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Alien Gods in Black Experience

by Archie Smith, Jr.

Archie Smith, Jr. is the James and Clarice Foster Professor of Pastoral Psychology and Counseling at the Pacific School of Religion and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA 94709. He is the author of The Relational Self: Ethics and Therapy from a Black Church Perspective (Abingdon Press 1982). The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 294-305, Vol. 18, Number 4, Winter, 1989. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


I

The purpose of this essay is to bring three areas of thought into dialogue around a single case study. My task is to proceed from a pastoral psychology perspective and to imply a working connection between black liberation and process theologies when black people’s experience of oppression is the focus. Oppression is here defined as the concrete expression of unilateral power or power over others. It breeds insensitivity. It is the manipulating, shaping, controlling, or exploiting of others in order to advance one’s own purposes. Oppression is an alien way of life unilaterally imposed by one group upon another group in a manner that keeps the latter group at significant disadvantage. In black experience, oppression is institutionalized violence maintained by a system of visible and invisible controls to keep the privileged group in power. The underlying assumption is that oppression is a complex and socially constructed reality. It is not something divinely ordained.

I shall seek to advance the possibly too-simple idea that everything is related to everything else, and that every part of human experience is interrelated. William Jones uses the term "esp oppression" to refer to economic, social, and political oppression. I shall use the Pauline term "principalities and powers." By this use, I intend to incorporate Jones’ understanding of esp oppression. Recognition of economic, social, and political oppression requires some analysis of the principalities and powers. My use of "principalities and powers" refers to the idea that social reality is an integration of spiritual and material forces that circumscribe human existence (PAP). My objective will be to bring out the affective, invisible role of collective power that operates in black people’s experience of oppression. As prelude to my discussion, the perspectives of three authors in this volume will be briefly summarized. Their work will serve both as background and points of departure for my own discussion.

II

William Jones, in "Process Theology: Guardian of the Oppressor or Goad to the Oppressed: An Interim Assessment," uses the medical metaphor, "toxin- anti-toxin" to refer to economic, social, and political, oppression and its eradication. On the one hand, liberation theology’s self-conscious purpose is to eradicate esp oppression in concrete situations of ethnic suffering. On the other hand, process theology seeks to illuminate how the divine freedom is relative to human history and serves as a resource for the eradication of esp oppression. Yet process theology, with few exceptions, is not committed to a specific focus on ethnic suffering. Jones identifies theodicy as the crucial theological category to assess whether or not liberation and process can be characterized as guardian or goading theologies. Guarding theologies undergird oppression and goading theologies undermine oppression.

Theodore Walker, in "Hartshorne’s Neoclassical Theism from the Perspective of Black Theology," evaluates the role of black power in the on-going struggle for freedom against oppression. The evaluation is done in the light of neoclassical metaphysics. According to Walker the African-American conception of the Supreme Being, or God, as God of the oppressed, strikes an affinity with Hartshorne’s vision of God as the most comprehensive socially receptive being who struggles to free the whole creation from bondage: "the fact that there will be struggle against oppression is a constant." The God who is the God of the oppressed (G-of-O) can also be the God of all (G-of-A). Divine goodness is not neutral. Rather, it is expressed in God’s free choice to side with the oppressed as the way to release the whole creation from bondage. The basic assertion of black theology is affirmed; namely, that God favors the struggle of the oppressed for liberation. This is an ethical/moral claim as well as a metaphysical assertion. Walker concludes that black power can be seen as part of a creative synthesis that operates within the whole social process to transform the reality of ethnic suffering and free the oppressed from bondage.

