Tag Archives: Brite Divinity School

Race, Inclusion, and Unity in Christ #DisunityBook

This post is my contribution to the #DisunityBook club over at the Theology of Ferguson, a personal & theological reflection on Christena Cleveland‘s Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart, specifically, CHAPTERS 9 AND 10.

I dedicate this essay to Lizandra, Daisha, and Christian

It was early December. Tamir Rice, a twelve year old child who had not even gone through puberty had his life taken away. Why? because like any other boy usually, he was just playing with his toy guns. The only difference was: his skin was of a different hue. This, I mind you, was following the tumultuous summer of anti-black violence by police forces, nonviolent protestors being labelled as “rioters” and “trouble-makers” by the White Supremacist media. Having participated in protests and vigils, I was tired. Having had made sure to keep up with #Ferguson as a hashtag educational movement and news outlet, my mind was exhausted. I was in dire need of a spiritual Sabbath. I longed for a worship service where we as a congregation could celebrate Christ’s victory over the Enemy, oppression, and death. Apart from one awesome sermon at church, I did not get to hear God’s Word for the church located in a post- Mike Brown world.

Finally, an opportunity arrived. The local seminary and my alma mater invited the community to join the faculty and students for an “Advent of Justice Event,” a memorial for victims of racial profiling and police murders. I was pumped, I needed a renewed energy and to be in God’s presence. I even invited my good friend Ryan who is a local community organizer, activist and I must say, a really good blogger that Christians should listen to. We decided to go along with a few teen-aged members of Ryan’s at-risk youth non-profit organization. There we were, Ryan who is White, myself Black, a Mexican-American teen, a Jamaican American, and a bi-racial high schooler walking into a white walled chapel, picking up our black and white glossy bulletins and (used, yes used) white candles. We were asked to come to the front in a nearly empty chapel, and so we sat in the front pews, stuffed, not really able to move around, limited to clapping really. And then it happened. The (White, male, progressive) school president took the stand and began to pray that this service would remind whites like himself of THEIR PRIVILEGE. On one hand, it was nice to see this president there, showing a sign of empathy with Black victims of racial violence. On the other hand, this was the same school president who called my friends and I Nazis for our protests and petition for a more diverse curriculum. Had this president had a change of heart? Or was it more of the same?

What was supposed to be a service that memorialized the suffering of the marginated in fact became (with about a few notable exceptions), a ceremony that placed Whiteness and White Privilege at the forefront. “Everyone wants diversity, but no one wants to actually be diverse” (Cleveland, 184). Dr. Cleveland goes on to observe that calls for unity can oftentimes be confused cries for more hegemony by the dominant culture,

“Similarly I’ve witnessed plenty of so-called unity events in the body of Christ that are so heavily influenced by white culture that any other collaborating cultures are rendered invisible. This typically happens when the majority culture takes an “our way or the highway” approach and requires minority culture to assimilate to the majority culture. This can be unintentional but it has grave consequence, not only because it is oppressive but also because it leaves no room for much-needed diverse cultural expression” (Cleveland, 170).

This “Advent of Justice” event was exactly what Cleveland had described: a progressive pep rally for unity rather than a liberating shout for solidarity and justice. It all began with a member of the dominant culture (with a problematic history of opposing diversity initiatives) making the service service about his feelings, his experience, his place in the world rather than those who are outcasts. The worship style throughout the service was mainline Protestant, Euro-centric and exclusive. The urban youth who had accompanied Ryan and I were made to feel uncomfortable. The liturgy was unwelcoming not because of any words that were spoken, but the invisible forces that went unseen and unspoken of. As a Progressive seminary, my alma mater prides itself on being ecumenical, and even to some extent multicultural with Black Church Studies, Jewish Studies, Latin@ Church Studies, and Asian (Korean) Church studies programs. Yet it is only willing to accept diversity if it is on White Mainline liberal terms. Thus the decline of the presence of People of Color on campus (their visible absence) has much to do with the invisible structures of institutional racism. A reality check is needed: anyone who works in the school district knows that in less than a decade, Fort Worth will be a majority-minority population; populations neither of the local seminaries (conservative or liberal) have any long term investment in.

