Tag Archives: protestantism

they would respect us if

With the Ferguson movement and other protests around the country highlighting the dual but interrelated problems of police brutality and racial profiling in African American communities, many public intellectuals have been pondering the reasons why Blacks are more likely to be profiled, brutalized, or worse, murdered in cold blood as Mike Brown was. A few such famed thinkers, such as Pastor Voddie Baucham, actor Bill Cosby and CNN’s Don Lemon continue to push the false myth of Black intellectual inferiority as the reason behind Blacks’ natural criminality. If THEY, those hoodlums will pull up their pants, not dress like ratchet ladies we see on them hip hop videos, and get a job, perhaps the police would less likely assume that (presumably) poor blacks were all criminals. In marginalized communities, there is this pervasive, dogmatic belief that if marginated persons assimilate to the dominant culture, and go along just to get along, everything will be alright.

Respectability is depicted as a panacea to heal cross-cultural divides. In many ways, Respectability can be co-opted to subvert the status quo, to debunk stereotypes and to exceed expectations by the mainstream. On the other hand, Respectability Politics, when it is taken as an absolute, can be a dangerous affrontery to the disadvantage of the oppressed. If only Black people, immigrants, and First Nations people would cling on to the American dream like the middle Blacks who strived so in Prince Georges County, Maryland, better day will be ahead. We are often told it’s not WHAT you know, but WHO you know that will help you get that promotion, or perhaps make it to an Ivy League school like the New York Times’ Charles Blow’s son did. For those that are unfamiliar with the term, according to Trudy, respectability politics are

“cultural, sexual, domestic, employment and artistic “guidelines” or “rules” for racially marginalized groups to follow in the effort to be viewed as “human” in a White supremacist society and by individual Whites. Some of the most noticeable manifestations of the politics of respectability occurs among Black people because of the history dehumanization because of slavery.”

The humanity of Black people and People of Color, has to be earned in other words. Rather than all of our humanity being accepted as a gift of God, Respectability Politics is a heretical rejection of the Imago Dei, the infinite sacred worth of all human beings. Respectability politics is an attempt by limited human beings to measure the immeasurable. When it comes to respectability politics, writers usually start with political and social commentary without regard for the religious sources behind respectability, and the blasphemous theology behind.

Last February, conservative evangelical theologian Roger E. Olson referred to Respectability as “most pernicious and pervasive heresy in the U.S. American Church.” Olson’s class analysis and use of Karl Barth as an argument against pastors who exist simply to make us feel comfortable and the exclusion of ordinary congregants from participating in worship is only part of the problem when it comes to Respectability and Christendom. Olson’s observation falls short because he fails to address the racialized nature of respectability and therefore Christianity’s complicity in the history of White Supremacy.

Speaking from a Church History standpoint, the adoption of Respectability Politics has been a long time practice for Black Protestant communities. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones endured persecution while working for the social uplift of both Free and enslaved Africans. Allen was well-respected and somewhat duplicitious in his actions, being friends with revolutionaries such as Morris Brown and Denmark Vesey (Wilmore, page 104), as well as playing the respectability card in the name of holiness (Wilmore, 124) as he participated in temperance societies, encouraging Blacks to avoid drunkenness so that they would not give White people any ammunition to perpetuate racist beliefs (See Gayraud S. Wilmore’s Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation Of the Religious History of African Americans). Wilmore’s text neglects the religious life of Black Catholics particularly during the time of African enslavement due to its soft Protestant triumphalism.

In Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience, Diane Batts Morrow’s essay “The Difficulty of Our Situation: The Oblate Sisters in Antebellum Society,” tells us of some of the history of the Oblate Sisters of Providence who were located in Baltimore, Maryland. This was a society where Coloured Women “renounced the world to consecrate themselves to God, and to the education” of Black women. Very much like Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in Philadelphia, these sisters encountered opposition and persecution from Baltimore’s Catholic community. In 1829, the Oblate Sisters of Providence were finally allowed to “pledge themselves to a life of service and faithful observance of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.” Clergy remained disapproving of a Black sisterhood. Black women were deemed as incapable of embodying virtue. “The image of Black women as the sexually promiscuous Jezebel became fixed in the white public consciousness. Negative stereotypes of black women remained so widespread in American culture that long after the history of slavery,” religious leaders could not imagine “the creation of a virtuous black woman.” The White enslaver class believed that biology and morality were inherently fixed. Not matter what Blacks did to earn respect, it would never be enough. Grace was insufficient.