Henry James Young, in "Process Theology and Black Liberation: Testing the Whiteheadian Metaphysical Foundations," suggests that experience is the testing ground of metaphysical truths. The reality being described should not be forced to fit a preconceived metaphysical scheme. Rather, metaphysical analysis should arise from an in-depth and narrated description of reality. Reality is never static. It is always emerging or unfolding. Freedom is at the heart of reality. According to Young, "freedom is something that is built within the structure of each occasion in the world. It is "inherent in each emerging actuality." These are concerns essential to process metaphysics. Given these concerns, Young raises the following question: "Is there a link to be discovered between process metaphysics and the world view of Black Americans?" He identifies three areas where a link can be made. They are human experience, God as Fellow Sufferer, and eschatology and liberation. Throughout Young underscores the interrelatedness of all reality, God’s indwelling presence, and the idea that God also feels or experiences the pain of oppressed social groups and works on the side of genuine freedom.

All three scholars refer to aspects of relational reality that appear to keep women and people of color -- especially blacks -- in a permanent one down position in United States society. Reality, within African-American sensibilities, is an integration of spiritual and material forces. It is a transcultural, transgenerational and interacting whole. It is creative of people (past, present, future) even as it is shaped by them. In part, relational reality emerges from the human creativity. It is constituted through expressive symbols, signs/images, memory, and metaphor. The world that emerges is an evolving and differentiating reality which is created, recreated, and maintained over time, in part by the myriad actions and interactions of people. This relational reality is fundamentally rooted in the primordial and consequent nature of God. Partnership and co-creation may be basic terms for naming this reality. It is the relationship binding God and world, heaven and earth. To reject one or the other part of this relationship is to reject both (GAW).

This essay will address the idea of "relational reality" as an interpretive principle. This principle may serve as a diagnostic category when working with the accumulative effects of black people’s experience of oppression. Psychic and systemic realities are interwoven; and liberation is simultaneously a political and spiritual matter.

III

The discipline of pastoral care and counseling has always been interested in the concrete event (i.e., a case study), especially its psychological aspects. Indeed, the individual, psychology’s subject, has been the point of departure for detailed description. The discipline of pastoral care has often ignored the wider economic, social, and political dimensions that help to constitute the individual in subtle and powerful ways. Generally, primacy has been given to the study of individual entities rather than to relations. Even when something "more than" the individual person is considered, attention is directed to the "effects" of other individuals upon an individual person. The difficulty with this way of viewing the self is that it often serves to loosen the values that sustain social commitments -- which make self-reliance a possibility in the first place. Hence, black and African theologies, because of their emphasis upon the corporate personality and group oppression, have received little help from the discipline of pastoral care and counseling.

Feminist scholarship has also emphasized relationship, connections, and mutuality -- we know ourselves as separate only insofar as we live in connection with others (IDV). Black liberation and process theologies, in their turn, have made experience central to their analysis. They have identified metaphysical principles and norms to name whatever it is that operates behind our conceptualizations of reality. Black theology has emphasized the inseparable link between black experience and black history, especially the history of struggle against racist oppression. God favors the liberation of the oppressed and is active in the world towards that end (BT). Walker makes the stronger point: "God actually experiences the suffering of those who are oppressed." Process theology has emphasized the idea that the universe is essentially relational, and that existence is inextricably social, evolving and individuating within a social whole. The Divine Reality is the all-inclusive process and works for the increasing fulfillment of all the members of the process (PPST). With few exceptions, these theological perspectives have not done the kind of descriptive analysis of the interplay between biography and history that is characteristic of classical studies in the personality sciences, especially social psychology.

IV

The Pauline biblical terms "principalities and powers" identify the dynamic spiritual forces of good and evil that operate in social institutions, structures, and practices. The principalities and powers (archais and exousiais)1 may be understood as the working of inner spiritual aspects of institutions as well as the outer manifestations of social systems and political structures. Hebrew scripture identifies these spiritual powers as idols, false or alien gods (Lev. 19:4; Deut. 32:7-12; 1 Sam. 12:21; PS. 96:1-5; Jer. 10:1-11). The principalities and powers language of the Bible can help us see that forms of social reality such as institutions are not reducible to material forces. There is a spiritual dimension to social institutions. We strive not only against tangible forms of power (and against "flesh and blood," Eph. 6:12) but also against the invisible powers that people obey (POJ 152).

