Tag Archives: John Howard Yoder

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

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

Anabaptist Theology & Black Power: Intro #AnaBlacktivism

In the recent decade since September 11th, 2001, there has been a surge of Christians in the church, the academy, and online the have taken up the label of “AnaBaptist.”  For many evangelicals, this moniker is a symbol to separate themselves from their parents’ version of Christianity.  The history of the Radical Reformation is an immense departure from the Protestant and Catholic Reformations.  It is one of beheadings, persecution, tears, exiles, and furious debates.  The sufferings of the early Anabaptists as well as the past and present oppression faced by African Americans (and persons of color) are bound up in the history of The Cross.  Given the fact that the historic struggle against White Supremacist Constantinian Christendom is something that Anabaptist theologians and Black Liberationists have in common, one would think that these would be natural allies.  Unfortunately, this is has not been the case.

In fact, the opposite has been true.  In texts and online, many white emergent church leaders who self-identify as Anabaptist dismiss liberation theology as “inherently violent.”  When pushed further, as I have on occasion, these leaders share documents from written by Joseph Ratzinger, when he served as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.  What is excluded from the discussion was any mention of the imperial violence that Liberation theologians and their communities experienced, particularly by way of the U.S. American military.  On the other end of the spectrum, because of the supremacist narratives guiding the contemporary appropriation of Anabaptist theology, Black liberationists have dismissed nonviolence as a theology and an ethic because of the consistent failure of  Anabaptist missional leaders to remember the suffering of the colonized appropriately.

In this series for next, I hope to articulate my view about how the values of the Radical Reformation and Black Liberationist theology are reconcilable, and more importantly, why both traditions need each other.  This would include an inclusive vision of what it means to participate in the Radical Reformation across racial, class, and denominational lines, without dropping any of the Anabaptist Distinctives that Tyler Tully identified: A) A Jesus Centered Lens in reading all of Scripture; B) A Confessing, Free Church of Baptized Jesus Followers, and C) Living Out Moral Agency as Participants in the Triune God’s Shalom, or as Tyler put it best the non-violent lifestyle that  means “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.”

I shall examine each of these three Anabaptist Distinctives as they relate to Black Liberation theology.  One may say that this series is an AnaBlacktivist Manifesto, with basic distinctives for #AnaBlacktivism.  

 

This is the first 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