This episode’s guest is Beverly Mitchell, author and professor. Beverly is a professor of systematic theology and church history at Wesley Theological Seminary. In this episode, we are in conversation about Beverly’s book Plantations and Death Camps: Religion, Ideology and Human Dignity (Fortress Press, 2009). Beverly discusses the process of writing this book and discovering her convictions around faith and human dignity.
Episode Transcription available here
Host: Ry O. Siggelkow
Producer: Adam Pfuhl
Podcast Engineer: Michael Moua
Music: Kavyesh Kaviraj
Episode Recorded on November 14, 2022
In Conversation with Beverly Mitchell
Ry Siggelkow [00:00:00] Hello, everybody. I'm Ry Siggelkow, and I direct the Leadership Center for Social Justice at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Today, I am excited to be in conversation with Beverly Mitchell. Beverly is professor of systematic theology and church history at Wesley Theological Seminary, where she holds the C.C. Goen and Douglas R. Chandler Church History Chair. She teaches courses in historical, systematic and contextual theology, church history, including African-American religious history and human rights. Beverly is the author of numerous journal articles, book chapters and two books "Black Abolitionism : The Quest for Human Dignity", published with Orbis Books in 2005, and "Plantations and Death Camps: Religion, Ideology and Human Dignity" published by Fortress Press in 2009, which is the book we will be in conversation about today. Welcome to the podcast, Beverly.
Beverly Mitchell [00:01:05] Thank you very much. Glad to be here.
Ry Siggelkow [00:01:09] Beverly I thought we could begin by having you share a bit of background about how you came to write your book "Plantations and Death Camps", a text that reflects deeply on two profoundly violent historical realities. Why did you decide to write this book?
Beverly Mitchell [00:01:26] Well, initially I was going to explore further the notion of human dignity, which I raised in my first book on Black abolitionism. I found that the desire for the recognition of their full dignity as human beings was important for the enslaved and those who had escaped. And so I wanted to explore further what I meant when I talked about human dignity. What actually happened was that I began to study quite a number of slave narratives. And at the same time, I happened to begin reading Holocaust survivor literature. And what I found was the common ways in which they talked about their degradation, that the way they were made to feel less than human. So I saw as both the fugitive slaves but also those who were in the camps, the way they talked about their experience really said to me there is something very common here that I wanted to explore. And what I ended up doing in "Plantations and Death Camps" is not simply to compare these two historical groups, but to explore just what it means to be human. And can you lose your humanness in situations of dire oppression? Of course, my answer was no, you don't lose it. But that's how I entered into it looking at human dignity. And for me, human dignity is part of the mark or the expression of our being made in the image of God. And that's how the journey began.
Ry Siggelkow [00:03:49] You're very careful to attend to the historical specificity and distinctiveness of the experiences of Black people who faced enslavement, exploitation, and other forms of degradation, and the experiences of Jewish people who faced the terror of the Holocaust, Nazi-ism and the Third Reich. And yet, at the same time, you emphasize the importance of clearly identifying the commonalities of human experience and what you describe as "the inner cry of revolt against dehumanization" and the ways in which these violent situations bear witness to a common humanity, or what you call "the indestructibleness of human dignity". And you make use of these personal narratives from the writings of the enslaved to Holocaust survivors to draw out these points. I suppose I wanted to ask you to speak about the sort of I don't know exactly what to call it, perhaps universalism? A universalism that permeates the entire book and which has an immense theological depth and sense of urgency about it.
Beverly Mitchell [00:04:55] I think that the term universalism sort of carries some baggage with it. And I would prefer to think in terms of our possessing a common humanity, I prefer to describe it. As I've been studying in these two areas and I've continue to do so long after "Plantations and Death Camps". But I've also looked at other situations in which a people were identified as the other and oppressed in various ways. And my conviction is that despite the many differences there may be in terms of skin color, religious identity, cultural expressions, etc., there is at the core and this is the part that sort of ratifies that at the core, there is something - some aspect of our humanness that we, all of us possess, despite whatever our social location is, etc. There is a core in my thinking with regard to what makes us human. And I settled on the idea that it was being made in the image of God. This is something that that all humans possess, despite their abilities, capabilities, or disabilities, that there is some aspect of us that we all share. And so as I was teasing out this notion of human dignity, because I felt in in certain discussions, a kind of abstractness that that I'm kind of allergic to. I kept in mind the situations of those who it's very hard to speak about dignity in the context of situations that sometimes humans find themselves or that they're placed into. And I wanted to celebrate, to lift up that at our core, we don't lose our humanness, that it follows us from cradle to grave. And I think that that is sort of the central theological grounding that invites us, commands us. If I think a little bit about Emmanuel Levinas ethics that that that somehow we are tied together whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Theologically, we are tied together by being made in the image of God. And so that the role for us or the response to this insight is the protection of of human dignity of all peoples.
