Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Reflections on "Black" and "White" in Cone

For those of you who are sick on reading about James Cone, I apologize. I can't seem to escape him at the moment. I had moved on to J. Deotis Roberts, and found much I liked in Roberts. But I've had to backtrack a little bit, and revisit Cone. Roberts, you see, often responds to Cone, and I felt that in order to understand what Roberts is saying I need a better understanding of Cone. So I've picked up Cone's A Black Theology of Liberation, and so far find it as challenging (and at times infuriating) as Black Theology and Black Power.

Before I delve too much into today's topic - Cone's usage of the terms "black" and "white," and my reflections on that usage - I want to share a quote with Pam, who has also struggled with Cone, and has wondered aloud what, if anything, he has to say to her own experience of (small scale) oppression:

...there are, to be sure, many who suffer, and not all of them are black. Many white liberals derive a certain joy from reminding black militants that two-thirds of the poor in America are white. Of course, I could point out that this means that there are five times as many poor blacks as there are poor whites, when the ratio of each group to the total population is taken into account. But it is not my intention to debate white liberals on this issue, for it is not the purpose of black theology to minimize the suffering of others, including whites. Black theology merely tries to discern the activity of the Holy One in achieving the purpose of liberation of humankind from the forces of oppression.

Cone clearly indicates that he is concerned with oppression, even the oppression of whites. White suffering matters to Cone, and, as we shall see later, when white persons suffer, or act on behalf of those suffering under the yoke of oppression, they participate in blackness. You see, for Cone, any act of oppression is "white," and any act of liberation on behalf of the oppressed is "black."

In what I've read of A Black Theology of Liberation, much like in Black Theology and Black Power, Cone presents us with many powerful ideas, some of which all of us should agree with. One such idea is the connection between theology and community:

Theology... cannot be separated from the community which it represents. It assumes that truth has been given to the community at the moment of its birth. Its task is to analyze the implications of that truth, in order to make sure that the community remains committed to that which defines its existence. Theology is the continued attempt of the community to define in every generation its reason for being in the world.

The relationship between theology and community reinforces both the communal nature of revelation (see Teilhard's idea of the "organ made for seeing God") and the contextual nature of theology. Theology, as Cone understands it, "is defined by the human situation that gives birth to it." Thus, in crafting an overtly black theology, Cone is not doing something categorically different than what has been done before, insofar as it, like all other theologies, is a theology that comes out of a community, and exists for that community. What he is doing is simply acknowledging the fact that what had before been seen as a "universal" theology is a particularly white theology that reinforces the belief that the white experience is the normative one.

However, in part because Cone (rightly?) sees white theology as anti-black, his black theology is anti-white. What he means by anti-white becomes clear as we see in more depth how he uses the terms "black" and "white."

In Cone, "black" = "the oppressed," and "white" = "the oppressors." He sees "white theology" as theology of oppression, theology that helps fortify the power of dominators at the expense of the dominated. As such, because God is always on the side of the oppressed, white theology is theology of the Antichrist. Black theology, by contrast, is Christian theology. He emphasizes this so strongly, I suspect, because my criticism of him - that his theology is more black than it is Christian - is not, by any means, a new one.

At the onset of this book, Cone offers two reasons - no doubt offer in the face of opposition, though he says that back theology need not defend itself against white criticism - "why black theology is Christian theology":

First, there can be no theology of the gospel which does not arise from an oppressed community. This is because God is revealed in Jesus as a God whose righteousness is inseparable from the weak and helpless in human society. The goal of black theology is to interpret God's activity as related to the oppressed black community.

Secondly, black theology is Christian theology because it centers on Jesus Christ.

The second point, as you can no doubt see, is related to the first. The Christ that black theology centers on is not the blond- haired, blue-eyed savior of white Christianity, but the revelation of God to oppressed communities. The Christ that black theology centers on, in other words, is not the harmless giver of conventional wisdom, but the very power of God for the oppressed. This Christ is a much more revolutionary figure than the dull character found on the portraits hanging in white churches.

It may well be that the distance between the Christ of the black church and the Christ of the white church is at the heart of Cone's criticism of white theology. In any event, his criticism of white theology - that it is a theology of the oppressors, by the oppressors, and for the oppressors - helps us understand what he means by "black" and "white":

No white theologian has ever taken the oppression of blacks as a point of departure for analyzing God's activity in contemporary America. Apparently white theologians see no connection between whiteness and evil or blackness and God. Even those white theologians who write books about blacks invariably fail to say anything relevant to the black community as it seeks to break the power of white racism. They usually think that writing books makes them experts on black humanity. As a result they are as arrogant as George Wallace in telling blacks what is "best" for them. It is no surprise that the "best" is always nonviolent, posing no threat to the political and social interests of the white majority.

Overlooking for now that once again Cone has, in declaring nonviolence "no threat to the political and social interests of the white majority," failed to appreciate the power of nonviolent resistance; there is much here that speaks deep, powerful, and damning truths. But, is it quite true to say that "no white theologian has ever taken the oppression of blacks as a point of departure for analyzing God's activity in contemporary America,"? It may be. I don't know, and I don’t know if Cone, writing here in 1970, knew, either. But to become fixated on the historical accuracy of that statement is to miss the way that Cone is using "white." By "white" he does not mean those with light skin - though in his mind most if not all whites are light skinned even if not all light skinned people are white - nor by "black" does he mean those with dark skin - though, again, most black persons, as he understands it, are dark skinned. By "black" and "white" he means something more subtle than just race and ethnicity.

Cone understands "black" as the universal group of the oppressed, and "white" as the universal group of the oppressors:

Blackness, then, stands for all victims of oppression who realize that the survival of their humanity is bound up with liberation from whiteness.

Anticipating some criticism of this, Cone writes this - which spells out his use of the terms "black" and "white" - in the footnote to that statement:

I do not intend to qualify this statement, because too much is at stake - the survival of the black community. But perhaps some clarification is needed here. Some critics will undoubtedly ask, "How can you dismiss out of hand any criticisms that white theologians or others in traditional white Christianity might raise concerning your interpretation of black theology, and at the same time use quotations from white theologians, both European and American, with approval? If white theology is as bad as you say, why not dismiss them altogether, without any reference to their work?" Of course, these are challenging questions, and I can see whites milking this idea for all it is worth.

...those who press this point have taken too seriously the American definition of white. When I say that white theology is not Christian theology, I mean the theology that has been written without any reference to the oppressed of the land. This is not true of Karl Barth and certainly not true of Bonhoeffer. Reinhold Neibuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society moves in the direction of blackness. To verify the blackness of a particular perspective, we need only ask, "For whom is it written, the oppressed or the oppressors?" if the former, it is black; if the later, it is white. I do not condemn all persons who happen to look like white Americans; the condemnation comes when they act like them.

That is how Cone uses the words "black" and "white." Thus I think that we can say that, per the conventional use of the terms, it is possible for a "black" person to be "white" (though Cone does not say this, and may not agree with it) and likewise it is possible for a "white" person to be "black." Thus Cone can appropriate certain aspects of "white" theology (per the conventional use of "white" - that is, the work of Barth, Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr, Tillich, etc.) for his "black" theology.

