"Making a Way Out of No Way" - Why a Theology for Black Women Matters to You (and me)

Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology

-       Monica A. Coleman

The last of my black theology readings (for the present, at least… hard to keep my wheels turning effectively while trying to keep this baby asleep) is Monica Coleman’s Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology. 

Previous theologians I’ve covered here would be identified as Womanist theologians: both Keri Day and Monya Stubbs.  But Coleman’s book is really a primer on Womanist Theology, laying groundwork for the type of thought that emerges from a Womanist perspective.  Coleman’s introduction illustrates her previous work with domestic abuse victims, and highlights the story of a young mother who was beaten and had much of her hair torn out by her boyfriend.  That same night, Coleman and several volunteers helped braid this battered woman’s hair, knowing that she “would not feel strong enough or woman enough to go to work, confront her boyfriend, or be seen anywhere in public as long as her hair looked like this.” (2)  This is the contextualization critical to understanding Womanist theology, and as I reflect, all manifestations of liberation theology. 

I’m reminded of my high school youth “mission trip” to Skid Row, Los Angeles.  As the director of a local shelter walked our group of 20 white kids through the neighborhood, I distinctly remember an older black man sitting on the sidewalk, saying, “There’s trash walking our streets today.” 

While some of the kids felt offended, I simply felt ashamed, but didn't fully understand why.

Years later, in my early twenties, I volunteered to go to the Tenderloin district of San Francisco with another church youth group.  As we walked the streets in similar fashion, a young black man said, “You all can take your bibles and go home.  You ain’t making anyone’s life better.”

A theology of the oppressed must understand the world of the oppressed.  Too often, well-intentioned theologies steeped in Western privilege have done more harm than good by condescending to the location of the oppressed without comprehending that location.

According to Coleman, “Womanist theology is a response to sexism in black theology and racism in feminist theology.” (6)  This doesn’t define Womanist theology, but it establishes the matrix in which Womanist theology is relevant and necessary.  It calls out the myopic and often-selective ways theologies, movements and advocacies are formulated and executed.  “Making a way out of no way” is the mantra repeated throughout the book – the spiritual reality of marginalized black women, who have no social collateral, and little tangible to cling to but hope that God still has the power to make the impossible possible, and aid them in overcoming oppression.  In addition to typical language of freedom for the oppressed, Womanist Theology uniquely advocates for freedom for all “creatures” as well, and adds “survival, quality of life, and wholeness to black theology’s goals of liberation and justice.” (11)  It is truly an holistic theology, so while the theology of black women may not immediately sound like it pertains to you (or me), the opposite is true: this is a way of thinking much more intimately connected to all our lives than the esoteric theologies of supernatural salvation and the afterlife (although they have their place) or worse, those systems deliberately developed to perpetuate a Western, capitalist religious economy.  It is about survival, quality of life and wholeness, liberty and justice.  It answers more than where will you go when you die?  

Womanist theology is as big as all of creation... which is pretty cool.

More to come…

Unfinished Business and My White Guilt

I'm currently home on paternity leave, and today the doorbell rang around midday.  I almost didn't even get up.  The doorbell has been ringing incessantly with Amazon deliveries of crib sheets, diapers, bottles and how-to books (and all the other things we didn't have enough of on "d-day"), so I'm used to hearing a single ring and finding packages left on the porch.

Today I got up and peaked through the glass and saw someone standing outside.  I opened the door to a young African American man.  A few things struck me instantly.  First, after ringing the bell, he was standing back at least twelve feet from the door.  His hands immediately came up, open-palmed, and he said, "Don't worry dad, I'm one of the good ones."  Before I could process any meaning, he said, "I'm here to talk a little bit about a home cleaning product I've been introducing your neighbors to..."

Then he made a joking comment about needing to make enough money to pay for chicken, watermelon and Kool-Aid.

