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Interview: Kelly Brown Douglas, theologian

20 October 2023

‘We don’t often act as if we have a crucified saviour, or understand God’s solidarity with the marginalised and oppressed’

Ron Hester

When I was about seven years old, I remember riding with my parents through the inner city of my hometown, Dayton, Ohio. It was a rainy evening. I looked out the car window and noticed a little girl and boy crossing the street, about my age. From my seven-year-old perspective, they looked poor and hungry. Tears filled my eyes as I imagined for them a life of struggle, and I made a silent vow to one day come back and rescue those two children from the blight of Dayton’s inner city.

Initially, I fantasised that I’d become a teacher. As I got older, the thought of those children never left me. They created within me a deep sense of accountability to the poor and marginalised people of our society. But there was also something else besides the thought of those children that motivated me: my love for Jesus.

Dayton was one of the more segregated cities in the US; so segregation was a reality to me. I was the third child of four, very close to my brother in age, growing up navigating the realities of being black in a world that didn’t honour black humanity.

My dad was a probation officer, my mother a professional home-maker, and we were fairly middle-class, very privileged — comparatively speaking, of course. My family emphasised education, as that was the way for oppressed minorities to rise. My great-grandmother was born into the realities of slavery. My grandmother, who ran an elevator, her dream was that her four grandchildren would finish high school. She died before that, but all of us went on to graduate — in theology, law and criminal justice, and her great-grandchildren have gone on to the do the same. My accountability is always to those who fought for me to enjoy the freedom I enjoy.

I grew up in St. Margaret’s, the only black Episcopal church in Dayton. Every Sunday, with rare exceptions, I would awaken my parents, asking them to take me to church, even if they weren’t planning to go that day. On most Sundays, I attended both the 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. services, with Sunday school in between.

One of the reasons I liked going to church was because I loved hearing stories about Jesus. One of the most compelling, yet saddest stories was about his manger birth. As a little girl, I simply could not understand how people allowed a baby to be born in a cold barn, in a manger. I cried every time we sang “Away in a manger”. That song always reminded me of the girl and boy that I saw that rainy evening. Somehow, I instinctively knew that there was a connection between Jesus’s manger birth and their inner-city life. As time went on, I would try to figure out this connection. This laid the foundation for my own faith journey.

I currently serve as Interim President of Episcopal Divinity School in New York, since its disaffiliation from Union Theological Seminary in May 2023. Prior to the disaffiliation, I served as Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union, as well as being the Bill and Judith Moyers Professor in Systematic Theology for the past six years. And I’m Canon Theologian at Washington National Cathedral.

I oversee the staff, internal academic and other programming, and operations of the school. I also am the public face of the school within the wider Church, foundations, non-profits, and various other stakeholders.

It’s been a privilege to serve as Honorary Professor of Global Theology at Emmanuel Theological College in the UK. I’ve been able to interact with the faculty and students, sharing and learning together, as Emmanuel engages in the work of transformative ministerial formation. I’ve been engaging during the staff retreat and through podcast conversations regarding what it means to do global theology, as well as the theological imperative for the work of social justice.

Cutting-edge theology is emerging from communities who are on the underside of justice in their various social-historical contexts, such as black people and other communities of colour, as well as LBGTQI persons. It is only when those who’ve been on the underside of justice begin to experience justice that we’ll be on the way to the just future that God promises us all.

Because the subjugated and oppressed have experienced the raw realities of injustice, they know the extent of transformation needed to realise justice. They have the best vantage point to envision a future defined by God’s justice, a future realising the sacred humanity of each person. They’re less likely to confuse gaining inequitable and dominating privilege with justice.

It’s why Jesus began his public ministry by proclaiming: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” It’s impossible to do Christian theology — that is to speak of the God of the Jesus, born in a manger and crucified — without starting from the perspective of those who are oppressed and subjugated in our world and society.

We don’t often act as if we have a crucified Saviour, or understand God’s solidarity with the marginalised and oppressed. We have to partner with God — that’s what faith is all about — in fostering God’s more-just future.

My work’s focused on the struggle for racial justice, and the dismantling of anti-black white supremacy, at the same time as looking at the realities of injustice as they impact various communities. I identify as a womanist theologian doing my work from out of the intersecting social-historical realities of a black woman. The Western-Euro theological categories, such as systematic theology, have no bearing on my work. Indeed, I have little interest in them.

The tension between the Church and academic theology is not something that theologians should ever be comfortable with. Theology has to be accountable to the Church in the sense that it should consistently push the Church to live into its own faith-claims, thus reflecting God’s just future that Jesus so perfectly embodied through his life and ministry. Theology must never be divorced from the Church.

Martin Luther King, Jr, once said that the 11th hour on Sunday mornings is the most segregated hour in America. For the most part this remains the case. In as much as black and white persons in America have vastly different experiences of living, their worship experiences and needs will be different. Furthermore, as churches are social institutions, they reflect the fabric and realities of society, such as racial divisions. The way to a less segregated worship hour is a more just and equitable society.

We don’t simply live in the present. We are always driven by and accountable to the past and the future. I try to live my life in that reality.

The UK has to deal with its own complicity and seminal role in colonisation across the globe. Liverpool was the second part of the slave triangle. Here, the Church is committed to wrestling with those issues of the past that shapes it, and continues to live into the systemic structures of society, and the current living situations of people of colour. We can’t expect the next generation to be better if we don’t intentionally change the ways we educate and change the next generation.

Black History Month — we get a month! — has to be more than the celebration of cultures from the African diaspora. It has to be about challenging racial justice and making a more just society. Churches should not simply celebrate but intentionally do the uncomfortable work. The cross means more than something we can wear round our necks: it calls us into solidarity with the crucified classes.

How can people treat others they way they do? One thing that separation breeds is stereotypes. The only way to develop that empathetic capacity is to help your children understand that these are human beings just like you are. It’s not going to happen by osmosis.

Nothing makes me angrier than seeing the sacred worth of people being betrayed by the sin of injustice — be it racism, poverty, homophobia, transphobia, and other systemic and structural realities of sin. Conversations and time with my son are my happiest times.

When I struggle to hope, I think of those Black people who were born into slavery, died in slavery, and never drew a free breath. In fact, they never dreamt that they would ever breathe a free breath, yet, they fought for freedom any how — not for themselves, but for the children they could not see. I’m a testament to their hope.

I pray for many things, but I pray nightly that I have the faith, openness, and strength to do the work that God would have me to do.

The Revd Dr Kelly Brown Douglas was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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