Tag Archives: divine election

The Cross, Predestination, and Emmett Till

One of the interesting things about the academy is in the way Black Theologians strive to engage Hip Hop culture. While I personally don’t do so, I think this move is necessary for a few reasons. Priests and prophets in the Hebrew Bible as part of their vocation were to help God’s people remember God’s story correctly, and live it out faithfully. Unfortunately in the 21st century, “secular” corporate-driven hip hop is used as a tool to colonize children from all backgrounds. One instance was the case of a rap “artist” who made a rhyme sexualizing the lynching of Emmet Till. I believe this is where Black Liberation theology needs to intervene.

In James Cone’s The Cross And The Lynching Tree, he discusses Till’s story at length and its impact on radicalizing black youth to protest Jim/Jane Crow segregation. Contrary to the criticism that Black theology is too academic and thus disconnected from black churches, James Cone reflects on the religious experiences of Emmet Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley. As Cone put it, “She exposed white brutality and black faith to the world and, significantly, expressed a parallel meaning between her son’s lynching and the crucifixion of Jesus. ‘Lord you gave your son to remedy a condition,’ she cried out, ‘but who knows, but what the death of my only son might bring an end to lynching.’ ” Young black teens like John Lewis who would grow up to be Civil Rights heroes, were shaken at the news of Till’s monstrous fate. It was “a horror etched in black memory forever.” (Page 67-68)

Part of what lead Mamie Till Bradley to crusade was her belief that her son’s lynching had become part of God’s plan. “Mrs. Bradley was not left alone in her agony. She spoke about a strange experience, a voice said to her: “Mamie, it was ordained from the beginning of time that Emmett Louis Till would die a violent death. You should be grateful to be the mother of a boy who died blameless like Christ. Bo Till will never be forgotten. There is a job for you to do now.” (P 68)

A few things to take away from this mysterious experience. First, like Martin Luther King Jr., God spoke personally to Mamie Till Bradley. The Christian God of suffering love is a personal God who communicates with humanity. God had called Mamie to preach the Good News of Christ’s triunph over death, and eventual victory over White Supremacy.

This leads me to my second point: “the job” Bradley was called to do was to serve the White Supremacist system on notice. White Supremacy and lynching are not part of The Triune God’s good plan for humanity. Emmett Till’s death is interlocked with Jesus’ sacrifice, the blameless victim made Victor. In one of the THREE places the New Testament bothers to mention the mystery of predestination, Acts 2:23, it only mentions that Christ was predestined to be crucified. Christ’s death alone brings salvation, and so predestination must be understood Christologically as well.

Predestination isn’t about us being saved or depraved. It’s about God’s goodness and grace, that when God has a plan, God remains faithful and keeps His promises. Unfortunately in Christian culture, in the Holy Hip Hop industry, there are Calvinist artists who have made predestination about human beings. They also have adopted an ideology where black women should be made second-class citizens in the name of a “new manhood.” Indeed, this is where Black Liberation theologians need to stage an intervention. By remembering and teaching correctly the story of Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till Bradley, may the Church realize that the Execution of the Exodus God is the birth pangs of the Church Militants.

Anabaptist Theology & Black Power: A Subaltern Ethics Of Peace #AnaBlacktivism

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

Anabaptist Theology & Black Power: Intro

Anabaptist Theology & Black Power: Christ The Center

Anbaptist Theology & Black Power: An Anti-Colonial Confessing Church

Tyler Tully’s third and final AnaBaptist distinctive is the naming of the Radical Reformation’s preferred type of moral agency: nonviolence. As Tyler so articulately put it as agents of God’s Shalom,

“More than merely being non-violent on a personal level (a measure that all Anabaptists will not flinch from) we are dedicated to producing God’s Shalom in our communities. Therefore, we stand against violence in all of its forms (Empire, oppression, poverty, war, etc.) while we live in justice as an alternative community. Shalom is more than the absence of conflict (Pax Christi), it is the peace that surpasses all understanding and the project of the Holy Spirit as God’s Reign fosters wholeness through reconciling the hierarchies of class, race, ethnicity, age, sex, gender, sexuality, and ableism.”