Perhaps the biblical language of "alien gods" or "principalities and powers" will not be familiar to everyone. By way of illustration, we have all had experiences of being in the grip of certain invisible and determining social conventions. By social convention, I mean those social forces that operate through unspoken agreements and influence our usual ways of seeing, believing, and acting.

Once, when living in New England and desperately low on cash, and needing to cash a check, I went to a branch of my bank where I was not well-known. I presented the check already signed as was my custom. The bank teller looked at both sides of the check. She looked up at me; looked back down at the check. Silence. She asked for two pieces of identification. I produced them. More silence. Then she shook her head and said, "You don’t look like a reverend." I said, "You don’t look like a teller." She smiled at that, but for a moment I feared I was going to be denied access to money because I did not fit conventional images of "a reverend." You too may have had the experience of being in the grip of certain social conventions. Some are more easily altered than others.

On another occasion, I was driving across the country alone from Maine to Seattle, Washington, in mid-November. I stopped for breakfast in the small town of Moorecroft, Montana. When I walked into the restaurant it was immediately clear I was an outsider. As the only black person in sight, I captured the attention of everyone in the restaurant. I sat down and waited for a menu. None came. I waited. Others who came in after me were readily served. The waitress was filling their cups with coffee as they took their seats. They placed their orders and were served. I continued to wait. Eventually another waitress came and took my order. One customer in particular fixed me with a stare full of hate which continued throughout my meal. As I prepared to leave, this customer also got up. He pushed his way in front of me in the line, paid, and went outside. While in line, I noticed I had been overcharged. I brought this fact to the attention of the cashier, who also happened to be the waitress who earlier refused to wait on me. "Ma’am," I said, "I believe I’ve been over charged." She raised her voice, demanding payment. The restaurant became quieter and there was tension in the air. I decided this was not the time to push for my rights. I felt forced to do something I did not want to do. I paid the cashier and left.

Several people were loitering outside, including the customer who chose to fix me with his stare inside the restaurant. The same hate stare continued outside, but this time more people joined him. Fortunately, there was no attempt at physical contact. It was clear I was in the grip of certain powerful social conventions that I alone could not change. These social conventions can be understood as analogous to the idols, false or alien gods of Hebrew scriptures, and to the principalities and powers of the New Testament.

According to James Wm. McClendon, such powers, like all that is, owe their existence to God. Yet they are God’s fallen and rebellious creatures (Eph. 2:1ff; Gal. 4:1-11). They are demonic forces or forces of destruction. And when the gospel does its work, these powers are not utterly destroyed or abolished; rather they are dethroned, pushed back into place, so their evil is held in check by the kingdom or reign of God (STE 173. 177).

By taking this approach to understanding social forces, a way may be open for developing a social ethic and pastoral praxis that recognizes the complex character of collective power in black people’s experience of oppression.2 As McClendon has made clear, the idea of a "social ethic" must not stand alone. For the social is but one of three interrelated strands of ethics. According to McClendon there are three interwoven ways in which we can envision our moral life before God:

(1) as creatures, [we are] embodied selves in an environment [in which] we respond to our Creator; (2) as social persons, [we are] members of a society, we interact with our neighbors but also with God the Social Person who covenants, legislates, commands, governs, and reconciles; (3) as witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead we live in the presence of One who makes all things new by his Spirit. In motto, then, God is for us the God of Adam, the God of the old and the new Moses, and the God of the risen Jesus Christ. (STE 66, words in brackets added)

These three interwoven strands of ethics are the Embodied, organic self, the Social, and the Anastatic, or resurrected newness. Together these three strands comprise an indivisible morality held together in part by a common narrative. Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, makes the point that we have very largely, if not entirely, lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality (AV). What contributions do liberation or process theologies make to a comprehensive vision of an indivisible morality and a common narrative? McClendon’s point is that it takes all three strands of ethics to tell the gospel truth about human beings.

