Race and The Trinity

Professor Leonardo Boff

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A long time ago, at a friends’ wedding, one uncle asked me, what did I like about theology (since I told him I was in seminary)? As a Calvinist (at that time–I have already posted on it years back–see here, I answered, “Predestination and The Trinity.”

I could not go a day without mentioning the Holy Trinity, or something about God living in community.  In fact, I even did an independent study with a professor on Black Theology and the Trinity.  At one point, I did like where I was headed in terms of discussing trinitarian theology.  However, I began to feel a deep dissatification with my methodology, which was originally of the narrative theology variety.  When I left “Hauerwasianism”, I guess I turned my back on my own black trinitarian project.

I believe that that move (the leaving of the project behind) was temporary.  Methodologically speaking, I have found my own voice.  Narrative theology, much like narrative interpretation of Scripture, hides presuppositions, and therefore the bodies and context of the person who is narrating.  Plus, as one professor pointed out to me, what theologian isn’t formed by story in one way or another.

What brought about this second post of the day on The Trinity? Erin from UNDONE theology posted on how to talk about race and the Trinity.

I find this conversation exciting, for a couple of reasons. Besides going back to my work in the past and revisiting that research, an exploration may help me better connect the two subjects for the academy and church. Talking about the Trinity which is a mystery can be considered an equivalent of talking about race, because on one hand, with the Trinity, we do talk about a person being history with a story, a set of practices, and a culture (the God-man Christ Yeshua) as well as something we can grasp (Revelation, Scripture, Tradition), but at the same time the relationship of the Triune God to the world remains something we can only touch since it is a mystery. Similarly, when discussions of race happen, on one hand, we have definite histories of oppression and hope, real human experiences of discrimination every day, as well as public policies that reflect our racialized views of humanity (affirmative action, torture); on the other hand, when it comes to race, we must realize that race and always has been a social construct, and that what blackness, whiteness, brownness, whatever, always have had changing definitions.

There have been several books that have been influential to my thoughts about the Trinity and race, including Leonardo Boff’s The Trinity and Society as well as Karen Baker-Fletcher’s Dancing With God.

In that vein, I have posted my most recent research on the Trinity and race, a paper presentation given last year in Atlanta, for the National Association for Baptist Professor of Religion (they allow students).  It was originally a paper for a Black Political Theologies course, but I added some insights from Patristic theology and early Black Christian thought (the enslaved African church meetings during the time of chattel slavery in the U.S.–17th to 19th century) for the NABPR presentation.

Here is the link from Academia.edu: Social God, Social Teaching, Social Justice


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0 thoughts on “Race and The Trinity

  1. rey

    I don’t get how you can view the trinity as a sort of anti-racist thing. Were not plenty of black followers of Arius slaughtered for rejecting it? Were not non-white people slaughtered for centuries because they didn’t tow the line exactly 100% on believing in the exact Nicene or Calcedonian or Athanasian formulations of how the trinity works? In fact, white people were killed too, the Celts, for holding Arian views. Whitey in Rome went on the rampage killing everyone who would accept their whitey trinity. How do you see the trinity the way you do? I don’t get it.

    1. Rod of Alexandria Post author


      You have given me a lot to think about, but I do know where one can see Christian history that way. The way that the Nicene-Chalcedonian doctrines were enforced, they excluded countries from the “Middle East,” etc., and I do recognize that history.

      Well, I have ignored my trinitarianism from the past, and now I think I am coming back to it with a different perspective. Did you get a chance to read the paper I linked from Academia.edu? Any thoughts on it?

    2. rey

      Well, race aside, I guess you are thinking that a God who is multiple people will be nicer because he knows how to get along with people. Yet, at the same time, a God who is multiple people could very well be so satisfied with his own company that he has no real concern or compassion for humanity, and is how Christianity normally ends up being preached. A God who is alone in heaven, however, may seek to humanity more, because he is lonely. Its kinda how the OT deals with God and Israel. God is like all lonely so he gets really upset when Israel doesn’t want to be his friend. I guess in the end you can make anything racist and anything anti-racist. It just depends on your mood for the day.

