Like our society at large, evangelical Christians are witnessing intense polarization around cultural and political issues, especially those that touch on race, gender, and social justice. Enter Truth’s Table: Black Women’s Musings on Life, Love, and Liberation, a collaborative work by co-authors Ekemini Uwan, Christina Edmonson, and Michelle Higgins. Prior to the amicable departure of Higgins, these three women were co-hosts of the popular Truth’s Table podcast. All three have impeccable evangelical credentials and have been highlighted by prominent evangelical organizations like Christianity Today and InterVarsity as well as by secular outlets like The New York Times, The Atlantic, and the Huffington Post. Suffice it to say that they are a major voice in evangelical discussions of race, which makes their new book important. And concerning. Christians inclined to give them every benefit of the doubt must nonetheless reckon with the corrosive ideas at the heart of their work.
III. The Inevitable Downgrade
New readers will be struck forcibly by the close friendship of these women. Interludes throughout the book offer glimpses into the playful banter and humor that have endeared Truth’s Table to hundreds of thousands of listeners. Every chapter is intensely personal, not merely informational. Subjects like divorce, singleness, colorism, and worship are intertwined with the authors’ own narratives, another hallmark of the podcast.
The most interesting chapter was Uwan’s contribution on colorism, discrimination based on skin-color. As Uwan notes, colorism is distinct from racism because people of any race can discriminate against people with darker skin, even those of the same perceived race. There is empirical evidence to suggest that colorism exists and has real-world consequences (see statistics on p. 17-18). But colorism is not merely an abstract phenomenon; it has impacted Uwan personally. She grew up in an extended family that used dangerous skin lighteners, a common practice in many countries (“‘75% of the population in Nigeria, 52-67% of the Senegalese population, 59% Togo, 25% Mali, and 35% of South African women use skin-lightening products'”, p. 13). The pressure to have light skin had harmful effects on Uwan’s self-image, leading her to start bleaching her own skin. Anyone who recognizes that societal standards of beauty can produce body-image issues in children, especially in girls, should be extremely sympathetic to Uwan’s experience, even if it’s not one they share.
I also largely agreed with the thesis of Edmonson’s chapter on the importance of church discipline. She cites the Belgic Confession to argue that church discipline is a necessary mark of the true church and is vital to discipleship. Abusive leaders and erring laypeople must be admonished and rebuked to preserve the church’s health and witness. Yet all church discipline must be done in love: “love must motivate all elements of discipleship… Not love abstractly or esoterically but love practically. A love that dogmatically resists denying people intrinsic dignity, even when they act the fool. A love that tells the truth, sets boundaries, holds beloveds accountable, and rejoices at every expression of repentance” (p. 189-190). Many similarly orthodox remarks regarding doctrines like regeneration, the Trinity, and the atonement are scattered throughout the book.
Unfortunately –and this is a big “unfortunately”– the book’s underlying approach to issues of race and justice will inevitably undermine orthodox Christian belief and will fracture the church. Interestingly, Ekemini Uwan recognizes that something is amiss in Chapter 3. She repeatedly warns that the practice of “decolonized discipleship” can and has led some people to abandon the faith entirely:
In recent years, the discourse about decolonizing the faith has become more pervasive and enigmatic, as it has come to mean different things to different people. Some have come to believe that Christianity is ‘the white man’s religion,’ so they’ve discarded the faith completely. For others, due to the ways that the American church has been steeped in white supremacy, there can be an overcorrection where scripture, Christian piety, and traditional doctrines about the atonement, the exclusivity of Christ, and hell, among other doctrines, are attributed to white supremacy instead of to the Eastern Christian faith (p. 52)
some people are decolonizing their faith to the point that they are decolonizing their way out of the faith. Some Black Christians leave the faith altogether because of the white spaces they worshipped in instead of returning to –or entering– the Black Church (p. 66)
While Uwan seems to view this erosion of Christian orthodoxy as an aberration, my contention is that it is neither inexplicable nor surprising. Rather, it is the logical consequence of accepting the basic ideological premises on which Truth’s Table is based and which it promotes.
To understand where Truth’s Table goes wrong, we can start with its ethnocentrism. I don’t think “ethnocentrism” is too strong a word. In the introduction, the authors announce:
We started [the Truth’s Table podcast] with the express purpose of centering the issues, concerns, and care for Black women exclusively while glorifying God through it all. When we say, “This table is built by Black women and for Black women,” we mean that literally… Everyone else outside of that demographic of Black women are welcome to gather around the table in the standing-room section. (p. xii)
The centrality of Blackness suffuses the book, often explicitly. For example, Higgins writes: “Blackness is the lens I use to apply my theology, the way I know God” (p. 48) and “The mere existence of Blackness as an ethnicity is a witness to God’s creative, redemptive power” (p. 211) and “Black existence is impossible to contain... When nobody but God holds us together, that alone is proof of the reparations that we ourselves are owed” (p. 244) and “The Bible teaches us that ethnic identity is part of God’s eschatological purpose. Blackness is critical to the global fulfillment of God’s promise to renew all things. For in no other extended time throughout history has an ethnicity built itself. God ordained Blackness as the answer and antidote to whiteness” (p. 264).