Thus, as we begin now to examine the social strand of Christian morality we must still keep before us the picture . . . of embodied selfhood with its drives, needs, and capacities, and we must also anticipate the account still to come of the resurrected newness of the Christian way. (STE 158)

This view of ethics provides an eschatological basis for envisioning an ethic of liberation. God, according to Henry Young, is the ground of freedom and the source of empowerment in black people’s struggle for liberation. In Young’s words, "Because God functions as co-partner in the quest for liberation, oppressed persons must assume responsibility for their own freedom. They cannot depend on the oppressor to liberate them." This social ethic operates with a sense of a new humanity and moves towards the goal of genuine social pluralism.

This idea of the "social strand" stands over against the prevailing cultural paradigm. That prevailing paradigm holds that the individual self can be grasped as a separate entity abstracted from its political contexts and from the larger social contexts of our culture. Even when the social and political contexts have been brought to a focus on the individual, it has still been the individual paradigm that has prevailed? Hence, social power arrangements and cultural practices that constitute social beings are reduced to personal or interpersonal terms and not addressed as realities in themselves. "What we possess," states MacIntyre, "are fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance "loved" (AV 2). This idea that the individual can be adequately understood as a separate entity works against the basic premise of black theology. According to black theology divine experience is inseparable from the experience of black suffering. Theodore Walker makes the point: "The most basic religious datum of black theology is that human experience becomes divine experience, that our suffering becomes divine suffering, in that God actually experiences our experience of humiliation, pain, and suffering." To desire freedom from oppression in concrete situations is to desire the divine will. But, as we shall soon see, such a desire may be partially suppressed by the long term effects of oppression.

V

In the case that follows, I focus on the idea that thought and action have their foundation in hidden or unrecognized social forces. I refer to these unrecognized social forces as "alien gods." They represent the visible and invisible principalities and powers that circumscribe human existence.

This is a court case from Queensland, Australia. Alwyn Peter was a young Aboriginal man from Weipa South charged with killing his woman friend. Peter, age 24, lived with his woman friend, Deidre Gilbert, age 19, on a reservation for Aboriginals. Shortly before 9:30 p.m. on 7 December 1979, the accused stabbed the deceased once in the back with a knife. The wound was inflicted in a bedroom in a house that the accused and the deceased had been occupying since their return to the reservation (BDWH). Alwyn Peter admitted to having been "very drunk" at the time of killing Deidre and had, in the hours preceding the stabbing, consumed huge quantities of beer, wine, and what he called "hot stuff," meaning rum (BDWH 49).

Public Defender Bill O’Connor raised the question of whether his client’s action could be explained, if not justified, by historical events surrounding his life In most cases of serious assault or murder, relevant testimony would be limited to showing the immediate cause and circumstances of death that would establish the guilt or innocence of the defendant. But this court case was unusual because the Public Defender sought to explain the individual’s actions in light of social conventions, alien gods, or the principalities and powers. By so doing, the investigation was able to develop a more complete, comprehensive and, therefore, accurate picture of the individual as a human being embedded in and shaped by certain social conventions and the larger contexts of his culture.

Alwyn Peter came from an economically poor background. He and his family belonged to a once-proud and deeply religious people whose cultural heritage can be traced back at least 40,000 years (AL 4). Australian Aboriginals lived in close association with the environment and the spirit world. They were entirely dependent upon both and were bound together by shared moral convictions about the natural order. They viewed themselves, nature, and the power of spirit as forming a necessary unity. At the heart of Aboriginal philosophy was the idea that nature must suffer so that people may survive, but people also must discipline themselves so that nature may survive (AA 4). The land was, and still is, central to Aboriginal identity. It gave purpose to existence. It was the cornerstone for spiritual beliefs about creation. To separate them from the land would be tantamount to moral and spiritual genocide. They were bound both economically and spiritually to the land. It was the basis for their way of life.

