Keri L. Day: Rethinking what we mean when we speak about Christian theology

Photo courtesy of Princeton Theological Seminary

In her research into the role that African-American women played in the Azusa Street Revival and the early days of Afro-Pentecostalism, a scholar and theologian hopes to do more than just correct the historical record.

Keri L. Day is interested in the question of how theology and faith respond to the economic and political issues of the day.

She’s bringing that question to bear in her latest book project, which is about black women’s role in early Afro-Pentecostalism and the Azusa Street Revival and its implications for Christian theology.

“I realize that many of the practices that Azusa Street or early Pentecostalism embodied were in direct challenge to the economic habitudes or the economic context of the day,” she said.

“My work is trying to push, first, toward [a] more full-throated account of … this insurgent practice of togetherness against a segregative order.”

Day, an associate professor of constructive theology and African-American religion at Princeton Theological Seminary, earned an M.A. in religion and ethics from Yale University Divinity School and a Ph.D. in religion from Vanderbilt University.

She is the author of “Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Struggle to Thrive in America” and “Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism: Womanist and Black Feminist Perspectives.”

She has been a guest political commentator on issues related to faith and politics and has written for The Dallas Morning News’ Texas Faith blog, The Feminist Wire and The Huffington Post.

Day was at Duke to give the Pauli Murray/Nannie Helen Burroughs Lecture on Women & Religion, sponsored by the Office of Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Tell us about your current work on women in Pentecostalism.

My work sits at the intersection of theology and economics or political economy. My last two books have paid attention to how theology -- and by extension, Christian communities -- might respond to the economic deprivation that women of color experience, not only within the context of the United States but around the world. I’ve been talking about economically disadvantaged, poor women of color economically and culturally.

But why the shift from the work that I’ve done to this question of early Pentecostalism, the Azusa Revival, and situating or centering black women at the center of that narrative?

Three reasons. The first reason is because I realized it was really important for me to situate my own tradition -- the significance and the meaning of my own tradition, as someone that grew up in Afro-Pentecostalism -- and to ask, What does this tradition contribute to questions of racial justice, economic justice and issues of justice more broadly around the globe?

That was important -- for me to say, “This is a tradition I come out of, and I think that this tradition has something to contribute.” That’s a profoundly personal reason why I’m making a shift.

Second, the personal is bound up with what I consider to be underarticulated within much or most of religious and theological scholarship. And that is turning to the black origins of early Pentecostalism and the significance of black women at the center of that.

And then finally, the third reason is because I realize that many of the practices that Azusa Street or early Pentecostalism embodied were in direct challenge to the economic habitudes or the economic context of the day.

Again, this goes back to work that I’ve been doing on the relationship between theology and political economy.

Q: You talk about doing more than just correcting the historical record, although you’re doing that as well. What is that bigger goal?

It corrects the historical record, but it moves beyond the mere correction. I talk about blackness as this ethical critique to whiteness.

It’s not about pigmentation or race, in the way that we describe it as something that is biological. But rather in this case, whiteness is a complete set of structures and institutions that keep a particular kind of order up.

Whiteness is seen in the order of slavocracy -- I’m just giving some examples -- in which black bodies were seen as commodified flesh in service.

But that had to be not only politically legitimated; it had to be ecclesially and scientifically legitimated. Ecclesially, through theologies that talked about the inherent good of slavery -- because it’s in the Bible.

Or through “scientific” slavery -- slaves have smaller skulls, and therefore they are less intellectual and in need of a kind of benevolent paternalism, someone who can come and lead them in the ways of righteousness. They understood slavery to be a kind of benevolent paternalism helping to civilize a people that at one point were seen as savage.

This is what I mean by whiteness. Not, again, pigmentation but structures that point to a particular form of sociality that is fundamentally built upon injustice and exploitation.

Then of course, blackness being an ethical critique of that form of sociality. And not just a critique to whiteness but also announcing its own form of what a human community looks like.

Q: Could you explain the term “sociality”?

What I mean by “sociality” is just, at a very basic level, how people live together. But how we live together should be understood at the structural and the affective level.

At the structural level, it could be, for example, particular kinds of laws and policies and social norms and cultural norms that constitute what it means to be, say, a good citizen. Or within the context of a church community, what it means to be a good and proper Christian.

Then you have affective dimensions. This has to do with emotions and how our emotions are socialized in such a way as to, I guess you could say, support how we’re living together.

