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