"Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Struggle to Thrive in America"


Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church and the Struggle to Thrive in America
-       Keri Day

13 days and counting till this baby’s due date!

… So, all bets are off.  Could be any moment.  In the meantime, I have some more good reading.  Currently, I’ve been working on Keri Day’s Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church and the Struggle to Thrive in America. 

The book takes a critical look at societal marginalization of black women, and explores how the black church may be either a helpful partner in their liberation, or complicit in their exploitation.

Day opens with an illustration that has stuck with me for days.  She describes an episode of 20/20 with Diane Sawyer, where the poverty of Appalachian Kentucky is explored in vivid detail.  Toothless children, drug abuse, short life spans, lack of education and even lack of basic infrastructure and services typify the area Sawyer calls the “forgotten and hidden America.”  Sawyer goes on to discuss the historical and cyclical problems that perpetuate this extreme and longstanding poverty. 

Sawyer used structural explanations of poverty when describing the rural, impoverished white people of Appalachia, and I immediately thought of the man insidious cultural representations of black poverty in America.  Sawyer’s portrayal was a stark contrast to the ways in which black poverty in America has tended to be associated with personal irresponsibility. (1)

From there, Day moves to discuss the all-to-familiar cultural portrayals of poor blacks in America, with men depicted as “thugs” and criminals, and women as “welfare queens.”  (2)  Unfinished Business delves particularly into the plight of women, and identifies ways in which the contemporary economic environment in America (which Day calls “Advanced Capitalism”) is particularly exploitive, commodifying human labor and even aspects of humanity itself.  The myth of the free market suggests that everyone has an equal opportunity through hard work.

America’s advanced capitalism is imbued with neo-liberal political meanings… that engender oppressive outcomes for poor persons within America, especially for black women, the focus on this book.  It is the selfish political interests of the wealthy that usually guide economic practices within the United States, and the rich get richer and the poor grow poorer.

Early on, Day begins to build a case for how the black church must critically address its strategies for helping the poor, and more aggressively and prophetically critique aspects of capitalism that creep into black life, and black religious life in particular.  The hyper-consumerist strategies within the ministries of Bishop T.D. Jakes are offered as an example of this subtle and “spiritually-consecrated” enterprise.  Instead, the church must engage in redemptive re-identification of what is “valuable” and precious, who deserves dignity, and how to help black women transcend the value-identifiers of capitalism.

More to come…

Stubbs - "Indebted Love" (Post 3)


As an exploration of Paul’s dealing with subjection in Romans, Indebted Love engages the wrestling between Jesus' divine, uncompromising idealism, and Paul's own religious tradition and pragmatism in helping a nascent church build a solid footing.  How does Christian transformation look in community?  How does it impact society? 

Just as Tubman reflected on her subjection and discerned that God called her to make the transformation a reality of heaven into ‘home’ by pursuing freedom for herself and others, Paul invites believers at Rome to live within the transformative realm of the divine and to pursue freedom… (79)

Stubbs equates this pursuit of freedom with the establishment of an environment of Christian ethics that echoes Jesus’ exhortation toward the Kingdom of God.  Christian transformation demands tangible outworking in the real world.  “Tubman’s transformation was twofold: God called her to freedom, and God called her to free others.” (79)

Stubbs explores Romans 5:12-21, wherein “Paul describes opposing spheres of existence,” contrasting the humanity of Adam with that of a new human order in Jesus Christ.