From there he spent a few minutes demonstrating a multi-surface cleaning product that cost $40 a bottle.  "If I can sell this soap, it'll keep guys like me from selling dope."  And to be honest, if I had the cash handy, I would have bought it.  But what stuck with me was the initial bombardment of racial "schtick" this young man employed, presumably to make white homeowners in this white neighborhood feel comfortable enough to open their front door.

There's a black man on our front porch... but at least he's standing a safe distance back...

Then the "watermelon" jokes: a wink and nod that he understands his social "place."

This stuff breaks my heart, and moreso because for how heavily the guilt of my own privilege weighs on me (to be honest, it's one of the defining features of my adult psyche), that guilt leads to relatively shallow action and change on my part.  I try to vote as an advocate, I try to speak as an advocate, I try to choose actions and behaviors that are sensitive and responsible to marginalized and discriminated-against people.  But when it comes down to it, my privilege and comfort are as intact as ever, and my neighborhood remains white and sterile...

So the brutal truth is, my white guilt actually just allows me to feel a little bit good about the fact that I feel bad.

And that doesn't do a damn thing.

Reading Keri Day's Unfinished Business has been timely, then, because it raises questions about what the role of the church is in creating liberating communities and economies for the poor and marginalized.  Unfortunately, while the black church in particular has been a crucial leading force in the  Civil Rights Movement, Day illustrates how it has become co-opted and complicit in propagating a prosperity gospel developed and promoted by privileged whites to undergird a capitalist society, not a Christian economic structure that favors the "least of these."  To this end, to reference Gustavo Gutierrez, the only "option for the poor" is to work harder, pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and pursue the American Dream.

There are folks in my local church who marched in Selma, people who made actual sacrifices to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s.  But in my lifetime of churchgoing, those people have been the exception.  So the question Day's book leaves me with, as a privileged straight white male, is what responsibility all churches - not just black churches - have for supporting the struggle to thrive in America.

In the end, Day brings her argument around to focus on the core issue of poverty, which transcends race and identity, but in an age of increasing wealth disparity automatically conjures discussion of both.  Jesus of Nazareth wasn't ambiguous about his attitudes toward haves and have-nots, but the white American church in particular has allowed and even perpetuated a perverse gospel that has little if any resemblance to Jesus' New Testament teachings.

As inspired readers, we always inevitably ask, "So where do I start?"  It's clear to me that we can start by reconstructing the missional focus of our churches.  That means doing more than giving money and volunteer time to the "right" ministries.  It means first deconstructing the classism that has malignantly crept into our communities of faith, and building fellowship that transcends socio-economic, racial, gender and sexual differentiators.  When our community reflects the values it idealizes for society at large, then it can be prepared to speak prophetically to broader systemic injustices.

Unfinished Business (Post 3)

I have unfinished business... and our baby came!

Moses was born exactly two weeks ago, and everything they say about sleep is true.  Nada.

Meanwhile, I have a lot of good reading to do in between burps, poops, feedings, crying, a few minutes of sleep, diaper checks, and a beer here and there.  But it's good work.  Little Mo is amazing, and I am happy.


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

In Chapter 4, entitled "Guilty Until Proven Innocent," Day deconstructs the conservative Evangelical political endeavor to marry public charity to conservative social values based in personal responsibility reflecting middle class white privilege.
Under the guidance of the George W. Bush administration, charitable choice grew out of conservative Protestant values.  Faith-based initiatives reflect a religious tradition "that focuses on the individual and a nineteenth-century philanthropic tradition in which the wealthy not only distributed handouts, they also imposed demands and discipline on the poor. (71)
Day points out that popular religious advocates for this type of charity (e.g. Beliles and McDowell, America's Providential History) believe the fundamental responsibility of Christians is to increase society's wealth, and according to a Genesis 1 theology of dominion, the earth's abundance and resources are unlimited for those who have the work ethic and the faith to be blessed by God.

