Black Female Theologian Takes Reconciliation Beyond Race

The other day, I spoke with Christena Cleveland, a black female theologian (I didn’t know they existed) and associate professor of the Practice of Reconciliation at Duke University’s School of Divinity.

You may have heard of racial reconciliation, a desperately needed movement in the church, which has historically aided and abetted the most heinous racist policies (see: slavery; segregation; lynching; lack of employment, housing, and educational opportunity, and so on).

But, Cleveland goes beyond racial reconciliation and works in areas of class and identity reconciliation, as well.

It was an enlightening conversation.


Beyond Race


“My work focuses on class, race, intersectionality, and gender,” Cleveland told me recently.

Intersectionality refers to how we are all made up of different identities. Intersectionality, as Cleveland explained, acknowledges that those identities translate into a different experience for each of us, even if we share one or two of them.

For example, two people may be black, or even black and female, but one may be privileged, upwardly mobile, and well educated, while the other is from a low-income, underprivileged background, and perhaps is a high school dropout and a single mother. Each experience lives in our society similarly, but also very differently.


Courses in Reconciliation


Cleveland is a full-time professor and teaches a full load of classes, each of which I’d be thrilled to take. Conflict Resolution, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and Intercultural Leadership are three of her courses. I asked her to describe them.

“The vast majority of our students are training to become pastors or leaders in some kind of religious context, so they need to be able to resolve conflict in a constructive way that’s based on research,” Cleveland told me. “Conflict resolution is important to peace and reconciliation work.”

She also describes Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as reconciliation leaders, “We explore their identities and how their theology informed their work.” Cleveland says the course also delves into their time in prison. “Both had significant prison experiences.” Some of Cleveland’s students are also in prison.

She describes the Intercultural Leadership course as one that explores “our social location–what kind of leader do I need to be, to be aware of social differences, power differences, and bridge that power gap in a way that honors others?”

For more about Christena Cleveland and her work in reconciliation, visit her website.