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 rewarding 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 effecting 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.
[Now see also More On MacGyver]