However, the centrality of the authors’ Black identity is only a part of the picture. It’s also crucial to understand how they conceptualize “whiteness.”
Throughout Truth’s Table, the word “Blackness” designates a racial or ethnic identity (the authors are not consistent as to which), but the word “whiteness” does not. Instead, Higgins offers this succinct definition: “I define whiteness as the norm to which all things are compared, making Blackness a base identity that must be denounced” (p. 244). The authors’ use of “Blackness” always has positive connotations. Contrast that to “whiteness”:
Whiteness is a shape-shifting culture that exists to soften the blow of the functions of supremacy… As Blackness is empowered, whiteness cannot exist. And this is good news, for there is no room for whiteness in the economy of God. More than the increasingly unsurprising mess that is white supremacy, whiteness is the real adversary in our battle. While it presents as a contrasting equal to Blackness–an ethnicity built by history, defined and redefined over time–whiteness is an identity devoted to kingdom obsolescence… Both white supremacy and whiteness are on the long list of oppressions that, in the Kingdom of God, will cease to exist. Supremacy might be the organized religion of people who uphold whiteness, but whiteness is the breath of life for the worshippers themselves. And when all you breathe in is wickedness, you must be born again (p. 247)
there is no redeeming whiteness. It is a weapon used by (sadly) people of all ethnicities to enforce white supremacy. Whiteness in raw form exists to diminish the power and beauty of nonwhite identities. (p. 254)
whiteness cannot see itself, and therefore cannot free itself, from the presumption that it is entitled to set global norms (p. 255)
Because anti-Blackness is the same thing as whiteness, the gospel as told by whiteness is no gospel to us at all (p. 262)
In no small way, dismantling white supremacy and abolishing whiteness are part of the plan for God’s redemption of the cosmos (p. 267)
In other words, “whiteness” is not a skin color or an ethnicity. Rather, “whiteness” is an ideology which classifies white people’s culture, theology, behavior, practices as “normal” and classifies all other cultures, theologies, behavior, and practices as “aberrant,” “wrong,” or “perverse.” People, especially white people, take whiteness for granted as “natural,” “objective,” and “neutral,” and therefore cannot see how enmeshed they are in it. Whiteness justifies the oppressive racial status quo and must be destroyed.
Once we’ve grasped this definition of “whiteness,” we can understand the intense asymmetry between “Blackness” and “whiteness” (notice the capitalization convention adopted by the authors). While whiteness is oppressive, Blackness is liberatory. While “whiteness is wickedness“, Blackness is God-ordained.
Intersectionality is a third ideological component that undergirds the authors’ thinking. Intersectionality, as understood by the authors, is the notion that “the more socially marginalized identities one has–be it Black, female, transgender, poor, or disabled, for example– the greater the risk of harm and lack of earthly justice” (p. 76). Oppression here is conceptualized as a systemic, structural phenomenon that is the product of hegemonic norms like “whiteness” or “patriarchy.” Not every person of color or every woman experiences daily violence or coercion. But every person of color and every woman are part of a system of norms and values that justifies the patriarchal white supremacist social hierarchy. For example:
Black men, comforted by the lie of patriarchal privilege yet traumatized by anti-Blackness, implicitly and explicitly demand that Black women act like a stereotype of a white woman for them. Black Christian men might find themselves parroting the rhetoric of white male patriarchy, contributing to the misogyny and gaslighting directed at the women they claim to love and are called to lead (p. 153)
Note also that race and gender do not exhaust the list of “marginalized identities”: gender identity, class, and physical ability are also axes of oppression. In particular, sexual norms are mentioned several times as sites of exclusion:
multiethnic worship is possible only through enjoining our intersectional struggles. In white-centered worship, the value and validity of liberation struggles is measured by their perceived morality, i.e. how well their leadership or purposes match up with a white heterosexual norm. (p. 207)
the Kingdom that God is building requires all God’s children to be joined together–not siloed, not segregated, not arranged by income or intelligence, not pit against one another by ability, gender or sexuality, or body-mass index but joined, inclusively, together (p. 256)
My claim is that given these fundamental assumptions, doctrinal decline is inevitable. Why?