In thinking about nature, grace, and Respectability Politics, my friend Tapji Garba and I have arrived somewhat at a tentative theological case in fierce opposition to the false god of Respectability. Critiques of “respectabilism” are part of a quite Protestant stream of thinking that lends itself toward iconoclasm. Taps used the example of Martin Luther’s criticism of indulgences, that just as indulgences were viewed polemically as ladders to reach God, so too does respectability function as a ladder for the oppressed to achieve their full humanity. If marginalized persons do so choose to appropriate respectability, they should only do so as what Taps rightly observed as engaging in the task of naming that which is fictive. Respectability is a false atonement, and is as just a falsehood as the racist stereotypes the Oblate Sisters of Providence fought by practicing chastity and poverty. A respectabilism that is used to sustain these untruths means the continued humiliation of Blacks and People of Color. Ultimately, bowing at the alter of Respectability is an atonement TO sovereignty: the state, the market, and privileged elites. To the extent that the oppressed use Respectability Politics to expose imperialist lies which tie biology to virtuosity, they assert their own God-given human dignity.

(Photo description: picture taken at a bus stop on the eastside of Fort Worth. The poster read: ‘Why they respected us then’ underneath a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and friends locking arms, dressed in suits. On the bottom of the poster:’ why they don’t respect us now’ as a caption of what seems to be a screen shot of a hip hop video, with young black men sagging, looking quote/unquote “thuggish.’)

MLK Jr., the Two Kingdoms and the Politics of Love

“In these days of uncertainty, the evils of war and of economic and racial injustice threaten the very survival of the human race. Indeed we live in a day of grave crisis.” (p.Xiii, Strength To Love) These are the words that begin Martin Luther King’s work Strength To Love. Although these words were published in 1963 it is certainly not a stretch to note their relevance to the state of current socio-political issues in the United States. Whether it is President Barack Obama’s recent declaration to send troops back to Iraq, the continued fight for socio-economic equality throughout the states, or the continued injustices that take place in cities like Ferguson throughout the country, we do indeed live in turbulent times. Furthermore at stake here is the survival of the human fabric. How can the Christian community address these dire circumstances? What response can theology offer up to these concerns? Although there is no comprehensive answer to this question Dr. Martin Luther King can offer some insight on the ways theology can address current crisis such as the racial injustices that happen far too often in our world today. Ultimately the solution lies in showing the love of Christ to all of the communities to which we belong. I believe to create a theopolitics of love one must understand the true nature of their citizenship in the world, incorporate the capacity for altruism, and become aware of humanities shortcomings.

As a member of the Christian community it can become difficult to navigate the world of both the sacred and the secular. Christians belong to both of these worlds. King notes: “Every true Christian is a citizen of two worlds, the world of time and the world of eternity. We are, paradoxically, in the world and yet not of the world” (p.12). Thus we are citizens of both the temporal world that we live in on Earth as well as our heavenly citizenship to live eternity with God. This is complicated because we have citizenships in both of these worlds at the same time. We are thus not allowed neglected the concerns of one in favor of the other and vice versa. This can be interpreted that because we have dual citizenship, we are also have dual responsibilities that are not mutually exclusive. That is to say, our responsibility on the temporal world is to bring about the peace that we seek from our eternal union with God. This task can only be fulfilled through the fight for justice for all of God’s creation.

Beyond realizing the nature of Christian dual citizenship it is equally important understand what it means to show neighborly love. Reflecting on the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 25:10-37) is helpful here. Before examining this parable it is important to understand the context of this parable. A law expert has asked Jesus’ advice on how to enter heaven. In other words it is a question regarding how to obtain dual citizenship. They eventually reach the conclusion that it is through loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. However, the discussion does not end there. The law expert proceeds to ask Jesus who is one’s neighbor. This leads to Jesus’ reply using the famous parable in which the Good Samaritan acts the most neighborly. Both a priest and a Levite pass over a man who has recently been robbed on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It is only the Samaritan who has the courage to help him and to truly act like a neighbor. On the surface it seems as if the other two were merely acting out of their own selfish interest without concern for the life staring them directly in the face.

It is entirely possible that they may have had great reasons for not stopping. However, what makes the Samaritan neighbor is his ability to exercise his capacity for altruism. King states “true altruism is the capacity to sympathize. It is the personal concern that demands the giving of one’s soul (p.27)” This form of altruism involves feeling for the person in need, including their pain, agony, and burdens. It is the personal concern that allows us to recognize the humanity that we all share. All too often we focus on only those issues that concern a particular group that we associate with. It is hard for us to be concerned for issues outside our context. Only through recognizing the humanness of everyone are we able to truly exercise our capacity for altruism. The Samaritan was able to exercise his altruistic capacity because he saw the man on the road first and foremost as human. He did not see his race, ethnicity, gender or other socially constructed categories. He was able to identify the shared humanness that both of them possessed. Our capacity to be altruistic is the motivating force behind our ability to show neighborly love. This in turn allows understanding that connection between our responsibility as citizen of the eternal God as well as our responsibility to the temporal world.

