God: A Boss or in Solidarity with the Oppressed?

Light skinned, masculine hands from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam

Assigning an Identity to God

In a recent article, a Stanford psychologist found that the identity U.S. Christians make of God is the same identity they attribute to a boss. Dr. Roberts found it somewhat shocking that U.S. Christians explicitly attribute a race and a gender to God — and found this has real world consequences. He summarized in this way, “Basically, if you believe that a white man rules the heavens, you are more likely to believe that white men should rule on Earth.”

Three men founded the church I grew up in: a Jewish man, a black man, and a white man. Our church, or fellowship, as it was called, belonged to a larger ecumenical, charismatic Christian community in the diverse college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan. This Christian community, The Word of God, had weekly prayer meetings, common households, and a mission. Catholics and Protestants of different denominations came together to experience the movement of the Holy Spirit. It was an idealistic community where people gave their lives for the Lord. “God loves all people,” they impressed upon me. And I believed them. I remember being in Kindergarten and opening my first Bible with great enthusiasm as though it held the key to God’s love for all people — and for me.

The Hebrew Bible that Christians cherish commands us to create no image of God. But, the Stanford study shows that U.S. Christians certainly do — and attribute that image to positions of authority. In our Christian community there was a strict gendered hierarchy. Men were called Heads (as in the “head” of their household or some as District Heads — leaders over a hierarchy of members in various districts). The women were called Handmaidens, and wore headscarves during worship. Each member was assigned a spiritual leader who had the power to interpret God’s will for their lives. As it grew, a restrictive power structure evolved. The Word of God was investigated as a cult by the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in the 1980’s. These were the formative years of my childhood.

When we imagine a gender or racial identity in God, we are saying something about who has (or should) hold power on earth. Reflecting on the incarnation, my mother once told me, “If God came through someone in the U.S., God would probably come as a working-class Black woman.” Today, she’d likely add queer to her list. In her own way, she was exploring this idea from the Stanford research — that the characteristics we attribute to God translate to real-world views. In consideration of current hierarchies, her view begs the question: Is God a boss or a living God who moves in solidarity with the oppressed?

Trumpism Today

Not all, but many of the charismatics from my childhood are now part of the Religious Right. These people, my people, elected Trump. Fighting abortion is the rallying cry. But, the seeds of Trumpism were planted long ago. I more recently learned that the highest levels of leadership in the Word of God in the 1970’s and ‘80’s believed they had a mission to fight against four “evils” in society: Feminism, Islam, Humanism, and the “gay agenda.”

As a child of the Word of God, I often wonder about the young people involved. How did this conservative community, set in a diverse college town, growing into the thousands and spreading around the world through The Sword of the Spirit, shape it’s young people?

Cut to almost 40 years later…

The three founding members of my childhood church have gone their own ways, but to my knowledge, all three oppose Trump. In fact, today, I work with one of them. He lost the church he founded over his advocacy for LGBTQ+ people, and is now a co-pastor with an amazing, queer, woman who I admire, Emily Swan. And as for me, the four “evils” the Word of God fought against did not stick. I’m a social worker turned pastor, striving to be an antiracist feminist, fighting against bigotry — including Islamophobia. I’m married to an agnostic doctor, and belong to a fully affirming LGBTQ+ inclusive church. However, remnants of my childhood remain: building Beloved Community, believing in God’s love for all people, and careful study of the Bible.

God Lives in Solidarity with the Oppressed

A powerfully subversive message drives our work at Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor, and is summed up in a New Testament parable: “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me.” (Matthew 25:40) This does not say: Make the least of these more like you. It positions the Highest Power as One among us with the least. It requires action. It means there’s nothing wrong with those we’ve considered “the least of these.” Rather, there is something wrong with us when we stand by and do nothing while people around us get the short end of the power stick.

Perhaps the U.S. Christian image of God is reflected in the identity of their chosen leader: a wealthy, white, male president who “gets things done” — one who fights against women’s rights, Islam, climate change, and LGBTQ+ people. But, I have found a community of people, a gathering of exiles, who believe that God lives in solidarity with the oppressed.

Originally published at https://cskittle.blogspot.com.

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