De-centering whiteness in Methodism

June 13th, 2023

Dear United Methodists: after three resolutions passed at every Jurisdictional Conference last November, it’s time to talk about de-centering whiteness in our theology and biblical interpretation. 

In my former article, Theophilus, I wrote about how liberal and progressive theological perspectives are inherently anti-African. Now I see that there is an attempt to establish a U.S. Regional Conference using similar contextualization arguments that the Southern Methodists made in establishing the jurisdictional system, which amounts to global segregation. This system, if approved at the next General Conference is nothing more than a Trojan horse, in that it will assure American Methodists will never be under the leadership of the African church, unless it is on their own terms. And those terms include LGBTQIA+ inclusion, even though the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference was supposed to resolve the impasse on this matter. But, since some Americans did not get their way, the battle continues.

United Methodists in the United States of America learned a Western epistemology at the higher educational institutions that they attended, and many American Methodists believe that “white is right,” and therein lies the problem. What some of my fellow American Methodists have failed to realize is that their perspective is a nationalist one. They are operating as though The United Methodist Church (UMC) is still a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant denomination with international members in Africa, Asia, and Europe, instead of it being the global church that it already is. Some American Methodists effectively see the UMC as a multinational corporation, with its headquarters in the United States, and thus the decisions of the church should be made by Americans. 

African and Asian Methodists generally subscribe to an Eastern epistemology. So, what’s the difference? In the East, theology and biblical interpretation are done in community, not individually, as is often the focus in the West. While there were some factions in the early church (ArianismDonatism, ManichaeismMarcionism), most disputes in the East were brought before a council. Africans, Asians, and Europeans had a much more equitable relationship in these councils, even though the center of power eventually became the bishop of Rome. In other words, North Africans and Western Asians had much more influence in the ecumenical councils, and on Christianity as a whole prior to the Arab Muslim conquestsof the seventh century.

Centering Whiteness

Here is the centering whiteness game plan—discredit the African and Asian theologians and biblical scholars of the early church by using a hermeneutic of suspicion, and promote the European theologians of the Protestant Reformation, particularly the 19th century German theologians. Methodist seminaries have been centering whiteness by teaching God, Jesus, and Science as the holy trinity, often to the near-total exclusion of the Holy Spirit. 

Among American Methodists the knowledge of African contributions to Christian theology in antiquity is limited to the Gnostic Gospels. Very few know that a “black dwarf” named Athanasius was exiled numerous times for defending orthodoxy, or that the canon of the New Testament was established at the Council of Carthage in North Africa. There is also a false equivalency drawn between orthodoxy and power. Arian bishops rose to power in Alexandria even after they were defeated by orthodox believers at the Council of Nicaea, and it is believed that Emperor Constantine himself subscribed to Arian Christianity and not orthodoxy. 

But there is yet another problem: John Wesley read and wrote about the African and Asian theologians of the Early Church. Some of the tenets of Wesleyan theology are rooted in the writings of Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers, like our beloved doctrine of Christian perfection (theosis). Furthermore, John Wesley did not subscribe to the historical criticism of Dutch philosopher-theologians Erasmus and Baruch Spinoza.

How do many United Methodist theologians square this information with the Western Eurocentric promotion of historical criticism? They simply don’t. They choose instead to promote liberation theology—a reaction to historical criticism, yet still strangely dependent upon it—in addition to historical criticism. While liberation theology seems noble in its attempts to promote marginalized voices in the field, it is also critical of orthodoxy (which is code for the African and Asian Church Fathers) and is thus dependent upon Western Eurocentrism to exist. Cecil Cone addressed this paradox in his book Identity Crisis in Black Theology.

Now that many churches have disaffiliated, and some have joined the Global Methodist Church, it is time for us to deal with White liberal racism. While the General Commission on Religion and Race is to be commended for broaching the subject of progressive racism by interviewing Robin DiAngelo on her new book Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm, they did not go far enough to address the topic of inherent racism that exists in the theological curricula at United Methodist seminaries. How else could one ignore all of the statistical data available about same-sex marriage around the world, and come to the conclusion that resisting harm means ignoring the teaching of Jesus on marriage? By centering whiteness in theological education, that’s how. In other words, by teaching “modern theology” (read: Western European) as normative, while critiquing orthodoxy (African, Asian, Eastern European).

