Tag Archives: Christology

Anabaptist Theology & Black Power: An Anti-Imperial Confessing Church #Anablacktivism

The Cross, The New Creation, and Creative Discipleship

Please read the first two posts in this series before proceeding to read the following essay:

Anabaptist Theology & Black Power: Intro

Anabaptist Theology & Black Power: Christ The Center

In this article, I wish to turn from hermeneutical method and towards very brief sketches of Christology and ecclesiology. The second feature of historic Anabaptism, according to Tyler Tully is free church of confessing, baptized disciples. What type of Christology is inferred from the post-Christian Anabaptist approach developed from predominantly white male Christians? How faithful are these “new” Anabaptists to the Christologies of the first members of the Radical Reformation?  And lastly, how may a Black Liberationist Christology be compatible with Anabaptist studies of Christ’s personhood?

For the emergent Anabaptists of today’s post-Christendom, when it comes to approaching the Bible, the category of story is stressed above history.  The hazard in overemphasizing the mythos of the past is to make religious communities vulnerable to dreaming of an essentializing good ole days.  The good ole days in this perspective is that of the early church, united and on one front being persecuted from the margins in their witness of spreading the Good News. One possible safeguard against this hegemonic dream was the interpretation of the Tower of Babel by John Howard Yoder, and affirmed (sort of) by his student Stanley Hauerwas, where God “confusing” the languages of humanity actually liberates humanity from empire and monolingualism.  As I will attempt to demonstrate, not even the Pentecostal possibilities of this re-telling of Nimrod’s story can save White post-Christendom  Anabaptist theology from its own pitfalls.

When I was in seminary, the book that originally changed it all for me was Stanley Hauerwas’ and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens: Life In the Christian Colony.  Hauerwas, as a student of John Howard Yoder, takes his cues from his teacher in exploring three paradigms in ecclessiology: the ‘activist church,’ ‘the conversionist church,’ and the ‘confessing church.’  Taken from Yoder’s essay, “A People in the World: Theological Interpretation, Hauerwas criticizes the former two models of doing church, and praises the latter, or at least his own version of it.  The confessing church sees the local congregation as a counter-culture by first prioritizing “the congregation’s determination to worship Christ in all things” (page 45).  Confessing churches reject numbers games, filling the pulpits, and rather, they seek to make the category of faithfulness primary.  The Confessing Church is the group of visible martyrs, being salt on the earth, operating as Christ’s flashlight in a fallen, dark world.  

According to Hauerwas, the Confessing Church is the community of The Cross.  One practical example of a Confessing Church in action is a missional response to events that happen in international affairs.  Hauerwas suggested that a Christian response to the Libya crisis would be possibly for the United Methodist Church to send 1,000 missionaries to Libya  in spite of it being illegal to travel there.  Hauerwas when informed of that barrier, responded, “We can’t go there because we no longer have a church that produces people who can do something this bold. But we once did.”  Hauerwas and Willimon continue, “We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price” page 48.

For Hauerwas and Post-Christendom White Christians, the worship of Jesus and the remembrance of our story determines the Church’s task.  It is this worship that sets the boundary between Yoder’s and Hauerwas’ preferred way of seeing society, that of Church and World.  The Church’s nonviolent testimony is God’s response to a violent, fragmented world.  In The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer In Christian Ethics, Hauerwas describes this fragmentation as, “Life in a world of moral fragments is always on the edge of violence, since there are no means to ensure that moral argument in itself can resolve our moral conflicts.  No wonder we hunger for absolutes in such a world, for we rightly desire peace in ourselves and in our relations with one another.”  [Hauerwas continues,] “Moreover the fragmentation of our world is not only ‘out there,’ but it is also in our own souls.  Amid fragments it is extremely hard to maintain our moral identity.  We feel pulled in different directions by our various roles and convictions, unsure whether there is or can be any coherence to our lives.  We become divided selves, more easily tempted to violence since, being unsure of ourselves, we are easily threatened by any challenge that might rob us of what little sense of self we have achieved.”-pages 5-6

Taking some of his cues from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Hauerwas takes us on a journey in virtue ethics all the while providing a rebuttal to Christian realism.  Christ Jesus is the embodiment of God’s Kingdom .  Jesus performs the story of Israel in his offices of priest, king, and prophet (see Chapter 5: Jesus: The Presence of the Peaceable Kingdom).  While his discussion of Christ and discipleship originally focuses on what the Protestant Reformers call the Munus Triplex, the three offices of Christ, really what Hauerwas reduces the tradition to is actually two offices, that of Priest and King.  Christ is only prophet to the extent that he is the Chosen Servant to die ala the Servant stories in Isaiah (page 78).  This neglect of the traditional understanding of Christ as prophet  has larger implications for White Post-Christendom ecclesiology.