Day goes on to describe ways in which contemporary public welfare policy has become a new form of "Jane Crow," singling out and further marginalizing and limiting the lives and endeavors of black women.  This is done in three ways.  First, through the imprisonment of blacks.  While it's widely known that young black men are the most incarcerated group in America, "poor women of color are the fastest-growing group being disenfranchised by public policies that support this prison industrial complex.  While almost one million women are under the control of the criminal justice system, over half of the female prison population is black." (79)

Second, black women are limited and marginalized through their lack of participation in the labor force.  Because of the harshness of narcotics laws, female drug offenders can't secure employment, which perpetuates reliance on the welfare system, and increases the likelihood of entering an illegal or underground economy.  Further, welfare employment programs relegate recipients to the lowest paying jobs.

Finally, the reproductive rights of poor black women are controlled in a number of ways.  Public policy through welfare programs discourage  black women from having children.  It has incentivized the use of birth control by black women, and Day describes how Norplant, a synthetic hormone that suppresses ovulation, has been widely distributed in inner cities populated primarily by poor black women, all over the country.  Legislation has even been introduced in several states that would make the use of Norplant a requirement for welfare eligibility.

The following chapter, "The Unfinished Business of the Poor People's Campaign," explores the compounded misery of black women by their further marginalization and mistreatment within the church.  Despite monumental efforts toward civil rights, black women have remained outside the often-patriarchal leadership.  Day writes: "If the Black Church is to be a community of transcendence for poor black women, it must honestly address oppressive black masculinities and their implications for poor black women." (105)  Though imperfect, Day believes the black church is still the best hope for a prophetic voice for black women, and a vehicle to provide hope and leadership for the poor.

"Unfinished Business" - Post 2

In Chapter 1 of Unfinished Business, Day challenges the oversimplification of the “Black Church,” arguing that it is more than simply an institution of prophetic social witness.  Black churches are diverse, complex and sometimes ambiguous in their theological and sociological positions.  While churches in post-Emancipation black communities became hubs for education, empowerment and liberation, some questioned the liberative capacity of a religious institution conceived as a “slave religion.” Prominent black intellectuals of the Reconstruction period like W.E.B. Du Bois critiqued the “Negro church” as a “failed institution that had plunged into political irrelevancy…” (17-19)

Later and even more severe, into the twentieth century many black churches rejected strategies of the American Civil Rights movement.  For some, it was “unlawful methods and strategies,” but for others like the Church of God in Christ, political aims were unnecessary and eschatologically-irrelevant.  “In the 1960s COGIC interpreted justice issues as issues that would ultimately be resolved by God in the coming eschaton.  Because of these core theological convictions, it remained separate from civil rights demonstrations and protests.” (20)

Next, Day explores the prevalent concept of the Black Church as a “surrogate world,” a “world within a world” in which blacks can be safe and authentic in the midst of broader culture.  Here, there is economic, cultural, spiritual and political respite for a marginalized people.  However, Day articulates the critiques of womanist scholars (since this is a blog… “Womanism is a social theory deeply rooted in the racial and gender oppression of black women.” – Wikipedia) who reject the concept of surrogacy due to the dominant and historical marginalization and oppression perpetuated within black churches.  While some may find refuge, there are “many black persons today who live black communities, including previously incarcerated black men, poor black women, black homosexuals, and black lesbians, may not feel welcomed or understood within these ecclesial communities.” (24)

Day does an excellent job of illustrating the ways in which our oversimplification of the Black Church not only dishonors the complex work of generations of religious and cultural leaders, but also stifles the voices of the marginalized from within, to continue that complex work inside the church.

"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.

