This summer, as has been true for the past few summers, racism has made headline news. Deep divisions have been put in the spotlight, and it can sometimes feel as if that spotlight has served to dig them even deeper.
But we can’t confront racial strife if we don’t acknowledge that it exists. The challenge is that racism does not just have a deep root, but has many deep roots in our lives, communities, and country.
Like much of our nation, I’ve been doing substantial soul-searching to seek understanding about my own actions, beliefs, and behaviors, as well as the systemic patterns that write collective actions, beliefs, and behaviors in quite large letters across our society.
What I’m coming to understand through this reflection is startling, and might surely seem like a non-sequitur. But here it is:
The widespread Christian failure to understand and experience God as Trinity has provided a breeding ground for both implicit and explicit racism.
To understand a sin that is as old as history, it is helpful to go back to one of the oldest questions of human inquiry.
When I studied the history of philosophy in the early 1960s, I was told that the first and foundational philosophical problem that keeps recurring in every age and in different forms is “the problem of the one and the many”: How can there be any primal unity to reality when what we see is so much obvious and seemingly conflicting diversity? Is there any unifying pattern to “the ten thousand things” that overwhelm our horizon?
This remains our issue today, at least for those of us who look for “big-picture narratives” that speak to the confusion that still confronts us. Theology always made the claim that it had the power to offer us the biggest picture of all (the “Reign of God” in Jesus’ language), even though it all too often offered us rather small, self-serving, and tribal images of God. Without knowing it, and contrary to its own unique revelation, I think much of Christian history did the same thing.
Let’s look at one of the very destructive effects of a diminished, anti-transformative image of God on the perennial and ubiquitous issue of racism. Today, most Christian notions of the Divine are much more formed by pagan and Greek conceptions than by the central Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Even the Latin word for God, Deus, is a direct reformulation of the Greek word for the head of the gods, Zeus. I believe racism is often rooted in this distorted view of divinity; rather than reflecting the One who created all things in God’s own “image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26-27), we instead make God into a mascot who, as Anne Lamott brilliantly quips, hates all the same people we do.
When you start with a conception of God as an old white man sitting in the clouds, it is of little surprise that white men, preferably empowered white men, are considered the closest to God and the most worthy of respect and value. It becomes a top-down universe, a pyramid much more than the circular dance (perichoresis). Perichoresis, the Trinity as dance, is indeed the precise and daring image that ignited some of our early church fathers’ finest intuitions, prompting consensus around this utterly new revelation of God. It took them three centuries to make full sense out of Jesus’ often-confusing language about what he named “Father,” how he understood himself, and what he named the “Holy Spirit.” Our common form of dualistic thinking just could not process such three-fold and one-ness evocations at the same time.
It was frankly, illogical — and even silly.
How could we reconcile what seemed like a huge logical and theological conundrum, especially for thoroughgoing monotheistic Jews? The human ego is so resistant to anything its mind cannot quickly process and control; it prefers separateness and a sense of superiority — precisely what the Trinity rejects and denies.
Yet if we do not discern and celebrate difference on the level of what visible humanness means, what hope is there on issues where “difference” is often much more striking (gender, power, class, education, etc.)? Every one of these issues is searching for its own locus of authority today, and as naïve as it might sound to some, I believe Trinity does provide such an appropriate locus of authority for those who are willing to trust and allow it. God is precisely one by holding together very real difference.
The Godhead itself maintains separate identity between Three, with an absolutely unique kind of unity, which is the very shape of Divine Oneness.
God’s pattern and goal has never been naïve uniformity but radical diversity (1 Corinthians 12:4ff) maintained in absolute unity by “a perfect love” that infinitely self-empties and infinitely outpours—at the same time.
This Divine pattern is, of course, most beautifully revealed in “all the array [pleroma, or fullness] of creation” (Genesis 2:1). God is forever “making room” and “infilling”; this is the Way of the Flow. This is, in our finite understandings, an utterly new logic and is the foundational template for the success of the human project for those ready to embrace at the level of experience what they already confess in the creeds. Indeed, many collaborative and synergistic souls “outside the fold” of Christianity live this better than some who formally believe in the doctrine of the Trinity.
Of course, it is precisely self-emptying that the human ego resists and opposes; without this the whole waterwheel of divine love does not flow at all — at least through us.
We like infilling, but we do not know how to make room for that infilling.
This is always and forever the spiritual problem. This is racism, sexism, classism, ageism, lookism, homophobia, transphobia, imperialism, patriarchy, and all that the tradition courageously refers to as “sin.”
In my reading of the Gospels, this explains why Jesus had to dramatically come and personally exemplify the entire path of self-emptying (the kenosis of Philippians 2:7) and making room for “otherness” (John 16:7 and implied throughout John 14-17). The Jesus path is a constant visible lesson in both allowing and handing on, receiving and giving away what is received. He makes the Divine Waterwheel visible and attractive, so we can trust this always-daring process ourselves and even fall in love with it (1 John 1:1-2). To step into what this mighty river of God’s mercy and restorative justice has always been doing — challenging idols of totalizing false oneness under their guise of uniformity, while allowing the flow of many streams together into genuine oneness.
Christ is the choreography of new creation made visible, and we are still being invited to take this dance.