But does this appropriation - combined, as it is, with his altering of the conventional usage of "black" and "white" - amount to the same sort of selective co-opting of white culture that whites have long done of black culture? To say that Barth's work or Bonhoeffer's work is not "white" theology, or to say that Reinhold Neibuhr's work "moves in the direction of blackness," is to say that white works that please Cone are really black works. Isn't this just what white culture did when "race records" or "rhythm and blues" became, in the work of Cleveland disc jockey Alan Fried, "Rock and Roll," so that it could be sold to white teenagers? And if that was racist, how is the black co-opting of the work of white theologians, coupled with the denial of their whiteness, not also racist?

I do not wish to deny the prevalence of white racism, nor do I wish to deny either my own participation in that or the long-standing connection between whiteness and cultural, social, and political domination. White culture has a long, sad history of dominating other cultures, and Cone is quite right in criticizing that. In many, many cases I humbly accept his criticism. But to redefine "white" as "oppressor," and to say that those white who work against oppression are not properly white, this I cannot accept.

For the good of all humanity whites need to deny the necessary connection between whiteness and oppressing others as vehemently as blacks deny the necessary connection between being black and being inferior. If Black Power calls blacks to stand up and understand themselves in a new way, then perhaps white culture can learn from that and have a similar movement. This movement should not be an attempt to deny past and present oppression by whites, nor should it be an attempt to further empower whites, who enjoy already far too much power. Rather, this movement should be an attempt to, in the face of the long, sad history of white exploiting and oppressing others, to reinvent what it means to be white. To own and honor those whites who Cone would call black; to say that these figures taught us that we don't have to participate in oppression, that being "white" does not have to include oppressing others.

This, of course, cannot be an attempt to deny the shameful past or the only slightly less shameful present. But, while it cannot deny a long history of morally unjustifiable domination, it must assert that, moving forward, domination is not a necessary attribute of being white.

In identifying "white" with "oppressor" and "black" with "the oppressed," Cone, while identifying a strong historical trend that continues into the present, does not, in my opinion, provide us with a way forward. Just as blacks are called to empowerment, whites must be called to repentance, and through repentance, transformation. And, just as white society has never been justified in demanding the blacks deny their blackness to gain acceptance, the call to white repentance, while it must involve a call to give up forever the ways of domination and oppression, cannot involve a denial of whiteness.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Suffering and Faith

Here is a short paper that I just wrote for my Growing in the Life of Faith class, on Suffering and Faith. It is mostly a rehashing, in a less rigorous and theological way, some of my objections to theodicy. For those looking for a more philosophic engagement with theodicy, you'll have to wait for that. This paper was written for a group of seminary students learning to be pastors, trying to apply the theology they're learning in school to a congregational setting. That said, I think it is a helpful summary of some of my views, and I hope it is useful:

The problem of the relationship between suffering and/or evil and faith is as old as humanity, and has often been presented as a rational one. This presentation of the problem as a rational one happens both in our philosophies/theologies, and in our personal experiences; in other words, in both the abstract and the concrete. In both cases, I think, the presentations of the problem as a rational one participate in the same error.

The problem is posed rationally in the abstract when it is rightly noted that the fact of suffering – which points, to many, to the existence of evil – is logically incompatible with an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent God. It the concrete it is posed rationally when, in our prayers or our cries of anguish, we turn to God and as Why?!?, as though some coherent, rational, linguistic answer to that question would satisfy us.

In both cases, to try to answer the problem as it is presented, if it is presented rationally, can be pastorally disastrous. While this may be most obvious when the problem is posed concretely, I think that our tendency to make suffering a rational problem with a rational answer comes from trying to apply the abstract, philosophic approaches to the problem to our concrete situations.

A theodicy is an attempt to rationally solve the problem posed to faith by suffering. It is, in other words, an attempt to prove that the impossible is possible, that suffering and evil can be logically reconciled to a traditionally theistic concept of God as all-powerful, all-seeing/all-knowing, and all-loving; a good and perfect God. That theodicy – which must somehow explain away the problem of suffering – is our most common theological response to suffering has pastoral implications, and can render pastoral care impotent in the face of real crises.

There are many forms that theodicy takes, but ultimately the project of theodicy fails, and fails for several important reasons. First, any theodicy fails morally, because rather than addressing suffering compassionately, it seeks to explain suffering away, to turn a bad into a good, or to at least get God off the hook for suffering. This attempt to get God off the hook sets up the second way that theodicy fails: it presents us with a poor concept of God. The God of theodicy is a God who would rather not be blamed for suffering, rather than enter into and engage suffering wherever it arises. Whenever we have a concept of the divine that is more concerned with God’s reputation than with working to alleviate suffering, we have a truly impoverished deity. The project of theodicy also fails logically, as at the end of the day, no matter how nuanced an argument is constructed, it remains the case that a truly omnipotent God would have the power to end suffering, a truly omniscient God would have seen that in creation which would give rise to suffering, and a truly benevolent God would not desire to impose suffering on creation. Suffering is, in fact, truly incompatible with that understanding of God, and so the problem that suffering poses for faith is a real one that will not simply disappear in a puff of logic.

But the biggest failure of theodicy is found at its very heart: it poses the problem of suffering in exactly the wrong way. Yes, logically speaking, the experience of suffering calls into question a particular – and particularly cherished – concept of God. But, ultimately, suffering is not a rational problem. It is an existential one. And no rational answer can satisfactorily solve an existential problem. The biggest problem, in other words, that suffering poses for faith is not found in the rational questions that arise from our reflection on suffering; the biggest problem, instead, comes from the suffering itself. The work of religion, and as such the work of God, should not be to answer the rational questions asked by those suffering, it should be to alleviate suffering, to salve the wounds of the suffering.

Pastorally, this means recognizing that when those in mourning ask why their loved one had to die, they don’t want an answer. They want their loved one back! This means recognizing that when a tennis player has blown out their knee, and asks why God would allow such a lifestyle-threatening event to happen, they don’t want an answer. They want not to have blown out their knee. This means recognizing that when a cancer patient asks why they have stricken with such a dreadful disease, they don’t want an answer. They want to not have cancer! And it means recognizing that if God has anything meaningful at all to offer these people, it is not an explaining away of their suffering, but an entering in to their suffering.

Theologically this means that our attempts to solve the problems posed by suffering should not be an attempt to get God off the hook for suffering, nor should it be an attempt to explain how suffering can be a part of God’s good and perfect will. Rather, we should look for theological concepts that help relieve suffering, and that provide comfort – but not false hope – to those afflicted by suffering. The most powerful such concept is the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Incarnational theology, unlike theodicy, presents us with an image of a God who rather than running from the responsibility of suffering, enters into the world to take on suffering. Incarnational theology – which does not have to be attached to the traditional doctrine of the divine resting alongside the human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – presents us with a God who bind the wounds of those suffering, and even to bears those wounds within God’s self. An Incarnational God is a God who suffers with the suffering, and who, in suffering, understands suffering, and works to alleviate all suffering. This is a God who can comfort the afflicted, rather than making their afflictions worse by baptizing them and calling them good.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Ben Witherington on "The Ethics of Politics and Illness"

One of the most cynical and depressing aspects of partisan politics in America is our willingness to ascribe the worst possible motives to those we disagree with and/or oppose. To wit, I am particularly upset with those who so easily claim that John Edward's continuing his presidential campaign in the face of the resurgence of his wife's cancer is either:

a.) a sign that he simply doesn't care about her,

b.) evidence that he is overly ambitious, and will allow nothing to stop his vainglorious pursuit of the presidency, or, most likely,

c.) both.