Reflecting Black - Michael Eric Dyson (Post 1)

Reflecting Black: African American Cultural Criticism
Michael Eric Dyson
My reading selection started with James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation, a cornerstone of contemporary liberation theology.  After that, I moved into Cornel West’s Prophetic Fragments, a collection of social, political and theological musings from a contemporary scholar, civil rights leader and theologian.  Michael Eric Dyson’s Reflecting Black: African American Cultural Criticism is another step away from strict theology, toward an integration of social concerns with popular culture, religion, politics and everyday life.  This integration is at the heart of black theology, and stands at odds with traditional Western Protestantism, with its dualistic separation of “sacred” and “secular.”  Black theology asserts a ubiquitous understanding of God’s presence, activity, manifestation and prophetic voice in the life of black people. 
It’s with this understanding that Dyson’s Reflecting Black fits into the cannon of my Black Theology reading.  The next several books following will be more specifically theological in nature.  Dyson’s introduction opens with this affirmation of the diversity and complexity of contemporary African-American culture, and Dyson’s commitment to a constructive criticism “from within,” rather than destructive and vulgar critiques from those outside of black culture.  This constructive criticism from within has led to friendly attacks from Dyson’s contemporaries, like Cornel West, but Dyson’s commitment to and affinity for black culture is undeniable.  Several of his most popular books are weighty apologetics for hip hop legends Tupac Shakur and Nas, among others.  Dyson writes:
Loyalty to race has been historically construed as primary and unquestioning allegiance to the racial quest for freedom and the refusal to betray that quest to personal benefit or the diverting pursuit of lesser goals.  Those who detour from the prescribed path are labeled “sellouts,” “traitors,” or “Uncle Toms.” (xviii)
Dyson explains that the intolerance for cultural critique stems from an understandable historical mentality.  Black slaves did not “expose their differences to the threat of exploitation by white masters.” (xxiii)  And that threat remains real today, referring back to Cornel West’s concerns about the divisiveness and co-opted loyalties of modern black conservatives.
Along with essays on hip hop culture, the postmodern spirituality of Michael Jackson, and the plight of black men in America, Dyson provides a review of West’s Prophetic Fragments and an essay on political correctness on seminary campuses.
More to come…

Coming Soon: Michael Eric Dyson

My next text is Michael Eric Dyson's Reflecting Black: African American Cultural Criticism.

Dyson has his masters and doctoral degrees in religion from Princeton University.  He is the author of sixteen books, including Holler if You Hear Me, Is Bill Cosby Right? and I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr. He is currently University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University. 

Prophetic Fragments - Cornel West (Final Post)