Around the beginning of the nineteenth century, the lands of many tribes were taken away under lease to a mining company. The people were evicted from their homes, which were later burned down by European settlers. Their hunting grounds were invaded, their social and cultural life disrupted. The cultural life of some tribes collapsed entirely and they became extinct. Those who survived were forced to live on the fringes of white society. The Peters were the heirs of these tragic events. They, too, were forced off their land during the 1960s and sent to live on government reservations under conditions which most white Australians would find intolerable. Unemployment, lack of available work, lowered self-esteem, depression, boredom, and heavy consumption of alcohol accompanied unbelievable patterns of human destruction on government controlled reservations. The collective narrative of black Australians bears striking resemblance to that of Native and African-Americans.

From pretrial testimony:

Alwyn remembers that Deidre, as so often in the past, had pleaded with him not to slash or stab himself. While Alwyn was outside his house, he said Deidre "stopped me when I was outside by grabbing me by the arm and telling me not to do it. I don’t remember how she got me inside . . she took me (inside) by my left arm."

Deidre was able to maneuver Alwyn into the house with Alwyn strongly resisting. In the ensuing struggle, she was killed. In Alwyn’s words: I didn’t try to hit her then, I kept pushing her away with my left hand until I got very angry with her, then I completely forgot about the knife I had in my hand and swung a punch at her and she fell back on the bed . . . when I turned to look for her she was lying on the bed. I saw blood on the side of her dress, I saw it from the light and realized I had stabbed her.

Alwyn’s brother Sidney [also], stabbed a woman, Geraldine, with whom he was living. Geraldine, although seriously wounded, survived, and Sidney was sentenced to jail for committing grievous bodily harm.

Geraldine then began a relationship with another man, who had previously killed his wife. This man later killed Geraldine by stabbing her with a knife. The subsequent police investigation revealed an earlier death in the family. Geraldine had previously given evidence to the murder by her father of one of his two wives (AA 24).

We could go on, but it would be more of the same.

One cannot help but notice the consequences to the women of color and the way the principalities and powers operate in situations of oppression. The lives of men are shattered and they often end up in jail or prison. But the Aboriginal women are utterly destroyed. Patterns of European settlement and practices of colonization were instrumental in demolishing much of traditional Aboriginal culture. But within Aboriginal culture was the destruction of women. Tragedy begets tragedy; and there is oppression within oppression. Every family, directly or indirectly, suffers the consequences of murder or serious assault. No one escapes the power of the alien gods. The ones most affected are the ones most exposed to and least protected from the principalities and powers that are manifest in patterns of Aboriginal violence. These acts of destruction are outward signs that show the extent to which traditional Aboriginal communities have been destroyed internally. They created the conditions under which Aboriginal communities became fragmented and divided from within. These incidents are among the highest reported anywhere in the world.

In the days and months following the fatal stabbing of Deidre, Alwyn was reported as remorseful and depressed. A glazed and lost look characterized him. The attorney who pleaded Alwyn Peter’s case said to the judge:

Deidre Gilbert, the deceased girl, and Peter, were members of such an aboriginal community. They were shaped by it. . . (BDWH 3).

Alwyn and many other black Australians have lost the community that made them a once proud people and with it the traditions, skills, and practices that sustained them in that once proud community.

The situation of Alwyn Peter may appear to be remote from black or African-American experience. Even so, it may serve at least as a clue to alien social structures, the principalities and powers, that are to be found within our own culture. The significance of this story from Australia is that it helps us to see that they (i.e., white power and white racism) are not limited to American experience. Black liberation, then, is a trans-cultural imperative. How can black liberation and process theologies aid the interpretation of this case study?

I believe we can learn at least three things from the story of Alwyn Peter and Deidre Gilbert. First, we can learn the important (but often neglected) rule of the principalities and powers that operate within the larger social contexts of our culture. Social forces hover behind all our conceptualizations and efforts to liberate blacks and others from the bonds of oppression. This may not be so easy to learn where there exists an almost trained incapacity to recognize these powerful influences. Recognition of economic, social, and historical forces requires some analysis of the principalities and powers. The situation of Aboriginals can also help us see the value of questioning this ideal of the abstracted individual. In the case of Alwyn Peter, unrecognized instinctual, economic, social, political, and historical forces were reproduced in his life history. Real reproduction is internalized reproduction. Alwyn and Deidre reproduced in their relationship the conventional values of an objective institutional order. Their personal realities were manifestations of the principalities and powers. As I argue in The Relational Self, these powers become the significant ordering principles in personal life (TRS Chapter 7).