I have long held that each marriage, to a certain extent, has its own set of rules, and can never properly be judged from the outside. While there are a few definite do's and a few definite don'ts, by and large each couple decides on their own what works for them. What works for Sami and I may not work for another couple, and what works for them may not work for us. But, ultimately we are in a covenant with God and each other, and those are the only parties that can sit in judgment on our union.

Ben Witherington just posted a very thoughtful exploration of the ethics, as far as he sees it, of the decision by Elizabeth and John Edwards not to allow her cancer to destroy his opportunity to seek the presidency. If you care at all about the subject, do yourself a favor and check it out. In it he said what I hoped to say on the subject, only better.

This post should not be taken as an endorsement of Edwards, though I like him a great deal. I'm still leaning toward Obama in the Democratic primary, unless Gore enters the race. But I think that Edwards should be allowed to campaign without idiots taking pot-shots at him because his wife has cancer.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Sami's OLD!!!

My Dad says that for him the hardest birthday was his thirtieth birthday. That was the day he officially turned old. Every year after that he just got older, and the distance between young and old, you see, is infinitely greater than the distance between old and older.

Today my wife officially, per my Dad's twisted logic, turned old. We had two great parties, a surprise party at church, and then a planned party with friends at Lynn's Paradise Cafe. After a day of celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of my wife's birth - and heartily thanking God for the miracle that is her life - I'm worn out. So instead of telling you what all we did, or writing a thousand paragraphs about how great she is, I'm just posting a post-party picture, taken by our dear friend, the ex-blogger Brian Cubbage, outside Lynn's Paradise Cafe this evening.

Here we are... She's pretty cute for an "old" woman, no?!?

Friday, March 23, 2007

A Blue Day For Kentucky

Some people joke that college basketball is the second religion of the state of Kentucky. I'm not sure, however, that it isn't the first religion here. In fact, I once wrote a paper (only half in jest) about the liturgy of Rupp Arena, the home of the University of Kentucky men's basketball team.

We take our basketball very, very seriously. Far too seriously, in fact. The whole state suffers from a collective neurosis. But, before I lampoon that neurosis too much, I should note both that I, too, suffer from it, and that it is, in fact, a very understandable neurosis.

As a state, too often Kentucky suffers from an inferiority complex. We aren't good at very many things, and some of the things we're quite good at - say, coal mining and tobacco - aren't very good for you. But basketball... we have a long heritage of being very good at that. So basketball is a source of great pride in the commonwealth. It is something that we excel at, and can be proud of.

The problem is that sometimes in the pursuit of excellence, we do some pretty stupid things. In the 1950s some of our players got a little bit too cozy with New York City bookies. In the 1980s a package full of money burst open on its way to the father of a recruit. Each of these scandals not only got the University of Kentucky's men's basketball program in trouble with the NCAA, they also gave the entire state a metaphorical black eye.

I'm afraid that the darker side of our collective neurotic passion for basketball has emerged again. Yesterday it was announced that Orlando "Tubby" Smith, the first black coach in the history of a program that came a little late to the desegregation table (though that's a much more complicated situation than the movie Glory Road made it seem) has resigned after guiding the men's basketball team for ten years, to accept the same position at the University of Minnesota.

Tubby Smith is a class act, and a winner. In his time at Kentucky the men's basketball program won 76% of its games, against routinely the nation's toughest schedule. In ten years he won a national title, five conference championships, and a whopping three national coach of the year awards. But being voted by your peers the very best in your profession means precious little to many of the fans here. So, despite his stellar record on the court and his character and grace off it, Tubby Smith (a United Methodist, by the way) was rarely really welcome in Kentucky.

Many national pundits are quietly attributing this to the persistence of racism, and I am ashamed to admit that there is more than a little bit of truth to that accusation. But while it is true that for some Tubby would never have truly been accepted because of the color of his skin, to attribute this whole situation to racism would be to miss many other and just as damning truths.

The fact is, Tubby Smith was never in a position to succeed with some of the fans in Kentucky, and not just because he is black. He had the misfortune of following the tenure of a charismatic savior, the most popular coach in Kentucky since the legendary Adolph Rupp, who after years on top has finally been knocked down to third place on the all time wins list for NCAA Division I men's basketball coaches. When Joe B. Hall followed Adolph Rupp, despite the fact that he regularly competed for championships and won the 1978 NCAA national title, he simply couldn't do anything right in the eyes of many fans. Even that '78 national title team was picked apart.

Similarly, when Tubby Smith followed Rick Pitino, he was in many eyes doomed from the start. Pitino had taken over a program mired in scandal and restored its glory, reaching the Final Four three times, winning the 1996 national title and losing to Arizona in the championship game the following year. Pitino's success was characterized by a frenetic, fan-friendly style of play (fitting for the school that literally invented the "fast break" years earlier) and a larger-than-life personality. No matter what he did, even if he won more than Pitino (and many years he did) and carried himself with a class that was too often missing during Pitino's years in Lexington, he simply never could live up to the Pitino myth.

So similar are their situations that when Pitino announced that he was leaving the University of Kentucky to coach the NBA's Boston Celtics (his "dream job" that quickly turned into a nightmare) Joe B. Hall joked that UK should just hire him again, since no other human being deserved to be put through that meat grinder.

No, it was not just lingering racism that poisoned many UK fans to Smith. It was the myth of the glorious past, a past that can never be repeated, much less surpassed. That Smith led a model program at the University of Kentucky meant very little. That he won regularly, and twice had his team as the top seed in the NCAA tournament meant very little, too. At Kentucky you are judged by nothing less than national championships, and in his decade of service he won "only" one of those.

The biggest knock on Tubby Smith's tenure at the helm of Kentucky's men's basketball program was that he never won with his own players. The "Association of Tubby Bashers" often repeated that tired refrain. His only national title, it is true, came with players that he inherited from Rick Pitino's time at the school. What is often overlooked is that there is a reason Pitino left when he did. He won the national title in 1996, and then nearly won it again in 1997, losing in overtime in the championship game. After those great seasons, the program looked depleted. All of the top players left to go pro. No one, least of all Pitino, who left while on top, thought that there was any hope for 1998. Tubby didn't inherit Pitino' players, he inherited Pitino's leftovers.

That 1998 team won with heart, the mark of great coaching. Tubby took what Pitino didn't want and crafted it into a national title. And while he never returned to the Final Four at Kentucky, on three other occasions he came just a game away. If it weren't for a sprained ankle here and an overtime miracle there, he may well have left Kentucky with more titles than Pitino. But, of course, we don't measure success by "close" or "what if," we measure it with championship banners. Oh well, he's only managed to tie Pitino: they each have one.

I'm not writing this to say that Tubby Smith was a better coach than Rick Pitino or Adolph Rupp, the twin lights of our state's favorite program. But he certainly does belong in their company, and the way Smith was treated in his time at Kentucky should shame the whole state.

I hate to see him leave. I grew up a Kentucky fan, from a family with season tickets to see the games in Rupp. Tubby should have been a state treasure, and I certainly admire him. But a part of me is glad to see him go, not for the "good of the program," as so many fans are trumpeting today. Rather, because the man has earned some peace. By the time he's done in Minnesota they'll probably name a building after him. In Kentucky... we should just be sadder to see him go.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

So it Begins...

Driving Adam home from preschool this afternoon, we passed a giant golden double arch, a symbol of (almost!) everything that's wrong with our culture.

