Tag Archives: The Prophets

Anabaptist Theology & Black Power: An Anti-Imperial Confessing Church #Anablacktivism

The Cross, The New Creation, and Creative Discipleship

Please read the first two posts in this series before proceeding to read the following essay:

Anabaptist Theology & Black Power: Intro

Anabaptist Theology & Black Power: Christ The Center

In this article, I wish to turn from hermeneutical method and towards very brief sketches of Christology and ecclesiology. The second feature of historic Anabaptism, according to Tyler Tully is free church of confessing, baptized disciples. What type of Christology is inferred from the post-Christian Anabaptist approach developed from predominantly white male Christians? How faithful are these “new” Anabaptists to the Christologies of the first members of the Radical Reformation?  And lastly, how may a Black Liberationist Christology be compatible with Anabaptist studies of Christ’s personhood?

For the emergent Anabaptists of today’s post-Christendom, when it comes to approaching the Bible, the category of story is stressed above history.  The hazard in overemphasizing the mythos of the past is to make religious communities vulnerable to dreaming of an essentializing good ole days.  The good ole days in this perspective is that of the early church, united and on one front being persecuted from the margins in their witness of spreading the Good News. One possible safeguard against this hegemonic dream was the interpretation of the Tower of Babel by John Howard Yoder, and affirmed (sort of) by his student Stanley Hauerwas, where God “confusing” the languages of humanity actually liberates humanity from empire and monolingualism.  As I will attempt to demonstrate, not even the Pentecostal possibilities of this re-telling of Nimrod’s story can save White post-Christendom  Anabaptist theology from its own pitfalls.

When I was in seminary, the book that originally changed it all for me was Stanley Hauerwas’ and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens: Life In the Christian Colony.  Hauerwas, as a student of John Howard Yoder, takes his cues from his teacher in exploring three paradigms in ecclessiology: the ‘activist church,’ ‘the conversionist church,’ and the ‘confessing church.’  Taken from Yoder’s essay, “A People in the World: Theological Interpretation, Hauerwas criticizes the former two models of doing church, and praises the latter, or at least his own version of it.  The confessing church sees the local congregation as a counter-culture by first prioritizing “the congregation’s determination to worship Christ in all things” (page 45).  Confessing churches reject numbers games, filling the pulpits, and rather, they seek to make the category of faithfulness primary.  The Confessing Church is the group of visible martyrs, being salt on the earth, operating as Christ’s flashlight in a fallen, dark world.  

According to Hauerwas, the Confessing Church is the community of The Cross.  One practical example of a Confessing Church in action is a missional response to events that happen in international affairs.  Hauerwas suggested that a Christian response to the Libya crisis would be possibly for the United Methodist Church to send 1,000 missionaries to Libya  in spite of it being illegal to travel there.  Hauerwas when informed of that barrier, responded, “We can’t go there because we no longer have a church that produces people who can do something this bold. But we once did.”  Hauerwas and Willimon continue, “We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price” page 48.

For Hauerwas and Post-Christendom White Christians, the worship of Jesus and the remembrance of our story determines the Church’s task.  It is this worship that sets the boundary between Yoder’s and Hauerwas’ preferred way of seeing society, that of Church and World.  The Church’s nonviolent testimony is God’s response to a violent, fragmented world.  In The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer In Christian Ethics, Hauerwas describes this fragmentation as, “Life in a world of moral fragments is always on the edge of violence, since there are no means to ensure that moral argument in itself can resolve our moral conflicts.  No wonder we hunger for absolutes in such a world, for we rightly desire peace in ourselves and in our relations with one another.”  [Hauerwas continues,] “Moreover the fragmentation of our world is not only ‘out there,’ but it is also in our own souls.  Amid fragments it is extremely hard to maintain our moral identity.  We feel pulled in different directions by our various roles and convictions, unsure whether there is or can be any coherence to our lives.  We become divided selves, more easily tempted to violence since, being unsure of ourselves, we are easily threatened by any challenge that might rob us of what little sense of self we have achieved.”-pages 5-6

