In Defending Constantine (Chapter 10 “Justice For All”), Peter Leithart goes through the nitty gritty details of Constantine’s views on justice as well as his executive decisions when it came creating laws. Among some of his peculiarities was Constantine’s contention, much like Liberation Theology, that justice must be served to the oppressed. In those days, the Roman court system was oppressive and heavily biased towards the rich and powerful. Some of Constantine’s laws worked against this. In addition, Constantine outlawed crucifixions. The theological imagination for the secular philosopher/emperor Constantine was attracted to Christianity, and in that move, ended a murderous practice. However, Constantine still kept capital punishment itself around; Leithart just notes that Constantine just found more “creative” ways of executing criminals.
Torture and gory body-policing activities sponsored by the state such as the cutting off of thieves’ hands were acceptable Constantinian practices. Back then, these were social norms. It was expected that Constantine not to be able to transcend his cultural milieu. Like the Christian realists of the mid-20th century and even today, Constantine achieved what they would consider a “proximate justice.” The death penalty was such the norm back then that Constantine joked with Arius that the Emperor considered Arius and his fellow dissidents to be “gallows rogues,” or persons who found ways, time and again from being hung from the gallows ala Mordecai in the Book of Esther.
One interesting move that Leithart makes (as part of his larger Dominionist agenda in looking at the theological & social conservativism of the Global South) is to point out the African context from which the Donatist and Arian cotnroversies arose. In both instances, Christian bishops INVITED Emperor Constantine to help resolve these disputes. In the case of the Donatists, property rights were at stake. Radical Libyan Christians who took an uncompromising stance against bishops and laity who gave in to Roman persecution by denying Jesus as their Savior to save their own hides. The conflicts were so intense that Donatists were sometimes murdered for their beliefs. Appealing to political powers that be (an outside third-party) seemed to be the realistic approach to these issues.
James Cone’s The Cross And The Lynching Tree is written at the intersections of atonement theory, theodicy, and the struggle against White Supremacy. As Cone is making his argument in favor of USian Christians looking at the Cross through the history of the lynching tree, he notes that it was poets and artists during the Harlem Renaissance that first made the connection. Jim and Jane Crow was institutional, legal white supremacy maintained by placing black bodies on the gallows. One such writer, novelist and Christian scholar was W.E.B. DuBois DuBois’ Christian anti-racist imagination enabled him to use theological imagery to work to dismantle White Supremacy. Lacing his Christian prayers with appeals to the Prince of Peace, commenting on the race riots started by White Supremacists by referring to the book of Psalms, DuBois lived as an example of liberating Christian orthopraxis.
A few years ago in seminary, a group of African American students (including myself) protested against the injustices done to the Jena Six. The Jena Six situation was a high school fight started because someone hung a noose around the tree where the white kids usually sit. Under the murderous threat from the history of imperialist, racist KKKristianity which includes Emperor Constantine who himself had threatened an African man (as a joke) with lynching, the black high schoolers had little choice but to STAND THEIR GROUND.
No one can do an honest assessment of the Nicene-Chalcedon tradition without acknowledging its enforcement through, at minimum, the threat of violence (i.e., the anathemas and damnations and exiles etc.). However, the Nicene-Chalcedonian formulas are not beyond the liberating grasp of the Holy Spirit. In fact, Nicea & Chalcedon & the Apostles’ Creeds are are important to the extent that they remind us Gentile Christians of our metanarrative that we find in Scripture, and that our stories are not our own, and that THE story is not about us. Tradition (with a capitol T) ideally should be used to keep our nationalistic desires in check, but when it fails to do so, history and Scripture witnesses to the fact that God uses outsiders, the rejects to prophesy deliverance to the Body of Christ.