Cleveland argues that the creation of “positive cross-cultural interactions” starts with the debunking of our biases that objectify others. In chapter 3, Cleveland points to Orientalism (seeing all Asians as the same, for example page 53) and anti-Black racism (viewing all black males as inherently violent, for example) as part of the cultural biases of being a part of Western Society. White Supremacy is a very divisive system; that is why Andy Smith argues that orientalism/war, genocide/colonialism, and anti-Black racism/slavery the Three Pillar of White Supremacy. The quest of liberation and reconciliation go hand and in; along with persons like Miroslav Volf, as well as black theologians such as J. Deotis Roberts, contrary to populist NeoAnaBaptist opinion, the emancipation of the oppressed IS NOT opposed to Church unity; on the contrary, it is part and parcel to it.  As followers of Jesus, if Christ’s promise is to be with us and to keep teaching us in the midst of the homeless, the hungry, and the prisoner, the least of these (Matthew 25), then our notions of church unity cannot be separated from solidarity with the oppressed. The Church cannot exist without Christ, and therefore the Church finds its very being right in the middle of those who society scorns.

One of the other solutions that Cleveland suggests is for those of us who want to work for reconciliation is for us to use the inclusive language of “we.” I think that this was part of my thinking when I talked about Inclusive Language as part of Jesus’ “Going the Second Mile” Ethic.  I not only learned this from my engagement with pacifist theologians like [ TW ]  John Howard Yoder, but also my first mentor, Womanist ethicist Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas.  I remember distinctly in my classes at seminary that some of my classmates were afraid of taking her classes.  Were they afraid of having their White Supremacist narratives challenged by “the Angry Black Woman?” Did they have this fret that they were going to be excluded and silenced in the class discussions? Interestingly, much like Cleveland emphasized using “we” to be inclusive and affirming of others’ subjectivity and humanity, so did Floyd-Thomas in our classroom assignments, and in her book Mining The Motherlode: Methods In Womanist Ethics:

“Essential to naming the moral dilemma is the researcher specifically articulating her context and the community, (We,  as_______ ) as a community of which she is a part which is both responsible for the perpetuation of the problem and accountable for resolving the crisis.”

Indeed, the advantages of using “we/us” terminology has its advantages, and I do find this part of Cleveland’s work to be the most challenging. There is an advantage to the inclusiveness of Womanist valuing of traditional communalism (inclusiveness).  However, there needs to be caution taken for there are those, as my friend Sarah Moon has pointed out, who abuse the language of “we”, the practice of forced teaming in order to stifle real differences and legitimate dissent.  What balances out this universalism is a politics of difference where the radical subjectivity of the false notions of objectivity and essentialism are replaced with an ethic of responsibility.

What should unity look like? Christena Cleveland rightly points us to Jesus the Liberator, who in his life taught us how to engage others nonviolently and cross-culturally. I would go further than Cleveland however when she suggests that we embrace dual identities with our identity in Christ as a primary identity. In the Epistles, the apostle Paul can be a Pharisee, a Jewish Christian, a Roman citizen, and the apostle to the Gentiles. As for myself, I can be a Christian, a Black Christian, a Black Critical Race Theorist, an avid Chicago White Sox fan, the firstborn son and grandson for one side of my family, and  a DC Comics fan (Green Arrow, YEAH!) I would argue that we have multiple identities since we are held accountable to multiple communities  and that while our identity in Christ de-stablizes all of these identities, the Holy Trinity works in us by conforming us to be like Christ to each of those communities by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Significations, Visibility, & Race in the "God Made A Farmer" #Dodge Ad: A Guest Post

“Gabe Pfefer is in his final year of the M.Div program at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth, TX and a part time pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He’s originally from Western Missouri and he grew up around farmers. Like most of them, he’ll never be able to afford a new Dodge truck.”

There’s little question that pro football is one of the central pillars of American civic religion in the 21st century. And it seems to me that the Super Bowl is the Easter Sunday of the secular worship of sport. It’s the day that even the casual congregant shows up pay tribute to our athletic Gods. The good pews are saved for the elite tithers while the rest of us watch from the “cheap seat balconies” of our televisions. I wonder how many of you sitting in that televised general admission section have been as troubled as I was in particular by one of the sermons that was paraded before us. I’m referring here to Dodge’s “God Made a Farmer” commercial.