Adam: What dat?

Daddy: I don't know, Adam. What's what?

Adam: What dat PLAYGROUND?!?

Daddy: Hmmm...

I've written before of the evils of marketing directly to children, bypassing the parental authority. I guess sticking a giant, colorful playground - clearly more fun looking than the playground in the park in front of our house - is a most devious form of direct advertising.

How does a vegetarian father beat the world's coolest playground, which happens - incidentally, I'm sure - to be attached to a giant McDonalds?!?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Violence Begets Violence?

After spending most of this morning writing the second of four essays for my Paradigms in Mission class (this one on the contemporary influence of Reformation ideas - not, I'm afraid, much of a page turner!) I decided to do a quick skim of the day's news before heading out to pick Adam up from his preschool. So, I headed over to the Christian Science Monitor, where I read this disheartening and disgusting article on sexual violence in the military.

In response to allegations of a staggering rise in the already all too high rate of sexual assault in the military, the military released this statement:

Sexual assault is a crime and is incompatible with military values. It inflicts incalculable harm on victims and their families; it tears at the very fabric of civilian and military communities; and it destroys trust among individuals and faith in our institutions.

Our policy has three major components: prevention through education and training; enhanced treatment and support of victims to speed their recovery; and accountability measures to ensure system effectiveness.

I wonder, however, if the instances of sexual assault in the military, rather than being "incompatible with military values," isn't instead the natural consequence of some of the values of the military - especially a particularly patriarchal concept of "masculinity," and a belief in the power of violence.

These values are not exclusively military values, and their insidious impact on the violently sexual behavior of those who hold them is not confined to active duty military personnel. In fact, such behavior is too often also commonplace in the male sports world, where once again aggressive masculinity, the prowess of power, and the potency of violence are held as ideals.

In any event, a male-dominated world in which violence is encouraged and one's talent for violence rewarded is not a safe place for women. This, at least, is not news.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Holing Up

This week is Research and Study Week at LPTS. People unfamiliar with the nature of this week may think that is a euphemism for Spring Break. It, after all, has in common with Spring Break both

a.) timing, and

b.) number of classes you're required to attend.

In other words, Spring has almost sprung, and I get a week off from attending classes. However, lest I be tempted to waste my time pursuing folly, I am afforded no break this week. Instead, I'm holing up in my basement office, writing at least 3 to 5 hours per day. Before I realized the workload I would have this week I spoke bravely of using this time to catch up on all the things I haven't had time to do since I returned to school. I might catch up on my work for church, or I might revisit some sections I'd been working on for my possibly-never-to-be-written book, before I forget what I'd decided to write. But now I'm staring at an insane amount of academic work, laughing at all of my classmates who thought they might take this week to visit the beach.

I have at least one major project for every class I'm taking, all due either at some point during this week, or by the end of next week. Here are just a few of the essay questions/topics that I'll be taking on:

For History of the Christian Experience I:

1. Eusebius of Caesarea (that's the Caesarea in Palestine, remember) is often called "the first church historian." The selection you read (§ 18 in RWCH) is not from his Ecclesiastical History but from a Life of Constantine, which is both a narrative of Constantine's life and also an example of a literary form of commending and praising its subject. Write an essay which examines the portrayal of Constantine in this work. How are you the reader being invited to think of this figure? What features in the text reinforce this view? What implications can you see for the church when an emperor assumes the roles described here?

2. The Nicene Creed takes an affirmation of faith organized by the baptismal formula “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” (cf. both Matthew 28:19 and Didache VII) and adds to this baptismal creed “clarifications” of the identity of Jesus Christ which had their origin in the controversy with Arius and his followers. What is the significance of these additions, especially the “homoousios” formula? How do you evaluate the decision to use non-Biblical terms to convey in a new cultural context the meaning of Christian faith?

For Paradigms of Mission:

1. Why is language so important to Christianity, according to Lamin Sanneh? Outline his argument and give two examples of the importance of language in theology and Christian practice from your own experience.

2. Describe specific reformation views and discuss their influence today. Choose three of the following:
i. The authority of the institutional church in the lives of believers.
ii. Christian views of the priesthood of all believers.
iii.The role of the church in governing society.
iv. The importance of individual experience in Christian life.
v. Understandings of the after-life and how to avoid God's punishment.

3. Compare the views of the church in the mission paradigm of Matthew and the Pauline missionary paradigm, according to David Bosch. How are the identity and the values of the church reflected in each? What are the similarities and differences between the two views of the church?

4. Outline the contemporary crisis in mission, according to David Bosch. In what ways are the issues he addresses reflected in your own denomination or congregation? Describe the "danger" and "opportunity" presented in this situation.

For this class I also have to, by next Wednesday, write a 5-6 page Critical Book Review of Lamin Sanneh's Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture.

Along with these specific questions, other classes are asking more opened ended questions.

For Resistance and Reconciliation I have to write a paper outlining my own concept of theological resistance (you can see that developing in some of the posts here), and start anticipating if and how that concept paves the way for the ministry of reconciliation.

For Growing in the Life of Christian Faith I have to write a paper reflecting on the relationship between evil, suffering, and our ideas about and experience of God (another topic that you can see me developing here).

Finally, for Intro to Judaism I have to write a paper reflecting on recent visits to a Reform and a Conservative synagogue.

As you can see, there will be no "Break" for me this Spring - just work, work, and more work. If anything interesting emerges from this turbulent sea of course work, I'll post it here. In the meantime, forgive me if I don't do anything other than work for school, as I'm up to my ears in it.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Liberation and Reconciliation Held Together by Roberts

We've already looked (perhaps far too) extensively at James Cone's Black Theology and Black Power, which seeks to Christianize Black Power (or, perhaps, Black Powerize Christianity) within a theological framework of liberation. Cone sees Christ as black, and sees the work of Christ in the work of Black Power. He hears Christ calling blacks to assert themselves and shake off the shackles of their oppression. To that end, his work is helpful.

However, as we've noticed, there are some troubling aspects of it. First, as we've already seen, Cone offers up a theological defense of violence in the name of resisting oppression. While I have some sympathy for his position, in that I agree with the need to make a sharp moral distinction between the violence of oppressors and the violence of the oppressed as they fight against their violent oppression, I am, to say the least, highly suspicious of any attempt to see Christ working through means that the historical Jesus would have certainly condemned.

More troubling, perhaps, is the exclusivism of Cone's position. He, as best as I can tell, sees God exclusively at work within the black community. Within his framework there is little hope for the salvation and reformation of whites, and perhaps even less hope for reconciliation. Yes, Cone does offer some halting suggestions for reconciliation, and at least a tiny morsel of hope for whites, but his primary concern, it seems to me, is to condemn white oppression of blacks, and to call blacks to power. While both of those tasks are noble, in and of themselves they hardly comprise the entirety of Christianity.

I plan to go on and read much more Cone, hoping to see how he develops a more comprehensive theology that will go beyond his equating of Christianity and Black Power. However, for the moment I am sidestepping his work and moving on to Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology by J. Deotis Roberts.

Like Cone, in the preface to the latest edition of his work, Roberts repents of his former sexism. Unlike Cone, however, Roberts has chosen to wash the sexist language from his work, revisiting the ways in which he speaks of both God and humanity to incorporate womanist and feminist critiques of language. This makes the book much easier to read from my perspective, but I am glad that Roberts calls attention to his former exclusively male language, so that he sidesteps the attack that Cone, too, tried to avoid: that of trying to forget past sins, and as such leave them entirely unaddressed, in the past.