… To reign “in life” through Jesus Christ is to live a transformed life guided by the principles of grace and justice, rather than self-aggrandizing manifestations of death.  Partnering with Christ “in life” to produce environments that invite and sustain life is the work God demands from believers, and it is also the gift God grants, through Jesus Christ, to believers. (85)

As I read Stubbs’ exegesis, I’m reminded of Paul’s practical nature.  Where Jesus called people to take up crosses, to “come and die,” (as Bonhoeffer summarized) Paul tries to find balance between the liberation of Christ and a new kind of faith community as it exists in a broader culture.  There, Paul “becomes all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9) while still struggling to maintain an authentic, differentiated gospel message. In the household code of Colossians 3, Paul seems chiefly concerned with differentiating Christianity from other controversial and often subversive contemporary religions.  Andrew Lincoln writes in The New Interpreter’s Bible:

Any upsetting of the household’s traditional hierarchical order could be considered a potential threat to the order of society.  In Greco-Roman culture, wives, children, and slaves were expected to accept the religion of the paterfamilias, the male head of the household, and so religious groups that attracted women and slaves were particularly seen as likely to be subversive to societal stability. (653)

Jesus was quickly identified as a threat to Roman rule and Pharisaic authority.  Paul recognized the potential threat to the early churches, and wove a subversive ethic of love, interdependence and mutual submission into a community narrative that would not overtly challenge the empire.  In Chapter Five, Stubbs explores how submission to domination does not necessitate agreement or surrender.  She shares an illustration of a slave named “Joe” from Scenes from the Life of Harriet Tubman.  In it, Joe is a highly-prized and highly-paid-for slave, valued, loyal and affirmed, but still whipped by the slave master to reinforce the domination-subjection mindset. (98)  After submitting to the brutal whipping, Joe finally decided to escape.  Physical submission to the brutality did not change his mind about slavery.  Stubbs concludes that in Roman’s 13, “Paul’s supposed call for subjection by the believers in Rome to the governing authorities is part of his rhetorical strategy.” (99)  Stubbs imagines this as descriptive, not prescriptive text, and after verse 7, Paul moves into re-imagining a more “horizontal” way of being.

While I immediately thought Stubbs’ conclusions here may be helpful for reconciling certain dissonant aspects of Paul’s writings in a contemporary setting, I was initially not convinced that “descriptive” was the intended tone of Chapter 13. 

The end of Chapter 12 concludes:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (12:17-21)

The very next verse, 13:1, begins: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”  Suggesting an immediate switch from a higher calling of Kingdom-ethics, where enemies are treated as brothers and sisters, to a coded observation of unjust political reality, seemed far-fetched to me.  However, later Stubbs references T.L. Carter’s article, “The Irony of Romans,” which argues that Paul is using irony in his commendation of the state, as a rhetorical device to covertly subvert the authority of Rome.  Carter’s argument made me reconsider:

The original audience of the letter shared with Paul a common experience of oppression at the hands of the authorities and were aware of the abuses that took place in the opening years of Nero’s reign.  The consequent implausibility of Paul’s language would have alerted his readers to the presence of irony.
(Novum Testamentum XLVI, 3)

Stubbs book ends on a very contemporary note, examining current political debates about budgets, government fiscal policy, social services, and debt.  What kind of world do we want to live in?   How does Christ’s gospel, interpreted through Paul’s letter to Rome, help us frame current discussions, both religious and political? 

The notion of debt/indebtedness challenges each of us to pause and reflect on the mindset out of which we discern our beliefs and thoughts about human interdependence.  Essentially, debt… reflects the idea that people are obligated to give because they have received. (145)

Such an ethos extends into taxes, employment, education, ecology, infrastructure and investment, and every other aspect of our public lives.  “We give, because we receive.”  This is the message of the Gospel, it is the sensibility of Paul, and it is the liberated and liberating life of Harriet Tubman.

Monya A. Stubbs – "Indebted Love: Paul’s Subjection Language in Romans" (Post 2)


I’ve been out of writing commission for a little while now.  My only excuse is: this baby is coming, and life is upside down!

… That doesn’t change, does it?

Monya A. Stubbs
I can honestly say that my reading in black theology has deeply impacted me in my day-to-day thinking.  It’s not that I didn’t think about the issues of race, class, privilege and identity before.  These are things I’ve been wrestling with for the last decade.  But the clarity of moral purpose and vision in the work of these theologians convicts me all over again.  “How can we sit still?!” 

