The Ambiguous Legacy of St MacGyver

or, “Why White Men Can’t Do Theology”

Theological deliberation has for a long time benefited from leadership by White Men*; their privileged cultural position has offered them access to learning, to leisure, to others’ complementary service, to the critical interaction of other privileged scholars. Some of these privileged White Men have put their advantages to the service of the church’s self-understanding, a laudable self-offering (when they might pursue so many more rewaarding activities), and we may not underrate the extent to which their efforts have clarified and illumined the Truth to which the whole church strains with eager longing. Well done, good and faithful servants!

All the same, White Men’s theology involves a deeply problematic architectonic flaw. This flaw affects both “conservative” and “liberal” theologies. Indeed, some of its most devastating effects arise in “liberal” theological discourses; the “conservative” inclination to minimize the importance of gender and privilege as categories of theological thinking keep their Whiteness as the prominent visible characteristic, whereas the “liberal” interest in remedying the pernicious effects of White Men’s dominance ironically perpetuates and more deeply embeds the White presuppositions in their theological endeavors.**

But I have put off too long my characterization of the constitutive flaw of White Guy theology. The problem I have in view involves the relation of White Men’s cultural privilege to the theological standing of justice and grace. In a few words, when culturally-dominant figures speak about either “justice” or “grace,” they almost necessarily presuppose the practical possibility of effecting a just situation, or an appropriately gratuitous gift of Truth. But observation suggests that human efforts to bring about “justice” tend to incorporate elements of [well-intentioned] coercive power, and coercion itself militates against “fairness” (and is antithetical to grace). In other words, when White Men (and their allies) try to fix things, to bring about just social arrangements, the very gesture of fixing entangles them again in the coercive use of privilege that constitutes the White problematic.

This is why I invoke St. MacGyver in the title of the post. I never watched the TV series, but the general premise has seeped into cultural currency. Resourceful hero, trained in covert operations by a national security agency, goes from place to place getting into dire predicaments in his efforts to Do the Right Thing, and he always manages to set matters straight with the clever manipulation of two or three ordinary household implements (and his Swiss Army knife).*** The figure of MacGyver epitomizes the White Man’s impulse to fix things and the White Man’s capacity (and resources) actually to make things right. And not everyone has access to those resources, to those capacities, as White Guys do.

If you don’t have access to the means of “making things right,” though, the whole question takes on (we might say) a different complexion. If you know in advance that important, effective forces stand to prevent your making things right, fixing things, you have a very different relation to the prospect of fixing. Sure, you still hunger and thirst for righteousness — but you know that effection righteousness lies outside your power. The dominant forces in culture, the ones that limit and constrain you, have made that lesson inescapably clear. By the same token, the more ardently one hangs onto the prospect of fixing, the more clearly one identifies with the White Guy’s power.

In order truly to apprehend grace, one must move out of the world in which our striving constitutes the effective power by which God’s justice becomes manifest in the world. In this sense, one more truly accepts God’s grace as a gift when one adopts a practice of patience rather than an impatient determination to attain right answers, correct social practices.

I say this not out of lack of concern about injustice, but (so far as it’s given me to know) out of a particular grave concern. I fear that our appropriate vexation at evident, appalling injustices tends to compound these problems by instituting a new “improved” situation that itself entails new unfairnesses, but with the aura of sanctified immunity that derives from its status as a deliberate step toward justice. “Conservative” participants in social processes may experience the injustice of the loss of their cherished way of life, the disregard of the authorities upon which (and whom) they rely. Those who experience a different sort of injustice from that which is being remedied may experience the unfairness of having their trials disregarded out of triumphal confidence that “justice has been done.” Certainly many have observed (in others, of course; never in oneself!) the way that well-intentioned justice-doers can be more resistant than anyone else to perceiving glitches in their plans to fix the world.

So, on the terms I’m setting out, our response to injustices that we perceive is neither a determination to remedy them (tacitly: “at any cost”), nor passively to say, “well, the poor will be with us always,” but to endeavor to live in ways that (imperfectly) bespeak God’s equity and truth: within the ambit of our capacities (patiently), subject to criticism and correction (humbly). To the extent that we attain such a life, we do so not through the power of our own wills or intellects, not through the purity of our intentions, not through the guaranteed inerrancy of our authorities, but solely through a grace that does not originate with us, that refuses coercion, that invites correction and cooperation (even when these involve a departure from the corrective program we devised).

