I came across a theological term this week, I had never heard of before: Disney Princess Theology. Here is how Erna Kim Hackett, founder and managing director of Liberated Together, describes it:
“White Christianity suffers from a bad case of Disney Princess theology. As each individual reads the Scripture, they see themselves as the Princess in every story. They are Esther, never Xerxes or Haman. They are Peter, never Judas. They are the woman anointing Jesus, never the Pharisee. They are the Jews escaping slavery, never Egypt.
For citizens of the most powerful country in the world, who enslaved both Native and Black people, to see itself as Israel not Egypt when studying Scripture, is a perfect example of Disney Princess Theology. And it means that as people in power, they have no lens for locating themselves rightly in Scripture or society—and it has made them blind and utterly ill-equipped to engage issues of power and injustice. It is some very weak Bible work.”
Wow! That’s powerful stuff. There is a lot of truth-telling in this description that we White Christians need to hear, even if we view ourselves as progressive. As I ponder the wisdom contained in Hackett’s description on Disney Princess theology, it got me thinking about where we see ourselves in the parables of Jesus.
We like to think of ourselves as the Good Samaritan who helped the injured person on the side of the road. We rarely, dig deeper and ask ourselves how we are like the priest or the Levite, who passed by and did nothing.
We like to think of ourselves as the wayward child who finds their way home, or the welcoming parent who shows them grace. We rarely ask ourselves how we are like the older sibling who refuses to join the celebration.
And, in last week’s gospel lesson, we see ourselves as the sower or the seeds. We are the fertile soil that yields 30, 60 100 fold. But we rarely talk about how we are more like the other kinds of soil than we care to admit.
Finally, we reach today’s gospel lesson. And if we just read the parable without the accompanying explanation, it’s more than likely we see ourselves as the good wheat, all decked out in our princess dresses, while the bad weeds, like every Disney villain, seek to choke the life out of us. We cheer joyfully at the story’s ending, where the weeds are gathered, bundled together, and set on fire. While the wheat is rescued by a handsome young prince, who in this case is a slave, but we let that detail slide. After all, we want our classic Disney happy ending.
But, like Hackett says, this is “Some very weak Bible work.” The real questions we need to be asking ourselves are as follows: How are we like the weeds who inhibit the growth of the wheat? What prevents us from seeing our own weeds, and labeling others as bad seed? And, finally, why do Christians insist on weeding the field when this is not our job description?
The interpretation of the parable makes it abundantly clear, that the weeds include “all causes of sin.” This means we have our own internal weeding to do, and should focus on that, first and foremost.
Jesus put to another way earlier in Matthew’s gospel: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” [Mt 7:3-5]
So, it appears we all have some work to do when it comes to Scripture, especially as White Christians in America. My basic rule of thumb is that if the parable makes us feel comfortable, then we’re not reading it right. If the parable lets us of the hook easily, and doesn’t make us squirm like worms on a griddle, then we’re not reading it right.
Jesus’ parables are meant to make us see ourselves and world around us with new eyes. Like a fine jewel, we’re supposed to turn them around and around, admiring them from different angles. We are never truly “done” with a parable. Every time we return to them, we see things we’ve never seen before. This is why they’ve lasted for so long.
I must confess, I hate that Matthew attaches an explanation to this parable. It tells us there is only one way to understand what Jesus is saying. It does all the heavy lifting for us, when I think it’s best for us to struggle with the story and find our own meaning. Without the explanation attached to it, we might see something different than what is printed on the page.
I think there are elements of the parable of the Wheat and Weeds, that speak powerfully to this time in our nation’s history. The trick is we have to discard our Disney Princess theology and dig a little deeper. We’ve got to get past the idea that we are the “good seed” that someone sowed in the field, while others are the weeds which need to be removed. This is true of both conservatives and progressives. It has gotten us into a heck of a mess. Both sides think they’re right. Both sides think the other needs to go.
So where does this leave us? It leaves us polarized and hateful, and suspicious of anyone we label as the “other.” It leaves us blaming someone else for everything that ails our nation. It leaves us feeling good about ourselves. Therefore we do not pay any attention to the way we White Christians are part of a system that oppresses others. We do not pay attention to the ways history has been framed to paint White Americans in the best possible light, while ignoring the sins and atrocities we have committed against other people.
Stated in its simplest terms, we’re really good at clearing the field of those whose we label as “weeds.” But we’re absolute failures when it comes to examining our personal and collective weeds, that have grown in our fields for so long we hardly notice they are there.
So, here is what I propose to help us deal with Disney Princess theology. First of all, we’ve got to learn how to see ourselves as the oppressor in any given Bible story. It’s easy to see ourselves as the prince or princess who needs to be rescued, or the hero who saves the day. It’s easy for us to see ourselves as one of the perky little sidekicks who bring joy to those around us. But, we also have to come to terms with the ways we play the part of the villain, either intentionally or unintentionally.
This is hard work. It’s painful work. It’s owning up to the classic confession in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal: “We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against God in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and BY WHAT WE HAVE LEFT UNDONE. We have not loved God with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” If these word cannot free us, from Disney Princess Theology, I don’t know what will.
The second thing we need to do is take a long, hard, honest look at the ways we try to weed out the field. Some of this is intentional. Some of this is unintentional. I would argue the the unintentional weeding of the field is the hardest to recognize and address.
When it comes to the issue of systemic racism, many of us are taking our first steps toward dealing with racist weeds that are in our personal and collective fields. I hope you’ll join me in August, in reading the book, “So You Want to Talk about Race” by Ijeoma Oluo. Each week. we’re going to tackle two chapters. I invite you to jot down whatever thoughts and questions the book raises for you. Then join me on Zoom for a discussion of those thoughts and questions, on Thursday nights. I will make a study guide available each week, after our online discussion, for those who could not attend or prefer to read alone.
It would be great if our whole church did this. I think it would be transformational. It would help us to begin to fulfill a neglected area of our Welcome Statement when it comes to being welcoming of all races. This HAS to be more than being nice to those whose race i different than ours. It has to include a commitment to be advocates for those who are oppressed because of their race. This is the work the Church in our time has been called to do. So let’s get to work and leave our Disney Princess theology behind. Amen.
Copyright ©2020 by David Eck.