I’ve gone back and forth on whether to write an additional post (or additional posts) on my reading of West’s Prophetic Fragments.  The first three posts have dealt with the tone of West’s writing, yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of the breadth of subject matter he covers.  With so many short essays, it’s impossible to do West justice. 
There are a few areas I still want to cover, however.
First is West’s aggressive dealings with black conservatives.  As black conservatives emerged as a political force (albeit a minor one) in the early 1980s, West’s response is consistent into the present-day, and his observations remain relevant.  West criticizes black conservatives for being fueled by wealthy, white, conservative political think-tanks.  While recognizing and affirming the desire among black conservatives to be recognized for the quality of their work, not the affirmative-action-fueled identification by race, West argues, “they overlook the fact that affirmative action policies were political responses to the pervasive refusal of most white Americans to judge black Americans by the quality of their skills rather than the color of their skin.” (57)  Basically articulating that it’s admirable to want to be judged on a level playing field, but American history demonstrates that privileged whites haven’t been interested in that level field: “The new black conservatives assume that without affirmative action programs white Americans will make meritorious choices rather than race-biased ones.  Yet they have adduced absolutely no evidence for this.”
West acknowledges that racial discrimination is not the sole cause of black marginalization and poverty, and he openly criticizes black liberals for positing an incomplete approach to the American black predicament.  West addresses the social and spiritual needs of black communities, and the failure of government programs to provide vision forward.  This failure, however, does not refute the role of government in addressing social disparity, and black conservatives highlight it as a means of delegitimize liberal black leadership and civil rights progress in general.  Although racism may not be the only cause of the contemporary black predicament, it is certainly one of them – and an important one.  Black conservatism rejects this as an excuse, to which West concludes: “Black liberalism indeed is inadequate, but black conservatism is unacceptable.”
Next, West delivers an impassioned treatise on the intellectual, spiritual and imaginative failure of contemporary theology in Christian Theological Mediocrity.  He writes, “The distinctive feature of Christian thought in our postmodern times is its mediocrity.” (195)
West argues that such mediocrity stems from two realities.  First, Euro-American Christianity has experienced a “failure of nerve,” in which American and European theologians demonstrate an inability to respond to the eclipse of American dominance, the upheaval of the 1960s, and the failure to adequately address patriarchy, racism and imperialism.
The superficiality of liberation theology’s success resides in its own ideological inevitability.  It fills an “intellectual vacuum.”  Beyond Cone, Moltmann and a few others, West argues that the theological effort toward constructing a fully realized liberation theology has been inadequate.  Within this inadequacy is a refusal to engage the difficult questions of western theologians’ own experience of power and dominance.
There is as much talent around today as there has ever been.  The question is whether the postmodern realities of education, culture, and politics will permit this talent to flourish.  Without this cultivated talent, the Christian presence in this country will not only remain mediocre; this presence also will become, more than it already is, a menace to the Christian faith. (196)
Cornel West is a fascinating figure, primarily because of his personal commitment to “organic intellectualism.”  By his own definition, an organic intellectualism is actively involved in the world, making pragmatism out of theory.  By contrast, “traditional intellectualism” resides in academia, theoretical and detached from everyday life.  This pragmatic commitment leads to a strategic engagement with popular culture.  How does one engage and change minds if they aren’t listening?  While West’s academic work is challenging and potentially controversial in a right-leaning, white-dominated society, his sound-bytes are carefully constructed and self-aware.
West’s most recent Twitter Tweet is:
There’s too much poverty and not enough self-love. If you don’t love yourself, you’re in a world of trouble. @cornelwest
Not exactly militant neo-Marxism or radical black liberation, but West knows how to engage the world and keep ears and eyes open, whether they be viewers of Fox News, CNN and Bill Maher, or readers of Playboy and New York Magazine.

700 Club Reminders... What lies have you bought into?

Yesterday I went to my mechanic to have my car worked on.  While in the waiting room, I was distressed to find the 700 Club on TV.  There were too many people sitting there (transfixed) to suggest changing the channel, so I resorted to posting the following on Facebook...

I'm once again stuck in front of the 700 Club while my car is serviced. The plight of minorities and marginalized people becomes so much clearer when listening to this monologue: the conservative religious right has totally self identified in America as an endangered, "persecuted" minority. As long as this delusion exists, there is little hope for the liberation of genuinely marginalized groups, and the Gospel is bound and gagged.  
...It's easier to understand my own adolescent conservatism given the strategic consistency of this Christianized reinterpretation of current events.  
...But progressives: take hope! Most conservative Christians I know simply haven't heard another way of being, or haven't felt "permission" to see Jesus Christ through another lens. Love, gentleness, patience, kindness... These fruits of the Spirit change hearts and eventually, minds... And ultimately: the WORLD!  
...It's interesting. There is a strong anti-corporate, holistic-health ethos to this program. There is ground ripe for common cause (which I said at the start of the Tea Party, and could have almost walked alongside Occupy if Progressives had seized the opportunity) but the voices behind 700 Club and the religious Right are ideologically and financially beholden to Conservative think tanks and massive conservative political dollars. I guess that's a problem not unlike the Democratic corporate establishment.

I let Pat Robertson's tone get the better of me. Conservative Evangelicals are my church and family of origin, and I love them deeply. But I grieve at the way I see people I care about manipulated spiritually and emotionally for what are clearly political and economic motives.