If historic AnaBaptist pacifism is an interpersonal practice, it cannot but be a social policy as well. For many Neo-Anabaptists who take their cues from the writings of influential theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas, the unquestionable commitment to Christian nonresistant love means that liberation theology and postliberal emerging Anabaptist theology are entirely at odds. Take for example NeoAnabaaptist author Brian Zahnd, who had a conversation with someone who had a question about liberation theology. Zahnd automatic answer, like many post-Christian Anabaptists, “Liberation theology is ultimately violent.”

zahnd libtheo

I challenged him on that talking point. I disagree that Liberation Theology is inherently violent, in fact, it’s problematic to say it is as such given the historical records. What matters more however as I have shown in the previous two posts, is that white Post-Christian theologians continue to dismiss questions of historical inquiry (Elisabeth Shussler-Fiorenza’s gender critique of The Politics of Jesus, for example) in order to put forth a Docetic hegemonic narrative. During the discussion with Zahnd, even my fellow #AnaBlacktivist Drew Hart took the time to chime in,

While Zahnd claims to be AnaBaptist, the one link he provided to support his argument was an essay supporting Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s position on liberation theology. It did little to prove that liberation theology, and conveniently excluded the imperial violence initiated by the United States against liberation theology’s communities in Latin America and Haiti. It is interactions such as these that lead me to wonder where do talking points like this come from. As a student of John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas usually remarks in the same manner as Zahnd when it comes to questions about Liberation Theology. LT is violent, not because of anything that liberation theologians have done, but because of the questions that they ask when it comes to notions of “peace” and “nonviolence.”

To use a specific example of a post-Christian white Anabaptist criticism of liberation theology, I turn to an essay by Yoder from Cross Currents in 1973/1974 entitled, “Exodus and Exile: The Two Faces of Liberation.” Yoder’s critique of Liberation Theology centers on his first accepting liberation language as an appropriate way for biblical language to make a leap from the past to the present, and secondly, his asking that there be a more honest account of Exodus, and the biblical narrative as a whole. If the Exodus story is a model for revolution, then what should the nature of that revolution look like? To this effect, Yoder makes a few observations. Number 1: The Exodus was not a program born out of human initiative, but God’s miraculous redemption of enslaved Hebrews. Number 2: The Exodus was more of a social withdrawal with the intent originally of God’s people leaving to worship the Almighty. This means that it was not a some sort of religiously sanctioned political coup. As Yoder put it, “Moses was no Bonhoeffer. The old tyranny is destroyed not by beating it at its own game of intrigue and assassination, but by the way the presence of the independent counter community (and its withdrawal) provokes Pharaoh to overreach himself.” Number 3: The Exodus is about the formation of a people group and not the the product of the event. Yoder explains, “To say it another way, to be oppressed together is not sufficient to constitute a people. Nor being a people yet sufficient to be the people of God. Exodus is not a paradigm for all kinds of groups for all kinds of salvation. Exodus is a particular form of withdrawal into insecurity.”  

Up to this point, Yoder has made points that liberationists basically agree with (with a few minor disagreements), but I now point you to the fourth observation: The community formed at Mount Sinai is the presupposition of Exodus. “The slogan ‘Exodus before Sinai’ presupposes that ‘liberation’ is a single and final event; that is the claim that justifies treating its violence as a legitimate ethical exception. Yet Sinai was to become the place of a new bondage. Exodus leads not to the promised land but to the desert, partly by loyalty to the values of Egypt.” Sinai is, according to Yoder’s narrative reading of Exodus, THE FALL of Israel. “Liberation is from bondage and for covenant, and what for matters more than what from.” So Sinai for Yoder is ambivalently both a fall and a formal, legislative event, for YHWH giving of the Ten Commandments to the judgments of Moses and his fellow judges. Aaron and his golden calf represents liberationists who want to take matters into their own hands to foster social change.

Lastly, Yoder’s fifth observation is asking of liberation theologians, why isn’t there not “some broader review of all the great events which Scripture put in the light of the Word of God at work: the taking of Canaan, the pluralism of the age of the judges, the rise and fall of the Kingdom, the dividing of the Kingdom, exile.” Israel ultimately fails in its experiment with empire according to Yoder, abandoning nationhood and returning to YHWHistic peoplehood after returning to exile. “Ezra and Nehemiah reestablish the community precisely without national sovereignty.” ” Now, in order to agree with Yoder that liberation theology is more about impatient believers who want to have their way with the nation-state, one must presume that liberation theology is nothing more than a nationalist political movement with religious language to justify it. This loyalty to the nation-state and its values, as well as an emphasis on separation on groups for the protection of minorities is probably what Yoder and his subsequent white post-Christian male disciples fear to be violent. However, this would require an anachronistic reading of the biblical text. There is no “nation-state” as we know, empire yes, oppressive institutions such as slavery, yes, but nation-state, no. If anything, Israel is more in line with the city-state structure more common in the Ancient Near East. Also, if I must add concerning Ezra and Nehemiah, while their project started out as noble, its conclusion resorts back to a reactionary exclusion of other people groups, against the prophetic, universalizing & reconciling thrust of pre- and post exilic prophets like Isaiah.