IMO, Stanley Hauerwas, and subsequently Anabaptist thinkers after him, have slightly modified John Howard Yoder’s notion of a Confessing Church to fit a more hierarchal, sacramental church structure.  Whether Hauerwas’ vision for THE CHURCH is eschatological in  a future sense or a present descriptor, I wish not to debate here.  What I will say is that Yoder’s ecclesiology was informed primarily by the founders of the Radical Reformation.  The earliest debates between the Anabaptists and their interlocuters, Catholics and Protestant Reformers respectively, revolved around the nature of baptism, believers’ baptism versus infant baptism.  The consequences of denying the power of original sin as a biological impediment of human nature was usually imprisonment, followed by beheading.  Claiming inspiration from the Holy Spirit, the Anabaptists ferverently spread the message against deadly opposition.  Preaching Good News inspite of the very real specter of death was seen as their participation in the Third Baptism, the Baptism of Blood/Martyrdom.

What was meant to be a mockery of Anabaptists (being re-baptized, and then finding themselves drowned to death for their beliefs), the Third Baptism became a marker of the Radical Reformers’ theology; in short, discipleship meant the re-positioning of the believer’  bodies, even to the point of death.  In Scripture, Christ’s witness is shown in water baptism, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and Blood Baptism (bodily sacrifice) ; see for example 1st John 5:6-8.  One example of this martyrdom is the story of Balthasar Hubmaier, who as he was about to be burned at the stake, reportedly said, ‘Oh salt me well, salt me well.”  This gives a new meaning to the phrase “salt of the earth” for when salt is placed on a wound of our skin, it burns.  As Jesus said according to Mark, “For everyone will be salted with fire” (9:49), or in some texts, “every sacrifice will be salted with salt.”

I don’t want to dismiss the significance of the Baptisms of Water and of Spirit, but for my purposes since I want to talk about discipleship, and what would an interdenominational Radical Reformation movement look like, I will prefer to discuss Blood Baptism.  Water baptisms are marks of what local congregations you are a part of, who will keep you accountable in your Christian walk from birth to death.  The Spirit Baptism is more about God personally interacting with you on an individual level, as a seal of salvation as well as a Guide to help you in the process of personal sanctification.  The Third Baptism is the place where we can see another intersection between Black Liberation Theology and Anabaptism.

Because Hauerwas and company neglect to see the sources of Yoder’s ecclesiology (the Radical Reformation), they have appropriated in a problematic direction.  The example Hauerwas gave of a Confessing Church in action, the UMC (a predominantly white-lead institution) invading an African country in the Two-Thirds world is a small glimpse of a colonizing ecclessiological gaze that narrative postliberal theologians could have without the aid of Liberation Theology.  As I mentioned in part one of this series, John Howard Yoder preferred the category of story over history.  Historical questions, he claimed, weren’t being dismissed, they just weren’t the focus of his work.  However, Yoder did dismiss the criticisms of The Politics of Jesus by Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza in her Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation.  While Schussler-Fiorenza and historical critics wanted to talk about the historical context of the household codes, Yoder chose time and again to derail the discussion by claiming to be concerned for the “christological component” of the early Church’s action.  In other words, narrative and therefore, heretical Docetism prevails.  

The notion of us humans being “storytellers,” simply isn’t that innocent at all.  Narrative needs historical context, and historians need people’s stories.  There needs to be a reciprocal, dialogical approach to Christology and ecclesiology in this regard. Imagine a Confessing Church that not only praised the Living God in awe of God’s work revealed in Christ’s life, but also a church that confessed  a politics that was historically aware in the quest to practice neighborly love. In the words of Drew Hart,

The Third Baptism is not only a mark of what has historically happened to faithful Christian witnesses, but it is also something that is DONE BY persons claiming to be members of Christ’s church.  An #AnaBlacktivist ecclesiology would carry on the memories of Blood Baptisms in history, initiated by both secular agencies as well as Constantinian White Supremacist religionists.  James Cone in Black Theology and Black Power described these blood baptisms in existential terms. “absurdity arises as a man confronts the world and looks for meaning.  […] Absurdity arises as the black man seeks to understand his place in the white world.  The black man does not view himself as absurd; he views himself as human.  But he meets the white world and its values, he is confronted with an almighty NO and is defined as a thing. This produces an absurdity.”  – page 11. 

