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Theodicy and Racism
By Mary Susan Pisano

Hebrews 12:1-17

Theodicy, or the problem of why God “allows” evil had a bad reputation in my seminary.  Suffering obviously wasn’t a good thing, and we were encouraged as future pastors to steer clear of the kinds of platitudes we all grew up hearing from the ministers in our childhood.  I think that my professors had their hearts in the right place.  They wanted to make us the best pastors we could possibly be and evaluating and commenting on other peoples’ pain is not at all pastoral. 

And when I think about someone else’s suffering, my sister and brother-in-law and nephew for example, and what they went through as my sister took ten years to die from a rare form of cancer that eventually became untreatable, or my father-in-law who retired from a career that he loved into a short facsimile of life that was filled with hospital visits and blood transfusions accompanied by my helpless mother-in-law, I absolutely cannot evaluate, comment on or render an opinion regarding “what God must be thinking” in these circumstances. I have no clue.  I cannot come to a conclusion that these circumstances are either good or bad.  It seems as though they just are.  Pain and grief and death are in my face and the only way out is through.  The seemingly ‘evil’ things (cancer), processes (death), or circumstances (the peculiar burden of companioning the dying) must gain some other meaning, must prove psychologically or emotionally useful and valuable, must find an appropriate place in our lives lest both we and our loved ones be permanently diminished.  

It is obvious that some transformation must occur regarding the ‘evil’ that comes to us from outside of ourselves but what about the ‘evil’ inside?  Our sin?  What kind of meaning are we to make of our own penchant to ignore, avoid, or deny what we know to be true in our own hearts?  What about the unconscious, as the psychologists and psychiatrists of the last century called it?  What about our unchallenged stereotypes, biases and assumptions and all the other things that we don’t know that we know?  Are these things part of our sin as well?

One of the most important aspects of being part of the Race Action Network for me has been helping other people like me to come to terms with their participation in the systems and cultural constructs that keep us comfortable in the status quo.  This means that I am obliged to give up calling myself or identifying myself as white.  I am obligated to become acutely aware of the ways that I benefit from being identified as white. And it is my duty to help those who still identify with this man-made construct to better understand the biblical and theological reasons to move towards a healthier and whole-er (holier!) way.  In the short time that I have been co-moderator of this network, we have developed a vision, a mission, a few goals and a concept statement that names our obligation to this presbytery as well and can be starkly described in Hebrews 12 as “lay[ing] aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely” and “run[ning] with perseverance the race that is set before us.”  We are working to undo, as much as we can, the effects on innocent others of this weight and this sin in which we continue to participate.  I believe it is a sin to know about and to do nothing to undermine this man-made concept of race and its operation in our society and our world.  We are coming to understand, perhaps too slowly but inexorably, that United States history, our history both individually and collectively, is inextricably bound with the history of the African people we chose to enslave.  Throughout this history, one group has consistently escaped the deadly consequences of this great evil and one has not.  One group has better understood the nature of our bound-ness and one has remained ignorant from choice.  Why has God allowed this evil of slavery to occur and the evils of racism and white privilege to continue?

Can we, have we, somehow come to know the mind of God regarding this issue?  You may have noticed that this time I have not put quotation marks around evil and this is because I believe that we can unequivocally, universally agree that slavery of all kinds and of any kind is evil.  I also think the reason that this has become a worldwide value is because it is something, a belief, an attitude, a way of thinking that is generated from within.  It is something that we have done to one another; we can see those who have done it and who have had it done to them.  They have names; they have bodies; they have histories.  They are us.  We can each one locate that place within that enslaves and has been enslaved if we choose to be honest.  So, no, we have not uncovered God’s motives or reasons but we have come to know ourselves as human beings better and better. 

The writer of Hebrews asks us to look to Jesus, our brother, and to consider Jesus as we run our race, pointing out that we have not resisted our own sin to the point of shedding our own blood as he did.  We escaped the deadly consequences, remember?  The author reminds us that God disciplines us through our suffering, not a popular theological position but this point of view has merit if we look at our own experience, if we volunteer to make meaning from our own suffering.  “Endure trials for the sake of discipline… God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share God’s holiness.  Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”  When we know our own evil and refuse to denounce it and repent, we will suffer.  We DO suffer!  We forgo the peaceful fruits of righteousness when we step out of the process of spiritual discipline, when we refuse to make meaning of our personal suffering and begin to look around for evidence of these fruits instead of into the eyes of those with whom we walk this journey of discovery.  Looking into the eyes of those to whom we are bound, holding their hands, bearing their burdens will show us who we really are if we care to learn.  Verse 13 is a mandate to ensure that “what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.”  We must continue to look, continue to run our race, continue to accept the discipline of suffering in order to be healed.  God does not ‘allow’ suffering, we accept it by our refusal to look within and to change, to allow ourselves to be (re)made wholly(holy).   This is how I make meaning out of my suffering.  I cannot presume to make meaning out of someone else’s suffering.  Jesus spoke to each of us when He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”  I must accept spiritual discipline daily, refuse to accept suffering as suffering only daily, and make meaning of my life daily, in order to follow Jesus. 

In verse 14, we are reminded that we live in community and that our community pursues peace and holiness(wholeness)  in order to come closer to God.  I sin when I continue to accept the suffering of my friends and neighbors, my brothers and sisters, while refusing to be spiritually disciplined myself.  I sin when I allow the root of bitterness that we have been warned against to spring up and it IS causing trouble.  I continue to elbow ‘others’ out of God’s generosity  and even their God-given identity and personhood, by tacitly endorsing the practices of our law enforcement agencies and failing to challenge the ‘right’ of private citizens to ‘stand their ground.’  We refuse “the peaceful fruits of righteousness,” the meaningful lives we might have and make with one another, if we continue to live with and accept the kind of segregation and racism that simply ‘happens’ on Sunday morning. 

I want us to change and to do it together as a presbytery.  I believe that we are addressing racism.  I believe that we are coming to understand the implications of our privilege.  But let’s also take the next step and expose our fragility.  We can trade it in for some peaceful, righteous fruits, the stamina and the perseverance we will continue to need to run our race.



You can read Robin DiAngelo's piece titled White Fragility in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy here.


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