The Trauma of Racism: Realities, Challenges, and Theological Reflection

Cover Image courtesy of Atlanta Black Star.

This is an introduction to an occasional, ongoing series that will explore the traumatic experiences of those who are impacted by racism, and the attenuating theological reflection that operates as both a reaction to these experiences, and reflection about the life of ecclesial communities in response to racism. Methodologically, this series will draw on the framework suggested by Alistair McFadyen in his remarkable book Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust, and the Christian Doctrine of Sin. The model works something like this:

For theological reflection to be meaningful and appropriate in a diverse range of contexts, the subject(s) of theological reflection must be informed first by the concrete, real, lived experiences of persons and communities. These identifiable experiences must then be illuminated by the best kinds of description and analysis available through an interdisciplinary, and non-theological (the meaning here of "secular") reflection. It is only after this mutually informative interplay between the real experiences of persons and communities and these thick, non-theological descriptions and reflections that the clearest and most articulate (and therefore generative) kinds of theological reflection can emerge. 

This movement of reflection from the concrete experiences of persons and communities, followed by thick, interdisciplinary, non-theological reflection, which finally culminates in nuanced and contextual theological reflection minimizes the risk of falling into one of three major pitfalls (particularly about sin, but this can also be seen in theological reflection more generally). First, by beginning with the real, lived experiences of persons and communities this model minimizes the risk of a disembodied, or entirely theoretical response to actual, lived experience. Second, by engaging in thick, secular, and interdisciplinary descriptions of those personal and communal experiences, we minimize the risk that our theological constructions are rooted more in the "gut feeling" or reflection that is already accepted as correct. This second element allows the church to engage its ecclesial life with a nuance and particularity that was perhaps unavailable in other generations and contexts, and with a deep appreciation for the realities of their communities. The third pitfall is related in that by postponing theological reflection until the end of this process, individuals and communities seek to ensure that theological reflection doesn't "undercut" or weaken reflection on the real, lived experiences of persons and communities. It is not uncommon that theological reflection (particularly the more "popular" or "bumper sticker" variety) actually lack the capacity to serve as a meaningful reflection on the real world. The first two elements of this model in no way dictate the kind of theological reflection that occurs. Instead, it would be best to think of these things as components that inform theological reflection, which in this case would be racism and its attenuating issues, injustices, and trauma.

Image Courtesy of Psychology Today.

Image Courtesy of Psychology Today.

What I hope to demonstrate in this series are the ways in which racism (both individually and systemically) reshape the world in which persons and ecclesial communities live and move. This reality calls for significant, focused reflection on concrete experiences, thick, non-theological description, and finally, sensitive and nuanced theological reflection. We will address these questions by exploring the actual experience of persons and communities, examining some of the responses to racism, and engaging in theological reflection which will help us individually and as communities of faith to respond appropriately as God's ongoing, redemptive presence in the world.

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

-- Martin Luther King Jr.