I'm not so naive as to think Democrats aren't under a similar spell. There is too much fear in conversations about religion, politics, and culture. If "perfect love casts out fear," then the tone of our rhetoric and our hearts has to change. 

Jesus said, "If you know what these words meant, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent."

There is deceit coming from every corner of our consumptive, corporatized culture.  What lies have you bought into?

Prophetic Fragments - Cornel West (Post 3)

In a short and sobering essay entitled “Winter in Afro-America,” West describes the economic and spiritual crisis afflicting contemporary black Americans.  The crisis “is an effect of the international crisis of capitalism.” (35)

Earlier today I was e-mailing an old friend I met online years ago while discussing “emerging Christianity.”  I mentioned that the emerging church conversation had led me to overt liberalism, but that liberalism itself felt like a failed experiment (to echo critiques of 20th Century Marxism).  For me, that’s not because the ethos of contemporary liberalism doesn’t resonate with my heart and my values.  It does.  But the liberal/progressive movement feels as though it’s run out of steam, even in the age of a black president. 

In 2013, West said in an interview that black civil rights leaders like Al Sharpton, “have sold their souls for a mess of Obama pottage. And we invite them back to the black prophetic tradition after Obama leaves. But at the moment, they want insider access, and they want to tell those kind of lies. They want to turn their back to poor and working people.” (http://newsone.com/2705580/cornel-west-al-sharpton)  Such “insider access,” the forbidden fruit of power, always undermines the liberation of all marginalized people.  But how can we blame the marginalized for being tempted when finally coming within reach of the thing that has eluded and exploited them for centuries?

I don’t have the vantage or context to affirm or criticize West’s biting rebuke against President Obama and his allies.  But the underlying critique of corporatism and unchecked capitalism parallels my own frustration with today’s political landscape. 

Liberals and conservatives keep hurling ideological grenades at each other, stabilizing the geography of American culture while rabid capitalism goes unchecked.  Those in power remain in power, regardless of the (R) or (D) following their names.  Both political/social poles are dominated by the same plutocracy, but neither camp sustains a meaningful prophetic word.  It’s easier to attack gays or fundamentalists, rednecks or godless bleeding hearts.  And this is the outrage at the heart of the “Occupy” movement, albeit so poorly articulated, so easily mocked, and so efficiently neutered. 

Where is the outrage, now?  The media is on to discussing celebrity weddings and twerkings.

Until poor whites are able to recognize that the fate of poor blacks (and other minorities) is interwoven with their own – that civil rights for the marginalized undergird the rights of all people – those with political and economic power will easily continue to dominate and exploit lower economic classes.

Reflections on the Heart of the Gospel (from some old notes)

I found all these handwritten quotations from my journaling in 2012 when I last stayed in Mt. Angel - at  the Queen of Angels Monastery.

In their meditation library I found all sorts of quotations like these, revealing the heart of God.

It's interesting to reflect on them now, as I've been reading black liberation theology.  There is nothing very radical about black liberation theology, not really.  Except that it is so shocking how the Gospel has been robbed of its inherent radicalness.  We are surprised when the Gospel doesn't conform to our capitalism, our consumption, our politics, priorities and values.  It becomes offensive to our senses.  Counterintuitive.  Unpragmatic and unreasonable.

Pope Francis is (rightly) getting a lot of credit for his words on compassion, and his challenge to the First World.  But these words shouldn't be surprising.  They are the heart of Christian Orthodoxy.  Care for the suffering and liberation for the marginalized is the Gospel.  Here are some beautiful demonstrations:
"You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich." 
     - St. Ambrose 
"Those who make private property of the gifts of God pretend in vain to be innocent. For in this retaining the subsistence of the poor, they are murderers of those who die every day for want of it." 
     - Pope St. Gregory the Great 
"Who is the covetous man? One for whom plenty is not enough. Who is the defrauder? One who takes away what belongs to everyone. And are not you covetous, and are you not a defrauder, when you keep for private use what you were given for distribution? When someone strips a man of his clothes we call him a thief. And one who might clothe the naked and does not - should not he be given the same name? The bread in your hand belongs to the hungry; the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked; the shoes you let not belong to the barefoot; the money in your vault belongs to the destitute. All you might help and do not - to all these you are doing wrong." 
     - Basil the Elder 
"The disease was this - that Christians who would be horrified to have their devotion to Jesus questioned, did not in fact find him very interesting." 
     - Frank Sheed
"Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come, uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, his place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst... It is in these that he hides himself, for whom there is no room." 
     - Thomas Merton

