Racism, paideia, personal transformation, and activism

Edward Kelly, Jr. is a former Pentecostal Fundamentalist minister.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in his 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait, “Suddenly the truth was revealed that hate is a contagion; that it grows and spreads as a disease; that no society is so healthy that it can automatically maintain its immunity.”

I was a vicious carrier of that disease, marked by the symptoms of fear, hatred, and bigotry. I carried and spread it as a contagion for 30 years as a Fundamentalist preacher. I took great pride in my views, even referring to myself from the pulpit as a “Bible Bigot”—as if intolerance based on scripture was morally acceptable.

In 1996, while serving as an interim pastor in a small Assembly of God Church in eastern Iowa, I experienced a depressive suicidal crisis. There is something to be said about the Buddhist practice of accepting suffering as a part of the human experience. My depressive episode opened me up to introspection. After treatment, I began a long process—taking two decades—involving paideia.

QUESTIONING MY THEOLOGICAL BOX

What do I mean by paideia? The philosopher Socrates explained the concept well when he stated, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” or more literally in the original Greek:

The life that can’t stand up to rigorous examination, rigorous questioning is not worth living for a human being.

In other words, to be human is to question. In 1996, I began paideia, questioning my beliefs, my presuppositions, my value, and my theological box too see if they matched reality. That is, to see if they were reasonable.

It is easy to talk about it now, but when I began that process of questioning my theological box, I was very fearful—afraid of the repercussions, of being found out. Now I am quite comfortable and laugh when people call me a heretical liberal.

I went back to school in 2005 and started a Master’s program at the most conservative Catholic college in America, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. I am indebted to the very first class I took, Introduction to the Bible. That course covered Biblical Criticism, which revolutionized how I read the Bible.

Prior to that class, when I preached I declared that the Bible was the inspired inerrant literal word of God. I would hold the Bible up and declare, this is God speaking with an answer to every problem. The class encouraged me to examine scripture as I would any other ancient document, applying scientific and literary methods in the endeavor. That forever changed how I interpreted the Bible, not as the literal word of God, but as words of men as they described what they believed to be encounters with God.

QUESTIONING MY HETERONORMATIVE IDEAS

After graduating summa cum laude with a masters’ degree in theology in the summer of 2009, I continued the process of paideia, examining ethical and moral positions that I continued to hold on to dealing with the LGBTQ community. As a Fundamentalist, I had targeted homosexuals in my preaching for 30 years. Not only had I declared homosexuals would not enter heaven, I also practiced bias, pleading with my congregation to pass a rule not to allow homosexuals to become members. I had publicly opposed gay marriage (which became legal in Iowa in 2009) as well.

In 2009, I was beginning to recognize I retained some fundamentalist religious heteronormative ideas. When it came to gender and sexuality, my thinking was binary. I saw only two genders, and believed male/female relationships were the only normal, proper, and natural expression of sexuality. I began a deep study of those seven verses I had used as a Fundamentalist to condemn homosexuality. I began to look at my attitudes and views on gender and sexuality.

By the end of that summer, I realized I had committed a grievous error in condemning homosexuality. I never recognized my homophobia until I understood my heteronormative ideas. As I began to change my thinking, my behavior changed as well. I became an activist, an ally of the LGBTQ community. I began writing and speaking, promoting the rights of gays and lesbians to marry, and defending the rights of transgender people.

The point is change begins with paideia, self-examination.

QUESTIONING MY “COLORBLIND” THEOLOGY

Three years ago, something began to happen in this country that woke me up. I know “woke” has become a controversial term, but it is the best word to describe how I became conscious of another bias in my life. As news reports increasingly called attention to young, innocent back men being murdered by the police, I began paideia, asking questions of myself and examining my racial view. Yes, even in 2018, I was still holding onto and living the Fundamentalist view of Colorblind Theology.

Let me demonstrate this theology from my previous manner of preaching. I would declare from the pulpit, “I do not see race. As a Christian I am colorblind.”