Taking some of his cues from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Hauerwas takes us on a journey in virtue ethics all the while providing a rebuttal to Christian realism.  Christ Jesus is the embodiment of God’s Kingdom .  Jesus performs the story of Israel in his offices of priest, king, and prophet (see Chapter 5: Jesus: The Presence of the Peaceable Kingdom).  While his discussion of Christ and discipleship originally focuses on what the Protestant Reformers call the Munus Triplex, the three offices of Christ, really what Hauerwas reduces the tradition to is actually two offices, that of Priest and King.  Christ is only prophet to the extent that he is the Chosen Servant to die ala the Servant stories in Isaiah (page 78).  This neglect of the traditional understanding of Christ as prophet  has larger implications for White Post-Christendom ecclesiology.

IMO, Stanley Hauerwas, and subsequently Anabaptist thinkers after him, have slightly modified John Howard Yoder’s notion of a Confessing Church to fit a more hierarchal, sacramental church structure.  Whether Hauerwas’ vision for THE CHURCH is eschatological in  a future sense or a present descriptor, I wish not to debate here.  What I will say is that Yoder’s ecclesiology was informed primarily by the founders of the Radical Reformation.  The earliest debates between the Anabaptists and their interlocuters, Catholics and Protestant Reformers respectively, revolved around the nature of baptism, believers’ baptism versus infant baptism.  The consequences of denying the power of original sin as a biological impediment of human nature was usually imprisonment, followed by beheading.  Claiming inspiration from the Holy Spirit, the Anabaptists ferverently spread the message against deadly opposition.  Preaching Good News inspite of the very real specter of death was seen as their participation in the Third Baptism, the Baptism of Blood/Martyrdom.

What was meant to be a mockery of Anabaptists (being re-baptized, and then finding themselves drowned to death for their beliefs), the Third Baptism became a marker of the Radical Reformers’ theology; in short, discipleship meant the re-positioning of the believer’  bodies, even to the point of death.  In Scripture, Christ’s witness is shown in water baptism, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and Blood Baptism (bodily sacrifice) ; see for example 1st John 5:6-8.  One example of this martyrdom is the story of Balthasar Hubmaier, who as he was about to be burned at the stake, reportedly said, ‘Oh salt me well, salt me well.”  This gives a new meaning to the phrase “salt of the earth” for when salt is placed on a wound of our skin, it burns.  As Jesus said according to Mark, “For everyone will be salted with fire” (9:49), or in some texts, “every sacrifice will be salted with salt.”

I don’t want to dismiss the significance of the Baptisms of Water and of Spirit, but for my purposes since I want to talk about discipleship, and what would an interdenominational Radical Reformation movement look like, I will prefer to discuss Blood Baptism.  Water baptisms are marks of what local congregations you are a part of, who will keep you accountable in your Christian walk from birth to death.  The Spirit Baptism is more about God personally interacting with you on an individual level, as a seal of salvation as well as a Guide to help you in the process of personal sanctification.  The Third Baptism is the place where we can see another intersection between Black Liberation Theology and Anabaptism.

Because Hauerwas and company neglect to see the sources of Yoder’s ecclesiology (the Radical Reformation), they have appropriated in a problematic direction.  The example Hauerwas gave of a Confessing Church in action, the UMC (a predominantly white-lead institution) invading an African country in the Two-Thirds world is a small glimpse of a colonizing ecclessiological gaze that narrative postliberal theologians could have without the aid of Liberation Theology.  As I mentioned in part one of this series, John Howard Yoder preferred the category of story over history.  Historical questions, he claimed, weren’t being dismissed, they just weren’t the focus of his work.  However, Yoder did dismiss the criticisms of The Politics of Jesus by Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza in her Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation.  While Schussler-Fiorenza and historical critics wanted to talk about the historical context of the household codes, Yoder chose time and again to derail the discussion by claiming to be concerned for the “christological component” of the early Church’s action.  In other words, narrative and therefore, heretical Docetism prevails.  