Unlike Cone, Roberts is interested not only in providing a theological framework for the liberation of blacks, but also in reconciliation between the races. He sees the two as intimately connected to each other, and as together comprising the heart of Christianity:

My understanding of the Christian faith leads me to speak of both liberation and reconciliation as proper goals for the Christian church in general and of the black church in particular. I understand the church to have a center, but not a circumference - and exclusiveness to be a means to universalism and not an end. Therefore the black church, in setting black people free, may make freedom possible for white people as well. Whites are victimized as the sponsors of hate and prejudice which keeps racism alive. Therefore, they cannot know for themselves the freedom of Christians, for they are shackled by a self-imposed bondage. The cry for deliverance, for authentic freedom for existence, on the part of black people, may be salvific for all regardless of the nature or cause of oppression.

In the section surrounding this quote Roberts is principally concerned with two things:

1. Understanding a concept of "chosenness" as relates to the black people in general and the black church in particular, and

2. Offering up the family as a proper model for the nature, structure, and role of the black church.

To this end, Roberts devotes a great deal of time to understanding the history of "chosenness" as it applies to other groups who have claimed titles such as "the people of God" for themselves. He also devotes a great deal of time to understanding the history of the black family, both in Africa and especially in diaspora. He is particularly concerned with the impact of slavery and its aftermath on the nature and strength of the black family.

But within that project, he is also building to his understanding of the need for a black theology to be a Christian theology that is concerned with more than just black people. And, as a Christian theology, he stresses the need for black theology to be concerned with both liberation and reconciliation at the same time. In the above quote he is, within that context of both liberation and reconciliation, offering up a brief glimpse at the connection between black deliverance from white oppression and white deliverance from white oppression. He sees both the oppressed and the oppressors as the victims of oppression, with each being held in a kind of bondage to the evil power of oppression. This concept of the joint victimhood of oppression - even if only one party is morally culpable for the oppression - sets the stage for a joint deliverance from oppression, with blacks acting as a kind of "chosen people" whose deliverance makes possible the deliverance of whites, as well.

While Roberts is building here a black theology, it is not a theology that is solely concerned with black persons. Insofar as it is a Christian theology, it is primarily concerned with Christ, even if it is principally concerned with how God through Christ speaks to the black experience. Within this concern for Christ, the notion that ultimately "all are one in Christ Jesus is very important for Roberts. And this notion helps inform Roberts' view on black-white relationships, and ultimately paves the way for reconciliation between the races:

The assertion that all are "one in Christ Jesus" must henceforth mean that all slave-master, servant-boss, inferior-superior frames of reference between blacks and whites have been abolished. This principle must operate not merely on a spiritual level, but on the plane of human social relations as well. The slave must be set free, but the slave system must likewise be destroyed so that the suture will be free of human bondage. The black church, as a family, as a corporate expression of the Christian faith of black people, is called forth into empowerment actions. It must become a gestalt, a structure of mass power of black people operating against oppression under Christian sponsorship. The black church must use all its resources to launch a massive assault against white power in church, community, or state that is responsible for the oppression of black people. But even in our revolutionary action for the liberation of black people, we must hold up at all times the possibility for black-white interracial fellowship and cooperation. Reconciliation between equals, no less than liberation, is the mission of the black church.

Like Cone, Roberts calls the black church to the cause of liberation - the liberation of black people. Like Cone, Roberts sees black pride, black power, as an integral part of this work of liberation. The black church is called to help lift up the black people, and in doing so to help build them up. As such, the black church is called to fight against white power everywhere that white power oppresses blacks, even within the black mind.

But while Roberts shares the urgency of the "by any means necessary" crowd, he does not share their ethics. The black church is called to be a Christian church, not just a black church. As such, while the liberation of the black people is imperative - and is, in fact, a Christian duty - that liberation cannot be used to justify the full exclusion of all white persons from the process of making blacks equal to whites, both in reality and in the minds of both blacks and whites. Where Cone is willing to at least in part justify the use of violence to force whites to consider the basic humanity of blacks, Roberts reminds the black church that the church must always hold liberation and reconciliation together. And racial violence from either side makes the task of reconciliation that much harder. In other words, the violence of white oppression of blacks does not justify revolutionary violence.

Yes, the church is to "assault" white power, but that assault is not an assault against white people. Rather it is an assault against the structures of power ingrained in our culture. And, as we have seen from other sources, the best assault against what Walter Wink calls "the Powers" is a nonviolent assault.

At first glance Roberts' views may be much more comforting to white Christians than Cone's theology of Black Power. But, while Roberts calls the black church to act like Christians as they fight for liberation, he no less than Cone issues as strong rebuke to the white church, an anti-Christian church that serves as a vehicle for the oppression of blacks rather than the propagation of the liberating Gospel. Just as Roberts calls black Christians to act like Christians, he also calls white Christians to act like Christians. And he is pretty clear that, as far as he is concerned, most are not.

What separates Roberts from Cone, however, is that Roberts holds out more hope that whites will eventually see their own participation in the oppression of blacks as a denial of Christ and the Gospel, and will thus eventually repent and convert. Then, finally seeing blacks through the eyes of Christ, and as such as their fundamental equals, they will finally be ready for reconciliation between equals.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Al Mohler on Genetic Treatments for Homosexuality

For those of you who don't know of him, Al Mohler is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention. In some Baptist circles he is almost venerated, in others, well... not so much.

My step-grandfather, Wendell Garrison, is the former president of the Illinois Baptist State Association and served on the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee from 1976-1984. He has long been a leading moderate voice among Southern Baptists, and is perhaps the most respected Southern Baptist pastor in Illinois. He is also no fan of Al Mohler, seeing him as more of a politician than a pastor, and more of a polemical bully than a scholar. In his mind, Mohler represents everything that has gone wrong with the Southern Baptist convention.

Living in Louisville, however, I didn't need my step-grandfather's growing frustration to poison me to Al Mohler. I just need my own eyes and ears. Mohler's often-inflammatory rhetoric, rhetoric that paints his opponents as little anti-Christs seeking to ruin "Biblical" Christianity, is enough to make any fair-minded Christian sick to their stomach. Worse, too many of his disciples treat him as a quasi-God, a semi-divine being whose utterances are as close to the Word of God as humans ever get. I've seen too many star-struck students fawning all over him not to wonder what it is, exactly, that they serve in the seminary's cafeteria.

This year around Christmas I had the exquisite pleasure to spend a few days with my grandparents in their home in Swansea, Illinois, just on the Illinois side of St. Louis. Wendell and I spent long hours talking theology and church politics before we finally, and quite nervously, broached the divisive subject of homosexuality. While my views on the subject have changed a great deal over the past few years, as I've moved from a fundamentalist/literalist position to my current theology, I was never quite sure how to talk to my step-grandfather. After all, not only is he a fairly old man now - which in my mind has always unconsciously (and wrongly!) been associated with conservativism - he is also a retired Southern Baptist pastor. In all my life I'd never met a Southern Baptist who publicly professed anything other than that homosexuality is a vile sin, condemned unequivocally by the very Word of God.

Wendell eased into the subject by talking about how much Southern Baptists have changed during his lifetime.

We've always had a strong concept of the separation of Church and State, he told me, but now that we're starting to taste some political power we're selling out our most treasured ideals.

