A Review of Theology from the Trenches
by Chris Burton
I am affirmed and saddened reading James Baldwin’s words or listening to Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted and seeing how relevant they are to the contemporary American experience. There is an agony in its resonance. I remember how earnestly I spoke in 2008 when I first arrived in Richmond. A new friend and I were speaking and I shared my hope that we as a society were on the cusp of realizing postracialism. My understanding of the gospel convinces me that all evil, including white supremacy, are impermanent. They have not always been and will not always be. I remain hopeful but am much wiser now. I believe we are witnessing white supremacy’s death throes but my hope has not blinded me to the perilous nature of these times nor have they numbed me to the betrayal of white brothers and sisters who remain painfully silent.
I say this to confess my rage and unwillingness to hear what Roger Gench had to say in Theology from the Trenches. I feared that this would be the memoir of a cultural tourist or someone unwilling to discuss white supremacy, justice or America’s desperate need to confess. He is clearly molded by his experiences in community organizing and has a respect for the balance between talking and doing. “In my opinion, working interracial relationships are essential if we are to make any effective headway in our communities on issues of race and poverty,” (Gench, 118). These healthy relationships cannot reinforce the societal structures that oppress us all. It is equally exhausting when white people approach racism tabula rasa and when white people insert their guilt or victimhood into the conversation. Deconstructing racism requires self-awareness and the humility that allows one to acknowledge their own complicity in societal ills. Book talks and lunchtime conversations about race are a part of it but far from panacea. “King knew well that picking up one’s cross daily was a disruptive, destabilizing practice, yet one that opened up space in which one might grow strong and journey toward liberation.” (Gench, 109).
I appreciate Gench’s willingness to begin the process of vulnerability and name his fear. He does not position himself as a newcomer but I got annoyed in moments where I felt Gench was slipping back into the safety of distance. He spoke so well about the importance of hospitality and presents an argument aligning the importance of a fully embodied Jesus with the hospitality we must demonstrate to one another then says, “It is a fascinating argument, isn’t it?” (Gench, 105). In these moments I feel the white gaze is most over Gench’s shoulder and I wish he would turn around and say, “Don’t fly over, live with us.”
It is clear that Gench is committed to this issue but I found myself wanting to hear him have more of a conversation with the black intellectual giants he refers to. His mentions of James Cone, Katie Cannon and Brian Blount made my ears tingle but then I said, “Ok, what do you think?” Gench’s mention of these heroes sometimes struck me as a grasp for credibility but anyone reading the moments of story he has placed in this text knows that he is engaging in this journey. I am unsure and unwilling to assume why he still strikes me as insecure of his seat at this table. Perhaps he can’t win. If he seemed to know it all then I would be turned off by his arrogance. Yet I know I have found myself moved by white men like Tim Tyson and Tim Wise who speak about white supremacy and its suffocating hold on the United States intimately. I tire of white people speaking about race like they are trying to find the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Race is only a chapter in this book but it is a bedrock theme in this text. Frankly, if Gench did not come correctly with this chapter I would have no interest in anything else he had to say. Good ideas be damned. I am resolute in this regard because it is past time that ministers, do-gooders and anyone else who claims to prioritize justice work actively to destroy systemic racism. White supremacy is a grand central station of our societal ills. “Racism suffuses current political debates on immigration, health care, jobs, wealth, and poverty,” (Gench, 101). One would safely assume that theology in the trenches would be ill equipped without engaging systemic racism but I am willing to propose that no one in the American context is far removed. Racism is so insidious, its complicity so seductive that all Americans are molded by the stenches from the trenches.
It is more than conversations or surface level confessions of white guilt. Deconstructing white supremacy is heart rendering work that requires confession and tangible work. “Most of us came to the conversation expecting another dialogue on race, but what we ended up engaging was the reality of black rage at a key consequence of racism: the absence of economic opportunity,” (Gench, 116). It is not as if racism has only hurt black people’s feelings; black people, people of color, and all who live on the margins of society have tangible impediments in life that must be dismantled. Gench’s work is a model for white ministers and congregations who have demonstrated a willingness to shed unreadiness and do the work.
I did not walk away from this book encouraged. I am too angry to be satisfied by these steps. I sincerely appreciate Gench’s work and efforts but equally saddened that this work appears novel to so many white congregations. I cringe when I think of the congregations who will be satisfied by simply reading Gench’s book, perhaps even inviting him to speak, but will not transition into the doing that justice requires of them. This conversation requires all of us and Gench is wise in his recognition, “if the New York Avenue church had not had a history of ministry in the city I’m not sure we could have engaged an authentic discussion about racism,” (Gench, 118). This book encouraged me to continue the exhausting work of pushing my white brothers and sisters, particularly in leadership roles, to commit themselves to this work and build relationships across cultures. It is not something I want to do and my aforementioned exhaustion alludes to how little I enjoy this work. Yet, if I am truly going to be a good neighbor and demonstrate the love that God calls me to live, can I see my neighbor walking in darkness and do nothing? Surely not. What happens to the gospel when its proclaimers have no interest or ability to do justice? Perhaps this work will never be performed by all of the “good Christian people” in this country. As the Navajo proverb goes, it truly is impossible to wake someone who is pretending to be asleep.