Tag Archives: theodicy

Martin Luther King Jr. on divine goodness & human responsibility

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as relational theologian

Throughout many of his sermons Dr. Martin Luther King expounds on a variety of issues related to racial equality and social justice. He is explicit in his condemnation of social inequality and racial injustices that were happening during his lifetime . More specifically, he condemns these as not in line with either biblical teachings or true Christian values. King argues that only through truly representing the Christian faith can we finally go about the work of social justice to bring God’s kingdom on Earth. For him Christianity and the example of Christ can serve as a beacon of hope for all oppressed groups but more specifically for the experiences of racial discrimination by African Americans in the United States. Thus King’s notion of Christian hope in midst of evils that plague society comes from the way understand the connection between love and justice.

Specifically King wants to be clear in his ability identity the pain and suffering of the African American condition in 1960’s America. He writes: “Is there any one of us who has not faced the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?” (Strength to Love, 87). The relevance of the hostile environment that many African Americans lived in cannot be understated. Try and try as they might, the tension between a world that is aspired to and reality continued to persist. Hope is thus found in God’s activity in the world that we live in. For King, God is not simply some primordial being who places the world into action. God is an active part of our daily lives. Evil does not exist in this world as attributed to God’s beingness. Rather evil results as of the action of human beings, of whom God has given free will to. Accordingly we are all made in the image of God and thus are actions are a reflection of the power that God has given to us. Thus even in the worst aspect of humanity King is still able to see the work God’s image of goodness. This sets out the divine imperative to both love and to forgive. We choose to love because we see the love God in everyone and we choose to forgive because not only did Christ first forgiven us but we recognize that Christ in everyone. I would take this sentiment further and extend it to the field of ethics. King’s notion of God and his ability to understand God in the world also sets out an ethical perspective.

Much of the problems that King addressed in the 1960’s are still relevant in our society today. Institutional racism, discrimination, socio-economic injustices, and a vast array of other issues can be addressed by applying King’s notion of God’s work in the universe to our ethical perspective. If God is both reflected in our humanness as well as gives us the power to create social change then these two concepts are not separate. Thus for Christian practitioners the very foundation of the Christian faith is based on seeing the image of God in everyone. Furthermore, through seeing this image of God in everyone requires and ethical responsibility to those people. That responsibility is act as God’s servants and image on Earth through showing love and being advocates of justice. Again love and justice are not two separate concepts. They are deeply connected. For, example one can show love and justice about the tragic events that have happened in Ferguson. There have been various commentators and analyst who question the need to protest the events of Ferguson. Often the expression is that true Christians show the love of Christ and are able to forgive the officer for his action. While this may well be true love must also include just in this context. We can recognize that God’s image in everyone but we must go beyond that moment to also help other recognize God’s image in everyone else. To truly do this we must be advocates for social and systemic changes that do not seek to recognize this image in everyone. Thus by participating in protest, advocating changes, and educating others about a social order that does not recognizes God’s image in everyone we become advocates of both Christian principles of love and justice simultaneously.

 “The Christian faith makes it possible for us nobly to accept that which cannot be changed, to meet disappointments and sorrow with an inner poise, and to absorb the most intense pain without abandoning our sense of hope.” (Strength to Love, 97)

The Cross, Predestination, and Emmett Till

One of the interesting things about the academy is in the way Black Theologians strive to engage Hip Hop culture. While I personally don’t do so, I think this move is necessary for a few reasons. Priests and prophets in the Hebrew Bible as part of their vocation were to help God’s people remember God’s story correctly, and live it out faithfully. Unfortunately in the 21st century, “secular” corporate-driven hip hop is used as a tool to colonize children from all backgrounds. One instance was the case of a rap “artist” who made a rhyme sexualizing the lynching of Emmet Till. I believe this is where Black Liberation theology needs to intervene.

In James Cone’s The Cross And The Lynching Tree, he discusses Till’s story at length and its impact on radicalizing black youth to protest Jim/Jane Crow segregation. Contrary to the criticism that Black theology is too academic and thus disconnected from black churches, James Cone reflects on the religious experiences of Emmet Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley. As Cone put it, “She exposed white brutality and black faith to the world and, significantly, expressed a parallel meaning between her son’s lynching and the crucifixion of Jesus. ‘Lord you gave your son to remedy a condition,’ she cried out, ‘but who knows, but what the death of my only son might bring an end to lynching.’ ” Young black teens like John Lewis who would grow up to be Civil Rights heroes, were shaken at the news of Till’s monstrous fate. It was “a horror etched in black memory forever.” (Page 67-68)

