Empathic and Incarnational: A Better Christian Ethic at Fuller

In the acknowledgements section of my book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance, I share a story from a class that I took when I was a master’s student at Fuller that helped inspire me to pursue a PhD in Christian ethics. I was in a summer intensive with Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr. learning about African American spirituality. In an unforgettable discussion one afternoon, one of my fellow students, an African American man, told the class of an encounter he once had as an enlisted soldier on guard duty at his base when a racist white woman approached. She demanded to speak to an authority figure—someone above him, a superior whom she assumed would be white. Her demands followed an interesting line of thought: she was a Christian; she recognized Jesus as a white man, and equated him with people in power. It followed for her that as a white Christian, she didn’t have to answer to people who were not white. But she found herself sorely disappointed by the color of the military authorities she met that day. My classmate’s superiors on that base were also African American.1

That story illustrates one obvious way that race can be an obstacle to genuine healthy social interaction by what Delores Williams describes as white racial narcissism.2 I will argue that it can also be a pathway for healthy interaction. The difference between race as obstacle and race as pathway lies completely in our ability to recognize its presence in our daily lives in a way that promotes justice and validates cohumanity. Racialization is the imaginary process of assigning race, character traits, and human worth according to specific physical features. It is the construction and maintenance of a hierarchy of humankind according to an idealized superior human being.3 Racializing people circumscribes their reception and their role in society. Anyone paying attention to the news about black boys and court cases today will recognize that the struggle for equality and cohumanity in our racialized America is ongoing. The struggle is informed by language like “color-blind” and “postracial”—attempts to imagine a less-threatening way to engage one another in a society where the complexities of race have negatively impacted everyone’s social identities. But concepts like postracial and color-blindness are inadequate to mobilize people for healthy, genuine social interaction that is capable of moving us past the problems of racializing. Those terms are nothing more than white supremacist adaptations to changing social dynamics. Race is a grotesque narrative about humanity that works like a virus, unyielding and adapting as it wreaks havoc on the body politic. The notions of postracial and of color-blindness buttress efforts to refuse acknowledgement of the continuing, powerful presence of race in society. The terms postracial and color-blind function only to help the viral narrative of race persuade society that the supremacist notion of white humanity as normative humanity is true. For Christians the problem of racialization includes our language of God and understanding of Christian moral living. We need language to address our racialized society in a way that promotes justice and honors the work of God in Christ for the world.

Illustration of Glen Stassen by Denise Louise Klitsie for FULLER magazine“Any tradition needs a process of continuous repentance—learning and self-correction. A tradition either grows and meets new challenges or it stagnates and gets less relevant. The Apostle Paul says, “I die daily.” We all need to practice daily repentance, daily self-correction. We can’t work without a tradition, but we also need ways of being called to continuous learning within the tradition where we find a home. In fact, humility may be a major learning in our time when we experience many different perspectives seeing things differently, having different loyalties, different faiths or convictions, different kinds of ethics.”


+  Glen Stassen (1936–2014), from his article “By Their Fruits You Will Know Them.” A theologian and ethicist, Stassen was a tireless advocate for social justice and taught for many years on Just Peace- making, a ten-step process he helped to author that emphasizes taking responsibility for conflict and injustice and actively seeking repentance and forgiveness.

While I was a PhD student at Fuller, studying with Glen Stassen, I found his focus on peacemaking, human rights, and justice to be informative for a Christ-centered approach to race. With Glen I studied scholars like Delores Williams and Michael Walzer, who take on the problems of injustice in various ways. In Sisters in the Wilderness, Delores Williams discusses a method of biblical appropriation that sees narratives from the perspective of those not typically considered as protagonist. The core narrative for Williams’s argument is Hagar, the African slave of the biblical patriarch Abram and his wife Sarai. Genesis 16:1–16 and Genesis 21:9–21 refer to related episodes in Hagar’s life that are typically unremarkable for readers who will see only the perspective of Abram and Sarai. For Williams, Genesis 16:1–6 describes Hagar’s story as defined by the problems and desires of her owners—Sarai is incapable of conceiving a child. She is barren and humiliated. As Sarai’s personal slave, Hagar’s body was not her own; it was legally accessible to be used at the command of her mistress and master who forced Hagar to be the surrogate mother of her barren mistress’s child. After Hagar gave birth, Abram gave Sarai permission again to exercise her legal rights over Hagar’s body by physically abusing her for allegedly breaking custom and assuming herself to be her mistress’s equal (Genesis 16:6). In these moments when Hagar’s moral agency—her ability to speak, act, and make moral judgments as a free-will human being—is non-existent, she has encounters with God who meets her in the wilderness, most poignantly after her mistress conceives and gives birth to her own child, and Hagar is forced out of the community in Genesis 21. God provides for her and her son so that they will survive the wilderness that is socially and physically death dealing.4

The Hagar narrative serves as a practice of biblical appropriation to highlight that our ways of knowing God are always informed by our experiences in society. Social location informs our experience of life and shapes how we know everything. Hagar experienced compound oppression by multiple intersecting oppressed identities (gender and class in addition to race), and with her we see that attention to social location must inform our honest account of a good society. It is only by attention to social location that we will be able to give real attention to “the least of these” within our communities, in obedience to Christ.