As far as the nature of the narrative that Yoder considers an alternative to the Liberationist telling of Exodus, I want to make a few points to move us into James Cone and Black Liberation theology. First of all, one must call into question the notion of “greatness” of some of the aspects of “the taking of Canaan, the pluralism of the age of the judges, the rise and fall of the Kingdom, the dividing of the Kingdom, exile.” The so-called pluralism of the age of judges is only made possible because the 12 tribes of Israel continue a cycle of remembering and forgetting YHWH who rescued them from Egypt (see Judges 6 for ex.) This forgetfulness leads to THE real FALL OF Israel, in 1st Samuel 8, where the prophet greiviously announces God’s concession of giving the people what they want: a king. But there’s a catch, there are laws the king must follow. Both empire and the exile are not first positive goods, but negative consequences of Israel’s disobedience and unfaithfulness to the Exodus God. The Exodus story of God redeeming God’s people. While Yoder is right to point out that Moses is Israel’s great teacher who was educated by the hybrid experiences as an enslaved Hebrew, an Egyptian prince, and a desert shepherd, Yoder unfortunately depoliticizes Moses in the process. Moses as a former Egyptian prince confronts Pharaoh with YHWH’s miraculous power. Moses prays as an intercessor, sparing many lives of his people. As Open Theists point out, God has a special relationship with Moses where God changes God’s mind on Moses’ behalf. In other words, both examples show that Moses really participates in the liberating mission of God. To be political from a liberationist perspective is to partake in the life of the Exodus God. God both initiates human movement freedom movements as Most Moved Mover, and works with humanity as covenant partners. Moses was a friend of God, remember? In Black Theology and Black Power, the image that Cone uses is the biblical symbol of God as like an eagle carrying Israel (and oppressed communities) on God’s wings.  This symbolic language is to express God’s liberating activity in history, and not only does God redeem us, God allows humanity to co-create with Godself.  

Liberationist ethics therefore is a departure from the virtue ethics and theories that center around social-formation.  Liberationist ethics start from God’s free grace and pathos coming to those on the lowest rung of the social latter.  In this model, God is free to work outside the Church in order to accomplish God’s mission of freeing all humanity from sin for the sake of covenant.  The Exodus God breaks down even the most faithful of dualistic categories, Church and World, to create a Church for the World.  In Cone’s BTBP, Cone recognizes that God can use persons that aren’t even in church for the purpose of liberation.  The Spirit of God inspires persons like King Cyrus (see 2nd Chronicles 6 and even Ezra) to bring about peace and communal justice for the common good. This is why in Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone contends that God can use black culture to reveal Godself. One example of this is when Cone points out in his latest work, The Cross And The Lynching Tree, that “Blacks found hope in music itself–a collective self-transcendent meaning in the singing, dancing, loving, and laughing. They found hope in the stoic determination not to be defeated bu the pain and suffering in their lives” (page 13).

Yes it is true that James Cone would call into question pacifism and nonviolence, but the questions he were asking were not whether or not nonviolent action was legit, but who was exacting violence, and whose violence were we naming! Liberationist inquiries about cases for nonviolence, critiquing the privilege and manner in which pacifists were making their claims is grounded in a theology of the cross. “To speak of nonviolence in a Christian context was to speak of Jesus’ cross, which meant suffering without fighting back violently” (TC&TLT, page 149). But one cannot talk about the Cross without talking about the history of the Lynching Tree in the North American context. We cannot separate the Exodus God’s story of redemption from the history of Jesus suffering with crucified people. #AnaBlacktivism takes the Anabaptist concept of the Third Baptism in order to free pacifist Christians from abusing the Cross. With one of James Cone’s earliest critics from within Black Liberation theology, the late Major J. Jones, we can see nonviolence a theology that we participate in more than a social ethic. With Gustavo Gutierrez, we can affirm that God does choose the oppressed in order to liberate the oppressed and the oppressors. God freely chooses the foolish and the lowly, the persons at the margins for the service of teaching the dominant culture nonviolence as well as the history of violence done to them.  An #AnaBlacktivist theology of nonviolence would make the case for Christ’s model of peacemaking by coming from a place of particularity and the naming of particular forms of suffering. 

