One of my favorite movie scenes comes from the blockbuster Black Panther. The fictional nation of Wakanda exists as a simple agricultural society but is secretly home to advanced minerals and technology. Wakanda, mixing its scientific knowledge with spiritual traditions under its leader, King T’Challa, manages to thwart a threat to the world’s safety.
At one point in the movie King T’Challa is presumed dead, so an entourage from his tribe, including a white CIA agent, seeks assistance from Chief M’Baku and his Jabari tribe. As the entourage approaches M’Baku, the white CIA agent begins to explain the predicament. Right away M’Baku pounds his staff repeatedly and barks loudly. Others of the Jabari tribe join in barking so persistently that Agent Ross is forced to close his mouth. Watching that scene in the theater, I could barely contain myself! On countless occasions I have had white people—accustomed to being the central focus of practically all conversations—presume to speak for me.
Well-meaning white people, Christians included, regularly marginalize nonwhite people. Consequently, I wrote a book, Might from the Margins, specifically for marginalized people to encourage us to exercise the power we already possess. We do not have to wait to be empowered by white people, nor do we need permission from white people to speak, write, or act as we dismantle systems of injustice and demonstrate genuine faith in Jesus.
Marginalization is not the same as being outnumbered. A white person once challenged me that since African Americans make up about 13 percent of our nation’s population, we should expect to be marginalized. But it is not superior numbers that marginalize; it is the sense of superior virtues, the misuse of power and privilege. Look at South Africa’s apartheid regime to see how marginalization is not about greater numbers.
Three streams of my life experiences related to race, power, and privilege came together in writing Might from the Margins. The first stream was my commentary on 1 Peter, the second was my decades of pastoral ministry, and the third was an awareness that many books on race and privilege center white people. By centering white people, I mean that white people serve as the target audience even for books written by nonwhite authors. The goal seems always to get white people to do and think differently. It’s exhausting.
Stream One: 1 Peter and the Power of Diaspora People
A main question addressed in 1 Peter is “How should Christians think and act within a culture hostile toward them?” Peter writes to an alienated people who do not enjoy the luxury of prominence or high status in their society. Under scrutiny, their lives are in a precarious position. Peter’s readers suffer hassles, slander, judgment, and social isolation because of their faith.
The initial readers of 1 Peter carried a diaspora status as aliens and strangers in their own land. They could not be at home in the world because the world had grown hostile toward them. Suffering the fate of the marginalized, diaspora people of faith can exhibit what the New Testament refers to as hypomonē: endurance, or faithful perseverance. Marginalized believers—including the enslaved and women—who first heard Peter’s letter and followed his instructions exemplified Christian obedience. In 1 Peter, the oppressed and apparently powerless demonstrate the way of Christ.
Stream Two: Power, Not Just Proximity
In my three decades of pastoral ministry—in Brooklyn, DC, and Minneapolis—I served churches that were intentional about their ethnic and racial diversity. For the white members of these churches, racial reconciliation—the popular term in evangelical circles—meant proximity when it was really a matter of power. The idea was to get people together for a potluck meal or exchange choirs or have pastors of different races or ethnic groups preach at each other’s churches, then say we’re all one now in Jesus.
I’ve heard white pastors boast about their churches being “like the United Nations” just because they weren’t totally white. As a native New Yorker, I have a different view of the UN. The UN is not a white institution with white leadership with a sprinkling of other ethnic groups in attendance. The UN works as a collaboration of different peoples all sharing power. When I planted Peace Fellowship Church in DC, the power issue was front and center. One African American founding member cautioned, “White people always take over.” Our church had to negotiate ethnic and racial diversity as it related to power, not just proximity.
Stream Three: Whose Concerns Are Centered?
Contemporary Christian expressions of power, popularity, and prestige are overwhelmingly white. It is hard for white people to understand how their practice of Christianity oppresses those on the margins. As the theologian, poet, and mystic Howard Thurman described in Jesus and the Disinherited, the marginalized “live with their backs against the wall” and struggle to flourish in a society that was not constructed for them. To make matters worse, some of the most zealous Christians in America are reluctant to recognize the injustices marginalized people deal with on a regular basis. Author Charles W. Mills, appealing to standpoint theory, notes, “In understanding the workings of a system of oppression, a perspective from the bottom up is more likely to be accurate than one from the top down.” Those who occupy society’s lowest caste position are best situated to diagnose society’s injustices and discern a more righteous path.
Books on justice and reconciliation often discuss the need for love. Love is necessary, provided we understand love as more than sappy sentimentality. Love does not cancel justice. When whiteness is centered, people want to hear and see black people be quick to forgive injustice. There have been plenty of examples, even in recent years, of black families and communities forgiving white killers of black victims. But this has too often occurred at the expense of justice. White friends praise the black community’s capacity for forgiveness and its beauty, but I wish our main lessons didn’t derive from our oppression. We have so much else to teach.
Of course forgiveness is biblical and Christlike. But so is justice. Forgiveness releases our souls from the burden of hatred, and released from hatred, a demand for justice becomes clear-eyed and righteous. Loving ourselves as Christ loves us helps us love others too. But oppressive systems make it difficult for marginalized people to love ourselves. I’m old enough to remember James Brown singing “Say It Loud—‘I’m Black and I’m Proud.’” We needed that anthem. African Americans internalized some of the negative messaging we’d received over centuries. We needed to convince ourselves of our own worth in the eyes of God and others. We needed to embrace our beauty, intelligence, ingenuity, and creativity. We needed to love ourselves.
When a simple slogan such as “Black Lives Matter” is denied, scrutinized, and even vilified by vocal white Christians, it becomes increasingly necessary to assert that God loves marginalized people and that we must grow in love of ourselves. Love is power. It emboldens us, motivates us, and sustains us to fight against injustice. Jesus embodies love and power and stands in solidarity with the marginalized. In him we find might from the margins.
Rev. Dr. Dennis R. Edwards is associate professor of New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary. You can find him on Twitter at @revdrdre.