I can think of no better example than the call to fight for racial justice in America today. While the cases of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and John Crawford III have garnered recent media attention they are far from the only victims of institutional racism in the United States. Part of truly realizing dual citizenship is the very real practice of social justice from American Christians. Living out a social justice ethos can take a variety of forms. Whether it is the individual Christian or the entire church community advocating social justice is important. From supporting protest rallies, to playing an active role in helping to change institutional policies that create a system predicated racial inequality Christian communities must take an active role in realizing the responsibility to the temporal world as part of a theopolitics of love.

“Never must the church tire of reminding ‘humanity’ that they have a moral responsibility to be intelligent” (p 39)

Related article from the archives: How Dietrich Bonhoeffer Redefined the Two Kingdom’s theory

Baptists are the Reavers: my thoughts on #protfuture

Image from fireflyfans.net

A while back, I reviewed a book on science fiction and social theory. Surprisingly, this little book had a lot to teach me about how we view eschatology. Essentially, our views of the futures are often times shaped by notions of exclusion. Which ever tribe (usually tribe, in the case of First Nations persons) we see as not being able to make it is based usually on historical circumstances, like for instance, genocide and war to continue on with my example.

Recently, I watched the conversation held at BIOLA University on The Future of Protestantism sponsored by First Things magazine. Dr. Peter Leithart, who originally wrote the provocative essay The End of Protestantism re-introduced us to his idea of Reformational Catholicism, going back to the Reformers and their Catholic view of theology, the sacraments, honoring the Church Fathers. Protestantism is a movement and a theology that doth protest too much, a project that was found to be susceptible to tribalism, nationalism and anti-intellectualism.

The responses offered by Evangelical Wesleyan theologian Fred Sanders and Reformational theologian Carl Trueman were concise and highly critical of Leithart’s project. What I found interesting is that there was this over-arching theme fretting that the culture wars, for a particular band of Christians, had been lost. I will leave you to read up and believe why that was the case, and the cultural biases behind that belief.

What I want to talk about is the BoogeyMen, who are the Reavers to this Brave New World called the Conservative Evangelical Protestantism of the Future. First Things and this conversation are running a first-class Firefly spaceship, and they are trying to avoid the cannibals we call The Baptists. The notion of a Reformational Catholicism precludes any adherence to traditional Free Church ecclessiology. Autonomous, local congregations are derided as “cults of personality.” Word-Centered worship services being replaced by the Table-Centered/Eucharist traditions. I think that in and of itself is something that cannot be called being faithful to the Reformation, or the Old and New Testaments.

I also found it odd that both parties were willing to give our Catholic sisters and brothers grace, but aren’t willing to extend it to mainline Protestantism. This I find absolutely hypocritical. Forget about the leadership and direction of mainline Protestant denominations; there are many persons with conservative, evangelical beliefs in these churches. The Unity that #ProtFuture is in search for is a political hegemony, one where Conservativism is the same as preaching the Gospel. I’ll reserve my comments concerning the cultural hegemony of where the conversation went, and where it usually goes, but suffice to say that it takes a similar approach to “Third-World Pentecostalism” as “progressive” emergent church leaders.  Maybe rather than asking how can we teach the new Christian majority, Charismatics from Global South to accept how we see things, how about asking, “what can these Christians teach us about the faith?”

I like that this discussion started an important conversation.  It’s a conversation that Dietrich Bonhoeffer commented on, that American Protestantism is a Protestantism without reformation.  This is primarily due to the particular cultural milieu the U.S. finds itself in, the national culture wars among other things. I guess what I envision as a possible future of Protestant Christianity is a commitment to  A) the Theology of the Cross that Martin Luther first built the movement on with the 95 theses,  B) The Three Baptisms of the Radical Reformation– Immersed in Water, Immersed by the Holy Spirit, Immersed in Bodily Existence within the World (baptism of blood), and lastly  C) Word-Centered woship services where the Word is preached through sermons and prayers by the priesthood of all believers, women and men alike; where the Bible is the norming norm where we affirm and interpret the creeds and historic Christian writings and statements in light of the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, and where the story of God and humanity is seen as begotten by YHWH at the Exodus in the election of Israel, and begins anew with its inclusion of the Gentiles, and rightfully towards its TELOS in the Death and Resurrection of Christ Jesus.   

The Future of Protestantism conversation has helped me gain a little clarity in what I see as my hopes for the future of Christianity.  I am known to joke on occasion that here in Texas, everyone is a Baptist.  We wear our faith on our sleeve, we go to retail centers bragging about our congregations, and we’re just deeply stubborn to protest anything.  From the fifth grade students in a classroom, to your grocery shopper contending for what he believes is the right price of an item, we are all Baptists, even the Catholics.  I kinda think that’s what the future of Christianity could look like.  Not as a religion that hijacks notions of marginality and de-historicizes the real experience of exiles and refuges, but as a pure and undefiled religion that reveals the Holiness of God in the creative dis-location of our very bodies to be present-with the least of these, the Reavers of the world, a Church free to serve God and set the prisoners free.