Many of Oxford University’s colleges ban walking on their finely manicured lawns, and Christ Church’s school of theology is no exception. Standing near the pristine Oxford grass after attending their evensong last May, the most noticeable courtyard feature was the sign: “Keep off the grass.”
The architecture, cloistered courtyards and perfectly manicured hedges seemed designed to keep intentional distance from the real world. Architecture and religious tradition often mirror one another, and I couldn’t help but wonder if we’ve inherited a tradition that reads scripture in the same cloistered way.
I recall a recent headline from an Atlantic article: “Why do rich people love quiet? The sound of gentrification is silence.” Silence, high walls, or sometimes even beautiful courtyards insulate us from voices we would rather not listen to, voices that we must keep listening to.
Likewise, theological systems that leave real-world implications for last perpetuate bad theology. 1 Corinthians reminds us that to “speak in tongues of men and angels” is useless if we “have not love.” Theology is forged through loving relationships in a real world.
As churches age, we tend to create ways of reading and applying scripture that preserve our power, wealth, or cultural stability at the expense of others. Any scripture reader without a dollar to their name would readily welcome a literal interpretation of “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor.” If they were to acquire a year’s salary in savings, however, their reading might begin to change. Every reform movement emerging from the margins must create unwelcome noise, break through like a pickaxe, and shout our blindspots. Rediscovering both the Prophets and the church at the margins over the past 10 years has taught me that the purest theology is theology that is “lived in,” even if it is not as tidy and clean-edged as the Christ Church lawn.
Without a lived-in theology, our churches will keep our catastrophic blindspots. I recall a middle school class debate, and to this day I can’t decide what the goal was, except that it certainly wasn’t intended to justify slavery. The context was 1860, and our teacher divided the class in two. One half had to make biblical arguments for slavery. The other half had to argue biblically for its abolition.
I was on the pro-slavery side, and we mopped the floor with our victory. The theological gymnastics to universalize Philemon’s granting of freedom to Onesimus didn’t stand a candle to the plain and simple reading: “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and equitable but also to those who are perverse” (1 Peter 2:18, NABRE).
I went home that night wondering why it was so easy to win an argument so clearly wrongheaded. I learned much later that for four centuries, white Christian ministers harnessed passages like these to justify slavery and segregation. But our errant theologies were immediately apparent to enslaved African Americans who lived their devastation.
Esau McCaulley, in his 2023 January Series lecture at Calvin University, said enslaved Africans quickly realized “there is something deeply wrong with Christianity in this land… [that] there was no pristine Christianity before it was shattered.”
The Black and Latino churches I’ve known—particularly the women within these church traditions—have often best understood that sound theology is built, as Desmond Tutu says, “not from the undisturbed peace of a don’s study, or his speculations in a university seminar, but from a situation where they have been hammered out on the anvil of adversity, in the heat of the battle, or soon thereafter.”
I don’t bring up the wearied example of slavery to be pedantic. I simply think that 158 years after Juneteenth, we still haven’t learned our lesson. Facing new social issues, we revert to many of the same lines used for our past sins. “Social issues are a distraction from the gospel,” Rev. Billy Graham stated early in his career, before publicly denouncing segregation. That line is still used, religiously. Or, “Scripture is plain and simple on this,” a response we often hear in the context of someone sharing how our reading of scripture is causing real and unexamined harm.
It’s not that scripture isn’t clear on many things, or that those marginalized have more direct access to God. It’s that our desire for comfort, power, or stability makes most of us perennially poor exegetes of scripture, and the marginalized crying “bad fruit” is often our best guide toward reform. To listen, of course, is the way toward truth, a way that will—though difficult initially—set us free from fear of change, of loss, of the self-sacrifice that leads to life.
As I read scripture, I try to read in the community of those very different from me, always asking, “What’s at stake here for me if my interpretation is wrong? Who do I identify with in this passage, and based on my own level of power, wealth, or stability, who should I identify with? What is asked of me?
Our neatly packaged theologies and confessional beliefs may be carefully constructed with impressive institutions built up around them, but if we don’t allow anyone on the grass—if our reading of scripture, our theological systems—aren’t seriously formed and reformed by those suffering, those raising red flags, those pointing out inconsistencies—we’re probably not reading scripture well.
Oxford University, home to many theological heavyweights, was a religious cornerstone to the project of British Imperialism. But look at those lawns!
Shhhh photo by Andrea Piacquadio