‘The God of Black Experience Was Not a Metaphysical Idea’: God of the Oppressed, Part 3

Image may contain: 2 people, nightAfter introducing his argument and discussing the sources for theological truth, James Cone in God of the Oppressed (1975) turns in Chapter 3 to “The Social Context of Theology” – in other words, all words about God are necessarily limited by the culture of those speaking those words.

“What people think about God cannot be divorced from their place and time in a definite history and culture. While God may exist in some heavenly city beyond time and space, human beings cannot transcend history. … Theology is subjective speech about God, a speech that tells us far more about the hopes and dreams of certain God-talkers than about the Maker and Creator of heaven and earth.” (p. 41)

“A serious encounter with Marx will make theologians confess their limitations, their inability to say anything about God which is not at the same time a statement about the social context of their own existence. … [N]ot only the questions which theologians ask but the answers given in their discourse about the gospel are limited by their social perceptions and thus largely a reflection of the material conditions of a given society. Theology arises out of life and thus reflects a people’s struggle to create meaning in life.” (p. 43)

So does that mean we can’t say anything true about God? No. Cone is simply dethroning centuries of White-centered theology that has pretended to universality while sidelining black speech about God: Continue reading ‘The God of Black Experience Was Not a Metaphysical Idea’: God of the Oppressed, Part 3

‘White Definitions of Black Humanity Were Lies’: God of the Oppressed, Part 2

Image may contain: 1 person, eyeglasses and beardAs I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, I’m working through James Cone’s classic work of Black liberation theology, God of the Oppressed, in this somewhat public way in an effort to push voices of color to center stage in this moment where we need more than ever to be listening to what they have (or had) to say.

In Chapter 2, “Speaking the Truth,” Cone begins his project by exploring the sources and nature of theology, ultimately coming to the conclusion that Black theology, in addition to being based on Scripture and divine revelation, is also based on the Black experience:

Continue reading ‘White Definitions of Black Humanity Were Lies’: God of the Oppressed, Part 2

‘I Am a Black Theologian!’: James Cone’s God of the Oppressed, Part 1

Image may contain: textIn light of the current moment in America, where more White people than ever are recognizing what Black people have known for centuries about the nature of the nation’s stubborn acceptance of racism, I’ve been reading James Cone’s God of the Oppressed, the classic 1975 work of Black liberation theology.

I’m not convinced the world needs the voice of another quasi-enlightened White guy to talk about racism, except to affirm that Black lives matter and recognize publicly that racism remains a scourge in both my heart and the systems that benefit me economically, politically and socially.

So in an effort to do what does not come naturally to me and step to the side, I’m working through God of the Oppressed with minimal exposition, simply posting quotes to my Facebook feed chapter by chapter. In that spirit, I’ll do the same here, although acknowledging that this still ends up putting a White filter between you the reader and Cone’s arguments. So I hope this will encourage you to read his powerful, compelling and convicting arguments for yourself.

Continue reading ‘I Am a Black Theologian!’: James Cone’s God of the Oppressed, Part 1

Easter in the Age of COVID-19

This Easter was bittersweet.

Easter in a liturgical tradition like the Episcopal Church is a beautifully joyous experience – the white cloth draped over the cross, the return of “alleluias” to the liturgy, the choir singing “Chris the Lord Is Risen Today” and “Crown Him With Many Crowns” and the Hallelujah Chorus – and, well, it’s just not the same watching a livestream on TV.

In many ways, it feels like Easter hasn’t really arrived yet, like we’re still in the interminable Saturday. All of us are trapped inside, through no fault of our own, awaiting our own resurrection of sorts.

But of course Easter has arrived; it arrived 1,990 years ago, give or take a few dozen months. It’s stronger than coronavirus, stronger than stay-at-home orders, stronger than conspiracy theories, toilet paper shortages or smelling your own bad breath while your glasses fog up every time you exhale behind an ill-fitting mask.

Jesus is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

Many priests, preachers and pastors said as much last Sunday, in thousands of languages across hundreds of countries. They said it over microphones in drive-in theaters, over livestreamed feeds in empty sanctuaries, on rooftops, in truck beds, straddling road center lines.

I loved this Atlantic slideshow of Easter in an era of social distancing. I’ve pulled a few photos from it and included them with this post.

To me, they provide proof of the ultimate triumph of Easter.No matter how pulled apart we are, no matter how fallible churches and their leaders are, no matter how wrapped up in our own traditions and doctrines and comforts and certainties we are, God’s Spirit moves across the world, affirming over and over again: Jesus is alive. And so, therefore, are we. Truly alive, no matter what happens.

