Thesis Ideas: Defining Group Identities

One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is group identity, and what group identities we cling to, which we shed, and when and why we do either. In my thesis work, where I’m attempting to speak about the group of people of I grew up in – white, working class, rural, Protestant, conservative – the issue of group identities plays a big role. In essence, the work I am doing is asking why these people claim certain identities first, and background others.

Practically, I want to explore how to bring to the fore those “other” identities, before and even in place of the the ones currently foregrounded. The identities I see embraced first and foremost – in public, at least – are conservative, Republican, American, white. These are first order identities that establish notions of loyalty and, more importantly, distinguish who those “out” are – in essence, the groups that will be treated as a threat.

Crucially, this isn’t unique to white, working class, conservative people. On the left, people’s first identities are progressive, Democrat, liberal, among others. In America today, everyone does this. Our identities are dictated by political and social commitments, and we define ourselves against others who are in groups not our own.

What I want to do in my thesis is get my people – who almost all identify further down the list as some form of Christian – to make that their primary – maybe their only – group identity. I think this is what the Gospel demands of us. As Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This isn’t to minimize the importance of difference in people. Especially in a time when global capitalism demands that everyone conform to certain ideals of human existence in order to get ahead, the vital differences – and the resulting multiversity of experiences and ideas and appearances and talents and beauty that is produced – is crucial to lifting up and making whole each and every being.

But, when it comes to how we define ourselves in relation to other people and the way those definitions shape our interactions with others, then the call of Christianity to knock down all barriers of difference and avoid othering one another becomes a moral imperative.

So what it means to say that, in Christ, we are no longer Jew or Greek or slave or free, but rather that we are disciples of Christ, is to say that we are human, first and foremost, because Christ was also human, but that we are also all caught up in the Divine, just as Christ was. That is what defines us, and makes us who we are. And that knowledge – that feeling of being irreducibly human – comes before anything else, in how we think of ourselves, and how we think of others as well.

 

Advertisements

My Thesis Proposal

Here it is: my completed thesis proposal, which I presented to the MTS colloquium here at Garrett a little over a week ago. This is a proposal for the direction my thesis is going, but does not lock me into anything. From here, my advisor and I will work towards narrowing and tweaking my ideas some more, before I start writing in earnest in the spring. I’ve already gotten great feedback from my peers and professors. I look forward to any feedback from you as well!

Tentative Title

A God Who Can Suffer and Die: Putting Moltmann’s Crucified God to Work in Rural America

Introduction

Rural white Americans are suffering from the effects of capitalism and white supremacy, at both an individual and a communal level. Alongside that suffering, many midwestern Protestant churches fail to address congregants’ suffering, despair and spiritual malaise. Attached to a message that is individualistic, enmeshed in secular conservative politics, and overly obsessed with status, success and serving as the arbiter of social status, these churches no longer espouse a theology that can provide meaningful answers to people in need of direction.

Instead, they channel their hurt and anger inwards, via self-loathing, depression and eventually, suicide and other forms of physical self-harm, or outwards, towards their families, their co-workers, or, at the ballot box, towards any “other” onto whom they can project their hurt onto. The growth of opioid and other addictions, domestic and gun violence, and suicide among white working class Americans over the last fifty years is striking. At the same time, the increasingly partisan and grievance-based politics practiced on the right, supported by white America, is also growing alarmingly.

While social problems, and racist, nationalistic politics have always been at play in American history, the strength of the white supremacist order allowed even disenfranchised and oppressed whites to feel that it was “their” system, that benefited them culturally, if not economically. Now, as a new, more inclusive political and social consensus is growing in America, and tearing at the seams of the White Supremacist order that has been in power since the founding of the nation, these working class whites no longer have the backstop of feeling, at the very least, superior to every black body they encounter by virtue merely of their race. As a result, white working class Americans are truly, for the first time, beginning to feel the effects, socially, politically and psychologically, of the dominant capitalist, white supremacist system in their own lives.