Colonized Mentality and Human Sexuality

Recently, the United Methodist Africa Forum (UMAF) was developed as a reaction to the work of the Africa Initiative, which is influenced by the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA). While UMAF is devoted to remaining a part of The UMC, they have denounced gay rights as incompatible with Christian teaching, which is what the African bishops stated in their letter to the UMC in 2015. 

Some American Methodists believe that their own view on same-sex marriage is rooted in Christian love, and that the African delegates were influenced by the WCA to vote for the Traditional Plan. Undergirding the African delegates’ votes are the colonial laws against homosexuality that the Europeans introduced after the Scramble for Africa, some Americans claim. African American scholars have documented the proof of same-sex relationships in pre-colonial Africa. However, one cannot help but notice the silence on the colonial laws against the more common practice of polygamy. Listening to Americans tell the story today, homosexuality was rampant across the African continent prior to the colonial period, and polygamy was not that bad. Many of my American friends would be shocked to learn that researchers have discovered places on the African continent where homosexuality is not practiced!

According to the Human Rights Campaign, same-sex marriage is legal in just 34 countries around the world, and the overwhelming majority populations of these countries are European, or descendants of Europeans. In other words, black and brown countries around the world have largely rejected same-sex marriage. This opposition has even been realized on the floor of the General Assembly of the United Nations, where the Western understanding of marriage has been rejected by the East repeatedly. 

Eboo Patel, a young interfaith leader, cautioned the UMC in its response to the decision that was made at the Special Session of the General Conference in an article in Inside Higher Ed. Patel challenges the UMC to: 

“explain the reason that the overwhelming number of African and Asian delegates voted against LGBTQ inclusion without resorting to racist and colonialist tropes, by which I mean things like, ‘They were duped into this by white people’ (it denies people agency) or ‘Just wait fifty years and their views will be inclusive like ours are’ (it assumes Western ways are the end of history and the zenith of civilization).” 

I heard some of the General Conference delegates use these exact words. Unfortunately, these delegates are not degreed in African or Asian Studies, and they have an assumption that Africans, in particular, have a colonized mentality. However, the American Methodist understanding of resistance and rebellion of the anticolonial movement in Africa is deficient at best. Additionally, the research on the growth of Christianity in Africa shows that it is a post-colonial phenomenon. Lamin Sanneh and David Barrett have also articulated that Christianity grew rapidly across the African continent after the wars of independence in the 1960s, which runs counter to the American and European missionary narratives. John Mbiti’s research shows that Africans indigenized Christianity upon receiving it. Make no mistake about it, those who subscribe to the tenets of the European Enlightenment influenced theology on African Christianity, including the historical critical method, are the ones with a colonized mentality. 

The historical record shows the Christian Kingdom of the Kongo was established before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, thus dispelling the myth that Christianity was established in Sub-Saharan Africa during the slavery and colonial periods. And there is research to support Christianity in Nubia (Sudan) during the same time period. Research is being done on the works of Muslim scholar Ibn al-Dawadari by Fuller Theological Seminary’s Vince Bantu, who puts Christianity in Mali in the 1300s, and Harvard University’s Suzanne Preston Blier has also documented Christianity in Nigeria before 1492.

More importantly, please understand that the black church is not with you. We will not be used as pawns in your battle against white conservatives, as the late Reverend Calvin Butts has previously stated. And we reject your Western Eurocentric interpretation of scripture, including on marriage. Most in the black church interpret the scriptures in the same manner that Harriett Tubman read the Exodus narrative when she crossed rivers to freedom, literally and spiritually. Just like the ancient Egyptians read the scriptures at the School of Alexandria. Additionally, most African American Christians—who are politically liberal yet socially conservative—came to the same conclusion that the African delegates did at the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference.

Finally, it is worth noting that Christianity is an Eastern religion founded by a Semitic Jew in the Roman territory of Galilee in the first century of the Common Era, and that there are no Americans in the scripture! I would recommend that every United Methodist, indeed all Christians read the book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes to gain a better understanding of how centering whiteness corrupts our theology and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures even still.

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