Margins, Liminal Spaces, and Liberation

“Even the margins have margins.” – Bishop Yvette Flunders

One of the most wonderful parts of being at the American Baptist Seminary of the West is the diversity of the student body. Interim President Nick Carter recently shared that the student body is (and hopefully I’m remembering these percentages right), 38% African American, 38% Asian, 12% Caucasian, and 8% Hispanic. This is particularly helpful when engaging theologies which are not centered on white experience and ideas.

Perhaps the most exciting moment in my first year at ABSW was in the Intro to Theology course taught by Professor Grandison, when we began talking about Liberation Theology. I was so excited because I recognized this theology – a theology of centering the experience of an oppressed or powerless group, as opposed to the dominant theological narrative which is centered in Western (European Colonial) experience. The First Baptist Church of Berkeley lived out a LGBTQ Liberation Theology. It was not perfect in this endeavor, but it did center narratives that included experiences that were not the dominant narrative – cisgendered (though that term wasn’t in use then), heteronormative, male, and white. By centering narratives of women, of non-binary gendered people, of trans people, of gay and lesbian and queer people, new ways of understanding the Word (both scripture, and the incarnate Word as Jesus Christ) as siding with the oppressed, and liberating not just the oppressed (from second tier status to a status of equitable position) but also the oppressor (from limiting mindsets which prevent identifying the full humanity of others, and also denying their own full inclusion in humanity because of this separation).

Even more exciting than being able to put a name to this theology, however, was the realization that there were many iterations of Liberation theology – narratives that were from the point of view of Hispanic, Black, Feminist, Korean, Indian, African, and more. ABSW became a perfect school in that as we began to engage Black Liberation Theology, I was able to glean a deeper understanding by engaging in discussion with my fellow students who were Black. I learned that Liberation theology was nuanced, and there was a difference between Black Liberation and Womanist Theologies, because the experience of Black Women in the church was different and unique compared over and against the experience of Black people as a whole. When I encountered Minjung (Korean) Liberation theology – I could speak with my fellow students who were from Korea, who had an experience both in their country of origin, and here in America that I never will. I had classmates across the LGBTQ spectrum in the wider GTU, and my encounters with them helped me see that for all that we had made progress, there were still new and painful ways to marginalize people. Every encounter with another facet of Liberation theology helped me grasp more and more of the amazing depths that were the lives, experiences and encounters with the living God, from the perspectives of others. It is a deep pool – you could dive down for your entire life and not reach the bottom.

As my conversations and friendships with my classmates grew more and more intense, I came to see how important the inclusion of people who are very different from myself was. Because when it comes down to it, we have more in common with one another as Children of God than we have differences. And what differences we do have, God gave to us – they are meant to be celebrated and shared. I see it as being a way that God helps us to better understand Godself and the universe. If we are willing to share our understanding, our encounters, our vision not just of God and Christ, but also the Heavenly Realm and how it should be manifested in the here and now, and we are really willing to listen, there is a chance that more of God will be revealed to us.

In order to foster an environment where someone can talk about something as important as what Tillich called the “Ultimate Concern,” we should practice Radical Hospitality, and Radical Inclusion. Inclusion is a difficult concept to practice, because the easiest form of Inclusion means getting others to adapt to the dominant group’s idea of normal or typical. Radical Inclusion turns this on its head by decentering any idea of normal and instead creating a dynamic of acceptance of everyone for who they are, as they are, without conformity being required. It means thinking about how people who have atypical needs are included. It means thinking about how to make someone who is on the margins feel comfortable – not just in words, although definitely in the words that we use (preferred pronouns are a good start in this direction) because they are important, but also in our actions, our spaces, and our patterns of worship, and our conversations. It means focusing on alternative narratives to the dominant, white, male, Christian, cisgendered, heteronormative – not because there is nothing of worth in that perspective, but because that perspective is already so pervasive, that people are silenced when the “normative” opinion is asserted. In so doing, I can help build liminal spaces, spaces “between” the “main stream” and the margins, spaces we can all occupy. These liminal spaces, sacred as all liminal spaces are in their very nature, become critical to the process of Radical Hospitality, and Radical Inclusion.

The challenge for me in Radical Inclusion and Radical Hospitality is that it means often I must be silent if I want to learn. That is difficult, really almost painful for me – I like to talk. I like to talk through ideas until I understand them better. But silence can be how I practice Radical Hospitality in a space where people on the margins are present. Creator God, grant me patience so I may learn.

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