Prophetic Fragments - Cornel West (Post 2)

Prophetic Fragments
The singularity and intensity of Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation is understandable not only because of the immensity of the problem he addresses, but also because of the nascence of liberation theology when it was first written.  The broader the scope, the harder it is to go deep.  For example, a black liberation theology, in its radical foundations, cannot be distracted by the [valid and important] concerns of other marginalized people, or alternative approaches (read: less radical) to black liberation.  It’s within this matrix that Cone writes:

White Jesus… tells blacks that love means turning the other cheek; that the only way to win political freedom is through nonviolence; he even praises Martin Luther King, Jr., for his devotion to him, though he knows that King was always his enemy in spirit that he chose King because he thought King was the least of the evils available. (38)

Cone still acknowledges, “it is beyond question that it was King’s influence and leadership in the black community which brought us to the period in which we now live, and for that we are all in debt.”  His argument, which is hardly politically-correct today, is that the path of nonviolence is not the only relevant and even Christian way to fight for liberation.

Cornel West is a product of both James Cone and Martin Luther King, Jr.  In fact, Cone’s endorsement is on the back of my Prophetic Fragments book jacket.  But West wouldn’t dream of critiquing King.  The first essay in Prophetic Fragments is “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Prophetic Christian as Organic Intellectual.”  West begins:

Martin Luther King, Jr., was the most significant and successful organic intellectual in American history.  Never before in our past has a figure outside of elected public office linked the life of the mind to social change with such moral persuasiveness and political effectiveness. (3)

In exploring King’s broad cultural and religious priorities, West illustrates the marriage of personal salvation and piety to political liberation and social justice.  Cone writes, “Black theology rejects categorically white comments about the sins of blacks,” (Black Theology of Liberation, 51) but West expands:

The black church put forward perspectives that encouraged both individuality and community fellowship, personal morality and antiracist political engagement, a grace-centered piety and a stress on Christian good works…  The black church tried to hold together both the dignity and depravity of persons in such a way that God – like Yahweh with the children of Israel – identifies with the disinherited and downtrodden, yet even the disinherited and downtrodden are sinners in need of conversion and sanctification. (6)

Of course Cone is right: it’s outrageous and inexcusable for any privileged group (read: oppressor) to dictate moral expectations to marginalized people (the oppressed).  But West demonstrates how King and the religious mores of the black civil rights movement affirmed the need for personal redemption, even of the oppressed.  This is the dynamism of the Gospel.

Finally, West holds no illusions about King, and rejects an illustration of naïve optimism.  King was a pragmatist, and his nonviolence was a pragmatic decision inspired by Gandhi, as much as it was a natural outpouring of his religious commitments.  “King was convinced that despite the racism of the Founding Fathers, the ideals of America were sufficient if only they were taken seriously in practice.” (11)

After the recent death of Nelson Mandela, I watched a television interview with West, where he denounced the media and pop-culture’s “Santa-Clausification” of Mandela: “We turn the revolutionary into an old man — a huggable old man with toys and a bag, smile on his face, no threat to anybody, domesticated, tame. And no longer really full of the fire.”  In fact, Mandela endorsed armed resistance and insurrection against the apartheid South African government.  Like Cone, West recognizes more than one legitimate way to move forward the cause of human rights and liberty.

More to come...

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