t think I could find a better example to pinpoint precisely what’s wrong with white American Christianity nowadays. It’s white. And it’s male. And it pointedly refuses to realize it. It is the theology that does not realize it is embedded within whiteness, within maleness, that does the most harm.

One of the major objections I frequently see to the works of liberation theologians – whether black, queer, Latinx, disabled or otherwise – is that they are centering their “special status” too much. James H. Cone centers his blackness. Queer theologians center their sexuality or gender. And so on and so on.

The dynamic here is the invisibility of whiteness. People performing white theology don’t even notice that their whiteness is a major part of how they interact with the world and how they view and treat their God. White theology prizes systems that center whiteness and spends its time denying that these systems even exist. This is how Douglas Wilson – a man who says same-sex marriage is worse than slavery – can be praised by John Piper for “not having a racist bone in his body.” Theology developed and centered around whiteness benefits from pretending that whiteness as a construct does not exist.

The invisibility of white theology lends itself to white supremacy, relying on the concepts of “plain reading” and “objectivity” to develop theologies and systems that benefit whiteness. Forgiveness becomes about individual effort, not systemic justice. Mercy is granted for every sin, except those that challenge whiteness. The financial conditions of our churches reflect white priorities and white savior approaches to the world.

Because whiteness is at once a construct and the system around which our world is organized, theology that is going to be effective against injustice needs to decenter whiteness. We need to challenge existing systems – as Christ did – to experience the vast array of what God has created and the justice that is at the center of God’s heart.

Diversity is about justice and mercy and the heart of who God is. Diversity is necessary for the pursuit of holistic grace and mercy and justice and understanding. It is necessary to our faith and to the deepening of our sense of God’s love for the world.

Thus Relevant’s white list is not merely an aesthetic problem. It’s a problem of deepest justice. This exclusion cuts deeper than mere representation, to the point of contributing to a white supremacist outlook on the world and on God. If your theological input is all white and all male, your church is going to reflect these same values.

Diversity in the community of God is about justice, about dismantling white supremacy. A lack thereof is an affront of God’s people.