No one represents this moreso than the the U.S. American prophet W.E.B. DuBois. Living in the 20th century context where white Christians could recite the Creeds by rote memory, and then in the very next breathe, call a black person n*gger before lynching her, W.E.B. Dubois embodied Nicene-Chalcedonian orthopraxis as a testimony to Jesus Christ Our LORD and Liberator. In his essay, “The Gospel According To Mary Brown,” Dubois writes the Gospel narratives for his time, with a mulatto man portraying Jesus. Joshua is lynched because of his message of peace and anti-White Supremacy. As his mother Mary is found weeping, Joshua appeared to her, with his hair shining, white clothes (biblical language for holiness of the martyrs), “for his voice was the Voice of God.” When Mary asked where did Joshua go, Joshua tells her, “I was crucified, dead, and buried. I descended into Hell. On the third day, I rose from the dead. I ascended into Heaven and sit on the right hand of my Father, from whence I shall come to judge the Quick and the Dead.”
In an earlier post, I was mistaken to suggest that Constantine and Athanasius represent two different kinds of Christianity. It would be better for me to have said that Eusebius of Caesarea and the bishops and presbyters that made room for the devil by inviting Constantine to the table represent the imperial version of Christianity, the one where the nation-states’ story matters more than the Resurrection itself.
Eusebius and Athanasius represent two types of Christianity that we all have to struggle with. Eusebius and the Christian empire/dominionist tradition that Leithart favors is obsessed maintaining power over others (coercion, violence, war, white supremacy, lynching). The Nicene-Chalcedonian orthopraxis of Clement & Athansius of Alexandria and W.E.B DuBois offers a different way of being & doing in the world, that of living on the margins of exile, and pointing to the Logos as our Teacher & Prince of peace.
DID I DO THAT?: REDEFINING BLACKNESS WHILE REJECTING STEVE URKEL
English: This chart shows three groups of major contributors to the flowering of the New Negro Movement during the 1920’s and 1930’s in Harlem: Niggerati writers, New Negro intellectuals and Negrotarian patrons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In my previous posts, I discussed how religious leaders, both humanist and Christian, redefined what it meant to be an African American living on U.S. American shores. Being black is not something that is fixed and static. It is ever changing, just as all cultures are ever changing and fluid. Problems occur when people of all “colors” (colors/races which are social constructs) try to cling on to a solitary definition of what it means to be from this or that racial identity. To deny the fact that this change occur is a very denial of our very own humanity. Fixed notions of race and social identity in term of nationality make it easier for racist and nationalist gazes to fix themselves upon persons who live on the margins of society. This is why it is ever important for cultural change-agents to continually challenge racial and cultural stereotype as resistance to hegemony.
One such example? Frederick Douglass:
Frederick Douglass, if you ever read his Narrative, was determined to learn how to read and write. He faced consequences for his learning, but he used his education for the benefit of the down-trodden. In my post about theologian James Cone, I mentioned that he worked to redefine African American experiences in the USA, and he stresses that he was influenced by Malcolm X and his notions of blackness. It was Malcolm X that made the label of “negro” (something that was imposed on black Americans by whites) one of shame, and black, a matter of pride, something evil that was reclaimed for good. Malcolm X however did not write and think from some blank slate. No, he was raised by a father who was caught up in the theories of the Harlem Renaissance movement. More specifically, the New Negro Movement; the New Negro Movement was started by a group of writers and cultural creators in the late 19th century through the 1930’s. The New Negro Movement, with persons such as Hubert Harrison, Marcus Garvey, and Countee Cullen, sought to challenge what it meant to be a Negro American in those days. The Negro Churches (African American Christianity after Emancipation/before the Civil Rights Movement) was portrayed as being lead backwater, immoral priests (read W.E.B. DuBois study “The Negro Church”)and the institution was far to ineffective in addressing the economic oppression caused by Jane and Jim Crow.
Some thinkers in the New Negro Movement thought promoting the idea that repossessing Africa by African Americans would be a sign to prove that African Americans were valuable and worthy of being seen as human. This was why Marcus Garvey made a name for himself back then. The New Negro Movement was seen as a threat to the status quo: one example is that Hubert Harrison, senior editor for a New Negro magazine lost his job because he challenged Booker T. Washington’s leadership. Booker T. Washington was seen as THE Negro leader in the eyes of whites, and to confront his power was to challenge his ability to speak for the Negro race.