How, then, does the church, which was charged to carry on the mission of Christ to “proclaim the good news to the poor…proclaim liberty to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,” respond theologically to the cry of white working America? How does it create a space for their suffering to be heard, and for the energy generated by their pain, to be channeled in a direction that works to further the achievement of God’s kingdom for all people? What are some theological concepts that can be put to use to restore the dignity of white working class Americans, to redirect their gaze towards the real causes of systemic suffering and oppression, and to rekindle their hope of a better future for themselves and for the world?

Research Question

The tentative questions I am engaging at this point begin with “how does God relate to human suffering?” Obviously, the potential theological engagements with the topic of theodicy are almost infinite. Thus, in order to engage this question more manageably, I am asking the questions, “how does suffering manifest itself in my context of rural white working class people in the American Midwest?”, and “what theological concepts can be used to address the readily apparent suffering and hurt being felt by these people?” By focusing on my own personal context, and on the theological voice I find most compelling, I believe I can demonstrate my ability to engage theology and its application to the lived reality of people.

Literature Review

Obviously, I will engage a variety of works by Jurgen Moltmann himself. Primarily, I will rely on The Crucified God, Theology of Hope, and God in Creation. However, I will not restrict myself to these and will draw on a variety of his works from across his career.

Being one of the major theological voices of the twentieth century (and early twenty-first century), much has been written about and in response to Moltmann. I intend to draw upon the works of other theologians who have engaged his ideas. This includes works by Douglas Meeks, Ryan Neal, Nigel Goring Wright, Miroslav Volf, and Nicholas Ansell, among others. James Cone has also commented upon the works of Moltmann, especially in his Theology of Hope, and I intend to draw upon this work as well.

Moltmann has had immense influence in both the areas of liberation theology, and open and relational or process theology. I will draw upon works from both of these concentrations to round out my engagement with Moltmann himself. In discussing the concept of justice, as well, I will draw briefly on ideas from Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, and their idea of a capabilities approach.

Other theological voices that are prominent in my own thinking, and who will be present in shaping my writing, include especially Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. While much of their theology stands in contrast to Moltmann, the emphasis upon the church, and on Scripture as the normative standard for the Christian faith, deeply influence how I see Christianity working in the world.

Finally, drawing upon my previous training in political science and social science research methods, I will take a close look at the quantitative measures used to analyze poor white communities. This body of research will help me narrow my specific focus, to better define what I mean when I say rural white. As the community I grew up in, I know intuitively of whom and what I speak in my own mind, but for the purposes of academic work, in order to have some applicability and authority, I must define this group clearly.

Additionally, I will draw upon the large and growing body of social commentary written about poor rural whites, especially in the post-2016 world. This includes works by Nancy Isenberg, Carol Anderson, Francis Fukuyama, Sarah Smarsh, Sarah Kendzior, and JD Vance.

Methodology

In this thesis, I aim to make two major movements. First, I will begin by taking a close look at rural whites in the American Midwest, people who are primarily Protestant Christian, working or middle class, and who supported Donald Trump in 2016 and the subsequent politics on the right characterized by white nationalism and racial resentment, driven by the detrimental effects of late capitalism on their communities. While questions of economy and of identity are deeply intertwined, I will primarily focus on issues of identity, especially those of race, vocation, and gender roles. From this analysis, I plan to draw forth questions for theologians about how the modern application of theological concepts has left these people behind, and how their decreasing reliance on church shows the failure of the church and theology to speak meaningfully in this context.

Next, I will engage the work of Jurgen Moltmann, especially in the areas of theodicy and hope, to envision one strain of theology that could be put to work to restore dignity to rural whites and help to address the feelings of loss, dislocation, and anger they are experiencing. I hope to demonstrate that the solidaristic work of God on the Cross, through Christ, renders God relatable for a suffering humanity, replacing an immutable and distant God commonly conceived of in traditional theology. I also will show the potential for this understanding of a relatable and accessible God for churches, as it provides the theological space that allows people to feel heard, and their pain to be made known, worthy of addressing, and capable of being heeded. Finally, I will engage Moltmann’s thought on political and liberation theology to provide a vision for a communal healing in rural white communities that enables them to direct their pain and suffering in more constructive and hopeful directions, rather than destructive ways that target racial, sexual and ethnic groups. In short, in this final section, I want to engage questions of what justice realized would look like theologically for these communities.