I wish we could have celebrated that fact in a bright room with a soaring A-frame roof, beautiful stained glass and a huge empty cross draped in white while a chorus rains down hallelujahs and we take communion as the ultimate sign of our unity with each other and with the risen Christ.

But that’s the thing about Easter: It doesn’t need our trappings.Resurrection from the dead has always required tremendous faith; if it requires a little more this year, separated as we are from the emotional props to which we are accustomed, then we are merely joining a long line of people for whom Easter has always been something to cling to rather than something to feast over.

If Saturday feels especially long and especially dark this year, Sunday is coming.

Because Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Creationism, the Rapture, and Impeachment

Bryan-Seven-Questions-in-Dispute-p124_2.jpgIn recent weeks, former Bush speechwriter David Frum and Vox founder Ezra Klein have taken their stabs at answering an oft-asked question since November 2016, namely: How did it come to this?

More specifically, how does a narcissistic, quasi-fascist authoritarian who openly flouts the most basic standards of human decency and traditional morality still command the unwavering and nearly unanimous loyalty of the Republican Party and its base of evangelical Christians?

Using those articles as a springboard, combined with some reading I’ve been doing on the side, here’s my answer: Because supporting Trump is the natural extension of the same habits of thought evangelicals have developed for much of the past century.

In his article on Devin Nunes’ uncritical embrace of nonsensical conspiracy theories to defend Trump during the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings, former Bush speechwriter David Frum described the “closed knowledge system” that dominates modern conservative political thought.

“The prisoners and victims of this system live in a dreamworld of lies,” he writes. “Yet it would not quite be accurate to describe them as uninformed. They are disinformed, and on a huge scale.”

This may be something new for Frum to witness in the conservative political world (perhaps because he was the beneficiary of it while working in the Bush administration), but for those of us who grew up in the conservative religious world, reliance on a “closed knowledge system” that leaves its inhabitants not uninformed but very much disinformed is quite familiar.

Continue reading Creationism, the Rapture, and Impeachment

Brief Book Review: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

Image result for the uninhabitable earth“It is worse, much worse, than you think.”

So opens David Wallace-Wells’ harrowing, terrifying journey into the almost inevitable future of our planet.

Except it’s not really the future of the planet, the book’s title notwithstanding; it’s the future of humanity, or the immiserated, dessicated disaster-plagued remnants of it we have inflicted upon ourselves.

Everything about The Uninhabitable Earth, from its title to the minimalist cover to the unrelenting parade of horribles Wallace-Wells describes, is bleak. Here, for example, is the list of chapter titles in Part II, titled “Elements of Chaos:”

Heat Death
Hunger
Drowning
Wildfire
Disasters No Longer Natural
Freshwater Drain
Dying Ocean
Unbreathable Air
Plagues of Warming
Economic Collapse
Climate Conflict

This is no dry and technical document of climate science; Wallace-Wells is a journalist and brings a journalist’s gift for distilling complicated concepts into digestible prose – even if the result makes you lose your appetite. In fact, Wallace-Wells spends little time attempting to convince the skeptics of climate change; at this point, as yet another hurricane described as unprecedented has leveled another island in the western Atlantic, only the willfully obtuse continue to deny the existence of global warming. Rather, his goal is different: To make abundantly clear that our current trajectory is catastrophic, and what exactly that means in terms of temperatures, sea levels, food shortages, pollution, migration, disease and disasters.

Because, Wallace-Wells argues, even those who accept the factuality of anthropogenic climate change have swathed themselves in comforting falsehoods:

The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a mater of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed; that it is a crisis of the “natural” world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended agains nature, not inescapably within and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down.

None of this is true.

And that’s just the first paragraph.

Continue reading Brief Book Review: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

The Most Important Letter

This month’s events in El Paso, the presidency of Donald Trump, the realignment of American political parties over the past fifty years – indeed the totality of American history itself on this, the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first documented black slave on our shores – can be summarized by one powerful letter:

W.

Mariana Chmielowicz was born and raised in the kingdom of Galicia in the late 19th century.Galicia was the poorest region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an amalgam of Poles and Slavs in the middle of what would soon become Europe’s bloodiest battleground.

Whether through good luck, ingenuity or a little of both, Mariana joined thousands of Galicians in emigrating first to Germany then by ship to New York City. She left the day after Valentine’s Day, 1902, with $12 in her pocket and, for the Anglophones of her new home, an unspellable, unpronounceable Polish name. The clerk recording her entry beneath the shadow of the Statue of Liberty on March 1 noted her simply as “Chmiel, Maria.”

She told immigration officials she was joining a cousin at a labor farm in Priceburg, a suburb of Scranton in eastern Pennsylvania whose name would soon be changed to Dickson City.