Unfortunately because emergence Christianity’s discounting of the historical Radical Reformation tradition of The Third Baptism (while appropriating the title of Anabaptist I may add), I fear that the new Anabaptists will just be repeating the same imperial Christianity they seek to both avoid as well as oppose.  As long as White Supremacy is not confronted, those Libyans [ahem, or Nigerians] overseas will be looked upon as Things to be missionally converted rather than human beings to be loved.  The message of Black Liberation is summed up in its definition of freedom: “The man of Black Power will not rest until the oppressor recognizes him for what he is– man.  He further knows that in this campaign for human dignity, freedom is not a gift but a right worth dying for” page 12.

The Anti-Imperial Confessing church then, is one that “continually to ask: ‘Who in the community does not live according to the spirit of Christ? This is the kind of question which was so important to the sixteenth century Anabaptists, and it must be vital for the Church of any age.”- page 70.  If “the true church of Christ must define clearly through its members the meaning of God’s act in Christ,” then we as believers must know who Christ is, as priest, prophet, and king. The Messiah’s reigning presence is found among the poor and imprisoned.  Christ Jesus as priest is the Suffering Servant of God, as “an oppressed being who has taken on that very form of human existence that is representation of human misery” A Black Theology of Liberation, page 129.  As prophet, Jesus stands unambiguously on the side of the oppressed as did the major and minor prophets during the rule of Israel’s monarchs. Jesus the Liberator opposes the history of Christendom itself, “at least from the time of Constantine” “a history of human enslavement” (page 123).

Black Liberation Theology provides another corrective for White postliberal Anabaptist Christology, the third office of Christ as publically confrontational prophet. The 24th Question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, How doth Christ execute the office of prophet? and the answer is Christ executeth the office of a prophet, in revealing to us, by his word and Spirit, the Will of God for our Salvation. In the Old Testament, the prophets’ words could not be separated from their deeds, because in many instances, God ordered them to provide symbolic actions like with Ezekiel.  Jesus’ prophetic office is deeply rooted in the tradition of Jeremiah, Moses, Amos, and Isaiah, opposing the rulers and kings of this age with direct action lead by the Spirit of YHWH.   If there is to be an #AnaBlacktivist ecclesiology, it must profess a Confessing Church of Creative Disciples free to remember the histories of Blood Baptisms and partake in the prophetic ministry of Christ Jesus.

This is the third part of 4 for  my contribution to the MennoNerds Synchroblog: MennoNerds on Anabaptist Convictions“As MennoNerds, we all have found certain distinctives of Anabaptism to be central in our expression of faith.  This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog in the month of May on Anabaptism. For the list of distinctives go here. For the list of articles, go here

Anabaptist Theology & Black Power: Christ the Center #Anablacktivism

The Emancipatory Pedagogy and Presence of The Logos

CONTENT NOTE: John Howard Yoder. see  tw: perhaps all theologians should come with trigger warnings

As I said in the introduction of this series, I am writing these posts this week as not only an #Anablacktivism / #Anablacktivist manifesto, but also as a clear rejection of the current popular stream of thought by Emergent Anabaptist leaders.  At the same time, I am making a departure from my own past dialectical reading of Black Liberation theology and Peace Theologies.  Rather than accept the narrative that these two are irreconcilably opposed to each other and that one of them thus must either be rejected or both held in tension, I have chosen the way of dialogue.  I must give credit to my friend Drew Hart for helping me to see the possibilities of this conversation.

Tyler Tully has discerned three historic Anabaptist distinctived: a Jesus-Centered interpretation of the whole Bible, a free confessing church of creative disciples, and Christians embodying the peaceable moral agency. The current essay will focus on Christ as the Center in Anabaptist and Black Liberation theology.

Nowadays when one reads the profiles of post-Christendom, millenial Christians as well as talk to them IRL, there’s a certain cynicism about the direction our culture is headed.  The story they tell is one of exile, that the U.S. American church is going into exile as punishment for its failure to win the White national culture wars.  For some, this God’s wrath.  For others, its a natural consequence of Christians adopting the politics of Emperor Constantine, where power, empire, and violence are carried under a Cross-decorated banner.

 

No one quite represents the model of the latter’s think than the late John Howard Yoder, a student of Karl Barth at Basel.  From the opening pages of The Politics of Jesus, Yoder changed the landscape of theological ethics by bringing us back to Jesus.

“The peculiar place of Jesus in the mood and mind of many young ‘rebels’ is a sore spot in the recent intergenerational tension of Western post-Christendom, and on of the inner-contradictions of our age’s claim to have left Christendom behind. It may be a meaningless coincidence that some young men wear their hair and their feet like the Good Shepherd of the Standard Press Sunday school posters; but there is certainly no randomness to their claim Jesus was, like themselves, a social critic and an agitator, a drop-out from the social climb, and the spokesman of a counter-culture.”