And I would quote from St. Paul: “There is nether Jew nor Greek. There is neither male nor female…we are all one is Christ.”

And I would continue: “There is neither Black nor white nor yellow. We are all one in Christ, so let’s start working together and be reconciled. Race does not matter! Let’s stop talking about race, because that will create divisions.”

Three years ago, I began to scrutinize that view, which is the dominant not only in the Evangelical Church today, but also in the Republican Party.

I began to question my evangelical definition of racism as a problem of individual sin, in that “all men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 6)

Slowly, my thinking began to change. I realized the word “blind” means not just not being able to see clearly, but not seeing at all! A person who chooses “not to see color” is is also choosing not to see racial disparities, inequities, the history of violence, and the current trauma perpetuated within our nation.

As civil rights leader Julian Bond taught, “To be blind to color, is to be blind to the consequences of color.” That is, to dismiss the lived experiences of Black people.

To be blind to color is like saying, “I don’t care how you been treated.” To be blind to color is to claim racism doesn’t exist as long as I ignore it and don’t talk about it. I discovered my claim to be colorblind was a defense mechanism, so I would not have to deal with racism.

As I studied racial disparities in this country, my definition of racism changed. I realized my theological definition denied reality. I stopped viewing racism as an individual sin problem and acknowledged it as a system of benefits and advantage for white people and a system of disadvantage and oppression for people of color.

I had proclaimed from the pulpit as a Pentecostal preacher that the solution to racism was the simple Gospel that Jesus saves and changes people, which leads to racial reconciliation. Yet, I must be honest, in reality this preaching has done nothing to improve race relations in 400 years.

I preached reconciliation without justice, never realizing how untheological this viewpoint was. The Evangelical theology of sin and redemption states that God’s justice must be met before reconciliation can take place. In other words, someone had to pay the price; the necessity of Jesus paying the price for the sins of the world. God’s justice was met on the cross. I was blinded by my own assumptions and did not see the need to obtain justice for people of color, even though the Hebrew prophets cried out for justice for the oppressed in their own nation.

My thinking began to change. Reconciliation does not mean forgetting past racial injustices or closing our eyes to current structural racism. Instead, it requires honest recognition of the wrongs committed and a sincere intention to restore justice. I begin to realize that there can be no reconciliation without justice and no justice without truth; the reality that racism infects organizations, communities, the nation and yes, the Church.

UNDERSTANDING MY COMPLICITY, CHANGING MY BEHAVIOR

I began to study history. Why history? Because in 2020, the summer of discontent, when massive Black Lives Matter protests occurred across the country, I learned about events that I had never heard of before. At the age of 69, I first learned of an atrocity that occurred in 1921: the white terrorist destruction of the Greenwood, the Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Well, I am not from Oklahoma. Maybe that’s why I never heard of it? But I am originally from Tampa, Florida. Yet I had never heard of the white terrorist destruction of a Black community in Rosewood, Florida, in 1923. Why wasn’t I taught about that in school?

My thinking was changing. I took a class in Critical Race Theory. I began participating in a White Caucus where I work. I came around to understanding that as a Pentecostal minister, I had been complicit in racism. Not only denying racism, but promoting systemic or structural racism. I experienced metanoia, mistranslated as “repentance” in the King James Version of the Bible. The Greek word literally means to change your thinking.

My behavior followed, and I began to speak and write about my experience. I defended Critical Race theory in public, because if we do not talk about the problem, the racial status quo will continue. I became an ally of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Now, I am not so naïve to believe that just working to change myself is enough to change this nation, but it will influence many. Mother Teresa explained, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples…”

In other words, change begins with me and you. If you want to see change in the world, be that change! Begin thinking. Begin examining your life. As your thinking changes, your behavior will change, and that change may influence others.

Paideia—personal transformation and activism.

Edward Kelly, Jr. served in Iowa for 25 years as an Evangelist and for six years as a pastor. He lives in Red Oak with his wife Rose, and is a member of the First Unitarian Church in Omaha.

Top photo of Edward Kelly, Jr. provided by the author and published with permission.

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