Ry Siggelkow [00:08:54] Yeah. Human dignity is an important theme throughout the book. And you argue that it is precisely within context of dehumanization and defacement that human dignity must be defended, defined and affirmed. You ground your understanding of human dignity in the doctrine of the Imago Dei, the image of God, and the Coram Deo, so that we live before God. For you, each person bears the mark of God and this connects us theologically to one another. This connection, you write, is the link that makes it incumbent upon us to be keepers of one another. Thus what happens to you concerns me, and likewise what happens to me concerns you. This connection, you say, transcends familial ties, racial and ethnic categories, national allegiances, and whatever distinctions we would choose to make that allow us to divide the world between us and them. I wonder if you could speak more about your understanding of human dignity and why it is so important to you theologically that we grasp the ways in which we are connected to one another against that which violently divides us, especially through a defacement between us and them.
Beverly Mitchell [00:10:17] The concept of human dignity is deeply important to me as a member of a historically oppressed group. One of the first things that you learn when you are studying enslavement is that this particular form of of enslavement in the United States was designed deliberately to render the African population subhuman in some way. And so when you are reading these narratives and you hear the voices of not only men, but women as well, where they are longing. Longing to be understood, to be received, acknowledged as fully human and the ending of slavery did not release the African-American from the struggle to be viewed and treated as fully human. There remains this sense that somehow we missed the mark in some way, that we're not quite like the dominant culture. And so it has remained a fight long past the ending of enslavement officially. And it remains something that a quest, if you will, to be treated in all areas of society as a human being. And so this piece with regard to dignity, you know, puts a framework around what is an inner quest that cannot be satisfied, except as we are viewed as fully human like anyone else. And so as long as African-Americans and other groups who are marginalized, the first thing that happens is when a society is going to marginalize a group is to seek to decouple them from their humanness, because then it is all the more easier to do the kind of things that you would not do to someone whom you esteemed as a fellow human being. And so that struggle continues in small ways and sometimes large ways that until that quest is settled, it's just an important part of my connection with not only my people as African-Americans, but other groups who've been racialized and in some way marked as not quite human. And it's so important to me because it has to do with human flourishing as a sense that one is given the opportunities to flourish or not. And we live in a context in which a full human hood, full citizenship, for that matter, is is still a contested area.
Ry Siggelkow [00:14:46] You describe white supremacy and anti-Semitism as expressions of communal defacement, which, when embedded in the economic, social and political systems and structures, become ideologies of death. Speaking of the need to take seriously the function of ideology and the ways in which ideologies can have lethal consequences, you have an extended discussion of the relationship between ideology, idolatry and faith. I know that this has long been an important topic in your work. You follow the black South African theologian Allan Boesak against Juan Luis Segundo in arguing that ideology is not a neutral term, but a theory and a praxis, a system of ideas and or doctrines that justify and perpetuate existing structures of injustice while also functioning to mask or obscure their reality in operation. I wonder if you could share about how you understand ideology and its relationship to idolatry and how this relates to your understanding of the meaning and significance of faith as Coram Deo as living before God.