The notion of us humans being “storytellers,” simply isn’t that innocent at all.  Narrative needs historical context, and historians need people’s stories.  There needs to be a reciprocal, dialogical approach to Christology and ecclesiology in this regard. Imagine a Confessing Church that not only praised the Living God in awe of God’s work revealed in Christ’s life, but also a church that confessed  a politics that was historically aware in the quest to practice neighborly love. In the words of Drew Hart,

The Third Baptism is not only a mark of what has historically happened to faithful Christian witnesses, but it is also something that is DONE BY persons claiming to be members of Christ’s church.  An #AnaBlacktivist ecclesiology would carry on the memories of Blood Baptisms in history, initiated by both secular agencies as well as Constantinian White Supremacist religionists.  James Cone in Black Theology and Black Power described these blood baptisms in existential terms. “absurdity arises as a man confronts the world and looks for meaning.  […] Absurdity arises as the black man seeks to understand his place in the white world.  The black man does not view himself as absurd; he views himself as human.  But he meets the white world and its values, he is confronted with an almighty NO and is defined as a thing. This produces an absurdity.”  – page 11. 

Unfortunately because emergence Christianity’s discounting of the historical Radical Reformation tradition of The Third Baptism (while appropriating the title of Anabaptist I may add), I fear that the new Anabaptists will just be repeating the same imperial Christianity they seek to both avoid as well as oppose.  As long as White Supremacy is not confronted, those Libyans [ahem, or Nigerians] overseas will be looked upon as Things to be missionally converted rather than human beings to be loved.  The message of Black Liberation is summed up in its definition of freedom: “The man of Black Power will not rest until the oppressor recognizes him for what he is– man.  He further knows that in this campaign for human dignity, freedom is not a gift but a right worth dying for” page 12.

The Anti-Imperial Confessing church then, is one that “continually to ask: ‘Who in the community does not live according to the spirit of Christ? This is the kind of question which was so important to the sixteenth century Anabaptists, and it must be vital for the Church of any age.”- page 70.  If “the true church of Christ must define clearly through its members the meaning of God’s act in Christ,” then we as believers must know who Christ is, as priest, prophet, and king. The Messiah’s reigning presence is found among the poor and imprisoned.  Christ Jesus as priest is the Suffering Servant of God, as “an oppressed being who has taken on that very form of human existence that is representation of human misery” A Black Theology of Liberation, page 129.  As prophet, Jesus stands unambiguously on the side of the oppressed as did the major and minor prophets during the rule of Israel’s monarchs. Jesus the Liberator opposes the history of Christendom itself, “at least from the time of Constantine” “a history of human enslavement” (page 123).

Black Liberation Theology provides another corrective for White postliberal Anabaptist Christology, the third office of Christ as publically confrontational prophet. The 24th Question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, How doth Christ execute the office of prophet? and the answer is Christ executeth the office of a prophet, in revealing to us, by his word and Spirit, the Will of God for our Salvation. In the Old Testament, the prophets’ words could not be separated from their deeds, because in many instances, God ordered them to provide symbolic actions like with Ezekiel.  Jesus’ prophetic office is deeply rooted in the tradition of Jeremiah, Moses, Amos, and Isaiah, opposing the rulers and kings of this age with direct action lead by the Spirit of YHWH.   If there is to be an #AnaBlacktivist ecclesiology, it must profess a Confessing Church of Creative Disciples free to remember the histories of Blood Baptisms and partake in the prophetic ministry of Christ Jesus.

