Burr, McConnell, and the Room Where It Happens

Aaron Burr, vice-president who killed Hamilton, had children of ...McConnell Eyes Virus Aid As Evictions, Benefits Cuts Loom | WKMSLike the rest of America, our family watched the recording of Hamilton that was recently released on Disney+. Like the rest of America, we laughed at the outrageous verbal tics of King George and Thomas Jefferson that weren’t apparent in the cast recording. Like the rest of America, we cried (again) at the death of Philip and of course Hamilton himself (spoiler alert!)

Like some in America, I was struck at how optimistic it is; how just four years since it burst onto the scene, Hamilton feels almost anachronistic, the product of a different, more hopeful time, one that we already have shorthanded into the pithy phrase “Obama Era.”

And perhaps like no one else in America, I kept returning to the political vacuity of Aaron Burr, and how he resembles none in today’s political scene more than Mitch McConnell.

Continue reading Burr, McConnell, and the Room Where It Happens

‘Christ’s Blackness Is Both Literal and Symbolic’: God of the Oppressed, Part 6

Image may contain: 1 person, eyeglassesPart 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Moving to Chapter 6 of his classic book God of the Oppressed (1975), James Cone asks: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”

That is, since Jesus is the truth of the Christian story – the ground that keeps theology from becoming ideology and the ultimate evidence of God’s interest in the liberation of the oppressed – how is that truth relevant in modern America?

“If twent[y-first] century Christians are to speak the truth for their sociohistorical situation, they cannot merely repeat the story of what Jesus did and said in Palestine, as if it were self-interpreting for us today. Truth is more than the retelling of the biblical story. Truth is the divine happening that invades our contemporary situation, revealing the meaning of the past for the present so that we are made new creatures for the future.” (p. 108)

“It is because we have encountered Christ in our historical situation and have been given the faith to struggle for truth that we are forced to inquire about the meaning of this truth for the totality of human existence. … It is therefore the people’s experience of the freedom of Christ in the context of injustice and oppression that makes them want to know more about him.” (pp. 109-110)

“The black tradition breaks down the false distinction between the sacred and the secular and invites us to look for Christ’s meaning in the spirituals and the blues, folklore and sermon. Christ’s meaning is not only expressed in formal church doctrine but also in the rhythm, the beat, and the swing of life, as the people respond to the vision that stamps dignity upon their personhood.” (pp. 114-115) Continue reading ‘Christ’s Blackness Is Both Literal and Symbolic’: God of the Oppressed, Part 6

‘There Is No Christian Theology that Is Not Social and Political’: God of the Oppressed, Part 4

Image may contain: 1 person, sunglassesPart 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Having discussed the inextricable connection between God-talk and the social context out of which such talk arises, James Cone in God of the Oppressed (1975) turns his argument to the nature of divine revelation – arguing that God reveals Godself in social contexts. So just as theology can’t be separated from the real-world circumstances of the theologian, so understanding God cannot be separated from the real-world circumstances in which God is revealed.

I think this is the key chapter of the book, the foundation on which the rest of it builds:

Continue reading ‘There Is No Christian Theology that Is Not Social and Political’: God of the Oppressed, Part 4

‘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.

Screen Shot 2019-08-07 at 9.37.33 PM

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