Second, we can in this way learn to exercise "a hermeneutics of suspicion rather than . . . a hermeneutics of consent and affirmation" (CF 47). We can learn to question understandings of the "ideal American individual" as one abstracted from social contexts and the larger context of our culture. The ideal modern American bourgeois individual is featured as a self-contained and self-actualized individual who can be properly understood apart from the principalities and powers that operate in society and history.4 This stereotype may be difficult for us to seriously question, for our own images of self are shaped by this very ideal. Feminists, however, have criticized the universality of this ideal. According to Carol Gilligan, for example, "the elusive mystery of women’s development lies in its recognition of the continuing importance of attachment in the human life cycle" (IDV 23).

Third, the idea of telos, or in-breaking eschatology, may help us appreciate the inner spiritual forces that animate social reality. Remember Henry Young’s emphasis on eschatology and McClendon’s third ethical stand, the Anastatic. Young’s contention is that "a theology of Black liberation . . . must embrace an organic world view". McClendon placed emphasis on the indivisible and interacting character of morality. Both Young and McClendon, from their different perspectives, emphasize the liberating activity of God. God is the supreme reality and basis for eschatological hope. In both instances, spiritual forces may be good or evil. They are in both cases the nonmaterial and inner powers that move things toward a future goal. Telos, the goal toward which things move or fail to move, provides life with its unity and meaning. Both unpredictability and teleology are a part of our lives. We do not know in advance exactly what will happen next, yet we know that our lives, although shaped by past influences, move toward a future. "Thus the narratives which we live out have both an unpredictable and a partially teleological character" (AV 201).

The goal toward which Alwyn’s life moved is embedded in the same social conventions which constrain and direct the lives of many other black Australians -- a life of continued violence, hopelessness, and early death. It is this tragic telos that provides the framework for assessing Alwyn’s life, the lives of other Aboriginals, and the larger social context that is implicated in extensive patterns of Aboriginal self-destruction.

The idea that society lives in the individual is not to deny moral agency to Alwyn. To be sure, he was the main character in the slaying of his woman friend, Deidre Gilbert. The finger points to him. He was held accountable. Yet he is not the only moral agent in the narrative. Rather, he is a co-author and participant in a larger system of action which shaped him and which his actions helped to maintain. He did not design the history that included his violent act. This is a point made many times by black theologians. Rather, conventional acts of violence became ingredient to his personal biography and reflected the larger, complex system of oppression of which he was but a part.

The truth is that any human action is a complex event. This point is made many times by process theologians. This implies that Alwyn’s action was contingent upon both recent and remote events, upon the action of others and his own. The act not only emerged from the life-story and intention of the actor, but presupposed an invisible web of human relationships in which Alwyn was embedded. The aim of description in process thinking is to grasp the web of meanings imbedded in such action. Present action is seen to take its meaning from earlier and later actions as those are imbedded in and help to constitute the web of meaning in human relationships. This view is in contrast to perspectives that seek to locate the meaning of the act within the private or mental world of each separate individual. To view Alwyn’ s violent act from a separate or individualistic point of view is to miss the systemic nature of the act and the deeper meanings which help to constitute its future implications (JBSP 218).

In atomistic views, the ego or "self" is viewed as containing all the resources needed to effect its own salvation through insight into the dilemmas of the self. This approach may often proceed without much awareness of the larger world in which the self is embedded and of which the ego is utterly unaware (NTP 145).

Modern psychology has seldom argued why this is the preferred way to approach the self-in-the world. It has seldom critically reflected upon the social forces that shape its practices and concepts of personhood. The important assumption underlying modern psychology’s worldview is that the concrete individual is conceivable as separate from the social whole. This worldview, however, has been challenged by feminist scholarship (MTC). It is antithetical to African religion and philosophy, which holds, "Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual. The individual can only say: "I am, because we are: and since we are, therefore I am" (ARP 141).