This is the third 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

The Power Of Love part 1: James Cone's Relational Theology

LIBERATING OPEN THEOLOGIES

white heart

For better or worse, Liberation Theology has endured having a reputation as an out-dated theological system written by subjective, angry Persons of Color and Women. It’s taught in seminaries as either a heretical abomination for pastors to avoid or as a needed corrective to years of corrupted systematic theologies that served its purpose in the 1970’s and ’80’s. In contrast, the spectrum of theologies referred to as Relational Theologies (and they range from Missional to Emergent to Post-Conservative to Wesleyan to Open and Process-Relational) are presented as systems of thought that are objective, balanced, and as the natural next wave forward for Christianity. Unlike Liberation Theology, Works on Relational Theologies / Theologies of Love are written for both laypersons and academics.

Liberation Theologies in the U.S.A inhabited privileged academic spaces and served as push back against what religious thinkers were being taught. In particular, the writings of James Hal Cone have functioned as sort of a revolutionary break from traditional Christian reflections on tradition. What makes Cone indispensable to the field of theology is that his project was the first systematized intellectual experiment to re-orient Christian Theology as a protest versus White Supremacy. Throughout his work, while Cone admits that he is writing theology for black people, the ground of relationality that Cone works from makes his theology an address to everyone. Towards this end, this series will serve as a thought experiment in re-evaluating and re-presenting Liberation Theology as a Relational Theology.

Theologies Of Love After Christopher Columbus

The “discovery” of the New World by Christopher Columbus as a number of theologians such as Willie Jennings was a major shift in Christianity. Here we have whole societies wiped out by slavery, genocide, disease and war, with those who would propagate the religion of the Prince of Peace justifying these atrocities with their sacred texts. The prominent epistemology for studying religion in the centuries that followed involved the enlightened, rational Western male subject. In order to determine who is deemed rational, one must first through pseudo-scientific scientific means determine who is uncivilized and irrational; in other words, whose bodies are worthy of destruction? Our line-up of all the great Western philosophers from David Hume, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, and even Karl Marx had rather “insightful” things to say about dark bodies. In short, Persons of Color and women were deemed as things to be colonized and assimilated, tailored into the image of the European male elite.

As violent and grotesque as these histories are, the Triune God of love never leaves humanity without witnesses. By God’s grace, we have the testimony of Trinitarian theologians such as 19th century Wesleyan evangelist Julia J.A. Foote and Arminian pastors such as Lemuel Haynes. Howard Thurman’s and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s theologies were theologies of love. MLK Jr., as has been noted through years of research, was heavily influenced by the Boston Personalists. While Foote and Haynes suffered through the era of African enslavement on these shores, King Jr. and Thurman lived through legal racial segregation (a regime enforced through lynching+ political & economic oppression). With these theologies of the Cross, notions of suffering (theodicy) are never separated from the theologies of love written by persons of the African diaspora. I am contending that these various relational theologies proposed were responses to White Supremacy.

Creation and Our Interrelatedness

Enter James Hal Cone. Straight outta Governor Orval Faubus’ Arkansas, a man who got his PhD from the Northwestern University / Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary seminary where he did his dissertation on Karl Barth’s theological anthropology. In the midst of riots and chaos after the assassination of MLK Jr., what did the Church have to say to the Black Power movement? U.S. Christianity is supposed to be a religion populated by joyful and extremely nice middle-class people. Did the hope for the wretched of the Earth lay in the Christianized politics of respectability? Distressed by the white supremacy he experienced in society in general as well as the religious academy, Cone decided to write what many deemed a manifesto, Black Theology and Black Power. Considered by many to be a “reverse racist” pamphlet of hate, when taking an even closer look at this piece, one can see that BTBP is a forcefully written, persuasive case for relational theology as an anti-racist practice. Cone states his purpose on the very first page of the book, that “Black Power is about Black people taking the dominant role in determining the black-white relationship” (page 1, Intro).