He moved from that to the subject of Biblical literalism, saying that Southern Baptists today have wedded themselves to a thoroughly modern reading of the Bible, a reading that he thinks is unsupported by the text itself. On the subject of inerrancy, he said,

Tell where the Bible itself says that it is inerrant! It isn't there. You can't say that the Bible is your primary religious authority, and say that the Bible is inerrant, because the Bible itself makes no such claim. And I don't feel like making claims about the Bible for the Bible. If it doesn't think that it is inerrant, I see no reason to impose that view on it.

Then we finally got where he was trying to take us. I think that he had guessed my evolving views on human sexuality before the conversation even started. He had, after all, helped talk me through my crisis in faith after I'd left pastoral ministry. He knew that, in the current climate in evangelical denominations, there was a deeper reason why I was allowing a bad situation at a single church to keep me from further pursuing my pastoral career. So he asked me bluntly:

What do you think about homosexuality?

I gave some half-hearted cowardly answer, not wanting to risk discussing such a divisive issue with a family member. He patiently listened to me stammer, before he replied,

I remember thinking about it as a young man. It occurred to me then that I hadn't chosen my sexual orientation, so it seemed unlikely to me that gays would have chosen theirs, either. And, if they haven't chosen to be the way that they are, then God must have made them that way. How, then, could it be sinful?

Al Mohler, it seems, has finally come around to seeing at least the first half of my step-grandfather's point., a progressive blog on Kentucky politics, in a scathing editorial pointed me to a post on Al Mohler's blog. In it he all but concedes that the phenomenon of same sex attraction is genetic rather than volitional.

However, rather than take the next step, and argue that because homosexual inclinations are not volitional they - and at least some of the behaviors that arise out of them - must not be sinful, he clings to his "Biblical" view that all homosexual acts are sinful, and must be roundly condemned. This places him in a difficult position, though there is no evidence in his post that he grasps the difficulty of his position. In this difficult position he advocates the use of genetic treatments to eliminate homosexual tendencies.

As Mark Nicholas points out in the piece, that position is a difficult one for someone who has in the past roundly condemned kinds of genetic therapy for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other diseases. While I acknowledge that, from Mohler's point of view, there may be a difference between stem-cell therapy and the kind of genetic treatment that he thinks might be possible for homosexuality, taking his positions together I am forced to wonder if he really thinks that being gay is a more serious "disease" than any of the actual diseases that could be treated by stem-cell therapy.

This viewing of human sexuality as so seriously pathological that it demands an invasive intervention that fundamentally alters one's genetic make-up strikes me as more than a little disturbed. I highly encourage you to read Mohler's post for yourself, and to read it as charitably as possible. Especially look at his ten points at the end, which include, after some preliminary theological concerns, statements like:

If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use as we should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate means to avoid sexual temptation and the inevitable effects of sin.


We must stop confusing the issues of moral responsibility and moral choice. We are all responsible for our sexual orientation, but that does not mean that we freely and consciously choose that orientation.

What do you make of this view?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Third Peace Blogger Interview

The third Peace Blogger Interview is up at Levellers. This one features Patrik of God in a Shrinking Universe. Always nice to see a familiar face!

Check it out.

More on Cone and "Revolutionary Violence"

Despite having now devoted 3 posts to the subject (see here, here, and here) I'm not quite done with James Cone's Black Theology and Black Power. I am especially not done with his wrestling with the role of violence in revolutionary struggles.

I have already discussed this subject at length, but this morning, in the closing pages of the book, I read an even more thorough argument concerning the role of violence in the revolutionary struggle for Black Power. It is first interesting to note that, despite the appearance given from some earlier readings on the subject, Cone does not that the subject of violence poses some real problems for his equating of Black Power with Christianity:

Our chief difficulty with Black Theology and violence... arises from the New Testament itself. The New Testament picture of Jesus seems to suggest that he was against violence as a proper redress. He certainly never resorted to violence. In fact, he seems to have avoided the term "Messiah" as a personal designation because of the political (violent) implications. Also his constant references to love and turning the other cheek seem to indicate that the Christian life cannot be one characterized by an "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." ... Can we then, by strength of the imagination or clever exegesis, interpret his command to turn the other cheek to mean a turning of the gun?

Cone, then, is aware that the Christian argument against violence rests on something much more compelling that just the comfort of whites or the perpetuation of oppression. It rests on the very words and actions of Jesus of Nazareth. How, then, in the face of Jesus' powerful witness against violence, does Cone justify the Christianizing of violence in the struggle for Black Power? By once again attacking the assumptions of those who question the appropriateness of revolutionary violence:

The real danger of these questions is the implied literalism in them. Like the fundamentalist who stressed the verbal inspiration of Scripture, this view suggests that ethical questions dealing with violence can be solved by asking: "What would Jesus do?" We cannot solve ethical questions in the twentieth century by looking at what Jesus did in the first. Our choices are not the same as his... and thus we are placed in an existential situation in which we are forced to decide without knowing what Jesus would do. The Christian does not ask what Jesus would do, as if Jesus were confined to the first century. He asks: "What is he doing? Where is he at work?" And even though these are the right questions, they cannot be answered once and for all. Each question has its own problematic circumstances which force the believer to think through each act of obedience without an absolute ethical guide from Jesus... Therefore, simply to say that Jesus did not use violence is no evidence relevant to the condition of black people as they decide what to do about white oppression.

There is a great deal here that I can affirm, especially Cone's rephrasing of the question concerning violence. I agree that we - in a social, cultural and historical context far removed from first century Palestine - cannot decide what to do today merely by copying step for step the actions of Jesus of Nazareth. This is as absurd as imposing the laws of ancient Israel on present day America. That which was of God, and therefore effective, at one point in history does not, simply by virtue of its being ordained by God in a single place and time automatically become a universal fit for all places and all times.

However, I disagree with his assertion that Jesus' refusal to use violence to help the Israelites break free from oppression under the Roman domination system does not speak powerfully against the use of violence in the struggle for racial equality in America. First century Jews were an oppressed people, a violently oppressed people. Yet, in the face of this violent oppression, Jesus explicitly forbids the use of violence as a tool for resisting oppression. He did this, I suspect, not because he failed to see the innate violence in oppression, but rather because he saw nonviolence as the most powerful tool for fighting oppression. And, that his nonviolent method of resistance has been translated effectively to a wide variety of setting throughout history speaks powerfully to its enduring effectiveness as a resistance strategy.

To assert that one cannot simply copy the actions of Jesus should not be to say that one should do things that Jesus would never have approved of, in his name. Rather, to assert that one cannot simply copy the actions of Jesus should be an invitation to act creatively while resisting nonviolently. As both Walter Wink and Marcus Borg have noted, to take Jesus' instruction to turn the other cheek so literally that in all occasions of assault one simply turns their other cheek to be struck again is to miss the creative power of that strategy. It is offered not as a hard and fast rule, but as an example of how one can resist violent oppression with creative nonviolence, by refusing to allow their basic humanity to be stripped by the Powers.

I suspect that Cone's failure to recognize this stems from his framing of the issue of nonviolence in resistance. In the face of the violent nature of oppression, he argues:

The Christian does not decide between violence and nonviolence, evil and good. He decides between the less and the greater evil. He must ponder whether revolutionary violence is less or more deplorable than the violence perpetuated by the system. There are no absolute rules which can decide the answer with certainty. But he must make a choice. If he decides to take the "nonviolent" way, then he is saying that revolutionary violence is more detrimental to man in the long run than systematic violence. But if the system is evil, then revolutionary violence is both justified and necessary.