 

This is the fourth and final 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 Power Of Love part 1: James Cone's Relational Theology

LIBERATING OPEN THEOLOGIES

white heart

For better or worse, Liberation Theology has endured having a reputation as an out-dated theological system written by subjective, angry Persons of Color and Women. It’s taught in seminaries as either a heretical abomination for pastors to avoid or as a needed corrective to years of corrupted systematic theologies that served its purpose in the 1970’s and ’80’s. In contrast, the spectrum of theologies referred to as Relational Theologies (and they range from Missional to Emergent to Post-Conservative to Wesleyan to Open and Process-Relational) are presented as systems of thought that are objective, balanced, and as the natural next wave forward for Christianity. Unlike Liberation Theology, Works on Relational Theologies / Theologies of Love are written for both laypersons and academics.

Liberation Theologies in the U.S.A inhabited privileged academic spaces and served as push back against what religious thinkers were being taught. In particular, the writings of James Hal Cone have functioned as sort of a revolutionary break from traditional Christian reflections on tradition. What makes Cone indispensable to the field of theology is that his project was the first systematized intellectual experiment to re-orient Christian Theology as a protest versus White Supremacy. Throughout his work, while Cone admits that he is writing theology for black people, the ground of relationality that Cone works from makes his theology an address to everyone. Towards this end, this series will serve as a thought experiment in re-evaluating and re-presenting Liberation Theology as a Relational Theology.

Theologies Of Love After Christopher Columbus

The “discovery” of the New World by Christopher Columbus as a number of theologians such as Willie Jennings was a major shift in Christianity. Here we have whole societies wiped out by slavery, genocide, disease and war, with those who would propagate the religion of the Prince of Peace justifying these atrocities with their sacred texts. The prominent epistemology for studying religion in the centuries that followed involved the enlightened, rational Western male subject. In order to determine who is deemed rational, one must first through pseudo-scientific scientific means determine who is uncivilized and irrational; in other words, whose bodies are worthy of destruction? Our line-up of all the great Western philosophers from David Hume, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, and even Karl Marx had rather “insightful” things to say about dark bodies. In short, Persons of Color and women were deemed as things to be colonized and assimilated, tailored into the image of the European male elite.

As violent and grotesque as these histories are, the Triune God of love never leaves humanity without witnesses. By God’s grace, we have the testimony of Trinitarian theologians such as 19th century Wesleyan evangelist Julia J.A. Foote and Arminian pastors such as Lemuel Haynes. Howard Thurman’s and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s theologies were theologies of love. MLK Jr., as has been noted through years of research, was heavily influenced by the Boston Personalists. While Foote and Haynes suffered through the era of African enslavement on these shores, King Jr. and Thurman lived through legal racial segregation (a regime enforced through lynching+ political & economic oppression). With these theologies of the Cross, notions of suffering (theodicy) are never separated from the theologies of love written by persons of the African diaspora. I am contending that these various relational theologies proposed were responses to White Supremacy.

Creation and Our Interrelatedness

Enter James Hal Cone. Straight outta Governor Orval Faubus’ Arkansas, a man who got his PhD from the Northwestern University / Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary seminary where he did his dissertation on Karl Barth’s theological anthropology. In the midst of riots and chaos after the assassination of MLK Jr., what did the Church have to say to the Black Power movement? U.S. Christianity is supposed to be a religion populated by joyful and extremely nice middle-class people. Did the hope for the wretched of the Earth lay in the Christianized politics of respectability? Distressed by the white supremacy he experienced in society in general as well as the religious academy, Cone decided to write what many deemed a manifesto, Black Theology and Black Power. Considered by many to be a “reverse racist” pamphlet of hate, when taking an even closer look at this piece, one can see that BTBP is a forcefully written, persuasive case for relational theology as an anti-racist practice. Cone states his purpose on the very first page of the book, that “Black Power is about Black people taking the dominant role in determining the black-white relationship” (page 1, Intro).