In all this, then, it’s time to recognize that White Men have given great gifts to the church — but inasmuch as they participate in privileges that inhibit their realization of the actuality, the humility, and the patience of grace, they need to step back a few paces and not try to tell the world how God wants things run. St MacGyver’s legacy is ambiguous, because White Guys really do accomplish some good things, they often have their sights set squarely on justice. Nonetheless, God’s grace wants spokespeople who know that sometimes you can’t get the justice you want, that coercion institutionalizes un-freedom, that God’s justice is greater and truer and more reliable than human justice, better even than White Guys’ justice.****

This claim, of course, enmeshes me in a performative contradiction. I can’t very well persuade you that I’m right without arrogating to my claims about justice an authority that my argument rules out. And if you point out that a White Man shouldn’t be talking as I have, your resistance tends to affirm the thesis of my argument above. I have no wisdom by which to rectify this, unless it be: By saying this out loud, I may lend some measure of the dominant culture’s power to similar arguments made by people who don’t have the full panoply of privilege that I’ve enjoyed.

Or not. I’d be interested to learn from interlocutors by exploring this premise together, though.

* For casual purposes, I’ll say just “White Men” or “White Guys” here, though a more precise analysis of power and privilege would take account of class distinctions, of sexuality, of a variety of inflections of “whiteness” and masculinity. My point is not that these are irrelevant, but that the nuanced account depends first on naming the structural problem with White Guy theology. Once we reach that point, we can begin tracing the various manifestations of, resistances to, and correlates of that problem.

** I don’t exclude this short essay from the category — though, as I will try to show, it occupies its problematic status self-consciously, deliberately, and patiently, tentatively, with the hope that such an intervention provides the occasion for corrective responses.

*** I’m uninterested in arguing here over whether I’ve got MacGyver right — I would be interested to learn more, but he’s functioning as a metonym here, not as the invocation of the Actual Fictive-Historical MacGyver.

**** I don’t think this involves an advantage to “left” or “right”; I know plenty of “conservative” people outside the sphere of White Men’s privilege, along with plenty of “liberals.” And if we suppress the noisy clamor of White Guys who think they have the correct answer, we may begin to undo some of the stereotyping that results when Others get squeezed into the roles and positions that a dominant discourse constructs for them.

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6 Responses to The Ambiguous Legacy of St MacGyver

  1. bls says:

    Bravo.

    Nothing against White Guys, many of whom I like a lot. And, as you say, many of whom have contributed a great deal.

    A virtuoso attempt to unravel a super-duper Gordian Knot that nobody’s ever really discussed before. I think the key is “Humility,” actually – Epistemic and Otherwise.

  2. ryan whitley says:

    So, what do you recommend to a white guy who’s going into a profession where, theoretically, what I’ve learned in the past three years, including in your classroom, is that I am suppossed to proclaim God’s grace and forgiveness?

    -R

  3. Christianity is, or was, the religion of the poor and the oppressed.

    Episcopalianism is the preferred religion of America’s old money; it is our high church. Both the poor and the entrenched will speak of patience. The poor have no choice, and the
    privileged are in no hurry. Patience, humility and Christian resignation are personal virtues that I learn from you every day. Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world. But to counsel patience to
    those for whom no help is coming is
    a job for Aesop, the apologist for Rome.
    “Nothing can be done without making
    things worse; even to try is arrogant; evertying backfires” – that stancee or stasis cannot be described as apolitical. I suspect that the kernal of this post is personal (recalling personal political efforts that may have backfired) as well as theological. The day will come when you lend your quiet voice and example to social change. Things can only get so bad before action, however self-defeating, is better than tacit acceptance.

  4. Chris says:

    Well…lots to think about here.