I’m also reminded, as I write and petition for the equality and affirmation of my LGBTQ sisters and brothers, that the continuing battle for civil rights cannot pick and choose whom to favor.  The progress for LGBTQ acceptance has come leaps and bounds, even in the last decade (and I'm living proof of that).  Simultaneously, the present-day U.S. political landscape seems to continually unwind much of the racial progress made in the Civil Rights Movement.  Contemporary Tea Party/Libertarian dogma deconstructs the responsibility of a government (“by the people, for the people…”) to defend certain basic rights, leaving it in the hands of a free and unfettered marketplace to somehow elevate human greed into a benevolent, equalizing force.

Similar arguments can be made about the stymied progress of the Feminist Movement.

I am convicted, spiritually and intellectually, that the Civil Rights Movement needs to be reignited, and broadened in its scope.  We cannot call for affirmation of our gay and lesbian neighbors if we are not demanding equality and liberation for our black and brown neighbors, as well as parity for women.  We too easily pick and choose where our focus goes (understandably, because time and resources are finite) rather than demanding all civil rights for all people, in simultaneity.  But energy builds on itself, and when enough of us begin to speak with one voice, the finitude of our efforts becomes unimportant because of the number of us standing up and saying: we demand human rights; we demand equality; we demand justice.

Stubbs writes:

When asked how she felt about the success she experienced in leading so many enslaved men, women, and children to the free North, Harriett Tubman is reported to have replied… “I freed a thousand slaves.  If I could have convinced more slaves that they were slaves, I could have freed thousands more.”  The greatest challenge Tubman encountered was not the dangers of escaping from the South to the North…  Rather, according to Tubman’s statement(s), the greatest challenge she faced was one of ideology.  The enslaved men and women whom she could not convince understood the institution of chattel slavery as natural and absolute. (29)

What injustices and oppressions have we accepted as natural and absolute?  What horrors have we numbed ourselves to, rather than facing head-on?  How do we change the tide, starting today?

Indebted Love: Paul’s Subjection Language in Romans - Monya Stubbs (Post 1)


Indebted Love: Paul’s Subjection Language in Romans
-       Monya A. Stubbs

After a few books featuring more social criticism and less theology (West and Dyson), it’s been a pleasure digging into the singular focus that develops in Stubbs’ Indebted Love.  The first chapter opens with an introduction to Stubbs’ use of Harriet Tubman as the interpretive rubric through which she evaluates the meaning of Paul’s subjection language in Romans.

The book begins with this quotation from Tubman:

I had reasoned it out in my mind, there were one or two things I had a right to – freedom or death.  If I could not have the one, I would have the other, but no man would take me alive.  I would fight for my freedom as long as my breath lasted, and when the time come for me to go, the Lord would let them take me Harriet Tubman. (1)

From Tubman’s words, Stubbs discerns three key interpretive points:
 
-       First, Tubman recognized the landscape she inhabited.  Under chattel slavery, she and other slaves were subject to institutional oppression.  By her own words, she first “reasoned it out” that she was subject to this oppression.  This required recognition of the systemic violence and domination.

-       Second, Tubman demonstrated the spiritual and ultimately the theological value of reason and examination.  Tubman did not simply reject slavery out of hand, but she followed an intellectual and evaluative process that led her to determine that because slavery denied human dignity, it could not be God’s will (immediately this process parallel’s my own deconstruction of traditional church teaching on homosexuality).

-       Third, out of Tubman’s recognition of slavery’s oppressive evil, she experienced empowerment and transformation.  Her worldview, beliefs and actions were altered.

Stubbs explores the tension presented in Paul’s instruction to live under subjection to God, to governing bodies and powers, and to one-another as mutually-submissive members of Christ’s body.  Paul seems to affirm this paradigm, but then illustrates Christ’s rescuing of humanity from the domination-subjection reality. (24)

More to come…

Coming Soon: "Indebted Love: Paul's Subjection Language in Romans"...

