by Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D.,
Sometime the greatest contribution a scholar can make is to ask the right question. This was the case with William Jones in his 1973 pivotal work Is God A White Racist? We still haven’t grappled fully with the implications of Jones’ question and the arguments of his text. But by daring to even pose the question, Jones insists we engage two concepts that are afraid to interrogate: practices of racism within Christianity and the justification of racism by Christian doctrine and tradition. By asking the question, Jones inspired generation of scholars, myself included, to think more deeply about our faith, our religious traditions, and our nation’s ugly racial and religious history.
It is a question from theologian and mystic Howard Thurman’s 1949 work, Jesus and the Disinherited, which continues to haunt me, as both a scholar and Christian. He asks: “What, then, is the word of the religion of Jesus to those who stand with their backs against the wall?” I think how we answer this question reveals volumes about the efficacy or inefficacy of our faith. Thurman writes that: “there must be the clearest possible understanding of the anatomy of the issues” facing those “with their backs against the wall.”
And therein lies our failure as people of faith. We are not interested in the clearest possible understanding of the structures, powers, and principalities faced by those in need, in poverty, in despair, on drugs, depressed, lonely, or hurting. We seem callously disinterested in the root causes and systematic injustices which create a permanent underclass or render people unable to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” We are far too ready to prescribe more prayer, more faith, more sacrifice to those who are suffering. We are far too ready to insist on personal moral failings or to demonize a lack of willpower or lack of motivation to those who live at the bottom rung of society.
I wonder why we are afraid to ask deeper, more probing questions of ourselves, of our nation, even of our faith. Is our faith so weak that it cannot stand a forceful line of questioning? And so I paraphrase the underlying questions I hear in Thurman’s words: what do the words of sacred scripture mean for people who are in hurting places? What does Jesus have to say to the wounded and the outcast? For those who are among the “least of these,” what can this faith provide? Can it provide anything of substance? Is religion sufficient as a remedy for those who have their backs against the wall?
I count myself at home in faith communities, even those outside of Christianity, which dare to ask the questions which probe, challenge, and push. I may never discover answers to some of my questions, but I always want to be among those who are unafraid to ask.
Dr. Yolanda Pierce is the Elmer G. Homrighausen Associate Professor of African American Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, and Liaison with the Princeton University Center for African American Studies. She blogs @ Reflections of an Afro-Christian Scholar