III. The Inevitable Downgrade
The basic narrative adopted by Truth’s Table runs roughly as follows:
Intersectionality shows us that race, class, gender, sexuality, and gender identity are all sites of oppression, not through open discrimination but through the imposition of white, upper-class, male, heterosexual, cisgender norms. The subtle poison of these norms has colonized Christians worldwide, regardless of race. For example,
white supremacy is a global project [and] America is a white-supremacist nation. As a function of this reality, this means that we, Black people and non-Black people of color, have all had our minds colonized to varying degrees (p. 64)
Black men often aspire for ascendency in these [white and multiethnic church] spaces, and one way they are advised to do so is by marrying a ‘biblical’ (read: white) woman. Doing so requires that they jettison their Black female counterparts in their quest for proximity to whiteness. In doing so, they sacrifice Black women on the altar of their quest for white validation and elevation (translation: tokenization) in these churches. A colonized mind is a telltale sign that the Black disciple has been indoctrinated with a false theology that derives from the empire instead of from the Kingdom of God. Empire theology is focused on the temporal, without regard for eternal things, which are unseen. It only serves the interest of the powerful, maintains the status quo, and perpetuates the demonic narrative of white superiority over and against those in the margins (p. 61-62)
Consequently, Christians need to “decolonize their minds” by identifying and eradicating the insidious tendrils of whiteness:
Deep, introspective soul work is required for someone to come to terms with the reality of how they have been colonized–discipled into believing that white theology, white doctrine, white ways are higher than those of their own people (p. 64)
Now, imagine that you embraced this narrative. Passing over the horrific question of how interracial marriages, friendships, or churches can survive these insinuations, two other vital questions stand out: which doctrines are “white doctrine”? Which theology is “white theology”?
Can you plausibly continue to affirm the London Baptist Confession or the Westminster Confession of Faith, or the Five Solas, when the Reformation was driven by white, European men (contrary to the oft-repeated but incorrect claim that “the Ethiopian church was the impetus for the Protestant Reformation,” p. 68)? How do you continue to limit the office of elder to men? What if someone, like Higgins, insists that “complementarianism [is] not a worldview that brought me nearer to that God [who says ‘I care for you’]. This worldview that misuses the words of the Bible misses the God of the Bible entirely” (p. 135). How do you continue to affirm a biblical sexual ethic when heterosexual and cisgendered norms are supposedly deeply intertwined with white supremacist patriarchy? You might insist that these doctrines are taught by Scripture, but that’s just your white, heterosexual, male interpretation of Scripture! At some point, you’ll even have to question how you can affirm that Christianity is exclusively true since this claim is used to justify “Christian privilege” and to marginalize Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and practitioners of indigenous religions.
To anyone who thinks these concerns are purely hypothetical, it’s worth considering the trajectory of Michelle Higgins herself. As recently as 2017, she was the worship leader at a conservative evangelical PCA church. She had spoken at Intervarsity’s Urbana ’15 Missions Conference and was interviewed by Christianity Today about her support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Today, she is the senior pastor of a pro-choice, LGBTQ-affirming UCC church in St. Louis, where she preached that Christians need to practice “queer parenting” and embrace the “queerness of the Trinity.” Her organization Faith for Justice declares that it “stands with child-bearing people of all genders… who are fighting for reproductive freedom, which includes access to legal abortion care” and offers trainings based in “Black Womanism + Liberation Theology” and a “Black queer feminist political lens.” Her journey is very similar to that of Dr. Christina Cleveland’s (author of God is a Black Woman) and simply can’t be dismissed as a incomprehensible chance occurrence.
It’s hard to overstate how thoroughly Truth’s Table is saturated with the ideas I’ve listed above. Many will be inclined to slap labels like “critical race theory” or “liberation theology” on them, and to criticize their origins. And it’s true that Uwan, Edmonson, and Higgins probably were influenced by critical educator bell hooks (cited on p. 145), or father of Black Liberation Theology James Cone (cited on p. 168), or Black feminist Patricia Hill Collins (cite on p. 65), or legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (cited on p. 76), or theologian Willie James Jennings (cited on p. 258). But we need to recognize that the origins of these ideas don’t ultimately matter. It’s the ideas themselves that are false and corrosive, regardless of where they come from.
I sympathize greatly with pastors and Christian leaders who want to foster honest conversations on race and promote racial unity. But Truth’s Table does not advance that project. Indeed, I suspect the authors themselves would reject the idea that they are attempting to advance racial reconciliation or racial unity. Instead, they are seeking racial justice which they believe can only be achieved if the white evangelical church repents of its wicked captivity to white supremacy, not the horrific ideology which motivated the Buffalo terrorist but the supposedly subtle, insidious, amorphous ways that “whiteness” permeates our culture. Christians who embrace Truth’s Table because of the warmth and honesty of its authors will be discipled into a deeply unbiblical way of thinking about a whole host of issues. Readers looking to foster mutual understanding and encourage unity in Christ should look elsewhere, to books like Linne’s The New Reformation or Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock.
- Together for the Gospel: A Short Review of Linne’s The New Reformation
- A Long Review of Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock
- Breaking Point: A Short Review of Cleveland’s God Is a Black Woman
- DEI Done Right: Disentangling Christian Community from Critical Theory
- A Short Review of hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody
- Quotes from bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress
- A Short Review of Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree
- A Short Review of Cone’s For My People
- A Short Review of Cone’s God of the Oppressed
- A Short Review of Collins’ and Bilge’s Intersectionality
- A Long Review of Anderson and Collins’ Race, Class, and Gender
- A Short Review of Collins’ Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory
- A Long Review of Crenshaw’s Critical Race Theory
- A Brief Review of Jennings’ After Whiteness