I've started reading Indebted Love: Paul's Subjection Language in Romans, by Dr. Monya Stubbs, and am looking forward to sharing some reflections.
Monya A. Stubbs is Associate Professor of New Testament at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Austin, Texas). She is the author of ""1 Thessalonians"" in Revised Women's Bible Commentary (2012); ""Philippians"" in True to Our Native Land (2007); and coauthor of A Contextual Reading of Matthew's Gospel (2001).


Reflecting Black - Michael Eric Dyson (Post 3)


The remainder of my texts finally arrived in the mail after a 1-month delay - very exciting!

As I wrap up my reading of Michael Eric Dyson, there are all sorts of things I want to share with you.

In The Liberal Theory of Race, Dyson critics the contemporary failure to effectively articulate present-day oppression.  In Dyson’s estimation, modern liberals remain baffled by stories of black Americans – particularly young black men who play by society’s rules, pursue higher education, dress well, and avoid brushes with the law – who find themselves in prison, or shot by police or civilians. 

The liberal understanding of race in the United States is modeled on the white European immigrant experience.  In making this experience paradigmatic, liberal theorists have lumped race together with other variables – religion, language, and nationality, for example – and taken them all to constitute a larger ethnic identity that is more crucial than race in explaining the condition of black people. (136)

Not to mention that the implication of "playing by society's rules" is inherently racist, because black Americans are consistently held to a standard white Americans are not.  A white teenager with Skittles and a hoodie doesn't get tracked and harassed by neighborhood watch.

The white European immigrant experience does not parallel the reality of black Americans brought here by force amid torture and genocide, and forced for two centuries to labor as human property.  White Europeans did not experience the “hunting” of the Jim Crow South.  Where European immigrants were able to largely assimilate into mainstream American culture, black Americans could not “hide” in the crowd.  “Because it conceives of race as merely a part of one’s broader ethnic identity, liberal race theory is unable to make sense of the particular forms of oppression generated primarily by racial identity.” (137)

In 2008 I watched liberal whites around me recoil at the sound-byte from Rev. Jeremiah Wright: “God damn America.”  I did not recoil when I heard that.  By 2008, I had enough introduction to liberation theology to understand the tradition of Wright’s words. 

But I confess it is deeply uncomfortable to hear those words.  I should be.  Those words imply that I bear ownership for the sins of the past.  And I believe I do.  If society is to move forward, to grow, to redeem its past sins, then we must OWN the sins we did not commit with our own hands.  Our African American sisters and brothers are still suffering from those sins. 


Faith & Culture Writers Conference: George Fox

I'm taking a quick break from my focus on black theology and culture to attend George Fox University's Faith & Culture Writers conference this weekend.

As any "regular" readers of this blog know, I've been lazy with my writing in the last couple of years.  It's hard to get taken under the wing of a significant, widely-published author, and lose that relationship quickly and without explanation.  When that happened to me, I grieved for a few years.  Admittedly, I allowed that to become an excuse not to try.

More recently, some professors at George Fox Seminary have been encouraging me, and as limited as my time is, I'm finding some new energy to start to work again.  That's exciting, even if my progress is slow.

I'll have the opportunity to talk with some publishers, agents and editors at this conference.  My "pitch" will be bridge-building - finding ways to create dialogue, relationship and even fellowship between liberals and evangelicals.  When those folks come to this blog, they're going to find a recent series of posts about black liberation theology.  Yes, it's for a seminary assignment.  But it's also a subject near and dear to my heart.  And Liberation Theology is hardly a "moderate" manifestation of the gospel message.  But that's the thing...  finding common ground, and creating safe space for dialogue between liberals and conservatives, should not and frankly does not entail finding a milktoast middle ground. WHO CARES ABOUT HEARING FROM PEOPLE WITH NO PASSION?!  When the Spirit moves, the bosom burns (to co-opt a phrase from the Latter Day Saints)!  I want to build relationships with the most PASSIONATE conservatives -- not the ones who don't really care.  And my evangelical friends, the ones really passionate about their own faith, want to talk with real, bona fide, on-fire liberals!