    20 years ago I was considering entering the Ministry with the United Church of Canada, as liberal an institution as you will find in North America. At the time I was struggling with issues of identity and especially with wondering how my sexual orientation (bi) was going to be handled. This was two or three years before the United Church of Canada opened itself up to having clergy from any sexual orientation.

    At the time I was involved in some of the more prominent church bodies, sitting as a youth representative on the Division of Mission in Canada board, for example, which basically looked at how the church did its work across the country. I wanted to raise my voice in support of the sexual orientation issue (I was not out, except to a few select friends) and was told by many (including the select friends) that it would be better if I didn’t do that , and that the “old white men” of the church were handling that. It would work out better if the big guys took care of the issue.

    Now this was far from church policy, that the liberal old white guys should handle issues of a touchy and radical nature, but I was immediately put off wanting to go to work in that institution. The United Church is a wonderful Church in general, but this experience, and the idea that it was better for others to tinker and fix on my behalf, was profoundly disempowering me. I left the Church and found other ways to do my stuff.

    One of those other ways of doing stuff involved learning more about my Ojibway ancestry, including the traditional spiritual practices of that culture. And I learned that there is a fundamental difference between these two forms of spirituality when it comes to “tinkering.” In the Ojibway creation story, although Kitche Manitoo (The Great Spirit/Mystery) ultimate creates the universe and impregnates it with essence, the world itself is created by a bunch of animals looking to make a comfortable place for Giizigokwe (Sky Woman) to land and birth the Anishnabeg (Original Beings). The animals collaborate to create a cradle into which humanity is born, and when the Anishnabeg arrive they are regarded with curiosity and respect. The rest of the story has humanity developing in concert with the environment – not without struggles, but entirely without a God who comes in and saves people. The essence of traditional Ojibway teachings is this: when you are stuck you need simply to rely more and more on your own resources to find a way out. You tinker with you, not the world around you.

    By contrast, Genesis gives us a story where God creates the universe and then the Garden and places humans within it. When things start to sour, God banishes us from the Garden – a birth from a a different womb – but then the world outside is hard and life will always be that way. There is no embracing creation, no extension of the Garden to include the rest of the world. Nature is a force to be reckoned with, cursed by God and beaten and tamed by man if at all possible. And the Garden is left, guarded by a flaming sword. And from there, whenever humans get in trouble, God comes along to bail us out. The Old Testament God is a fixer, if ever there was one.

    And so what can we do, now that, as Genesis says “the man has become as one of us?” To become God, to be God in this story is to fix it all, to become the pater familias and tinker with creation until it serves us as well as it possibly can. It means that, thousands of years later, we will create “professions” in which the privilege of white men to tinker and fix the land, the body, the law, the Church and business, will be preserved and protected and anyone who operates outside of these professions – the healers, the stewards, the activists, those without MBAs or doctorates or sanction – are cast away as not helpful to the project.

    I think so much of the fixing impulse, be it well-intentioned or malicious, arises out of these deep stories, our deep longing for the order that was present at the beginning, but which we were banished from ever knowing, so that we are left to merely approximate those original conditions, balancing justice as our driving goal with the futile mechanical modality of tinkering with a complex world.

  5. Kevin Marks says:

    The remarks of the Bishop of York on his appointment seem apropos:
    “I was raised an Anglican on 1662 [the Book of Common Prayer],” he says.

    “The gospel I got in my country was so good. I am simply telling the English, it is my job now, to simply remind you of what you taught me.”

  6. john wilkins says:

    AKMA, although I think you are on to something – that a characteristic of the device, or the concept, of “whiteness” is “to fix things” I must admit some ambivalence overall about what whiteness is. Over all, it does seem juxtaposed against being colored or exploited. The flaw in whiteness is that it seems to make the attributes (ascribed to the colored or the other) of ones own humanity hidden. Strangely, the other can then reify itself as other (say, Mobutu becoming the western ideal of African), even more deeply affirming the contours of “whiteness.”

    I wonder if the benefit of being white is that “white” theology can be indefinably white – anything the theologian demands. Other sorts of theologians must be identified. Whiteness conveys freedom, perhaps, but upon the backs of slaves.

    The freedom, however, is not the problem….

    And so I babble.

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