Theological Deconstruction and Reconstruction in the Fight against Racism
By Maria-Cristina Ventura

... deconstructing or breaking down offers an opportunity for rebuilding, working out new models that can subvert the racist dynamic present in traditional theology and the culture to which it belongs, so that hierarchies cease to exist Introduction
Theological deconstruction leading to reconstruction is essential for an understanding of theology in the struggle against racism. The exercise of deconstructing involves questioning and confronting theology, which has traditionally been defined, in terms of one culture, as reflection on God, who is not only masculine but also hierarchical and absolute. In this way, the meaning of the divine in the history of other cultures has been destroyed and marginalised. "Deconstructing" is therefore to be understood in the sense of breaking down the elements of traditional theological thinking in order to analyse them, destabilise them and disqualify them from speaking for all people and all cultures. But deconstructing or breaking down offers an opportunity for rebuilding, working out new models that can subvert the racist dynamic present in traditional theology and the culture to which it belongs, so that hierarchies cease to exist.

The reasons why I see a need for theological deconstruction and reconstruction in the struggle against racism stem first of all from my own identity as a Black, Caribbean woman, and secondly from my experience of theological work in different Christian communities. In this situation I see and feel the domination of one race over others, which has placed Black people in a situation of marginalisation, discrimination and exclusion, but has also sparked struggle and resistance.

Thinking about theological deconstruction and reconstruction also causes me to think about the social reality which makes me feel the need for such an exercise. I find that we are living in an increasingly disorganised world, a world of many cultures that is nevertheless becoming ever more globalised. This process of globalisation corresponds to a world culture that sets itself above all the other cultures. It is a culture which does not like other cultures, though other cultures like it.

In the societies of Latin America and the Caribbean we observe a growing need and quest for the divine, the desire for different world where the meaning of life is recovered. There is a sense of need for religious experiences which can give the strength to find solutions to the concrete problems of everyday life. Yet the divine is thought of in the categories of a patriarchal mentality. 1 This way of thinking has to do with a hierarchical world where a person counts or is valued in terms of economic class, religion, education, ethnic group, race, sex, gender, appearance. These elements plus discrimination cause racism. We may say, therefore, that we live in a kyriarchal world 2 (i.e. dominated by elite-male relations of ruling) which constructs hierarchy not only in the personal sphere but also in its structures; it is racist, classist, sexist, etc. and the violence of the construction is reflected in language, and in physical or psychological forms.

We are talking about a personal and structural construction which is imposed as an epistemological model for thinking about the world. It is a form of knowledge limited to a certain perspective on reality as seen by a specific group of people3 (generally, male and white), so that we may say that this construction is not only androcentric but also racist. However, it is impossible to understand a culture without understanding the religion of that culture, as these are inter-related. A religion is created in a culture and it carries the ideology of that culture. It acts not only as an expression of that culture but above all as its divine validation. This means that the way in which the divine is thought of in a hierarchical society will also be hierarchical.4 This being so, the model of reasoning used in thinking about the world is one based on hegemony and domination, and it is in terms of such reasoning that we look at Christian theology - a theology which reveals itself as racist and, above all, hegemonic in its practices.

What we mean when we speak of deconstructing is not a method or a doctrine, but an event which may in principle be described as a reading, a writing or practical thinking which destabilises the system of binary opposites on which western thinking is founded.

Photo: Wolf Kutnarhorsky, WCC

The need for deconstructing
Speaking about theology in the struggle against racism immediately leads us to say that theology, as we know it from our own experience of oppression as Black people, is not exempt from racist practices. We live in a world sustained by a strongly dualistic type of theology. This thinking is inherited from Greek thinking which saw itself as superior to all other forms of thinking. It may be described schematically as follows:
reason /emotion, spirit/body, transcendent/immanent, heaven/earth, good/evil, culture/nature, man/woman, black/white, clean /unclean, moral/immoral.