As it came on the screen I was greeted by a familiarly soothing voice from past. Having grown up in the semi-rural landscape of the Midwest the voice of Paul Harvey was an ever present fixture on the radio airwaves. His folksy stories of the secret sides of historical figures and cornpone sales pitches for various products harkened back to a mythical Norman Rockwell fantasia that holds a powerful sway on the white middle class and enchants us down to an almost cellular level. I admit that on my first viewing of the ad I was charmed by its celebration of the middle class agricultural values that are interwoven in the faith system of our popular civic religion. As skeptical of marketing and as socially and politically progressive as I imagine myself to be, the ad cast a spell that slipped easily past all of my defenses.

When I first read Rod’s stream of critique about the ad on twitter, my initial reaction was to feel incredulous and defensive. “Why are you attacking the farmers when there’s bigger fish to fry?” “ How can you criticize Paul Harvey?” (Note: I hadn’t really been exposed to Harvey’s troublesome political and social diatribes. They weren’t a feature of my experience of his radio show). “Aren’t you taking the seemingly metaphorical God talk in the ad too literally?” These were all thoughts and questions that ran through my head Sunday night. Despite my skepticism of his claims, something kept gnawing at me though. There were growing suspicions in my mind that I was failing to see something more deeply problematic about a seemingly innocent truck commercial. I now found myself compelled to wrestle harder and dig deeper into just what it was Rodney and other critics of the ad were reacting against that I was missing.

At about the this same time, I was also reading Charles Long’s Significations: Signs, Symbols and Images in the Interpretation of Religion in preparation for a presentation I was going to give in a seminary class on Christian Ethics and the African American Experience. One of Long’s central arguments is that America has always misunderstood its own self identity by embracing a delusion of innocence and concealing the lessons of actual historical experience. Western Christianity, Long claims, is one of the most complicit actors in this masquerade of innocence and concealment. He calls on the theological academy to seek creative remedies for this harmful self deception. Long challenges us look for new modes of theological understanding which are more inclusive of the full range of the experiences all the participants of Western society.

Viewed within the larger context of systematic white American male self-deception, the “God Made a Farmer” ad has serious implications indeed. We can’t escape the fact that it does make a real and powerful claim about the nature of God. It claims that God celebrates and creates an agricultural system which has been complicit in the genocide of first nations people, the exploitation and commodification of African American bodies, and the ongoing degradation of the ecosystem.
As dependent as we may be on this system for our daily bread, it seems dangerous to me to uncritically celebrate a sanitized, fictionalized, and incomplete portrait of it. As Christians it is more dangerous still to claim that God puts a stamp of approval on such a portrait. The real way to pay tribute to the American farmer is make all facets of his social and economic experience visible. Let’s commemorate not only the hard labor of the white small farmer, but also the sacrifices, sorrows, progress, and challenges of the black sharecropper, the Latino field hand, and all the other forgotten parties who have shed real blood to put food on our table. When we begin to take their contributions seriously, only then may we start to talk about God’s place within this system. To do anything less is to do an oppressive injustice to all those white, black, brown, and red farmers’ struggles.

Unfinished Business by Keri Day

If you would like to download the PDF version of this book review, please see the following link to Scribd:

Book Review: Unfinished Business by Keri Day: Scribd

Unfinished Business on Amazon.

Book Review: Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Struggle to Thrive in America by Keri Day. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY, 2012.

I would like to thank Orbis Books for sending me a review copy of this book. In the first part of this book review, I offer a brief summary of Day’s work. I don’t want to give to many spoilers away, just enough for the audience to want to read more as I highly recommend this text. In the second part of my review, I would like to offer a brief theological proposal as it pertains to transcendence, economics, and ecclesiology.

Summary:

When I first met Dr. Day, it was at the student interview. Brite Divinity School was searching for a Black Church Studies professor and ethicist, and I had concerns about an assortment of economic justice issues in the Fort Worth area, and yes, even the Texas Christian University community. After Day gave her presentation, we the students were allowed to have an question and answer time. I asked Dr. Day what were her thoughts on the prosperity gospel. Although I do not recall her answer at that time, I would like to believe that this book, Unfinished Business is an answer to my inquiry. Day introduces her project by defining terms such as Black Church; in this case, Black Church means the activity of Black churches in the United States (3). Right away, I think that this definition establishes an inclusive ecclesiology and history. Rather than strictly defining Black Church/Black Church traditions as monolithic or as only those denominations established by African Americans, one could include in Day’s definition of Black Church, the number black churches within predominantly white denominations. Keri Day questions historians in their view that the Black church has always served as a prophetic witness (Chapter 1), and whether it is a Wilderness Experience or Surrogate world, Day argues these terms have been over-utilized when discussing Black Church. Whether we are talking about radicals like Adam Clayton Powell or Dr. Rev. MLK Jr. or the Reverend Jesse Jackson, at the forefront of civil and economic rights struggles have been the progressive strain of Black Baptist tradition. I wonder if there is something theological here, that makes Black Baptist both the most radical and possibly regressive (when it comes to women’s ordination especially) more adaptable to political activism. I’ll give you a hint: the Free Church tradition!

