Becoming Anti-Oppressive, Part 3: Racism, Bigotry, and Theology

Editor’s Note: This four-part blog series is being co-published at RACL’s Blog Partner, “Daily Theology.” Before you go on, it may be helpful to read the first and second parts of the series.

The opposite of oppression, in any form, should not be some generic form of “love” or “reconciliation” (a highly problematic and overused word in these contexts). The opposite of oppression must be specific practices of anti-oppression, targeted to reduce and hopefully exterminate the unconscious biases that riddle our daily lives.  The best way to understand anti-oppression is to target a specific cultural practice. For example, buying a house; sending your child to school; choosing which classes to take; what shows to watch; what books to read; what church to attend.  Since a mindset of anti-oppression assumes that oppression exists throughout all cultural practices, acts of anti-oppression can be found anywhere.

Example 1. An anti-oppressive physicist at CERN must not only decide the value of high-energy physics in human society, but must also take account of the disproportionate amount of men in the field of high energy physics.

Example 2. An anti-oppressive realtor must decide how to speak about each house and neighborhood, since their comments often make or break a home-buyers’ decision.  Is race playing a role here, unconsciously or not?  What is at stake in the “gentrification” of a neighborhood?

In my own field–the study and teaching of theology–educational and research practices of theologians must come into view.

Within Roman Catholic theology, the notion of “tradition” is one that continues to be taught through a dangerously abstract engagement.  Many scholars have already begun introducing lives of oppressed peoples (e.g., indigenous Americans and their first encounter with Christianity) into the history of the Church.  However, I would push the argument further.  By employing a practice of anti-oppression, we should transform our notion of “Christian tradition” to not only include the lives of those people who have been trampled and discarded, but their critical thought as well.

Christian Tradition, writes Womanist Catholic theologian Diana Hayes, “does not come naked but is continuously presented and passed on, nurtured and sustained, by the particular peoples who have significance in our lives, who clothe it with cultures, histories, and traditions that have shaped us into the adults that we are today.”[1] If this tradition is limited to the experience of God as perceived by white, male, heterosexual, North American and European persons, how can we ever seek to end the tide of unconscious bigotry?

The failure to engage the lives and thoughts of oppressed persons has already been shown to damage theology and culture with devastating consequences.  In the words of Black Catholic theologian and nun Jamie Phelps, “The theologians’ failure to engage the experience and thought of Black people in America is, in my judgment, parallel to the failure of German theologians and philosophers to engage the experience and thought of the Jewish people.” [2]  Note that Phelps is not comparing white institutions or theologians to the Nazi regime. She is comparing some current white theologians to the those well-intentioned Christian theologians who wrote and worked in Germany before the time of Hitler.

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a scholar’s lament.

If only, perhaps, they had engaged with Jewish thought,

if they had studied Jewish theology,
if they had studied Jewish history,
perhaps they would have understood how Christianity had disregarded the dignity of Jewish persons for so many centuries,

perhaps they would have realized the errors of their combined Christian past, Catholic and Protestant,
perhaps our own history would be different.

Perhaps Christianity, then, would have cried out so hard against the initial rise of Hitler that the public would have been turned away. Perhaps pastors would have had more courage to see, like Bonhoeffer, the incompatibility of Christianity and Nazism.  Perhaps millions of lives could have been saved.

One cannot convince a country to hate an entire race without the support of the intellectual elite.  History holds true in the Vatican’s general support of the initial surge of slavery in the 15th and 16th centuries as well as the continued support of slavery by countless Catholic and Protestant pastors in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.  Christian anti-slavery movements appear throughout the centuries as well, albeit with relatively small numbers until the mid-19th century, right before the Civil War.

there is power in the smallness of the word.

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We may not be on the brink of genocide here in the United States, yet we are certainly not anywhere calm and happy. The death of Michael Brown and the rise of police militarization, the segregation of cities and churches alike, the racial disparities in the justice system, the plight of refugees and immigrants, the continued acceptance of violence against women (at least until the person has national status and the video is published online), the continued acceptance of “rape culture,” the often unseen abuse and violence done towards members of the LGBTQ community, the continued oversight of violence as the assumed answer to international tragedies….all of these facts continue to seep back behind the public consciousness if practices of anti-oppression are not in place.

The Christian call to “love” opens the door to a transformative process that exceeds every imaginary possibility, but only if love maintains the counter-cultural definition as Word Made Flesh. When love is defined simply as politeness, manners, or “feelings,” the Word Made Flesh is all but meaningless.

It is not difficult to feel angry.  It is difficult–perhaps the most difficult thing–to transform such anger into acts of righteousness, into acts of Godliness, into acts of anti-oppression.

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Becoming Anti-Oppressive, by John Slattery:
Part 1: Growing Up Racist and Misogynist and Catholic
Part 2: The Act of Knowing
Part 3: Racism, Bigotry, and Theology
Part 4: Banging on the Door


1. Hayes, Standing in the Shoes My Mother Made, page 112. (go back)
2. Phelps, “Communion Ecclesiology and Black Liberation Theology,” Theological Studies 61, no. 4 (2000): page 692. Download the article here.  (go back)


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