To be black is not to have dark shades of melanin in your epidermis; “To be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are. We all know that a racist structure will reject a black man in white skin as quickly as a black man in black skin” (151, Chapter 6). Cone recognizes that race and racism are social constructs, and not biologically proven realities. Cone’s invention for Christian theology is to invert blackness and whiteness as symbols. In the West, in movies novels, the good guys wear white, the bad guys always wear black. Cone flips these narrative tropes on their heads to counter institutional racism. Black Power, according to Cone, is Blacks using their self-determination and agency to emancipate themselves from the violence of white supremacy, even if their choices meant death (p 6). Black Power sought to remove Whites’ status as Master while recognizing Whites’ humanity; Cone contends, “Men were not created for separation, and color is not the essence of man’s humanity” (14). In other words, Anti-Black racisms, White Supremacy, and Colonialisms are in direct violation of God’s creative intent.

Humanity “was created to share in God’s creative (revolutionary) activity in the world (Gen.1:27-28). But through sin man rejects his proper activity and destiny. He wants to be God, the creator of his destiny. […] But in his passion to become super-human, man becomes subhuman, estranged from the source of his being, threatening and threatened by his neighbor, transforming a situation destined for intimate human fellowship into a spider web of conspiracy and violence” (page 63). God reigns throughout creation and shares the divine power to create with humanity. The sin of Empire and White Supremacy dehumanizes both the oppressed and the oppressors. This loving God chooses not work unilaterally, and works with human persons who respond to God’s love for the sake of creating community. Cone’s re-telling of the Creation and Fall stories in Genesis are what set up the relational thrust of James Cone’s liberation theology.

Election and God’s Love For The Oppressed

The relational, loving God of Liberation theology has direct intimate knowledge of the suffering of the oppressed. To know is to be responsible; It is far less painful to be uninvolved in someone else’s life, their pain, their poverty, their marginalization (page 25). It is the choice of the latter that makes libertarian politics and laizze-faire economics both such easy and heretical choices. A proper acknowledgement of the suffering of marginated persons as well as the ownership of a vast array of privileges requires that one does the hard work of examining power within sets of given relationships. Referring to Anders Nygren’s significant work on biblical notions of love, Agape And Eros, Cone builds on this particular theology of love to enjoin divine love to divine justice, ” The activity of agape-love cannot be easily separated from God’s righteousness. Indeed they must be tightly held together. Love prevents righteousness from being legalistic, and righteousness keeps love from being sentimental” (p 51). Cone continues, “Love without power to guarantee justice in human relations is meaningless (p 53). In A Black Theology Of Liberation, Cone remains consistent, “The wrath of God is the love of God in regard to the forces opposed to the liberation of the oppressed. Love without righteousness is unacceptable to blacks: this view of God is a product of the minds of enslavers” (p 71).

One of the criticisms that Thomas Jay Oord had of Anders Nygren’s theology of agape love in Oord’s work, the nature of love: a theology, was that Nygren completely (and rather problematically) dismisses the witness of the Hebrew Bible when it comes to notions of love. James Cone does indeed make a departure from Nygren in this regard, and in fact, Cone prioritizes God’s love as it is revealed in the election of Israel central to his relational theological project. Through agape-love, God is the initiator of calling Abraham and then later, Moses, and God reveals God’s justice through God’s activity in history according to Scripture (page 44 of BTBP). Because God is love, God sets out to do what is right by putting a-rights those who have been wronged in human relationships. Divine relationality goes hand-in-hand with the preferential option for poor. If indeed “Black Power is the Spirit of Christ himself” that has interrupted the relationship between black persons who need liberation from self-hatred, and white persons who need to be freed from white supremacy (page 62), God is relational to the extent that God does what is just.

This God Who Risks is love. God is not sentimental. Jennifer Lopez is wrong when she says “love don’t cost a thing.” Love costs everything, God demands our entire being just as our neighbors’ suffering requires all of our soul, all of our mind, and all of our bodies (53). A lot of Christians like to talk about being relational, and its just about centering everything around their emotions, and their experiences without risking having to listen to others. This is hardly a biblical (imo) understanding of relationality. James Cone notes that the real test for whites isn’t how they relate and communicate with acceptable blacks like MLK Jr. and Ralph Bunch, but “in how they respond to Rap Brown” (61). If I may have permission to wax this logic for 2014, the real test of whether whites can communicate with black as human beings is not what they reply to Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Oprah, but how they respond to Ratchet Culture.