– TPOJ, page 1.

There are a few things I want to point out about this opening paragraph. When believers place Christ Jesus in his rightful place, the throne, the Center of our Thinking Being, and Doing, that act coincidentally places us in our place, disparate, on the margins, de-centered.  Particularly as Gentile Christians we enter the biblical narrative as the Outsider, the Alien, and the Enemy.  Already in the opening pages of TPOJ, Yoder has identified himself as a white Western male in a post-Christendom context.  Without this acknowledgement up from about his identity and place in the story of the Church, Radical Reformation and Black Liberation theologians would fail to see both the benefits and pitfalls of Yoder’s theology.  The unlimited reign of Yeshua the Messiah both operates as the subject of our theological conversation (confession) as well as the boundary that limits our task (awe).  

The purpose of Yoder’s writing was to  seek “to read the Gospel narrative with the constantly present question, ‘Is there here a social ethic?’  I shall in other words, be testing the hypothesis that runs counter to the prevalent assumptions: the hypothesis that the ministry and the claims of Jesus are best understood as presenting to hearers and readers  not the avoidance of political options, but one particular social-political-ethical option.”- TPOJ, page 11.  And there we have it.  Central to the message of the Anabaptists in the emergent church and beyond is that Jesus’ rabbinical teachings are superior to our own politics and context.  As members of the Body of Christ who wish to maintain faithfulness to the Son of God, this is staying with the tradition of the early church martyrs, and subsequently the Radical Reformation, and dare I add, the witnesses who gave their lives during the Civil Rights movement.

As part of the third edition of this work, Yoder goes on to further explain why the lack of discussion of the “historical” Jesus (page 15).  The skepticism of historical-critical method is right, for as others have reminded us ferverently sometimes the historical Jesus is shaped in our image.  Whether Jesus is a sage or a political revolutionary, historical critics disagree over what to make of what this 2nd century Pharisee actually taught. Enough has been said about the problems of the historical Jesus.  What I want to bring to the forefront, that will allow Liberation Theology to enter the conversation, is to problematize the notion of the neutral, objective “narrative Jesus.”  The rise of narrative theology and hermeneutics begins with a literary reading of Scripture.  The danger in narrative/ literary readings of the Bible, as Sugi pointed out years ago (see my Sugi On Narrative Criticism) is that it can lead to a quest for an idyllic past, and ahistorical, unrealistic visions of days gone by.

The idyllic past which I am referring to is the notion of a “Christendom” at all.  I am calling the idea of a “post-Christian” culture into question because, according to prophets such as David Walker and Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, this nation was never “CHRISTIAN” to begin with.  From the perspective of the margins, the U.S. has always practiced a Constantinian false version of religion, a history of bloodshed, white supremacy, and settler colonialism.  Relying simply on narrative theology and the teachings of Jesus is insufficient.  Telling God’s story (awe) is only one part of the theological task. The other part is praxis (confession).  Along with the Gospel narratives, we must also understand the historical locus of the Spirit of Jesus by first identifying the history and positioning of Jesus’ body.

Enter James Cone, the “Father” of modern Black Liberation Theology.  For Cone and LIberation Theologians, there is no division between the Historical Jesus and the Narrative Messiah.

“Without some continuity between the historical Jesus and the kerygmatic Christ, the Christian gospel becomes nothing but the subjective reflections of the early Christian community.  And if that is what Christianity is all about, we not only separate it from history, but we also allow every community the possibility of interpreting the kerygma according to its own existential situation.  Although the situation is important, it is not the gospel.  The gospel speaks to the situation.”- A Black Theology of Liberation, page 119

In agreement with the Council of Ephesus in the 5th century C.E., James Cone rejects both the Nestorianism of Evangelicalism and The Jesus Seminar as well as the Docetism of postliberal and narrative theologies.  In Christianity, there is not to be this neat separation between the Creed Christ and the Historical Jesus.  This severance leads to a disembodied theology more palatable with imperial, war-mongering, white supremacist religiosity.  

In the Gospels, Jesus taught that his presence will be forever and always with the least of these. He is the homeless person we do not provide shelter to.  He is the hungry person on food stamps we refuse to nurture.  He is the prisoner we avoid visiting in our criminal injustice system, with its prison-industrial complex.  “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:45).  Black Power theologically understood is compatible with Anabaptist theology because of its Jesus-centeredness.  Cone contended, “Being black in America has very little to do with skin color.  To be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are” (Black Theology and Black Power,page 151).

