Joel Edward Goza: Our theological imagination has often impoverished our racial imagination

A pastor working in the marginalized community of Houston’s 5th Ward argues that racial inequalities lie at the heart of our nation’s founding.

Joel Edward Goza went to divinity school expecting to graduate and return to the white, suburban Baptist world in which he had grown up.

But illness forced him to drop out, and in 2004 he moved to Houston’s Denver Harbor, an impoverished immigrant community adjacent to the largely African-American 5th Ward -- a move that changed the trajectory of his life and ministry. It also changed his thinking about the deepest assumptions that he, as a white American, had held about this nation.

“What I began realizing when I was in the inner city was that the American system is producing exactly the results that it was designed to produce,” he said.

Goza subsequently graduated from Duke Divinity School and returned to Houston, where he served for 10 years at Pleasant Hill Baptist, an African-American church. He was raised Southern Baptist and is ordained in the National Baptist Convention.

During his time at Pleasant Hill, Goza served as a liaison between communities, working on many social issues. He helped create an institutional partnership with Rice University, developed the annual Healing the Brokenness conference, and led public education and immigration reform initiatives.

That experience informed his new book, “America’s Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics,” which will be published this spring.

In it, he argues that racism is part of the very fabric of the United States, and indeed is an intentional result of the ideology of its foundational thinkers.

The hope for combatting that racism lies with the prophetic black church, he argues, and in particular the revolutionary teachings of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“One of the tragic American truths is that our theological imagination has often impoverished our racial imagination, because we haven’t learned from our African-American brothers and sisters,” he said.

Goza spoke to Faith & Leadership about his experiences working in Houston and his forthcoming book. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: One of the experiences that prompted you to write the book was a shootout on the street where you lived with the friends who had persuaded you to move to the Denver Harbor neighborhood. What was the impact of that experience?

When I moved to the inner city, I was beginning to witness a side of my own city that I never knew existed. In Houston, we have huge corporations that make great profits. We have churches that save souls left and right. And yet right in the midst of our city is a huge group of people that have not had access or the opportunity to thrive.

The night that really changed my life was a night where we were sitting watching a movie and gunfire goes off. We look out the window, and families that we have become close to are right in the midst of a gang fight that has erupted right across the street.

What that night did for me is -- it didn’t explain the inequalities that I was witnessing, but it committed me to understand those inequalities, and it solidified my solidarity with the community that I was calling home.

Q: During this gunfight, you and your friends actually grabbed up some children on the street and took them to safety in their grandmother’s house nearby.

The children that are caught in these crossfires are so vulnerable. And you know, I think, just as people, a lot of us have this natural inclination for compassion and understanding in the desire to protect children.

But the truth is that everybody that we see in this community was once a child. And I wanted to understand why the opportunities of the children that I grew up with, the white kids in the suburbs, offered one option and yet the life opportunities of the children that I was now surrounded with looked very different.

Q: How did you become involved with the church in the community?

When I was living in Denver Harbor originally, I was working for the fourth-largest accounting firm in the world. I was a financial analyst. I didn’t really see myself as having an ability to address some of the inequalities I was seeing.

One of the miracles that happened along the way is that I developed a relationship with an African-American church and they took me under their wings and they provided me a job on their staff.

But more importantly, they were able to harmonize the gifts that God has entrusted to my care to what the community needs were. They were already working on issues of education and issues of social justice and housing and health and a full gamut of social services.

It was under their tutelage that the gifts that I had were integrated into the community. The things that we worked on really ran the gamut of inner-city life. It was everything from public education to issues of immigration to issues of teen mentorship, urban health and wellness. We worked on a lot of urban research in collaboration with Rice University.

Without the mentorship and the tutelage of the African-American church, I don’t think that my gifts would have really touched ground in any meaningful way.

One of the roles that they saw for me within the church was helping connect East Houston and West Houston. I was very comfortable living in the inner-city environment [in East Houston]. I also had relationships with West Houston, and so they were able to use some of the relations I had to bridge the gap between different communities.

Q: So how does this work lead you to Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Adam Smith?

By the time that I returned to Duke [Divinity School], I was very hungry to understand the racial inequality that haunted our nation. It was that desire to understand what I had witnessed in my community that led me to more deeply research the philosophers of the Enlightenment who really wrote the rules for how we live our lives together today in the United States.

Q: Explain the argument of your book -- that essentially racism is in the DNA of the country. Is that a fair summary?

Absolutely -- slavery was an organizing principle. The one rule when we talked about our politics or when we talked about our religion was that it had to harmonize with the institution of slavery. So that harmony was very intentional.

And so what I try to do in the book is to show how that came about. What I write about are three political lies and three religious lies that were able to help produce that harmony.

The religious lies were that one can be in relationship with God without being in relationship with the abused and the broken of the community; that religion is about soul salvation; and that one’s indifference to injustice is no threat to one’s intimacy with God.