To be black is not to have dark shades of melanin in your epidermis; “To be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are. We all know that a racist structure will reject a black man in white skin as quickly as a black man in black skin” (151, Chapter 6). Cone recognizes that race and racism are social constructs, and not biologically proven realities. Cone’s invention for Christian theology is to invert blackness and whiteness as symbols. In the West, in movies novels, the good guys wear white, the bad guys always wear black. Cone flips these narrative tropes on their heads to counter institutional racism. Black Power, according to Cone, is Blacks using their self-determination and agency to emancipate themselves from the violence of white supremacy, even if their choices meant death (p 6). Black Power sought to remove Whites’ status as Master while recognizing Whites’ humanity; Cone contends, “Men were not created for separation, and color is not the essence of man’s humanity” (14). In other words, Anti-Black racisms, White Supremacy, and Colonialisms are in direct violation of God’s creative intent.

Humanity “was created to share in God’s creative (revolutionary) activity in the world (Gen.1:27-28). But through sin man rejects his proper activity and destiny. He wants to be God, the creator of his destiny. […] But in his passion to become super-human, man becomes subhuman, estranged from the source of his being, threatening and threatened by his neighbor, transforming a situation destined for intimate human fellowship into a spider web of conspiracy and violence” (page 63). God reigns throughout creation and shares the divine power to create with humanity. The sin of Empire and White Supremacy dehumanizes both the oppressed and the oppressors. This loving God chooses not work unilaterally, and works with human persons who respond to God’s love for the sake of creating community. Cone’s re-telling of the Creation and Fall stories in Genesis are what set up the relational thrust of James Cone’s liberation theology.

Election and God’s Love For The Oppressed

The relational, loving God of Liberation theology has direct intimate knowledge of the suffering of the oppressed. To know is to be responsible; It is far less painful to be uninvolved in someone else’s life, their pain, their poverty, their marginalization (page 25). It is the choice of the latter that makes libertarian politics and laizze-faire economics both such easy and heretical choices. A proper acknowledgement of the suffering of marginated persons as well as the ownership of a vast array of privileges requires that one does the hard work of examining power within sets of given relationships. Referring to Anders Nygren’s significant work on biblical notions of love, Agape And Eros, Cone builds on this particular theology of love to enjoin divine love to divine justice, ” The activity of agape-love cannot be easily separated from God’s righteousness. Indeed they must be tightly held together. Love prevents righteousness from being legalistic, and righteousness keeps love from being sentimental” (p 51). Cone continues, “Love without power to guarantee justice in human relations is meaningless (p 53). In A Black Theology Of Liberation, Cone remains consistent, “The wrath of God is the love of God in regard to the forces opposed to the liberation of the oppressed. Love without righteousness is unacceptable to blacks: this view of God is a product of the minds of enslavers” (p 71).

One of the criticisms that Thomas Jay Oord had of Anders Nygren’s theology of agape love in Oord’s work, the nature of love: a theology, was that Nygren completely (and rather problematically) dismisses the witness of the Hebrew Bible when it comes to notions of love. James Cone does indeed make a departure from Nygren in this regard, and in fact, Cone prioritizes God’s love as it is revealed in the election of Israel central to his relational theological project. Through agape-love, God is the initiator of calling Abraham and then later, Moses, and God reveals God’s justice through God’s activity in history according to Scripture (page 44 of BTBP). Because God is love, God sets out to do what is right by putting a-rights those who have been wronged in human relationships. Divine relationality goes hand-in-hand with the preferential option for poor. If indeed “Black Power is the Spirit of Christ himself” that has interrupted the relationship between black persons who need liberation from self-hatred, and white persons who need to be freed from white supremacy (page 62), God is relational to the extent that God does what is just.

This God Who Risks is love. God is not sentimental. Jennifer Lopez is wrong when she says “love don’t cost a thing.” Love costs everything, God demands our entire being just as our neighbors’ suffering requires all of our soul, all of our mind, and all of our bodies (53). A lot of Christians like to talk about being relational, and its just about centering everything around their emotions, and their experiences without risking having to listen to others. This is hardly a biblical (imo) understanding of relationality. James Cone notes that the real test for whites isn’t how they relate and communicate with acceptable blacks like MLK Jr. and Ralph Bunch, but “in how they respond to Rap Brown” (61). If I may have permission to wax this logic for 2014, the real test of whether whites can communicate with black as human beings is not what they reply to Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Oprah, but how they respond to Ratchet Culture.

In part two, I shall look at James Cone’s notions of relationality and how his gender & sexuality [black cishet male] possibly influences his writing.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Refusing to Reconcile Part 2: Spatiality, Fugitivity, and Blackness as Wild(er)ness by Amaryah Shaye

Recommended Reading:

The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie Jennings

The God Who Risks: a theology of divine providence by John Sanders

Black Theology and Black Power as well as A Black Theology of Liberation both by James Cone