      I didn’t get to read your piece earlier, because it wouldn’t load, but its loading now. I don’t think its fair to say the Deist God was blind to the suffering of people especially African slaves, and the Christian God came down and liberated slaves. Yes, the OT has God liberate the Hebrew slaves, but only to then allow them to continue the practice of slavery. Yes, Jesus preaches about treating others the way you want to be treated, but Paul tells slaves to “honor their masters as the Lord” and “not despise them for being brethren” (that is, don’t think “how dare them hold me as a slave, they’re Christian, they should know better!”) No, just shut up and take it, Paul says.

      Really, if the Christian God is the real God, that makes slavery all the worse, since he supposedly enters history and interferes in human affairs–why did he wait so long to care about black people?

      The Deist God, on the other hand, in that he doesn’t interfere with human affairs, well one cannot say “why did you wait so long? why did you help the Hebrews way back then, but not us?” He has a perfect excuse: he doesn’t get involved. He just sits back and waits to judge in the next world.

      Besides that, there were centuries of Christianity, and they didn’t eradicate slavery. One century of Deism did. Thomas Jefferson may well have been a slave owner, a hypocrite, but it was still him who wrote that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,” not Moses, not Jesus, not Paul. Moses and Paul both upheld slavery in writing, and both Moses and Abraham held slaves (and maybe Paul did too for all we know). They not only held slaves, but propagated the system with their words. Jefferson held slaves, but destroyed the system with his words nonetheless. For It was those words “all men are created equal…” that entered the American consciousness and brought about the eventual end of slavery, not Moses’ words in Exodus 21:2 “and if you buy a Hebrew slave…” and not Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:5 “Slaves, be obedient to your earthly masters…” but Jefferson’s “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”

      Furthermore, when only one religion is allowed in a nation, the result is automatically the acceptance of slavery. Muslim countries still have slavery. There is no challenge to the authority of the priests in a monoreligious environment. Thanks to the Deists establishing freedom of religion, Jefferson being very instrumental in this, America grew up as a multi-religious society. One was therefore allowed to question passages in the Bible that defend slavery without being burned at the stake. Slavery could have never been abolished first in Europe, because where one church reigned supreme, no such liberty to reject certain passages of scripture could exist. The Deists did more for ending slavery than it might seem.

      1. rey

        The Deists also, by challenging the authority of scripture as ‘inerrant’ and ‘infallible’ and constantly putting scripture to the test of reason, prepared even Christians for the eventual jettisoning of those passages in scripture that support slavery. If Deism had never arisen, the fundamentalists Christians would probably still support slavery, because “Paul says its OK.” But since the Deists pressed them, and pressed them, mocking the scriptures, saying they did not fit with reason, they are unfair, they are immoral, and so on, because of this, Christians finally gave in and said “you’re right; these passages that allow slavery are immoral and irrational; let’s end slavery.”

      2. Rod of Alexandria Post author

        Hey Rey,

        “Well, race aside, I guess you are thinking that a God who is multiple people will be nicer because he knows how to get along with people.”

        That may very well have been the case with my project a long time ago, but not any more. I like to relate the Trinity, YHWH as a social, relational God to concepts of community and justice.

        I would say that the Triune God intervenes in unique ways, not like some imperial fatalist monarch, but by being present with the slaves in their suffering, and revealing Godself as a liberator. God thereby respects freewill and remains involved in history. A suffering God is thoroughly trinitarian, and this is exactly what I have consistently argued.

  2. rey

    Of course, in the OT, there is Deuteronomy 23:15-16 “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him.”

    Yet, in the NT, there is the book of Philemon, in which Paul apparently feels a duty to send the slave Onesimus back to his master, Philemon. Yes, Paul says in verse 16 “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.” Still, how can Paul have any assurance that they ex-master will honor this and treat Onesimus as a brother rather than a slave? It seems a risky bargain, not for Paul, but certainly for Onesimus. But what should we expect from he who throws off all law for justification by faith alone.

    1. Rod of Alexandria Post author

      Paul makes such a risky bargain because living in Christian community itself is a risk, since we worship a God of Risk. There arent any guarantees for success. I think thats the great message of liberation theology; check this short video by James Cone on success in “the” black church–

      1. rey

        The message I get from the video is that the black church has lost its relevance now that success has taken place. Face it, it is the case that success has come. The ministers of the black church have more money than any white man I know. We’re talking mansions and multiple million dollar foreign cars. So, as he says in the video, the idea of eventual success through failure now is lost, because there is success in the black community today. The old message of whitey is holding you down and we may fail today but eventually we will have success isn’t as effective anymore, because success has already come.

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