The racism practised against Black people is based on this thinking. Blackness is associated with all that is corporal, unclean... Following this logic Blacks, Indigenous People, women are not invested with holiness. This form of thinking represents the dominant, hegemonic culture - the image of God the Creator of all things is present in it alone. According to this type of theology there exists an essence of things, that which makes something what it is and not something else, and gives it its specificity.5

It is this type of thinking which urgently calls for deconstruction, an exercise frequently carried out by feminist theologians.6 What we mean when we speak of deconstructing is not a method or a doctrine, but an event which may in principle be described as a reading, a writing or practical thinking which destabilises the system of binary opposites on which western thinking is founded. 7 Deconstruction reveals the inter-dependence of apparently opposed elements and reveals them as unstable and constantly deceptive. The practice of deconstruction subverts hierarchy and the logic of thinking which constantly repeats abstract constructions as real.

Thus, the construction which presents Black people as inferior, of low intelligence and not bearers of holiness... is revealed as false, a construction used to maintain the hegemony of one culture - White, western culture. However, it is not enough for theological action simply to be conscious of the struggles and demands of oppressed groups. It must first be able to make a critical assessment of the historical function of that theology in the lives of those groups. It is important to stress that the theology that has to be deconstructed, and which is traditionally practised in many of our churches, is traditional White theology. It is a racist and oppressive theology.

In short, a theological reconstruction constitutes a challenge to traditional theology by insisting that thinking about the divine can be conducted from the standpoint of those who are voiceless and marginalised, and not from that of the "winners of history". Proposal for theological reconstruction
The practice of deconstruction enables us, amongst other things, to unmask hegemonic the-ology. This theology reread the history of salvation in the light of Plato’s philosophy and hence in the light of world of ideas. This theology thus affirms the existence of God beyond the physical world. Besides being a (male) God, he is perfect spirit. And as this idea of God is constructed, as we have seen, on the basis of a dualistic, hegemonic rationality which establishes hierarchy, God is conceived to be not only male, but also White.

The practice of theological reconstruction in efforts to combat racism confronts us from the start with an intrusive proposal, which has to do with common sense and everyday life. It comes from the periphery, or, as William R. Jones points out, reflecting on Black theology, "Black theology is by definition confirmed in conscious and fundamental opposition to White theology"8. In other words, counter-models spring up within the dominant model of rationality, representing the men and women whose aspirations are left unsatisfied. A theological reconstruction thus comes closer to recognising the provisional and multiple nature of knowledge, which is always particular, local, personal.

A theological reconstruction is indebted to the epistemological explanation in traditional theology, but this prompts the construction of new theological models which propose new ways of conceiving the world and new ways of thinking about human beings and divinities. We may mention, amongst others, liberation theology, critical feminist theology, Black theology, Indigenous theologies, all of which announce a new way of thinking about the world. These theologies appear as new paradigms because they have emerged as criticism of the hegemonic rationality inside and outside the religious domain. They show us that it is not possible to think neutrally in theology because religion is a mould of custom. In short, a theological reconstruction constitutes a challenge to traditional theology by insisting that thinking about the divine can be conducted from the standpoint of those who are voiceless and marginalised, and not from that of the "winners of history".

Black men and women, with their experience, are the principal subjects of this new theology, which is a theology done out of the Black peoples’ experience of suffering, struggle and resistance. The presence of Black people as subjects doing this theology, as well as a providing a new epistemology, shows that they no longer fit into the patterns of traditional theology and also that they are uncomfortable with simply being disguised as "the poor". They want to talk about their religious experience in terms of their own racial, ethnic, sexual and gender identities. They want to talk about their experience of the divine from their own places of hardship but also their spaces of joy and gladness. It is a new theology which does not have the same concepts of scripture, God, Christology, ecclesiology, the human being. So this reconstruction invites us to new ways of looking at things, new feelings and new ways of living.

A different way of looking at God
In the experience of many Black people the word "God" is not something static. The image of God is different for each person. This is so because the image of the divine often coincides with images from within a person, and traditional theology imposes images from without. Talking about God is something cultural and cannot be hegemonic. We discover the sacred in talking about experiences of life. So we can talk about God as a woman, as Black, Indigenous, a lamb, a hen, love, friend, wind, anger...9 in other words, God can be male or female; God is not encompassed in one sex, far less one culture. In short, God has as many names as we have hopes and longings!