The New Negro Movement rejected what it meant to be a Negro prior to the Great Depression; the Black Power movement discarded the label “Negro” and all the problems that went with it. One of the problems, like the solution of going back to claim Africa, seems to ring of an imitation of Europe, to colonize African societies just so Negroes “can earn” their humanity. Starting empire would not be the best way to prove how human you were; it would be just another display of inhumanity. The Black Power movement was about Black people loving themselves, accepting themselves as who they were, situated here on North American shores. Afro-centrism was about bringing Africa to the States.
While I won’t get into the problems of essentialism and problems I have with Afro-centrism here, the point of reclaiming Blackness in the late 1960s was a matter of self-affirmation. Yes, the black power movement made tremendous progress in bringing to light achievements by African Americans in history, but with cultural and political backlash, it became impotent in challenging Reagan conservativism, the Southern Strategy, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Blacks’ roles in society were stuck in the quagmire of being “the athlete” and “entertainer” all the while being stereotyped as lazy and evil. That’s why we could have Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey speak for us, as Booker T. Washington spoke for us because of their cultural achievement and choices not to challenge the status quo. Being a black nerd, someone who refused to just an entertainer or jock, was something to be ashamed of.
During the Harlem Renaissance, George Schuyler wrote a science fiction novel entitled Black No More where a business had discovered the cure to racism: a machine to turn Negroes white. If everyone is white, there would be no racism! In the hit 80s show, Family Matters, the program chronicles the awkward misadventures of one Steve Urkel, a clumsy but brilliant black science nerd. Urkel’s nerdiness is the barrier that keeps him from his true love, Laura Winslow, so Urkel has an idea. An invention that will transform him from geek to chic (the character Stephon Urkel), so he can win Laura’s heart. The problem with this is that we never ask if Steve loved himself first. Black nerds were to be ashamed of themselves, as things to be negated; meanwhile, Laura, Eddie, and Rachel Winslow stand as the norms expected by middle class blacks, I mean, Tyler Perry.
The brilliance behind the cult classic movie, “Scott Pilgrim Versus The World” is found in the genius ending. Rather than this being the same old same ole narrative about a guy fighting for the love of his life, Scott Pilgrim wins at the end because he “earns the Power of Self-Respect.” In the same way, I think the Blerd movement is important (for this point in time, anyhow), to return African Americans back to the Black Power movement’s original purpose of celebrating black self-respect. Blerd is also important as a label for me because all of my life I have struggled to embrace my nerdiness and my blackness together. Blerd as a label for me expresses what it means hybridity, to have a complex identity that can’t be simplified. More importantly, Blerd maintains the importance of not just education, but being bookish, well read and well aware of the world around us. Blerd is subversive. Blerd is both the present and the future.
A couple of ideas on how to move BLERD forward:
1st, I think it is important that the face of blerddom not be bound up by popular blerd male figures:
Blerd should be viewed as a gender-inclusive term. Part of the problem with the Black Power Movement is that many of its figure heads were down right misogynist, and we need to recognize that history if we are to move forward. Elderidge Clever is but one example, Huey Newton another. When it comes to redefining black identities, it should be an effort by women and men respectfully. And let’s not forget, a lot of the most important “blerds” in U.S. American history were women: Octavia Butler, Pauline Hopkins, Zora Neale Hurston, Shirley Chisolm, and Ida B. Wells just to name a few!
Secondly, in an American society that has become more anti-intellectual and more hostile toward integrated, public education, Blerd should be willing to make literacy sexy and hott. Books, whether we are talking about on Kindle, iPad, paperback, and hardcover, are the best alternatives to moving forward (except for garbage like the Twilight series, but I digress). Over and against the plantation antics of Lil’ Wayne and Beyonce, Blerd must resist our culture’s dependency on negative black stereotypes.