Part of what lead Mamie Till Bradley to crusade was her belief that her son’s lynching had become part of God’s plan. “Mrs. Bradley was not left alone in her agony. She spoke about a strange experience, a voice said to her: “Mamie, it was ordained from the beginning of time that Emmett Louis Till would die a violent death. You should be grateful to be the mother of a boy who died blameless like Christ. Bo Till will never be forgotten. There is a job for you to do now.” (P 68)

A few things to take away from this mysterious experience. First, like Martin Luther King Jr., God spoke personally to Mamie Till Bradley. The Christian God of suffering love is a personal God who communicates with humanity. God had called Mamie to preach the Good News of Christ’s triunph over death, and eventual victory over White Supremacy.

This leads me to my second point: “the job” Bradley was called to do was to serve the White Supremacist system on notice. White Supremacy and lynching are not part of The Triune God’s good plan for humanity. Emmett Till’s death is interlocked with Jesus’ sacrifice, the blameless victim made Victor. In one of the THREE places the New Testament bothers to mention the mystery of predestination, Acts 2:23, it only mentions that Christ was predestined to be crucified. Christ’s death alone brings salvation, and so predestination must be understood Christologically as well.

Predestination isn’t about us being saved or depraved. It’s about God’s goodness and grace, that when God has a plan, God remains faithful and keeps His promises. Unfortunately in Christian culture, in the Holy Hip Hop industry, there are Calvinist artists who have made predestination about human beings. They also have adopted an ideology where black women should be made second-class citizens in the name of a “new manhood.” Indeed, this is where Black Liberation theologians need to stage an intervention. By remembering and teaching correctly the story of Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till Bradley, may the Church realize that the Execution of the Exodus God is the birth pangs of the Church Militants.

tw: perhaps all theologians should come with trigger warnings

a serious proposal

This blog post is two months in the making.  When I first got wind of the story of the MennoMedia’s decision to include a statement in Yoder’s published works, I wanted to post my thoughts, and I still plan on doing so in a “Your Fave Theologian Is Problematic” series that will include guest posts too.  The statement simply reads:

“John Howard Yoder (1927–1997) was perhaps the most well-known Mennonite theologian in the twentieth century. While his work on Christian ethics helped define Anabaptism to an audience far outside the Mennonite Church, he is also remembered for his long-term sexual harassment and abuse of women.

“At Herald Press we recognize the complex tensions involved in presenting work by someone who called Christians to reconciliation and yet used his position of power to abuse others. We believe that Yoder and those who write about his work deserve to be heard; we also believe readers should know that Yoder engaged in abusive behavior.

“This book is published with the hope that those studying Yoder’s writings will not dismiss the complexity of these issues and will instead wrestle with, evaluate, and learn from Yoder’s work in the full context of his personal, scholarly, and churchly legacy.”

When it comes to studying the impact of theologians, I believe complexity is something that we should shoot for. Unfortunately, the field of theology as I see it now, has a problem of making theologians into unassailable figures with squeaky-clean, whitewashed histories. Just as the biblical figure Jacob wrestled with God, so are Christians called to wrestle with the histories and theologies of persons who have chosen to study words about the divine. The usefulness of trigger warnings on blogposts is to place the experience of victims in society first. It is very much consistent with Liberation Theology’s preferential option for the poor. Lord knows that on my own posts in the past I should have used trigger warnings or content notes.

Last year, Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes suggested that television shows should have trigger warnings after public outcry for one of the show’s episodes. If there are Christians who are claim to be concerned with the well-being of the oppressed, I believe that one of the best possible practices could be to extend trigger warnings to all forms of media. To take a non-theological example, I believe the Hunger Games trilogy would have benefited from trigger warnings related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, so that parents or teachers could have been better prepare to explain to elementary school children what was going on in one of the novels. Trigger warnings or even just merely content notes can help readers in theology not read texts in a vacuum. For example, a long time ago, one Joel Watts (before he went Super-Wesleyan) was singing the praises of Jonathan Edwards and I chastised him because Edwards endorsed the enslavement of Africans in his personal letters.

Do I believe we should just dismiss Jonathan Edwards and his whole body of work? No! But what I was saying was that we need to look at his (and other theologians’ truth claims) and examine the concrete practices they themselves preferred. With a topic as abstract and theoretical and highly philosophical as theology can get, it (theology) has to take on flesh in the end. Part of doing theology that resists and emancipates is to theologize with those on the underside of history. What would peace theologies look like if they started with the stories of the 80 women that John Howard Yoder sexually harassed?

So, what do you think? Should theology books have trigger warnings or content notes? Why or Why not?