"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.

Popular Posts