Beverly Mitchell [00:16:05] Yes. As I indicated, in "Plantations and Death Camps", I really see ideology as it's a whole system of operation that involves not just our particular beliefs, but the value that we place on certain things and that governs how we live out life together in terms of the economic, cultural, social and political realms. That these ideas taken often as more than ideas, but, you know, treated as a fact in which you see a social order, in which some are affirmed and others are not. This shapes everything that not only individuals, but the the communal body in ways that that do harm to others, that rob others of opportunities but also places one's group, the in-group, if you will, as over and above everyone else in this hierarchy. Making themselves almost moving beyond their creatureliness. My conviction is that these hierarchies are caused by arbitrary differences that we determine shape the destiny of human beings. I see that as poisonous in a way, in terms of how societies function. I also see it as detrimental to the flourishing of other human beings. And we cannot or there is an inability to recognize our common humanity. And so ideology for me functions as a pervasive system of beliefs, values and also actions. And so this is in contrast to how we're called to live as disciples of of Jesus Christ, where we are enjoined to love God and love neighbor and that value should determine how we interact with each other. And so the piece with regard to the ideology relating to idolatry itself, it's the worshiping, if you will, of one aspect of who one is that makes it appear acceptable to order and shape communal life in a way that elevates, say for instance, in the case of white supremacy here in the United States, elevates whiteness or white skin. And out of this kind of self elevation and devaluing of others, it sort of destroys or clearly harms the ways in- or violates, if you will, that true interconnectedness in which we are dependent upon each other, in ways in which we are there to be supportive of each other. That kind of valuing of other people as well as one's own is violated and creates all kinds of difficulties and keeps us at war with each other. And so I have the conviction that- I sometimes say to my students, if I could just tattoo on your forehead made in the image of God. We would be constantly reminded of something that we seem to forget. And if one accepts the notion that we are all made in the image of God and have value, purpose, worth, if you will. Our interactions, not just individually, but group to group would be very much altered if we could keep in our memory that we are encountering those who were made in the image of God.
Ry Siggelkow [00:22:13] It seems that is the faith for you is about our commitments in the world, about how we live our values in the social and political context in which we live. But this also means that faith involves us in taking real risks and within the context of defacement and degradation of plantations and death camps. It involves those of us who are committed to human dignity, to a radical defense of life. And so you speak of the necessity of taking sides with those who are threatened with defacement. In fact, you go significantly further than this. You write, quote, "If we are going to live in a way that supports the vitality needed for each one of us to fulfill our God given potential, then a commitment must be made by each one of us to safeguard the dignity of all. This commitment must be one in which each one of us yields the deepest recesses of our consent to this purpose. This is a commitment that must be more important than whether individually we live or die in the process of upholding it. This commitment requires a surrender of the very essence of who we are and what we are. And what we are to this purpose. This commitment must permeate all areas of our lives". You say that such a commitment actually requires conversion. Conversion from indifference to defacement, you say, involves the recognition of one's alienation from God, the created order, including human beings and ourselves. I wonder if you could speak more about how you understand the commitments involved in the risk of face, the need to take sides, and why you think that conversion is a requirement.
Beverly Mitchell [00:24:21] As I look at the problem of white supremacy at large and I've finally settled on the relationship of of racism to racial anti-Semitism, that they are really children of the same god with, a lower case g ,that they fall under the umbrella of white supremacy. And there's a lot of reason for my finally coming to that conclusion. But I want to stay on target with regard to the question about the risk of faith and partisan commitment. I firmly believe that every social problem that we can reflect upon in some way addresses the issue of human dignity. You can you can look at it from economic terms, political terms, social terms, cultural terms. The question is what human beings are being valued and which human beings are not being valued. And so I think that there is no room for innocent bystanders. That neutrality is not really neutrality at all. But you made an option, an option to support, for instance, the status quo. And so what I have drawn from my study in teaching of various forms of liberation theology, this notion of the preferential option for the poor or the oppressed. I have come to live with that struggle with that because, well, I'm never although I certainly wasn't rich. I realize the privileges that I've acquired. And yet, the commitment to, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, "to look at history from the underside", from the areas in which people are not, you know, soaring with a great achievement and flourishing. But the ones who are struggling and I have come to the conviction, that's where you come to an understanding of what real commitment is to the well-being of all is looking at those who struggle the most. And I carry that conviction, even though I understand sometimes when I have spoken of that, some people have resisted. Oh, God loves everyone. You know, this desire, this idea of partisanship can sometimes seem problematic. But if you spend any time in the Gospels of the New Testament and you note the kind of people Jesus was generally drawn to, it's the ones on the margins, the ones who are outcast. And I think that if we take care of, if we connect with, if we level the notion of our status with those who have no status, we're on the way to really working for justice in a very committed way. I don't see how we can be comfortable in whatever privileges we have, knowing that there are others who don't have an opportunity for privilege. And that's why I see this connection with those who are not given the space, are not perceived as valued members of the human family. That's why I opt for those. I think if we handle or address these issues, the larger issues may well take care of themselves. And it's an act of faith to do that, because there's so much within our society that conspires against building coalitions that really help those who struggle the most. And it can even lead to one's death, that commitment. And and I see it as walking in faith, living in faith, putting one's convictions right there on the table.