Williams explains the theological work of social location by reference to an ongoing epistemological process. Throughout the course of our lives we are constantly shaped by horizontal and vertical encounters. The horizontal is our social encounter, the place where all learning starts. We begin learning at home, and in our formative communities (like church), and within larger society. For people of color as racialized subjects in a white supremacist society, Williams argues that the horizontal encounter has historically been negative; white supremacy defines white humanity as normative humanity in order to carve out space for whites only, to distribute goods, and to create systems and structures for the benefit of people racialized as normative white humanity. White supremacy is the historical pursuit of the idyllic community, framed by the social imaginary of an idealized humanity that informs politics, legal structures, how goods are distributed and how systems are created, and inspires the historical practice of terrorizing people of color into compliance as assimilated inferiors. Historically, for people of color, the horizontal experience is the experience of white supremacy as a social organizing principle.

fullermag-theology-dietrich-bonhoeffer“It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering. If only bitterness and envy have during this time not corroded the heart; that we come to see matters great and small, happiness and misfortune, strength and weakness with new eyes; that our sense for greatness, humanness, justice, and mercy has grown clearer, freer, more incorruptible; that we learn, indeed, that personal suffering is a more useful key, a more fruitful principle than personal happiness for exploring the meaning of the world in contemplation and action. But this view from below must not lead us into taking sides with the perpetually dissatisfied. From a higher satisfaction that is actually founded on the other side of below and above, we do justice to life in all its dimensions and affirm it.”


+  from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945), in his book Letters and Papers from Prison, written in a Nazi prison cell while he awaited execution for allegedly participating in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. A pastor and vocal anti-Nazi dissident, Bonhoeffer wrote frequently on ethics and the active role Christians must take on behalf of the marginalized. The feather in his pocket represents a symbol of freedom of flight and ability to be freed by the virtue of love. Bonhoeffer was executed just a few weeks before Hitler committed suicide.

The vertical encounter is theological, and it describes the interpretation of God by the racialized subject. The vertical encounter can be the stimulus for creative resistance to oppression, or be a sedative for benign acceptance of the dominant racialized depictions of people of color. The vertical encounter with God from the perspective of the oppressed has been one of creative, culturally derived sources for survival and resistance when God is understood to contradict the negative horizontal messages.

The intersection of the horizontal and the vertical forms the mental grid that filters knowledge of God and shapes self-perception. If the negative horizontal encounter is deflected by the vertical (as is the case when Jesus is interpreted as identifying with people of color in oppression), the filtering process results in a positive self-perception. The opposite can be said about the self-perception derived from an interpretation of God that reinforces the negative horizontal encounter and yields internalized racism. In the case when the horizontal encounter is validated by interpretations of God (as when Jesus is interpreted as a white man), God and society converge upon the racialized inferior subject to affirm a negative self-worth.

Attention to the epistemological work of social location is crucial for cultivating the ability to recognize the presence of race in our daily lives in a way that promotes justice and validates cohumanity. The lack of attention to social location keeps the work of racialization invisible and has historically imposed a theological hermeneutic from the dominant white idealized narrative as the sole universal understanding of God. Recognizing one’s social location becomes the “you are here” situating device in a racialized American landscape and helps to highlight the dangers of abstract universal thinking.

With a clearer understanding of cultural context and social location, it becomes evident that race has a historical impact on us, even if it is not a physical reality. We are all the product of complex sources of social experiences, community stories, customs, food, and music that make us who we are and shape what we know. We are contextually embedded within families, cultures, and communities with histories that parents pass to children over many years of survival. We have made traditions, and traditions have made us. Only by honest awareness and conscious access of our embodied selves will we be equipped to validate and care for the cohumanity of our neighbor.

After we recognize the situated nature of all learning, there remains a need to speak to one another about justice, across social locations and cultures, in a way that does not repeat the problem of disembodied universal moral reasoning. We must be able to bring more to the table of fellowship than our differences. Cross-cultural communication requires a healthy universal language that acknowledges our difference in a meaningful way, and allows honest dialogue from real people within real communities, rather than the imagined ones of our racialized hierarchical discourse.

Photo of Fuller Seminary faculty member Amos Yong“God’s response is to empower not a corporate capitalism but an ecclesial communalism, to propel not an ideology of the market but strange tongues that herald and inaugurate the coming reign of God, to enable not modern individualism but neighborly other-orientation, to sustain not human armies but a flourishing creation where the lion shall lie down with the lamb, to legitimate not the entitlements of exceptionalism but a fellowship of the Spirit in which ‘the least of these’ are the most exceptionally graced, and those who are deemed most dispensable are indispensable. Come, Holy Spirit!”

