by Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana
For the first time I was in our nation’s capital on the Fourth of July, where the women’s choir that my wife, Dhilanthi Fernando founded and directs, Le Cantanti di Chicago, performed at the John F. Kennedy Center. They were among 17 international choirs in a week-long choral festival celebrating the 100th birth anniversary of President Kennedy.
On Sunday, we visited the recently-opened Museum of African American History and Culture. It was at once inspiring and troubling. Inspiring because so much of the distinctive texture of American life can be traced directly to its rich African American contributions. Troubling because our nation’s shameful embrace of racism is not just a stain on our nation’s past, but a plague that threatens us still. Structural racism still continues - a chronic and debilitating condition that runs bone-deep in our laws, our economics, our textbooks, our politics, and yes, even - perhaps especially - in our churches.
The museum experience reminded me of several important facts:
In early times slavery was not racialized. It was a temporary condition, usually of indentured servitude. Only later did enslavement based upon race (a permanent and unchangeable condition) become the norm.
European colonialism was largely a white supremacist movement that decimated much of the world -- African slaves, Native Americans, Asian and Latin American peoples, cultures and religions, particularly Jews – and continues to wreak havoc on our world today.
Christian churches, particularly those who consider theologies of the Global North as the norm for everyone, have historically been willing partners, supporters and even co-conspirators of the colonial project, bending its theologies to support white supremacy and colonial domination. On the other hand, preachers in slave churches, who re-interpreted the theologies of domination they had received, preached a Gospel of freedom and liberation. Slave churches were subversive, forbidden, and driven underground.
The malignancy of white supremacy is still powerful and deadly, and is strongly encouraged by the current political establishment. We don’t usually call it white supremacy, except when atrocities are committed by fringe groups self-identifying as such, but white supremacy it is, and is still aided and abetted by some forms of Christianity. This white supremacy is armed to the teeth by a radical theology that conflates God and guns. The NRA is the most obvious expression of an armed militia. The just-released Trump-slogan-turned-Christian worship hymn, “Make America Great Again” (which by the way, is without a single direct reference to God) is the latest and most obvious expression of Christian complicity. The recent spate of police killings of African Americans with no legal consequence is the most obvious expression of the structural racism built into our nation’s legal system.
So uncharacteristically, I worry.
Some years ago, in a Jewish-Christian dialogue event, a Jewish participant talked about his fear of Christianity after the Holocaust. It was baptized Christians who did the killing, he said, “because” of their faith and not “in spite of.” I didn’t think much of it at the time, but today his words are becoming ominous to me. I worry that the vocal nationalistic fervor of a colonial-influenced, empire-based Christianity deeply aligned with white supremacy is rising up across our land. This is not an expression of our ideals but of our failings.
Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, speaking at SCUPE a few months following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson said: “It’s fifty years after Martin Luther King, Jr. What is wrong with our theology that we have allowed this to happen?”
OMNIA is resolute. It is challenging the theologies that have created the conditions for these and other inhumanities to persist. “Received” theologies, which are taught at seminaries around the world, because of its historic collusion with empires and therefore with white supremacy, is a very serious problem for Christianity. These are doctrines that are given to us from the top-down and authoritative, finished and complete. Their hallmarks are theological exclusivity and cultural superiority. Jesus' "Great Commission" has been used for centuries to justify everything from coerced conversions to invasions.
OMNIA teaches people, regardless of religion, how to develop “contextual” theologies, which arise from the ground up. Its hallmarks are a theologies that are evolving, experiential and experimental, relevant to people’s needs and responsive to their struggles. Christians, Muslims, Jews and other religious and community leaders are learning about OMNIA’s three pillars: pluralism (robust engagement with diversity), praxis (effective action) and power (organizing people and money) and how together they make for a just world for everyone.
What OMNIA is about is nothing short of a seismic theological paradigm shift. Our goal is to build a massive movement that will shift our emphasis from extremism to solidarity. Already we are holding leadership training events in Chicago, IL, Charlotte, NC, and Gombe, Nigeria, and have been invited to many other US cities such as Flint, MI, and Tampa, FL, and to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Of course we can’t do this alone. We need you to be engaged. There are two ways you can engage:
Leaving the museum and stepping into the light of our nation’s capital once again, I was immediately aware that among our magnificent museums, THREE stand as a testaments to the atrocities of white supremacy - The Native American Museum, the Holocaust Museum, and now, the African American Museum. Later, across town, as Dhilanthi’s choir filled the Kennedy Center with songs of hope, I thought of Kennedy’s own hopes for our nation, words now enshrined on the facade overlooking the Potomac:
I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.
As a nation, we’re getting a late start. As a global community, we haven’t a moment to spare.