Ry Siggelkow [00:30:19] This is such a powerful vision of faith. Beverly, it reminds me of what the late James Cone called the risks of faith, or what the German anti-fascist theologian he already mentioned, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, called the cost of discipleship. I know M. Shawn Copeland has recently written about knowing Christ crucified, and I think what you're talking about here is a kind of recovery of a theology of of the cross in the tradition, perhaps, of Ignacio Ellacuría who spoke of the commitment to the crucified people. And for him, this is sort of a mystical reality of Christ's presence in the world that's connected to the poor and connected to questions of class, but also to questions of solidarity and struggle. A commitment that involves a commitment in defense of life by the power of divine grace. Perhaps we are simply talking about the possibility of love in a crucifying world. I'm struck by how your book so carefully and lovingly draws out the witnesses of love from those who have gone before us, we might say. By your attention to the personal narratives of those who have lived through the horrors of the slave ships and the plantation of those who have lived through the terror of death camps and prison cells, and of those who have, having come through that crucible of suffering, have still been able to speak a word of hope, a word of love about the possibility of a different kind of future, a different kind of world. And it strikes me that this is what you are pointing us toward in the end of of your book. I wonder if you could say more about this kind of politics of witness this I don't know, this politics of hope, a discipleship of hope. What would what would you call it? Perhaps it's a politics of cross and resurrection. How do we live this out at a time when there is so much despair, so much dread, so much death, when we're seeing a rise in nationalist politics, a rise in fascist violence, how do we how do we remain faithful to the witnesses who have gone before us, who, in the face of so much degradation, nevertheless struggled for a more human world?
Beverly Mitchell [00:32:39] It is very, very difficult to carry on a long term with a commitment to end injustice and support or promote justice. It is a very difficult struggle to be engaged in and I'm learning that it really requires remaining in communion, in community with those who would be your allies, those who are burned with the conviction that this fight is worth fighting and so that we can be supportive to each other. There are days when I just want to throw up my hands and say it's hopeless and I talk to others or share what I'm going through and they prop me up and there are moments that I prop them up. It's very difficult because as I said earlier, there's so much that conspires against this fight for justice and doing so with a sense that that one is serving God in some humble way in this work. It really keeps you focused, not so much on the difficulties one may encounter, but that really sort of gives you a sense that it will not always be this way. And I'm often reminded of the many along the way who have endured far more than I ever would. And even within my family, recognizing how my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles far back that I that I knew very well, who pressed on despite the kind of lives they were circumscribed to live in. They didn't sit around and complain or throw up their hands. They just took one step at a time. And I am really appreciative of having close ancestors and those who, you know, have gone long before who were committed to the struggle. And that then reminds me because I'm mindful of the ways in which I've lived a life where they never could have dreamed of living themselves or even envisioning the children and grandchildren would be doing this. And so it's kind of a commitment to those who have gone before. That also helps when the feeling is low, when one is running out of steam. But this is a long haul journey, and we want to see a change immediately. And unfortunately, that's not the way the world works. People are not interested in sharing power. No, they're interested in amassing it for themselves. And they're not going to surrender that power without a struggle. And so recognizing that that there will be good days and bad days helps one and the need to stay close to as close as one can to one's experience of the presence of God operating. All of that that helps us to stay in the game, so to speak.
Ry Siggelkow [00:37:20] Well, Beverly, I'm very grateful to you for taking the time to speak with me today. Your work is so necessary today as we struggle to find resources for hope in a world with so many crosses. Thank you so much and take good care.
Beverly Mitchell [00:37:36] You're most welcome. And you do the same. Thank you.