In part two, I shall look at James Cone’s notions of relationality and how his gender & sexuality [black cishet male] possibly influences his writing.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Refusing to Reconcile Part 2: Spatiality, Fugitivity, and Blackness as Wild(er)ness by Amaryah Shaye

Recommended Reading:

The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie Jennings

The God Who Risks: a theology of divine providence by John Sanders

Black Theology and Black Power as well as A Black Theology of Liberation both by James Cone

Wealth Inequality, Political Power, and the Bible

Monday, Christian Salafia of Homebrewed Theology posted on facebook the above video without comment due to his anger. Is there any reason to be mad at wealth inequality, or income distribution, which some would argue is a different topic altogether? According to the video, 1% of the population of this country owns 40% of the wealth. There is this ideal in economists minds, the video suggests, where there should be an even distribution, or more accurately, where income gaps are smaller than they already are. Income inequality leads to some moral questions for many persons of faith. For some, moral outrage over wealth inequality/income distribution is just another sign of a spoiled citizenry who are $green$ with envy. The problem therefore becomes a privatized one, where individual persons are just acting out of their own personal covetousness against the rich and successful.

agent orange capitalism

What the church of the free market often neglects is that all human economies are tied to political institutions, regardless of our calls to deregulation. Tax breaks for a few multinational corporations is still a government favoring a business. In the United States, political power is ultimately tied to money and status of employment. The private business is ultimately political. Let’s take for example the Constitutional idea that the second Tuesday in November is the day we are to have federal elections. Why? Because November was the Founders’ favorite month? No! It was because of economics, it was the time where the farmers would be the most free to vote after harvest. We live in a post-industrial economy, and our Constitution was and is written for a slave plantation society. Another concrete example of the political and economic working together for the suppression of political voices are federal election laws themselves. For example, in 2010, incumbents raised an average of $9.4 million while their challengers, almost 1/18th of that or $519,000. This is not a Democrat or Republican issue: the wealthy’s access to political power is unrestrained on both sides. Campaign finance reforms as they stand right now, are supposed to limit the influence of money in elections. This is a misguided policy I have come to see. Tax payers in the lowest income brackets are paying for the campaigns of the 1%, handing over more power to the already powerful. Meanwhile those citizens who are qualified to run for office but can’t afford it are excluded because of economics. The implications are obvious: the rich get richer and more powerful, they start more wars to send the poor to fight for them.

It’s blatantly obvious to anyone even marginally read on campaign laws that third parties, the middle and lower classes are at an unfair disadvantage. Apathy for income distribution/wealth inequality (pick your poison) is tacit approval for political oppression.  The 1% may own 40% of the country’s wealth, but they wield 100% of the nation’s political influence, and that should be most disconcerting to us. Scripture warns us time and again not only the dangers of greed, but also what avarice means in the body politic. In the Wisdom literature of Scripture, partiality is looked down upon, especially when it comes to ancient Israel’s judicial system (Proverbs 28:21 & parts of Job for example). Deuteronomy 16 and 17, placing limits on those at the very top of Hebrew society “You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.” (Deuteronomy 16:19 NRSV) In the New Testament, the apostles continue being faithful to YHWH, “God shows no partiality.” (Peter in Acts 10:34, Paul in Romans 2:11) Paul makes sure to remind us of God’s impartiality (fairness) in his instructions to human enslavers and the human beings they enslave (Ephesians 5).

In the end, God cares about the alignment and arrangement of human bodies because the Triune God is Lord and good Creator of all. Human concern for economic inequality and injustice is more consistent with Scripture than religious defenses of capitalism. Any human arrangement, yes system, that continues the devaluing of human life must come under prophetic judgement because God disclosed in the Resurrection that human life is of invalueable worth, that justice for human beings is to be placed above all and any systems.

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