As Christians, we are called to build the Kingdom of God here on Earth. Adam Clark and Kevin Jones speak here of the form that such a “beloved community” can take in terms of racial justice and economic justice in interviews conducted by Barbara Lyghtel Rohrer.
Adam Clark is an associate professor theology and Africana Studies at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, and he co-chairs the Black Theology Group at the American Academy of Religion. He earned his Ph.D. at Union Theological Seminary. He is committed to the idea that theological education in the twenty first century must function as a counter-story, one that equips students to read against the grain of the dominant culture and inspires them to live into the Ignatian dictum of going forth “to set the world on fire.”
Lyghtel Rohrer: When you spoke at Cincinnati’s Christ Church Cathedral in the spring of this year, you titled your presentation, “The Struggle for the Beloved Community: Race and the Underside of the American Dream.” How do you define “beloved community”? Is “the underside of the American Dream” what prevents the emergence of such a community? What is the “underside”?
Adam Clark: “Beloved community” is a poetic phrasing for the Kingdom of God coined by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a contemporary translation that can be seen as loving relationships within loving, generous structures in society. It consists of the social relationships that need to be fostered.
The underside of the American Dream is where people have been left out or excluded from American wealth and power. It includes significant barriers to accessing American mobility. It is a way of talking about the positions within America’s racial hierarchy – black men at the bottom and white men at the top.
LR: What is the difference between race and ethnicity?
AC: They are both social constructs. In the United States, when you are talking about race you are talking about some kind of physical or genetic characteristic. When you talk about ethnicity you are usually talking about some type of commonality based on national origin.
Race is not a scientific fact or even a natural division between people. If you look at our chromosomes they are 99% the same.
LR: It has been said that racism is a white problem, not a black problem, yet black lives are the ones impacted by this “white problem.” How do those of privilege become an authentic ally to those without privilege without patronization? What integrative work is needed to move us as a society beyond prejudice?
AC: I think it starts with awareness, the consciousness of white privilege. Listening to voices of color. Reading books by authors of color. Just becoming aware there is an issue in the first place. That is the first step. Then I think the important next step is challenging other white people. Being the interrupter. Trying to disrupt any kind of dialogue that is exclusionary. To challenge people about the negative assumptions they have about people of color. It is a process. It is about using privilege against privilege.
LR: The question of race continues to divide our society; most blacks think racism is a growing problem; more whites think that racism is disappearing. How do we come together – can we come together as a society? – to all hold the same point of view?
AC: I think it’s not about us coming together but about our principles coming together. We want to come together on the highest ground possible. Part of the solution is creating alternative spaces for people to meet on this higher ground. I think that’s what the Church at its best does. It becomes the contrast community to the outer community. The Church creates a counter space because we can’t wait for the entire society to change – that may never happen. So we have to try to develop those spaces where it can happen. The Church can become that space. But it is a challenge because even though there are interracial congregations, churches are still often divided by class, cultural codes, and behaviors.
LR: What is black theology? How does it differ from other kinds of theologies? In what ways does black theology offer a way forward for whites who are struggling to understand and to end racism?
AC: Black theology is a reinterpretation of Christian faith from the standpoint of the black freedom struggle. It’s looking at the history of Christianity in the United States (and the colonies before the union was formed) and seeing that theologians have not taken the experience of black suffering seriously, especially the experience of slavery. Slavery lasted for 246 years in North America. Then segregation lasted for another 100 years. Yet very few prominent white theologians saw that as a theological problem; they did not see an incompatibility between Christian teachings and a system of slavery that said different human beings have different worth and dignity.
Black theologians wanted a definition of Christianity that says Christianity and slavery are incompatible. You cannot be Christian and a racist at the same time.
The central theme of the Bible and of Christianity is the theme of liberation – liberation from oppression. It starts with the narrative of Exodus, with Moses liberating his people, not just their souls, but their whole persons. Then we turn to Jesus Christ, someone who hung with the outcast and whose ministry of the Kingdom of God was cast within the larger society.
When we teach theology, we talk about four primary sources of faith – scripture, experience, reason, and tradition. Many draw from experience as white middle class. They won’t look at the black experience. They look at America as a democracy; they won’t look at it as a slaveocracy. If you see America as a democracy, dating back to 1776, you have one vision, but if you look at the country as a slaveocracy, you have a different point of view. America really didn’t become a democracy until 1964 with the passing of the Civil Rights Act. That’s only 50 years. Viewing America from this perspective gives you a different kind of orientation, and how you understand human experience really differs in terms of how you engage the Christian faith.
LR: Do you have any comments that you wish to make on the Black Lives Matter movement? How do you respond to people who, in turn, like to claim “all lives matter”?
AC: The idea of Black Lives Matter is not to negate that all lives matter. It is saying that black people have not been equally recognized. They started being defined as three-fifths of a human being. Then they became second-class citizens. Blacks are still not treated as full citizens. So the idea of Black Lives Matter is really a political statement. We as blacks feel that we don’t matter politically because even when our lives are extinguished, the system does nothing. That experience doesn’t happen to white persons with the same frequency, and that’s what Black Lives Matter is saying: To say black lives matter is to say all life matters. The words are trying to raise black people into the all, not trying to negate the all.
Our struggle really is to make a world that everyone can call home. And in America, that home should not be exclusive to white heterosexuals. Home should be for everybody. Black Lives Matter is just that one dimension of the broader struggle for social justice.