VI

In summary, historical and cultural forces play a major role in the constitution of human subjects and their communities. This means that theory and practice in Black liberation and process theologies are faced with certain critical questions of descriptive adequacy. Remembering Henry Young’s point, we are compelled to ask, how adequate are the descriptions of concrete events which serve as the testing ground for metaphysical truths? How adequate are descriptions of the immediate social context of the individual and community? How adequate are descriptions of the larger historical context that shapes consciousness and surrounds individual and communal life; and, how is the systemic influence of the alien gods described and addressed?

By way of example, the case of Alwyn Peter was presented to show the necessary interconnection between his disposition, actions, and the real cultural and political situation of Aboriginal peoples. This case may serve as an analogue for interpreting situations closer at hand.

We can recognize the importance of what we saw Jones call "toxin-antitoxin," or McClendon call the Anastatic strand of ethics. According to Jones, the toxin is esp oppression and the forces that maintain it. The anti-toxin is the forces of liberation that cooperate with the divine freedom in concrete situations of oppression. The anastatic strand of ethics is interwoven in the personal and social strands. These strands are inseparable. Together they constitute an indivisible morality embedded in the divine freedom relative to human history.

If God actually experiences the suffering of the oppressed, as Walker has suggested, then what are the implications of this idea for the oppressed community? The immediate implication from Walker is that divine freedom, power, and creativity are the metaphysical grounds for emancipatory struggle. This idea serves as a basis for an ethical and social conception of power. It calls for a rejection of atomic individualistic interpretations of ethics. The social strand of ethics is based upon the conception that we are constituted as social beings, and divine freedom is the very structure of all existence. The social strand of ethics offers insight into the structural forms that govern life and shape social, political, and economic relations. If this is the case, then divine freedom, as Young argued, is the basis of eschatological hope and ground for a new vision for humanity. As we examine the social strand of ethics, we must still keep before us the picture of embodied selfliood with its drives, needs, and capacities (STE). In this way, we are enabled to interpret realms of power in light of God’s redemptive power to reclaim and transform human life in its personal and communal structures. Black liberation theology has taken this task of interpreting the anastatic strand in concrete situations of oppression more seriously than has process theology. From a black theology perspective, the primary ethical message announces the love of God in light of the daily reality of sin, the mystery of evil, and suffering in the world. In this light, God, too, has a story (GHST). God’s story is disclosed in human experience as divine Presence and as an ethical reality involved in the struggles of daily life (EMLK 34). Interpreted from the perspective of process thought, this means that human experience in all its good and evil manifestations is open to God’s presence and participation. In the prophets of Israel and in the healing miracles of Jesus is the announcement that the alien gods, the principalities and powers are being dethroned. Society, then, is the larger context for hope, not despair; for historical fulfillment, not demise; for accountability and responsible action. Henry Young argues that oppressed persons must claim their freedom by assuming responsibility for their own freedom and by becoming intentional about eradicating oppression. As moral agents we must discern and undo the evil that has been done. We have a responsibility, then, for halting and not passing on the oppression to others in similar positions of powerlessness. The struggle against oppression in black people’s experience is twofold. It is a constant struggle against external forces as manifested in economic, social, and political exploitation. It is also a struggle against internalized forms of oppression as manifested in negative self-images, depression, a sense of hopelessness, and apathy. With Theodore Walker, we are encouraged to see that the struggle against oppression is a constant struggle for liberation. In this light, society no longer need be viewed as the walls of our imprisonment in history. Rather, society may be viewed as the locus for the creative and liberating activity of God amidst the principalities and powers in the ever-present struggles of daily striving (EMLK 28).

 

References

AA -- Douglas Baglin and Barbara Mullins. Aboriginals of Australia. Sydney, New South Wales: A Mulavon Publication, Ltd., 1985.