I like the term that Day uses for the Black Church, as a community of transcendence. While I will talk further about the theological implications of this notion, the way that Day and Victor Anderson understand transcendence, as seeing ultimate value in the world, being open to this value, and rejecting Ayn Rand selfishness in order to work for the good of others (28). While this use of transcendence does allow for womanist and liberationist theologians to be open to the experiences of others outside of the church, the use of the term “church” itself is exclusive to the Christian experience. Transcendence, in this light however, can be very helpful in discussing the Church’s relationship with the World, other social institutions that are non-confessional but that have become spaces for poor black women to use their agency.

In the second chapter, Day gives an overview of the history of Faith-Based initiatives and arguments for and against charitable choice programs/FBIs when it comes to public policy. As a strict church/state separationist, I find the Faith-Based Initiative whether it is ran by President Bush or Obama to be offensive and more likely a bribe from the state to religious institutions to silence them. Day is right that the danger of the Faith-Based Initiatives lies in the promotion of neoliberal values as absolute, without any challenge or critique. I think that’s the danger in charitable choice/FBIs in the first place; since the state and the economy are tied together since there has not been, as Optimistic Chad noted months ago, a separation of corporation from state, CC/FBIs silence criticisms of both the government as well as the economy.

My favorite chapter was chapter 3, which included a critique of Dinesh D’Souza. Day recognizes that D’Souza is an example of how free market values get racialized into racial social Darwinism, that the poor black people are this way because their culture is naturally inferior (page 52-53). Ronald Reagan’s attack against black welfare queens was a purely racially ideological move; it is ideological because it goes against all logic, and the facts. Whites have had the most benefits from social programs. Especially during legal segregation and the New Deal, whites received their Social Security checks on the backs of poor blacks. Day also ends her criticisms by exposing the new Jane Crow, how the state invests money in imprisoning black women (page 79-80). I was also shocked to learn that some states are going out of their way to link forced sterilization of black women with welfare policy (81-82). In the culture wars, social conservatives are the ones who oppose sex education classes in public schools and they are the ones who want cut backs in welfare. When it comes to race, however, commitment to whiteness, neoliberal values and advanced capitalism are to be preferred over pro-birth/anti-sex ed religious commitments.

Keri Day’s constructive proposal is found in the last three chapters. She has a discussion on the Poor People’s Campaign (its history and its failures in terms of gender inclusion), a discussion on redefining the prosperity gospel informed by the womanist principle of wholeness, and lastly an informed chapter on asset-building for the impoverished here in the U.S.

Overall, I would recommend this text for academic and church audiences.

A Brief Theological Proposal On Ecclesiology

I would like to return to the idea of Black Church as a Community Of Transcendence. The conversation about the “Woman Thou Art Loosed” portion of Bishop T.D. Jakes’ ministry gave me a lot to think about. To be honest, I actually felt convicted since I see it has highly problematic, but given the state of the world, where Don Imus can be a racist/sexist bigot and still have his own tv show on Fox Business, there are some benefits to the idea of women seeing themselves as “God’s leading ladies.” However, this is only a short-term solution to the long enduring problem of racism and sexism in America. What may need to happen is that the Black Church see itself as being in the Image of the Triune God, a Community of Transcendence initiated by a God who is Infinite, Incomprehensible, and at the same time Incarnation. The Black Church must resist things like racial stereotype of being the large group of angry black men (“prophetic”) and the Faith Based Initiative because that means others have defined our role in the world. The Black Church should be the community of the “I Am Somebodies”; for the Black Church, as it is for the Church Universal, it is YHWH the Redeemer and Liberator who sends Christ to give us meaning in the world.