In these two movements, I want to draw a connection between the real suffering, often ignored or discounted because of the toxic politics it leads to, of rural whites in America, and the work on theodicy and hope in Moltmann, in order to highlight the possibility of his theology being a tool that those who minister to these hurting people can use. While there are surely economic, social, and political solutions that can be brought to bear more effectively on these hurting communities, my work as a theologian is to bring my training in this field to this context which is home to me, and try to provide some answers that will “bind up the broken-hearted,” and do the work of bringing the Kingdom of God in this world.

I choose to engage Moltmann because, in my work so far as a theologian, no personality has been so formative in crafting my thinking and directing my passion for theology. Specifically, reading Moltmann’s The Crucified God spurred my deep interest in theodicy and questions of the relatability of God to the human reality of suffering. The work of Moltmann is the primary impetus that drove me to switch from pursuing parish ministry to academic theology, and I want to honor that drive in myself. Beyond my own personal affinity to Moltmann, I think his work can be an entry into liberation theologies for white working class churches, in a way that the equally important work of James Cone or Gustavo Gutierrez, for reasons of tone and intended audience.

Tentative Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. Literature Review
  3. The Suffering of Rural Whites
    1. Defining the Context
    2. Quantifying the Situation
    3. What is happening in rural America?
  4. Moltmann’s Theology
    1. The Crucified God
      1. The Appropriation of Suffering
    2. A God who can relate
    3. Liberation and Hope
  5. The Crucified God in Rural America
    1. Helping the Church be the Church to its people
    2. What justice looks like
  6. Conclusion: Towards a White Liberation Theology

 

Tentative Timeline

I will complete all my classwork this fall, meaning in January and Spring 2019, I can focus all my energies on researching and writing. My tentative goals are to continue reading and researching through the end of January, and then do the bulk of writing between February and April.

Working Bibliography

Alexander, John M. Capabilities and Social Justice: The Political Philosophy of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing, 2008.

Ansell, Nicholas. The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of Jurgen Moltmann. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2013.

Bauckham, Richard. The Theology of Jurgen Moltmann. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995.

Cobb, John B. and David Ray Griffin. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976.

Cone, James H. A Black Theology of Liberation. 20th Anniversary Edition. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1990.

Deneen, Patrick J. Why Liberalism Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Eberhart, Timothy. Rooted and Grounded in Love: Holy Communion for the Whole Creation. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2017.

Fea, John. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2018.

Fukuyama, Francis. Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2018.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation. 15th Anniversary Edition. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988.

Guttesen, Poul F. Leaning Into the Future: The Kingdom of God in the Theology of Jurgen Moltmann and the Book of Revelation. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2009.

Hauerwas, Stanley. The Work of Theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2015.

Hauerwas, Stanley and William H. Willimon. Resident Aliens. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989.

Isenberg, Nancy. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.

Jones, Robert P. The End of White Christian America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.

McDougall, Joy Ann. Pilgrimage of Love: Moltmann on the Trinity and Christian Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Meeks, M. Douglas. Origins of the Theology of Hope. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974

Moltmann, Jurgen. The Crucified God. 40th Anniversary Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.

Moltmann, Jurgen. God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.

Moltmann, Jurgen. Creating a Just Future: The Politics of Peace and the Ethics of Creation in a Threatened World. London: SCM Press, 1989.

Moltmann, Jurgen. God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985.

Moltmann, Jurgen. Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.

Moltmann, Jurgen. On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

Muller-Fahrenholz, Geiko. The Kingdom and the Power: The Theology of Jurgen Moltmann. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

Neal, Ryan A. Theology as Hope: On the Ground and Implications of Jurgen Moltmann’s Doctrine of Hope. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2008.