The political lies were also in harmony with slavery. The political lies were that the government was not about protecting the common good; that economics is a moral-free math; and that justice is retributive rather than restorative.

Those lies come together like gears that help facilitate an overall system for slavery and racial inequality.

Q: These were the ideological building blocks of the nation.

Right. What I want to show in the book is how this racial imagination was first imagined, then how it became institutionalized, and then how it became ingrained into the American system.

What I began realizing when I was in the inner city was that the American system is producing exactly the results that it was designed to produce. What I was witnessing wasn’t an accident, but it was deeply ingrained into the system itself. It was producing the results we should anticipate from a system such as ours.

Q: Yet you also find hope, specifically in the black church tradition.

The only institution that refused to find harmony with the lies of slavery was the black church. The black church was designed, first of all, to help slaves survive slavery and not lose their humanity along the way.

And then it was designed to fight against a society that was addicted to racial inequalities and racial discrepancies. And so what you find is a very different type of political and religious imagination in the black church from what you find in many white churches.

Q: Do you see this as something white Christians should embrace?

It takes training to learn how to live by very different principles. But the ideas themselves I believe are core truths.

For instance, one of the central tenets within white theology is the depravity of humanity, and that depravity becomes an organizational principle within white theology and how white theology imagines communities and how it imagines politics and how it imagines economics.

Black theology has never denied human depravity. But the organizing principle is human dignity, which gives you a very different vision for what religion is all about and what politics is all about and what economics is all about.

The commitment to human dignity needs to become the organizing principle for all of our faith and all of our politics.

When the black church thinks about religion and thinks about politics, the main questions become, What is the impact on the poor and the oppressed? And how do we harmonize our faith and politics to protect the dignity of the poor and the oppressed? Those are not always the primary questions of the white church.

In doing research for the book, one thing I realized is how few white theologians, white churches, ever took the time to truly learn from the black church.

One of the tragic American truths is that our theological imagination has often impoverished our racial imagination, because we haven’t learned from our African-American brothers and sisters.

Q: One of the thinkers you address as well is Martin Luther King, and you see him not just as an inspirational figure but as a revolutionary figure.

When we think of Martin Luther King Jr., we often make him a saint, or we sentimentalize him. But what we lose is that the man was a genius, that he was brilliant. He is perhaps the only religious or political genius that our nation has ever produced.

The way that he saw the world was really profound, and it was really shaped by a very deep pastoral wisdom that we so desperately needed.

He becomes an embodiment of what pastoral wisdom can look like. He understood the significance of the system he fought against because he was intimate with the people who had suffered from that system. And the intimacy that he had with those who suffered created this fire within his bones. It empowered him to speak truth to our nation, but also truths that were in harmony with love.

It empowered him to imagine different possibilities within the American way of life -- that we had the freedom to choose but that we too often and tragically rejected it.

He understood that people were going hungry within the United States, not because we lacked food, but because we chose not to provide food for the poor.

He said that the way that capitalism has worked within our nation is so close to cannibalism. Now, that rings as a radical statement -- unless you’re around people who are hungry and also people who have more than what they can ever use. And he knew that it made no sense.

But it is the absurdity that we got too comfortable with.

Q: Who is the audience for your book, and what do you hope they’ll take from it?

What I hope for is different for different segments that I was attempting to address.

For my African-American brothers and sisters, what I hope the book does is help connect some dots between what they have experienced and the philosophical and historical roots that form those experiences.

What I hope it does among Christian leaders is I hope that it begins raising the bar for them for what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. To trouble some of the realities that we have grown comfortable with in the way our pastoral wisdom operates.

And we deeply need pastoral wisdom -- we need voices that are committed to love and to community, and who have appreciation and empathy for the complete complexity of the human experience.

But at the same time, as Christian leaders, we need to recognize that so much of the pastoral wisdom that we have inherited has been produced in a segregated context and it carries with it a certain type of sickness.

And so I want to trouble some of the white pastoral wisdom of my colleagues that allows for silence on issues of justice when I believe we’ve got to stand up and take a stand. One of the things that really troubles me with the pastoral wisdom that allows a church’s politics just to remain outside the door is that I feel that it passes the buck to the most poor and the most vulnerable.

The people that pay the price for that silence are America’s poor and oppressed.

It’s the African-Americans who get put into prison for the same crimes that their white counterparts go to luxury resort-style rehabs for. It’s the immigrants that we are crucifying at the borders. It is the way that our political system has refused to respect the human dignity of our most vulnerable. Those are the people that pay the price for our silence.

What you see happen is a society that got very comfortable with slavery and then very comfortable with inequality. Today we live in a society that is convinced of the humanity of its corporations but questions the humanity of the poor. Now that’s a very strange thing.

But it isn’t until you have lived in communities like this and have become intimate with some of these different realities that you can even appreciate the madness of your own thinking.