Kevin Jones is a principal of Social Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in social enterprises. He is also co-founder of SOCAP, Social Capital Markets, a network of heart-centered investors, entrepreneurs, and social impact leaders who believe in an inclusive and socially responsible economy to address the world’s toughest challenges. More information can be found at socialcapitalmarkets.net.
SOCAP is producing the upcoming Neighborhood Economics conference in Cincinnati in November. (See below.)
Lyghtel Rohrer: What is social capital? What called you to that field?
Kevin Jones: Social capital consists of the nonfinancial bonds between people. These bonds are trust and community ties. The term social capital market comes from our mash-up of social capital with capital markets to coin a name for the market at the intersection of money and meaning. It is where you put your money to do good in the world, to right some wrong. It merges philanthropy with investments because your dollars are returned to you, perhaps for you to recycle to do more good.
I got into the field when, after two years working in Swaziland and Mozambique, I realized I was exactly the wrong guy to solve malaria. I am not good at working directly with poor people. I am equally bad at being on consensus-driven nonprofit boards. But I can, and have, created information businesses inside communities in new markets.
The market at the intersection of money and meaning, where social entrepreneurs want to use business to solve some of the world’s biggest problems – from clean water to off-grid electricity in Africa to financial inclusion in the United States – is a new one. Our conference, SOCAP, Social Capital Markets, has defined that market and proved to people that it is real, big, and growing.
LR: How did the concept of Neighborhood Economics develop? How do people get involved beyond attending the November conference?
KJ: We launched Neighborhood Economics to work in communities where venture capital doesn’t work, where there are not the startups or angel investors. Its goal is to accelerate the flow of capital into marginalized neighborhoods.
We anticipate having a full-time staffer by the time of the conference, working to launch a zero-interest crowdfunding loan program focused on African-American entrepreneurs in Cincinnati. This will help lenders have a new relationship with people in those neighborhoods. This model is different from the historic relationship of dependency on donors that is tied to giving. It is built upon the mutual respect that comes when you are paid back after helping someone finance and expand, say, a body shop, a beauty salon, or a florist. The model helps create wealth in poor communities.
People can get involved as lenders through their churches, thereby investing in people in their own communities and creating ties between neighborhoods that need but often have too few connections.
LR: Building community health through a focus on local or “neighborhood” economies is something you advocate. Is there a tool kit or system to help people do that? How would something like this unfold in Cincinnati; what are the steps? Who are “valuable strangers” and how would they fit into the system?
KJ: The lending program is part of the tool kit. We also would use an online version of the lending program to expand the reach of the lending circles that already exist in those neighborhoods, as we have with Hispanic and immigrant communities. An example would be of someone investing a $100 a month into the circle for ten months and then be able to withdraw $1,000. This is a key way in which communities invest in and save with each other. We would help to expand this method and make it more available.
We are also exploring community-owned solar power; which already is a priority of the Ohio National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Uniting for green power is an issue that can link black and white communities across neighborhoods.
The “valuable strangers” might be people in Cincinnati who, linked by the loans, become customers of the body shops, salons, and florists in neighborhoods that are siloed from each other right now.
LR: In her article, “What if Marginalized Neighbourhoods Crafted Their Own Handmade, Place-Based Economies,” Michelle Strutzenberger writes of doing something other than creating more human services in response to the problems of society. How does one distinguish between the need for a human service solution and the need for an economic solution?
KJ: We work on solutions where the market, an entrepreneurial solution, is the answer – the market is not the answer to every situation. The market is not the answer to malaria. The people who die are the poorest and least powerful, and the only solution is donating nets, drugs, and now vaccines.
Skills training and basic job readiness are not solutions where the market, or an entrepreneur, is the answer. We would work with partners such as Mortar (a Cincinnati-based accelerator that helps formerly homeless people become successful entrepreneurs) to help fund those ready to launch a start-up.
LR: You speak of blending “giving and investing” to accelerate “the flow of capital to the good things that matter” in a city or town. Can you give a concrete example of what this would look like?
KJ: The loan program uses investing to break a cycle of dependency in which affluent people give to poor people in marginalized neighborhoods. We’d use giving as I defined earlier as a way to lay the groundwork for entrepreneurs to emerge.
LR: People of faith see the efforts of social capital as a way of bringing God’s justice to the world – and that is the payoff. What of the economic payoff? Is there an economic payoff for those who are non-religious?
KJ: The payoff for investing with a lens that achieves the goals of philanthropy is that your money is returned. You also help your local economy be more resilient, which lowers social services and other costs while increasing community wealth.
There is not enough money in government, nonprofits, or foundations to solve the pressing problems of the world, including everything from climate change to wealth disparity. That means that the money that is in the market, which is far greater, has to be deployed toward our common goals of creating vibrant, resilient communities. Long term, it means we create a livable world. That is not true of the current rapacious model of Wall Street capitalism.
The payoff is that we survive and we live better.
LR: I was interested in Judy Wicks’ comments on the SOCAP site: Get out of the stock market. Does part of your neighborhood economics create an alternative for small investors trying to build retirement accounts?
KJ: That is a work in progress, though the Calvert Community investment notes are a step in that direction.
LR: How do corporations fit into the model of local economies? Can a business that is a global entity truly be a contributor to a “shop local” economy?
KJ: Public companies like Patagonia and Etsy, which are B corporations, can. B corporations measure the positive impact they make on their communities, the environment, and their employees’ lives, and they strive to grow all three. Some companies, in response to increasing societal demand, are changing what it means to be a local and global citizen.