By 1910, Mariana had met and married Josef Matan, a fellow Polish migrant, who had been born on the western edge of Russia – a couple in the

closing years of the long 19th century fleeing the convulsive final decades of European empires soon to vanish in flame and blood, entering through the golden door beside which the Mother of Exiles lifted her lamp.

“Matan” was a shorter name, but apparently no easier for English speakers to spell correctly. The growing family – three living children by the time Census taker Joseph Eisenberg knocked on their door across the railroad tracks from the Lackawanna River in the working-class Scranton suburbs – was spelled “Matta,” “Maden” and “Maton” on official documents for decades.

But regardless of misspellings, the Matan family received something far more valuable from Eisenberg on April 26, 1910: under the column marked “Race,” he scratched the letter W.

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No matter their language (they couldn’t read or write English yet), no matter their birthplace (European backwaters), no matter their nationality (nonexistent at the time), the Matans had the W.

Continue reading The Most Important Letter

A Meditation on Luke 10

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.

“Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 

He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 

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Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 

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Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 

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So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 

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But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 

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He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 

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The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

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Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

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He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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Independence Day

Independence is the radical statement that all humans are created equal…

written by a man who raped his slaves and forced them to bear his children.

 

Independence is the creation of a republic by “we the people”…

in which some people counted for three-fifths of a whole and the vast majority were given no voice in its government.

 

Independence is the rugged individualism of frontier settlements carved out of the inhospitable wilds of the west…

on land gained through subterfuge, betrayal, theft, bloodshed, genocide.

 

Independence is government of the people, by the people, for the people…

followed by assassination, coups, terrorism, disenfranchisement, lynchings and the crushing imposition of “separate but equal.”

 

Independence is the words of Emma Lazarus etched into a statue in New York Harbor welcoming “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”…

while sending away ships of Jews fleeing Nazi oppression in the name of “America First.”

 

Independence is the president of the United States saying, “We Shall Overcome” in a nationally televised address to Congress…

after decades of attack dogs, fire hoses, batons, blood and broken bones.

 

Independence is electing a president with a name like Barack Hussein…

before subjecting him to conspiracy theories arguing he is not truly American, then electing to succeed him the man who spread those racist lies.

 

Independence is celebrating 243 years of striving to achieve principles of liberty, justice and equality for all…

while separating, imprisoning, abusing and torturing families seeking asylum at our southern border.

 

The story of American independence is a story of tension between the mythology arising out of one set of historical facts and the shame arising out of another, more painful, less well remembered set of historical facts.

This July 4 – as with the first – we celebrate our independence while unjustly depriving others of theirs. The power on display in Washington, D.C., in the form of tanks and flyovers and high-value VIP tickets awarded to campaign donors and partisan lickspittles is felt in cages near El Paso, in lines on international bridges, in bodies losing oxygen in the rapid current of the Rio Grande.

Independence is the best of America…

and it is the worst of America.

 

Do not celebrate the former without remembering the latter.

How a Confederate Monument Erases History

“We shouldn’t erase history.”

I’ve heard this multiple times – on the news, from friends on Facebook, in person – when people talk about Confederate monuments.

As someone with a master’s degree in church history, I absolutely agree with not erasing it.

IMG_5439I recently travelled to Denton for a work conference, and during my spare time made a trip downtown to check out the beautiful Denton County Courthouse. On one side of the courthouse square stands a large arch topped by a soldier gripping a rifle. On the arch itself reads, “Our Confederate Soldiers.”

To enter the courthouse from that side (without stepping on the grass), you must pass under this archway. On either side are the dates of the Civil War – 1861 on the left, 1865 on the right – and a pair of inscriptions.

On the left reads: “Erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy in memory of our Confederate soldiers, who in heroic self-sacrifice and devoted loyalty, give their manhood and their lives to the South in her hour of need.”

And on the right, under an all-caps “In Memoriam,” the following sentence in quotation marks: “Their names graved on memorial columns are a song heard far in the future, and their examples reach a hand through all the years to meet and kindle generous purpose and mold it into acts as pure as theirs.”

A quick Google search tells me the quote is slightly altered from a passage in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1885 poem “Tiresias.”

So let’s talk about history. Because this arch contains precious little of it. There was indeed a Confederate States of America with soldiers who fought for it. The war in which they fought did in fact begin in 1861 and end in 1865.

Thus ends the historical statements made by the monument.

But there’s a lot of history that seems not to have made it on to this memorial; what they were fighting for, beyond the South’s “hour of need,” is a glaring omission.

Continue reading How a Confederate Monument Erases History