The most beautiful opportunity for engagement and common ground can surprisingly exist in the most polarized fringes... if the Spirit is there to move us to listen.

May we all be "converted" to the gospel of the other.

And hopefully those folks will give me the time of day...


Reflecting Black - Michael Eric Dyson (Post 2)


As mentioned in my last post, it’s hard to know where to focus with Dyson’s Reflecting Black.  He covers so much ground, and it would take at least half the length of his 300-plus pages to adequately evaluate and comment on the 21 essays.
Chapter Four explores the postmodern spirituality of Michael Jackson.  Dyson calls him “a Promethean allperson who traverses traditional boundaries that separate, categorize, and define differences: innocent/shrewd, young/old, black/white, male/female, and religious/secular.” (35)  Dyson acknowledges that this liminal character is frightening, because it defies the delineators and definitions that make us comfortable.  I’m reminded of my first encounter with the music of transgender musician Antony Hegarty, of the band Antony and the Johnsons (www.antonyandthejohnsons.com).  Hegarty’s voice is ethereal, at once masculine and feminine, and frankly a little disturbing.  As I listen, my subconscious mind continues to try to assign gender to the voice I’m hearing, but the voice shifts and morphs before labels can be ascribed.
Dyson acknowledges the “Peter Pan” fantasy that surrounded Jackson’s persona, and juxtaposes it with the shrewd business-savvy evidenced in Jackson’s career.  But it’s Jackson’s unique spiritual and religious consciousness that defines Jackson beyond the songs he sings.
Dyson explores the definitions of postmodernity for the uninitiated, and I’m reminded that one of my favorite definitions of postmodernism came from Dyson in my readings several years ago:
Postmodernism has enjoyed a thrilling if problematic run as a leading intellectual and cultural movement among some (mostly liberal or progressive) academics. Postmodernism is composed of a complex, even ambiguous, set of ideas and practices, such as blurring the boundaries between "high" and "low" culture, rejecting grand narratives - for instance, "truth" with a capital "T," - embracing pastiche and fragmentation, and emphasizing playfulness and irony in one's intellectual exercises. A major criticism of postmodernism is that some of its advocates avoid concrete history and politics while rhapsodizing about difference, marginality, parody, and provisionality. This may account for the many American postmodernists who have overlooked the homegrown varieties of black postmodernism - and the challenges they may pose to the European imports that have colored our understanding of the concept. (The Michael Eric Dyson Reader)
In Reflecting Black, Dyson points to Jackson’s “persistent preoccupation with images, symbols, and themes that are informed by his own religious background.” (38)  This affinity for imagery, propelled by a globalized brand of American capitalism, is not bound to a specific religious practice or identity, despite his upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness.
Michael Jackson seizes the parameters of the artistically possible and expands them to dimensions beyond most of our imaginations.  He increases the influence of black religious experience and practices by articulating through televisual media his brand of African-American secular spirituality and institution-transcending piety, rife with appropriate religious and cultural imagery.  He also transforms the stage into a world-extending sanctuary on which he enacts rituals of religious ecstasy, moral courage, and spiritual passion that mediate substantive concerns about love, peace, and justice, simultaneously subverting cultural consensus about what constitutes the really “bad” and the “good.” (58)
Cynically, Jackson and artists like him should be evaluated through a lens of consumption and capitalism.  Jackson was both a tool for corporate profit, and a self-defined entrepreneurial mogul genius himself.  These are undeniable.  But Jackson also consistently demonstrated himself to be a sensitive empath, moved by suffering and need as well as creative beauty and artistry.  Without the programmatic manipulation that too often accompanies contemporary worship, the modern (or postmodern) church would do well to explore the kind of transcendent, experiential spiritual expression Jackson epitomized.
Commentary on Jackson’s possible transgressions come after the 1993 publishing date of Dyson’s book.

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