If Cone has correctly framed the answer here, then I suspect that we must conclude, in the end, that violence is indeed "both justified and necessary." But, must we really choose between affirming the violence of oppression and affirming the violence of revolution? Only if we fail to see the revolutionary power of nonviolent resistance.

The Christian who has faith in the methods of Jesus - and that faith is not a blind faith, but is instead supported by the success of nonviolent revolutions throughout the twentieth century - is not forced into the false dichotomy proposed here. Rather, the Christian who has faith in the methods of Jesus is free to choose the third way of creative, nonviolent resistance.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Safety of the Suburbs

When Sami and I first got married in August of 2001, we moved into a beautiful apartment in downtown Louisville, just a few blocks from where we now go to church. The area had been hit hard by white flight to the suburbs, but the architecture was amazing. We had tall ceilings, and nearly eight foot windows in our living room. And, all around us we were surrounded by beauty.

At least for the first week. When our honeymoon was over and we actually had to live in our neighborhood, we quickly realized why our family had been so nervous when we declared that we were going to live downtown. On every block you could count on at least two things: a church, and a liquor store, each engaged in a war with the other for the soul of the neighborhood. Just past the alley behind our apartment there was literally a crack house.

My wife grew up in a rural area. I grew up in the suburbs. Neither of us were quite prepared for the excitement our neighborhood offered.

Two weeks after we moved in, the greasy spoon across the street from us got held up. With an uzi. Yes, it seems our neighborhood bandit needed automatic weapons.

A few months later, slipping into our building after church one Sunday night, we were interrogated by a police detective. There was a dead body in the street, shot up by some unknown party. Had we seen anything?

That was too much. Like our ancestors before us (metaphorically, anyway), we white children of relative privledge fled to a quiet little house in the suburbs. A suitable place to raise a family. I still wrestle with some guilt over that retreat, and often fantasize about buying a house in our old neighborhood, fixing it up, and become part of a project to reclaim that part of town. We're already there two or three times a week for church events. And, our church is very involved in the community, working with local social organizations to help rebuild the community around the church. Moving back - this time for good - would be a continuation of our work with the church.

Today that plan seemed more attractive than ever. Most of us move to the suburbs to escape the complicated dangers of city life. But the safety the suburbs afford is both costly and illusory. Costly, in that in your flight from the complications of the city, you lose a great deal of culture. Illusory, because no matter where you live you cannot escape human nature.

We live across the street from a park. With two full length basketball courts, four tennis courts, a soccer field, a softball field, a meeting house, and a playground, it is almost perfect for our family. Whatever we want to do almost, we simply have to walk across the street and do it. However, twice today the police were called to our park. The first time it was because a fight broke out during a pick-up basketball game. Sure enough it devolved into a quasi race-riot, with white kids on one side and black kids on the other. I don't know how it started. I was pushing Adam in the swing when I heard screaming. He and I looked over, and kids were throwing punches and shouting obsenitites.

Daddy, he said, what 'dat?

I don't know, buddy. Let's just swing, OK?

OK, Daddy. Swing fun!

Or something like that.

The second time police came to the park was just an hour or so later. Sami came home from work, and watched Adam while I started writing a paper. She also took him to the park - did I mention having a park across the street is great when you have an "active" two-year-old? While she was playing with him on the playground, the police showed up to bust some teenagers for drug possession.

Here's a hint for juvenile pot-heads: Don't light up right by a playground full of mothers (with cell phones!) and their children. Mothers don't like older kids smoking pot in front of their babies. They tend to use their cell phones to let the police know that a group of teenagers, in broad daylight, are using drugs right by a playground full of children. So, unless you're just dying to get busted, you may want to find a little more private location.

Anyway, weren't those the sorts of things we were trying to leave behind when we fled to the suburbs?

Response to Cone's Theological Defense of Violence in the Name of Black Power

Last Wednesday I noted reading this powerful passage from James Cone's Black Theology and Black Power:

The black man's response to God's act in Christ must be different from the white's because his life experiences are different. Christian love is never fully embodied in an act. Love is the motive or the rationale for action. The attempt of some to measure love exclusively through specific actions, such as nonviolence, is theologically incorrect. Christian love comprises the being of a man whereby he behaves as if God is the essence of his existence. It means that God has hold of him and his movement in the world. But this does not take away the finiteness of man, the existential doubt in making decisions in the world. To accept Christ means both self-acceptance and neighbor-acceptance with the existential threat of nonbeing. What existentialists call non-being is never removed from man's existence. Thus the love of self and the love of neighbor, which constitute the heart of one's being in God, never escape the possibility of self-annihilation and destruction of the neighbor. The violence in the cities, which appears to contradict Christian love, is nothing but the black man's attempt to say Yes to his being as defined by God in a world that would make his being into nonbeing. If the riots are the black man's courage to say Yes to himself as a creature of God, and if in affirming self he affirms Yes to the neighbor, then violence may be the black man's expression, sometimes the only possible expression, of Christian love to the white oppressor. From the perspective of a Christian theologian seeking to take seriously the black man's condition in America, what other view is possible?

It seems that the mistake of most whites, religionists included, is their insistence on telling blacks how to respond "as Christians" to racism, insisting that nonviolence is the only appropriate response. But there is an ugly contrast between the sweet, nonviolent language of white Christians and their participation in a violently unjust system. Maybe the oppressor's being is so warped by his own view of himself that every analysis made by him merely reveals his own inflated self-evaluation. Certainly as long as he can count on blacks remaining nonviolent by turning the other cheek and accepting the conditions of slavery, there will be no real pressure to confront the black man as a person. If he can be sure that blacks will not threaten his wealth, his superiority, his power in the world, there will be no need to give up his control of the black man's destiny.

Having chewed these words over and over again in my mind, I'd finally like to post a response. This is not the knee jerk response that I would have posted last week, as someone committed to nonviolence. Rather, this is, I hope, a patient and charitable response, a response that stems in part from a deep recognition of my own need to repent for my participation in an ongoing, dehumanizing power-structure that still robs blacks and other minority groups from access to all of the trappings of white privilege that I enjoy.

In this passage Cone makes a sharp and useful distinction between two kinds of violence:

1. The violence of the oppressors, and

2. The violence of the oppressed, in response to their violent oppression.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of most forms of pacifism that I have seen is that they, in condemning all manifestations of violence, fail to make the proper moral distinction between these kinds of violence. The violence of power - whether it is found in physical beatings, lynchings, murder, bombs being dropped on villages, or in the perpetuation of dehumanizing ideas and values, or the economic exploitation of the poor and marginalized - is a categorically different kind of violence from the violence of those who would violently shake off the shackles of their oppression. If we cannot clearly articulate that distinction, then we have nothing of value to say to those who are being ground under by the wheels of oppression.

Cone rightly calls the white church on our hypocrisy on this matter. He sees us preaching nonviolence in the 1960s the way that we once taught obedience to slave masters - as a way to keep blacks from rising up and demanding to be treated as human beings. Cone sees whites imposing nonviolence as a primary moral and spiritual duty, all the while benefiting from a fundamentally violent and oppressive system of domination.

