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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: 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

 

 

 

 

 

Unleashing the Word: Freeing the Church from Biblical Studies

THE BIBLE AND LIBERATION IN AND THROUGH WORSHIP

UN study bible

When I was in undergrad, one of the first courses I took in religious studies was Introduction to the Bible 101. It was taught by a Hebrew Bible scholar who also identified as a second-wave feminist. Throughout the semester, we learned how to examine the Old Testament using the scientific method. While many of my white, more conservative evangelical classmates left the class in unspoken rage because of the questions the professor raised, I began to learn how to read the Bible critically, and even began to question the professors approach at times.

Honestly, in our conversations looking back, I was ill-equipped to interpret Scripture because I did not even know what hermeneutics meant or the differences between genres were. These memories of growth are not what I want to talk about however. I really want to point out a rather perplexing episode that happened in this class. It was around the holiday season when the religious studies faculty made a request. That instead of returning our Oxford Study Bibles (NRSV) to the bookstore for $2 or whatever, to donate them to an organization that was providing Bibles to churches in China. Even back then I had a lot of questions about this project. Why would a faculty so critical of a text turn around and want to send ENGLISH translations of Scripture to a foreign land? Just never made sense to me until………….

I read Stanley Hauerwas’ Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America. The question that I asked of myself nearly now almost a decade ago had found its answer. Hauerwas begins this controversial work with this truth bomb:

“No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. […] North American Christians are trained to believe that they are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation. They read the Bible not as Christians, not as a people set apart, but as democratic citizens who think their ‘common sense’ is sufficient for ‘understanding’ the Scripture. They feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community to be told how to read. Instead, they assume they have all the ‘religious experience’ necessary to know what the Bible is about.”

page 15

Now, Hauerwas goes on to denounce this approach as a product of liberal democracy and egalitarian values. Yet, that would be a tremendously sloppy description of the United States of America and its perpetuation of racial hierarchies. Even in Hauerwas’ own work, he recognizes that a lot of white Americans have not confronted the reality that they live in a country built on settler colonialism, genocide, and slavery. It is this denial of the truth that keeps white North American Christians from being able to do the real work of Christian peacemaking.  The triplet colonial projects of U.S. American Bible Societies, Biblical studies, and the Bible translation industry are the reigning institutions that have petrified problematic, racist interpretations of scripture in USian Christianity.

A couple of examples include recent blog posts that recycle and pay  homage to the white supremacist doctrine of the Curse of Ham.  Rather than seek to liberate and completely annihilate this oppressive reading of Scripture, emergent Christians and liberals would rather seek to somehow redeem this understanding of the Bible.  These otherwise “enlightened” folks would prefer to save something that is already familiar to them rather than encounter the Stranger at the Margins, the actual people harmed by the traditional reading of these passages.  To keep with the example of the Curse of Ham, this interpretation is seen as normative, so much so it is allowed to be taught in public schools.  This perverse racialized reading of Genesis  that evangelical leaders like John MacArthur promote is NOT worth serving, especially since I have expounded many times how the Curse of Ham (and this weird expansion of it “the Curse of Bable”) is  a product of white slave masters and racist pseudo-scientific catalogues.

The history of Bible Societies has been just as problematic. As my brother pointed out, Bible Societies purpose lied from the time of colonialism ’til now, to make Christianity a monolinguistic, monocultural spirituality that submitted to the British and American empires.  Our doctrines of Scriptures even inerrancy are often the very things we hide our agendas behind.  Now it would be for me to say, well, let’s just abolish all three institutions and get it over with. But really, what should these practices be replaced with. So, I offer the following few practices that churches can start to subvert the Powers of Bible Societies, Translations, and Biblical studies.

1. In worship settings, at academic and church planter conferences, practice a preferential option for the margins.  Invite the homeless and the widows and orphans, and allow them to sit anywhere they want, even if it is at the very front.  Read Scriptures with and do small group studies at prisons, at-risk youth’s homes, and shelters for domestic violence.  I know I had the privilege of working at a Vacation Bible School at one of those shelters, and it makes a difference in de-centering our experiences while simultaneously being present where Christ is, among the least of these.  Some of the best commentaries on the Bible come from persons who have been held in chains.  Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are just two examples.  It’s a shame that Bonhoeffer’s Letters From Prison is just merely used to provide one quote about God being a Suffering God, and not much else.  I think there lies a biblical  Hermeneutic of Gentile Responsibility that also need s to be examined (and I plan on blogging on that too).

2. Make an attempt to teach every congregant the original languages of Scripture and the Early Church.  When I was a children’s minister, I worked to introduce the kids to some of the Greek alphabet.  That was before I moved on to purchasing and teaching from published, Book-store approved curriculums.  Maybe I did fail by a certain view of success, but just the trying is all that mattered.   W.E.B. DuBois advocated educating black Americans suffering during Jim Crow by teaching them all the classics, and Greek, Latin, and other languages.  Susannah Wesley raised and taught her children like John and Charles to read and interpret in these languages.  Bringing back this mode of education is crucial to de-centering the notion that English as God’s preferred language.

3. Lastly, boycott Christian bookstores, especially Mardel. No, I’m serious.  Churches need to stop relying on their neighborhood Lifeways and Cokesbury’s (are they still even around?) and look to their congregants, where there are people who’ve graduated seminary, teachers, and former professors who are more than able to provide a lifetime of knowledge. Chad even proposed at one time to make his own Bible translation after failing in his search where he compared all English translations. Christian education is about discipleship, spiritual formation in a local congregation. The Bible as a text, needs to be mediated by the Holy Spirit, our encounters with the poor, and an interpretative community that confesses the Lordship of Christ Jesus.

This is my contribution to the Living Liberation blogging event with MennoNerds and The Wild Goose Festival. The Wild Goose Festival is a gathering at the intersection of justice, spirituality, music and the arts. Happening June 26-29 outside of Asheville in Hot Springs, NC. You can get more information and tickets here: wildgoosefestival.org