Here’s one example: It wasn’t just the case that intellectually black bodies were seen as dirty. But at an affective level, there were many accounts of when an African-American during Jim Crow in the South would go into a pool, they would want to drain the pool. It was at a visceral level, the disgust of the body in and of itself.

When I speak of the sociality, it’s how we live together. But how we live together is based upon these structural, these institutional markers, as well as these affective understandings of what it means to be a community and what it means to be human.

So my work is trying to push, first, toward this more full-throated account, this announcement of this new kind of sociality that I’m referring to as blackness as this insurgent practice of togetherness against a segregative order.

And then more broadly, I’m hoping that this new project then helps us rethink what we mean when we speak about Christian theology. Because to speak about Christian theology is to speak about how we understand what it means to be Christian or what it means to talk about the Christian witness.

Christian theology historically has been about, primarily, reflection on doctrines at a more abstract level -- quite divorced from, as Azusa would be, these embodied enactments of community. Again, this different form of sociality that would attest to what it means to be Christian, and Christian witness.

You can see here that there are two different accounts of what constitutes Christian theology, and what I’m hoping through my work is that it can throw into question many historical accounts of Christianity that don’t take seriously the Christian faith being profoundly about a different form of togetherness and intimacy that is not grounded in racial forms of community.

Q: I saw an interview in which you talked about how theology and the social and political are inextricably linked. Why is that important?

I probably should make the distinction, at least in my mind, in my work, between politics and the political. Politics, in some sense, is everyday activity related to particular governmental institutions that we have, right -- that’s at the local, state and federal level.

On the other hand, part of what I’ve argued in my work is that the political should be understood more broadly than politics. It can include politics in this very traditional sense, but the idea of the political is something much broader and sometimes can stand over and against politics within a particular institutional setting.

When I speak of the political, I’m talking about the ways in which -- what it means to be human. We will always be, as individuals, participating in moral actions with others, and because we are in community participating in moral actions with others, it presumes, intrinsic to that, that there will be conflict.

Then it follows that we’re also talking about how we adjudicate the plurality of conflicts that are present, the plurality of interests in efforts to move toward common good, or common goods.

It brings me back to, How do we live well together?

The political is so important, because we don’t live in a vacuum. What’s going on in this current political moment is making a claim on a number of communities.

So the question becomes, first, How do we respond? For Christian communities, it is, How do we respond faithfully?

We can’t respond faithfully if we have not wrestled with and listened to the various voices that sit within society as we think about, What are we to do? How are we to respond? How are we to embody the witness as exemplified through Jesus Christ?

We really can’t get to that if we’re not participating in a deep listening to the different voices, again, that are articulating these diverse and contesting interests at times.

That’s the reason why I was really wanting to talk about the political. Because it gets to these various voices -- some voices that have been deeply marginalized and other voices that have been dominating voices -- and how we think about the importance of these vulnerable voices being placed at the center of movement forward.

Right now, we need that desperately. Because our culture is a culture right now that’s being led by fear. You can feel the fear. It’s in the air.

How as Christian communities do we respond in a way that is not fundamentally driven by fear? Because that is not what we see in the early church, even in Acts. It’s not fundamentally being driven by fear but rather being driven by a kind of faithfulness that is accountable to communities that are in need.

Q: So what do you see as the role of the theologian with this engagement and, as you say, this atmosphere that we’re in at the moment?

I hope this doesn’t sound trite, but I think part of the huge role of the theologian is to help communities cultivate the virtue of intellectual and spiritual humility.

I think that a theologian is doing her or his work well when they’re not only saying something about God’s activity in the world and what that means for flourishing but they are also saying something about the question of humility.

Not only how to respond faithfully but what are the limitations of their own forms of religious life. I think what the theologian does is press Christian communities to ask the question, What is it that we don’t know, and how do we lean in, through a kind of deep listening, to those voices that can teach us something?

So that we can be in solidarity, so that we can enact what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves. I think that that has to do with cultivating this virtue of intellectual and spiritual humility.

When you look at the current political environment, what you see is that people in many ways are just screaming at each other. They’re being reactive to each other.

I am interested, particularly for communities that have a lot of privilege, in how are theologians helping to lead them into cultivating this virtue, listening deeply to vulnerable voices so that they can ask what’s working about how they view the ideas of faithfulness, and what’s not working. What are forms of idolatry, in terms of what they may think is faithful but actually does profound harm.

To me, when I think of myself as a theologian, that’s really what I look to -- cultivating that virtue so that love and justice can be a possibility.