Oden, Patrick. The Transformative Church: New Ecclesial Models and the Theology of Jurgen Moltmann. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.

Perkinson, James W. White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Reimer, A. James. Toward an Anabaptist Political Theology: Law, Order and Civil Society. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. America, Amerikkka: Elect Nation and Imperial Violence. London: Equinox, 2007.

Sample, Tex. Earthy Mysticism: Spirituality for Unspiritual People. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008.

Sample, Tex. White Soul: Country Music, the Church, and Working Americans. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.

Sample, Tex. Blue Collar Resistance and the Politics of Jesus: Doing Ministry with Working Class Whites. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006.

Sample, Tex. Blue Collar Ministry: Facing Economic and Social Realities of Working People. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1984.

Smarsh, Sarah. Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke. New York: Scribner, 2018.

Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: Harper, 2016.

Wakefield, James L. Jurgen Moltmann: A Research Bibliography. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2002.

Wright, Nigel Goring. Disavowing Constantine: Mission, Church and the Social Order in the Theologies of John Howard Yoder and Jurgen Moltmann. Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2000.

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1994.

Zoran Grozdanov, Ed. Theology – Descent into the Vicious Circles of Hell: On the Fortieth Anniversary of Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2016.

The Church is Not Just Another Social Service Agency

What we call the “church” is too often a gathering of strangers who see the church as yet another “helping institution” to gratify further their individual desires. – Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, Resident Aliens, pg 138

100114residentaliensThis line from the excellent book Resident Aliens really shows where my head has been at in the last few months in my theological thinking and writing. In fact, I’ve lapsed into a serious form of theological grumpiness recently, probably thanks for reading a lot of Hauerwas (a noted theological grump) this summer and fall. And it all comes back to what this line is saying: the Church should not just be another social service agency.

I say this because, this seems to be where a lot of progressive Christians want to go with their church. Oftentimes, the worshiping is downplayed, the focus on God and Christ is downplayed, the spiritual and theological formation of congregants is downplayed, and instead, progressive churches highlight their social justice and service initiatives first and foremost.

And don’t get me wrong: those social services are vitally important. A lived faith involves working for justice in the world. Churches are important gatherings of like-minded people, and should put that collective effort to work in pursuing the Kingdom of God.

But, that last point is the key one: the work churches do is in service to God, at the behest of Christ, in pursuit of the Kingdom of God. Our first order priority as the church is not justice, but worship. It is following Christ in service to God. Justice necessarily arises from this, because our God is a God of justice. But, everything the church does should stem from its identification as a specifically Christian institution.

This means that members of individual church should avoid desperately being the “strangers” Hauerwas and Willimon mention, and instead, should be intent on cultivating real, authentic relation with other members of the church. This should extend to feelings of accountability, in our public and private lives, to one another.

It also means that our personal pet projects – our “individual desires” – should not override the stated mission of the church. What I mean is, any service or work the church undertakes should eventually occur because of the desire to make disciples, and of being the Living Body of Christ in and for the world.

I’ve gotten grumpy because I don’t want my attendance at church to feel like I’m attending a local meeting of MoveOn or the United Way, and it’s so dang hard to find a good, progressive church that still centers the Gospel in a way that doesn’t make you feel like they are ashamed to say the words “God” or “Christ,” or that still acknowledge the important spiritual aspect of communion or the confessions. I know there are churches like this, but they are increasingly harder to find. And I think this is because so many progressives, mirroring conservative evangelicals, are seeing their churches as extensions of their political parties and priorities.

The church is meant to be the church. In other words, the church is tasked with the Great Commission first, and all other work arises from that. The first order of business in that is being a place where disciples of Christ are reoriented towards God, admitting guilt for our sins and seeking forgiveness, embracing our joy of membership in the body of Christ, and reaffirming our place in the great traditions of the church. Then, our faith, edified through the weekly practice of worship, compels us to our works in the world, which does mean social justice work, but also sometimes means just loving our neighbors and our enemies, forgiving those who sin against us, and being a living example of Christi n the world. This is the church I want to be a part of.