 Now while critics feel that Cone’s work is exclusively for African Americans, this is simply not the case.  While he chooses to use examples from black history, one could easily include stories of the radical Quakers who in the colonial times opposed the enslavement of Africans.  The Radical Reformation tradition reminds us to place Jesus’ teaching as central to the Christian life, and in so doing, Jesus did teach us where he would be.  Liberation theologians rightly point to the communities of the oppressed as having the presence of Jesus, so that we can able to follow his teachings.  #Anablacktivism is a both/and synthesis of Liberation Theology and the Radical Reformation, stressing both Jesus’ presence as well as his words and deeds. By standing in awe in our worship and confessing Jesus with our praxis, resistance to Constantinian religiosity must always include resisting white supremacy and empire.  This is what it means to have a Spirit-filled life and a Christ-centered view of Scripture. 

This is the second part of 4 for  my contribution to the MennoNerds Synchroblog : MennoNerds on Anabaptist Convictions“As MennoNerds, we all have found certain distinctives of Anabaptism to be central in our expression of faith.  This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog in the month of May on Anabaptism. For the list of distinctives go here. For the list of articles, go here

The Parable-Driven Life: The Parable of the Shining Pearl (Matthew 13:46-47)

MERCHANDIZING THE GREAT PRICE OF CHRIST’S TWO NATURES

It’s been well over four years since we have continued our Parable-Driven Life series, but like all good things, I want to bring this series back from time to time. I have been inspired by reading excerpts of Clement’s take on the parables. I say in some cases they are brief glimpses, because we don’t have some of the full texts. They are citations from lost works. Unlike many commentaries today, Clement of Alexandria postulated allegorical interpretations of Gospel texts that were Christ-centered. I will quote what we have of his comments on The Parable of the Pearl [of Great Price] found in Matthew 13: 46-47, and then add some commentary on my own.

From Niceta’s Catena on Matthew:

“A pearl, and that pellucid and of purest ray, is Jesus, whom of the lightning flash of Divinity the Virgin bore. For as the pearl, produced in the flesh and the oyster-shell and moisture, appears to be a body moist and transparent, full of light and spirit; so also God the Word, incarnate, is intellectual light, sending his rays, through a body luminous and moist.”

For Clement, Jesus the Messiah is the Picture Perfect Image of YHWH. In The Educator (Pedagogue, Book II, Chapter XIII), Clement spends an excessive amount of time discussing beauty, fashion and the like, but here again he repeats his rendering of The Parable Of The Pearl Of Great Price:

“And the wretched creatures are not ashamed at having bestowed the greatest pains about this little oyster, when they might adorn themselves with the sacred jewel, the Word of God, whom the Scriptures has somewhere called a pearl, the pure and pellucid Jesus, the eye that watches in the flesh,–the transparent Word, by whom the flesh, regenerated by water, becomes precious. For that oyster that is in the water covers the flesh all around, and out of it is produced the pearl.

Now, if I may move on to further excursis, if Christ is the Reign of God, (the pearl), then the merchant who is searching for him must be the Elect, the chosen body of Christ that continues to live lives of repentance, seeking out to involves itself in the life of the Triune God. The illuminous Revelation that is Christ reveals God’s true nature perfectly in the person of Divine Wisdom Enfleshed. The Elect are those persons who are baptized first by water, as a sign of repentance and their accountability to the Body. The merchant is the community of believers who know and realize the Cost of Discipleship [Matthew  13:47 & 19:21 on the Jesus and the Rich Young Man].

What may be a little more interesting is that Clement’s interpretation of this Parable read a lot like early Church Baptismal formulas, and the Nicene Creed (in bold)

A pearl, and that pellucid and of purest ray, is Jesus  |

 JesusChrist, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light,

AND

whom of the lightning flash of Divinity the Virgin bore. For as the pearl, produced in the flesh and the oyster-shell and moisture, appears to be a body moist and transparent, full of light and spirit; so also God the Word, incarnate, is intellectual light, sending his rays, through a body luminous and moist. |

 

he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human. 

And

the transparent Word, by whom the flesh, regenerated by water, becomes precious. For that oyster that is in the water covers the flesh all around, and out of it is produced the pearl. |

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The theology of the Church, then, can never really be separated from its worship praxis.  The neat wall separation that we have created between orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxis  (right practice) should come tumbling down like the walls of Jericho.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

By Rod:

The Parable-Driven Life: The Parable of the Minas (Luke 19:11-28)

The Parable-Driven Life: The Parable(s) the Fig Tree(s) (Judges 9:10-11 and Luke 13:1-9)

 By Chad:

The Parable-Driven Life: The Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4-18) 

The Parable-Driven-Life: Lazarus and The wealthy C.E.O. (Luke 16:19-31)