+  Amos Yong is director of the Center for Missiological Research and professor of theology and mission in the School of Intercultural Studies. Read more from him and other members of the community here.

Lisa Cahill and Michael Walzer are scholars whose work contributes to the efforts for a healthier universal language by what I am referring to as an empathic social encounter. Their work is not explicitly about race, but it implicitly contributes to the conversation by discussion about social differences and moral analysis. Cahill is a Christian ethicist who advocates an inductive method of analysis. Cahill describes a “practice-based approach to moral discernment” in the place of abstract, deductive, impartial reasoning. 5 She advocates that we do our reasoning from concrete, practical experiences of injustice and well-being to make “revisable evaluative judgments” about human flourishing.6 According to Cahill, we recognize injustices in other racial and cultural contexts based on experiences of them in our own context. Cahill recognizes this process as a universalism in the language of common or shared values.

Michael Walzer is a political philosopher who also advocates an inductive analysis. Walzer describes a moral minimalism: the “reiterated features of our thick maximal moralities.”7 A thick maximal morality is what we learn in our formative community, where we know the language of injustice and well-being in a particular way. Moral minimalism is the thin language of our public discourse that provides a minimal account of our particular, complex, fully developed maximal morality. Minimalism, unlike impartial reason, is not a claim to abstract or absolute universals; it is a cross-cultural language that remains intimately bound to the history and formation of its particular community. Together Cahill and Walzer describe a better, more realistic ethical discourse about universals that provides Christians with the means of reflecting on empathic experiences, moves from the particular to the universal, and corrects the misleading—universal to particular—approach of impartial reasoning.

Cahill’s practice-based approach to justice and peacemaking and Walzer’s moral minimalism, taken together, describe an inductive process that reiterates features of morality formed within the shared life of a community, in a way that other communities can understand. It is open to revisable evaluative judgments in the practice of pursuing the justice we are familiar with, done with fresh awareness of a justice we are introduced to, against the injustice we know and meet in another context. It is a mutually informative process that allows our real entry into other contexts in ways that are both relevant and revelatory for both contexts in the pursuit of Christlikeness and justice.8

This is a cross-cultural language of empathy: an empathic reality as opposed to an absolute reality that opens us to healthier interaction as people who are made capable of loving our neighbor as we love ourself. An empathic reality becomes the manner in which we endorse another community’s struggle; we recognize their need for justice, truth, and rights from our own particular analogous struggle, and because it pays attention to what we know by practice, it opens us to revision in our ethics, while enabling new ethical perspectives for interlocutors. As a theological concept, the empathic reality describes the shape of life as it comes to us in Christ; Christ is our empathic representative who becomes a model of Christian discipleship by demonstrating the interaction that Christians are to have with one another in Christ.

I was shaped academically at Fuller by classroom exposure to the method of biblical appropriation that Williams describes and by the empathic work of Cahill and Walzer to advocate a better universal moral language. I’m thankful for a theological education that encouraged me to pay attention to myself as an embodied person, taking the incarnation of Jesus seriously as a validation of God’s love for the world we live in and the people in it. The work of loving our real neighbor means that we also must work to recalibrate what it means to be Christian, away from idealized notions of humanity and human community, towards a real-world experience of our neighbor as God has presented her to us, in Christ. I am thankful that I studied Christian ethics at Fuller with Glen Stassen, who helped me begin the recalibration process well.


Navigating the Black-White Binary

When engaging race and reconciliation, Asian Americans often find themselves navigating the black-white binary—meaning the conversation becomes primarily framed between “white privilege” and “black lives matter.” Put another way, with blacks as the most oppressed and whites as the most privileged, everyone else must find their place somewhere in between. Historically, there are numerous reasons for the relevance of this framing, such as slavery’s being “America’s original sin,” and the long journey of atonement that continues to today.

Navigating this binary means at least two things. First, it means advocating for justice and supporting the struggle for black lives, as well as acknowledging the privileges that Asian Americans enjoy. Suffering discrimination as perpetual foreigners, many Asian Americans seek to be model minority citizens, which can take the shape of “honorary white status”—with accompanying privileges. In such cases, Asian Americans’ silence about black lives means complicity with the systems of racism. Second, without weakening the first, it means critiquing this binary as restrictive and dated, unable to deal with the complexity of what American identities have become. Can Asian American identity be affirmed without being understood as something like being white or being black? Affirming the particularity of the Asian American experience as genuinely American is what is at stake.

+  Daniel D. Lee is the program director of the Asian American Initiative and an adjunct professor of Asian American ministry.

1. Reggie Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014).
2. Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), 84–102.
3. Cornel West describes the racializing of modernity by reference to a normative gaze and the idealizing of white European bodies. See Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002). 47–65
4. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness, 15.
5. Lisa Sowle Cahill, Sex, Gender, and Christian Ethics, New Studies in Christian Ethics 9 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 12.
6. Cahill, Sex, Gender, and Christian Ethics, 12.
7. Michael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 10.
8. Cahill, Sex, Gender, and Christian Ethics, 11.