ARP -- John S. Mbiti. African Religions and Philosophy. New York: Anchor Books, 1979.

AL -- Barbara Mullins, Trevor Cook, and John Gerritsen. Aboriginal Lore. Sydney, New South Wales: A Mulavon Publication, 1982.

AV -- Alasdair Maclntyre. After Virtue. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.

BDWH -- Paul Wilson. Black Death/White Hands. Sydney, Australia: Allen and Unwin PEY. LTD, 1982.

BT -- Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1966-1979. Ed. Gayraud S. Wilmore and James H. Cone. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 1979.

CF -- Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. "Emerging Issues in Feminist Biblical Interpretation." Christian Feminism: Visions of New Humanity. Ed. Judith L. Weidman. New York: Harper and Row Publisher, 1984.

DP -- Developmental Psychology: An Advanced Textbook. Ed. March H. Bornstein and Michael E. Lamb. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1984.

EMLK -- Ervin Smith. The Ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1981.

FTDF -- Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy. "Relational Modes and Meaning." Family Therapy and Disturbed Families. Ed. Gerald H. Zuk and Ivan Boszor-menyi-Nag. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, Inc., 1967.

GAW -- John B. Cobb, Jr. God and The World. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964.

GHST -- James A. Sanders. God Has A Story Too: Sermons in Context. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.

IDV -- Carol Gilligan. In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

JBSP -- Galen A. Johnson. "Historicity, Narrative, and the Understanding of Human Life." Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, 15: 3, October 1984.

MTC -- Beverly Wildung Harrison. Making The Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975.

NTP -- Walter Wink. Naming the Powers. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

PAP -- E. Gordon Rupp. Principalities and Powers. London: The Epworth Press, 1963.

POJ -- John Howard Yoder. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972.

PPST -- Process Philosophy and Social Thought. Ed. John B. Cobb, Jr. and W. Widick Schroeder. Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1981.

R -- Harold H. Oliver. Relatedness: Essays in Metaphysics and Theology. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984.

ROG -- Isabel Carter Heyward. The Redemption of God: A Theology of Mutual Relations. New York: University Press of America, 1982.

STE -- James Win. McClendon, Jr. Systematic Theology: Ethics. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986.

 

Notes

1Archais and exousiais or principalities and powers are terms used to refer to human power arrangements. According to Walter Wink, the New Testament language of Principalities and powers did not exist in a vacuum. The normal daily use of the terms described the political, religious, and economic structures and functionaries with which people had to deal. See NTP 14.

2 NTP Volume 1. I found support for this way of interpreting the effects of social Systems upon people in this volume of Walter Wink. Wink makes the important point that the language of "principalities and powers" in the New Testament is not reducible to material forces as tends to be the case in sociological and psychological analysis. The term "principalities and powers" in the language of the New Testament stands for both the physical manifestation of power and for the inner, spiritual and non-material manifestations of power. Wink argues that ‘the principalities and powers are the inner and outer aspects of any given manifestation of power" (5). Every form of power has an inner, invisible, and spiritual pole that animates and regulates the outer, visible, and material pole. These poles of power are interwoven in reality. The powers are both heavenly and earthly, divine and human. spiritual and political, good and evil.

3A recent textbook underscores this very point. "Although most approaches in psychology have considered aspects of context to be relevant to the study of the person (e.g., in the need to specify the stimulus or describe the task), understanding the role of context has generally been secondary to examining characteristics of the person. This is true of developmental as well as cross-cultural psychology, in that the basic research strategy is to search for the influence of broad classes of experience (e.g., culture, SES, age, gender) that influence broad classes of individual outcome (e.g., IQ, personality, cognitive level). The focus generally has been on the individual as the basic unit of analysis, with human activity explained in terms of motives, personality, and social and cognitive traits and capacities. Characteristics of the person have been assumed to be relatively stable across situations" (DP 539).

4The alternative to this thesis of the abstracted individual is well argued by Isabel Carter Heyward (and many others). See ROG.


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