A new experience of human being
The concept of the human being in this new theology is not that of a completed being. It is more than Descartes’ static concept of "I think, therefore I am." Therefore, instead of speaking of "human being" it speaks of "human identity", which explains why a person can be identified in the different facets of victim, accomplice or resistance. So the identity of Black persons is not only what others may say of them; they are no longer invisible, or visible only in predefined terms, and they can relate to other bodies in a non-kyriarchal way, as brothers and sisters.

1. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. "But She Said" - Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation. Boston, Beacon Press, 1992, p. 105.
2. Ibid. P. 8 3. See Ivone Gebara. Teologia eco feminista - Ensaio para repensar o conhecimento e a religião. Sao Paulo, Olho da Agua, 1997, p.30

4. "that which materially concretizes any human society always leaves some trace of its social relations and values in what it used, traded, worshipped... " (see Roberto da Matta. Relativizando: Uma introduccion à antropologia social. Vozes, Petropolis, 1984, p.31

5. See Ivone Gebara, op. cit. p. 38 6. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. "But She Said". Boston, Beacon Press, 1992, p.5

7. Amy Hollywood. "Deconstruction" in Dictionary of Feminist Theologies. Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996, p. 61-62

8. William R. Jones. "Is God a White Racist?" - A Preamble to Black Theology. Boston, Beacon Press, 1998, p. 76

9. Silvia Regina de Lima Silva. Consulta sobre teología y sociedad civil: implicaciones eclesiológicas. Seminario Bíblico Latinoamericano. San José, 1995.

10. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, op. cit., p. 199-200

11. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. "Bread not Stone". Beacon Press, 1984, p.14

12. ibid. p.81

Christ as a decentralised figure
Christology too has to be understood differently. We cannot deconstruct Christ biologically, but we can deconstruct the hero figure.10. We have to realise that Jesus was a man from a particular culture. Consequently he cannot be placed above other cultures. As Black, Indigenous women we can look at him together with other persons from our cultures who have also borne witness in defending the lives of men and women who are disempowered. We do not want to continue making Christ the sole example of a divine person.

A new way of understanding the Bible In this sense, too, the Bible has to be recognised not as an archetype but as a historical prototype, which enables women, Blacks and Indigenous people to see the text in connection with their own experiences and historical struggles for liberation. It has to be recognised that the Bible has been used to delay the emancipation of slaves and women, as well as to justify their emancipation. This being so, a critical feminist interpretation will help to overcome any attempts to identify our experiences with biblical texts or traditions and enable us to understand them as historical experiences in their own contexts and to discover new meanings for present realities.11

A reconstruction that leads us to different experiences of how to live and celebrate the faith
There is no doubt that the experience of theological reconstruction prompts constant assessment of the spaces of reference for living out the faith. The new subjects carrying out the reconstruction - women, Black and Indigenous men and women - feel the need for the traditional structures and spaces to be transformed. It must be said that many Christian churches view Black peoples’ way of thinking about God and celebrating life as demonic. A break in the discourse and mentality of these churches is essential, a break that will allow the true ecclesia12 to emerge, where different subjects can feel at home.

So it is important to recover and arrange spaces for spontaneous gatherings, to fill them with symbols and objects that have been banned until now in the official places. In these new spaces we will be able not only to recreate life through stories, memories and dreams, but also with music and dancing, songs and stories which accompany our dreams. Sacred spaces!

Maria Cristina Ventura is from the Dominican Republic. She is a doctoral student in the science of Religion and biblicist, Methodist University of Sao Paulo - Brazil.

Translated from spanish
WCC Language Service

Table of Contents // Editorial // Environmental racism: old wine in a new bottle by Deborah M. Robinson // Racial Violence, by Mukami McCrum // Interview with M. Deenabandhu On the subject of casteism // Redefining understandings of racism, by N. Barney Pityana // Theological deconstruction and reconstruction in the fight against racism by Maria-Cristina Ventura // Ethnicity and racism by Steve Fenton // Inter-racial church Communities, by Rev. Marjorie Lewis-Cooper // Rio de Janeiro Declaration // The WCC Special Fund to Combat Racism // Two groups who received a Special Fund grant // The UN World Conference against Racism and the WCC Ecumenical Study Process on Racism // SISTERS in the struggle to Eliminate Racism and Sexism by Sammy Toineeta, Betty Ruth Lozana Lerma, Silvia Regina // Publications

© 2000 world council of churches | remarks to webeditor