Some look for God in the majestic, the awesome, the harmonious. Others look for God in the lowly, the abandoned, the downtrodden. But if it a God of paradox that is sought, a God that is paradox, a God beyond all worldly things and also incarnated in the world, then both types of seekers are misguided. It is the shadowy figures that are present but not represented, unquestionably full of life but not counted as human, those whose suffering is illegible – it is to these dark icons of paradox that we should turn.
The wisdom of the world pretends completeness, offers an answer for every query, a reason for every action. Paradox is anathema: dark and demented. And so the interests of the wealthy and the powerful are secured, the false comfort of worldly wisdom prerequisite for accumulation and domination. That which threatens the supremacy of this wisdom – and so threatens the interests of the wealthy and the powerful – can only be “vile, cruel, and destructive.”
Theology names this idolatry: treating worldly things as if they were ultimate, foreclosing the divine. Dark icons of paradox are dismissed in favor of gleaming white idols: law and order, social welfare, multiculturalism, inter-communal coexistence. With these we can feel comfortable, reassured that there is something to be done – whichever solution suits our fancy. Paradox is pathologized as an effect of consumerism, immigration, family dysfunction, or discrimination.
Our task may be one of discernment, but it is not to discern a cause. Discernment does not make sense of the unexplained. It gazes at the illegible not to read but to learn to see differently. It gazes at the illegible to learn how to see the wisdom of the world as the mystification of power. It gazes at the illegible to learn how to see, and to learn how to judge, and to learn how to act, and to learn how to organize. If these do not follow from the gaze, the gaze is directed at an idol.
It is in this spirit that the urban uprisings in the United Kingdom should be approached theologically. The uprisings remind us of the foreclosures of blackness. They remind us of the 0.4% of British professors who are black, including just 10 black women out of more than 14,000 professors. They remind us that 21 Oxbridge colleges admitted no black students last year. They remind us of the sea of white faces that staffed the News of the World in London and Glasgow.
The uprisings also remind us of the upside-down economic reasoning that has become conventional wisdom in the UK and US. The wealthy and powerful have manufactured a “debt crisis” as an excuse to entrench their own interests at the expense of the working class. At a time when public sector expansion is crucial for economic recovery, a relatively low national debt to GDP ratio – about 77% in the UK and 60% in the US, compared to 144% in Greece and 118% in Italy, and more than 150% in the UK for much of the first half of the twentieth century – has been transformed into an alarming problem requiring immediate correction, on the backs of those who can least afford it.
That the uprisings are happening in the UK and not in the US, with over 40% of black youth unemployed in both, raises troubling questions for Americans (the uprisings in Oakland following the shooting of Oscar Grant by police in 2009 were on a much smaller scale). It seems likely that a large part of the reason is simply that America keeps its black men in cages. There are more black men in American prisons today than were enslaved in 1850, and a black boy born today has a 28.5% chance of going to prison during his lifetime. The wealthy and powerful in America have devised particularly potent means of concealing dark icons of paradox.
It takes spiritual discipline to maintain a gaze, to learn from figures of paradox rather than to explain them. It takes even more spiritual discipline to put that learning into action, into organizing communities to challenge the wisdom of the world. But that is precisely what the church is for: to teach such spiritual discipline, to create a space that aspires to be insulated from the wisdom of the world.
Vincent Lloyd is Assistant Professor of Religion at Syracuse University. He is the author of The Problem with Grace: Reconfiguring Political Theology (Stanford, 2011) and the editor of Race and Political Theology (Stanford, 2012).