I think, however, that Cone - while perhaps accurately diagnosing the motives that many whites had in extolling to blacks the value of nonviolence - failed to appreciate the power of nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance is not exactly the same thing as nonviolence. While both nonviolence and nonviolent resistance teach that nonviolence is (at the very least!) preferable to violence, nonviolent resistance does not teach the oppressed that their primary moral and spiritual duty is to nonviolence. Rather, nonviolent resistance - Jesus' response to the Roman domination system; the Satyagraha of Gandhi in the face of British colonial rule in his native India and apartheid in South Africa, where he once practiced law and then began his career opposing power; the "civil disobedience of Martin Luther King, Jr., etc. - teaches the oppressed that, first and foremost they are called to resistance.

Nonviolent resistance tells the oppressed that they are human beings, and should demand to be treated as such. (We have already seen here how that plays out in some of the teachings of Jesus. See, for example, how "turning the other cheek" can be seen not as a form of submission, but rather as a nonviolent yet potent demand to be seen as an equal, a human being with all the rights and respect that entails.) Then, and only then, does it tell them that the way to go about asserting their fundamental humanity is through nonviolence.

In nonviolent resistance, in other words, nonviolence is not a moral norm, but a tool - the most powerful tool - for resisting oppression. In Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Walter Wink notes the overwhelming success of nonviolent revolutions in the twentieth century, saying:

If we total all the nonviolent movements of the twentieth century, the figure comes to 3.4 billion people, and again, most were successful. And yet there are people who still insist that nonviolence doesn't work!

Wink attributes the persistence of the delusion about the power of violence and the impotence of nonviolence to a number of causes. First, because as a culture we are "so preoccupied with power politics and wars," our history books are full of stories of wars rather than with the success stories of nonviolent movements. Additionally, he notes the negative nature of the word "nonviolence":

It sounds like a not-doing, the putting of one's energy into avoiding something bad rather than throwing one's total being into doing something good... "Nonviolence" is identified by many as the injunction to be submissive before authorities.

But the nonviolent resistance that Wink and others advocate is neither passive nor submissive. It is not simply the refusal to act violently, but the commitment to act creatively. It is the "third way," the path between "fight" and "flight."

Wink makes a sharp distinction between the kind of nonviolence that Cone repudiates and the kind of nonviolence that Jesus calls us to. He also acknowledges, with Cone, that this understanding of nonviolence as a tool for resistance is not the understanding of nonviolence that most Christians have:

Most Christians desire nonviolence, yes; but they are not talking about a nonviolent struggle for justice. They mean simply the absence of conflict... What they mean by nonviolence is as far from Jesus' third way as a lazy nap in the sun is from a confrontation in which protesters are being clubbed to the ground.

In the face of this common Christian understanding of nonviolence, it is easy to see why Cone - writing in 1969, as cities are being burned to the ground by race riots - would dismiss Christian appeals for nonviolence in the face of the threat posed to white supremacy by Black Power. Such appeals can easily be heard as a longing for a time when things were less complicated; when blacks "knew their place" and didn't rise up demanding to be seen as human beings. After all, the riots are accomplishing something. They are giving voice to the cries of the oppressed, and forcing the oppressors to see them and hear them. As such, as far as Cone is concerned, they are doing the work of God.

God's fundamental concern, made manifest in Christ, is for the poor and oppressed, the marginalized, the victims of power. In twentieth century America, those poor, oppressed, marginalized victims of power are black. The race riots of the late 1960s - which give rise to Cone's Black Theology and Black Power, and shape the theology in it - can be seen as the rise of those oppressed blacks, who now demand that the whites who tried to steal their humanity turn and face them as fellow humans.

The question we must ask, though, is this: Is violence in general, and riots in particular, the best way for the victims of power to assert themselves? I know that Cone would bristle at the notion of a white man asking that question. Who am I, one who carries the face of the oppressor, to pass judgment on the way that the oppressed revolt against the power that favors me? Who am I to tell slaves (and Cone sees the state of blacks in the late 1960s as a perpetuation of slavery) how to (or not to!) rebel against their captors?

I can't answer that question, though I can honor the concern that gives rise to it. It is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for the oppressed to trust someone who looks like their oppressor. I recognize that many who have counseled nonviolence have had ulterior motives. I affirm that when slaves were taught the Gospel, they were taught the Gospel of submission to authority rather than the Gospel of the release of captives. I recognize that that Gospel of submission persisted long after slavery was formerly ended, as a way to keep blacks captive to an oppressive social structure.

But, in doing so, I also assert the power of nonviolence as a form of resistance, and as the form of Jesus' resistance. The way of Christ - and Cone is here associating Christ with Black Power - is the way of nonviolent resistance, and not rioting in the streets. This is not - as most whites might have asserting in the face of Black Power - because the way of Christ is the way of submission to domination. Rather, this is because the way of Christ is the most effective way, the way that best ensures the success of resistance.

That assertion - that Jesus' third way of nonviolent resistance is the most effective way to fight oppression - is, of course, an article of faith. But it is not an entirely unsupported article of faith. History is full of examples of successful, nonviolent revolutions, even if those examples are not always as neat and clean as the few mentions of them we find it books. And, of course, Cone is not entirely opposed to having faith in the way of Jesus. In fact, in offering us a theological defense of Black Power, Cone confesses a deep and abiding faith in Jesus as Christ. His understanding of Jesus as Christ shapes his view of Black Power. Why, then, does he have less faith in the third way of Jesus?

In the end I think it is because he is suspicious of those who preached nonviolence to him, whether they be white oppressors or the black pastors that he sees as taking the bribe of relative success under the white domination system. And, while I can see and understand that suspicion, I think that it blinds him to the power of nonviolent resistance. As such, seeing only two options for blacks in the late 1960s, submission or uprising, he chooses uprising.

I wonder what he would choose today...

Saturday, March 10, 2007

What Color is Jesus?

Hopefully by tomorrow, or Monday at the latest, I'll be able to carve out the time to both

a.) respond to PamBG's most excellent comment on my last post, and

b.) post my response to James Cone's theological defense of violence in the name of Black Power.

In the meantime, I'm still wrestling with Cone's text in my little free time from school-required reading and writing, and found this powerful paragraph this morning:

Where does [Christ] lead his people? Where indeed, if not in the ghetto. He meets the blacks where they are and becomes one of them. We see him with his black face and big black hands lounging on a streetcorner. "Oh, but surely Christ is above race." But society is not raceless, any more than when God became a despised Jew. White liberal preference for a raceless Christ serves only to make official and orthodox the centuries-old portrayal of Christ as white. The "raceless" American Christ has a light skin, wavy brown hair, and sometimes - wonder of wonders - blue eyes. For whites to find him with big lips and kinky hair is as offensive as it was for the Pharisees to find him partying with tax-collectors. But whether whites want to hear it or not, Christ is black, baby, with all the features which are so detestable to white society.

Reading this I remembered the church in South Louisville - a predominantly white, blue collar part of town - where I served as the Youth Minister. For a time, under a more liberal pastor, we - an almost all white church (I remember one black man, his Korean wife, and a few Hispanics among the sea of white faces) - partnered with a predominantly black congregation. We held pulpit exchanges, where our pastor would preach in their sanctuary and their pastor would preach in ours. We also occasionally held joint worship services, with potluck dinners afterwards.

As a reminder of our ongoing friendship, this black church gave us a painting of the Last Supper. Sure enough, in that painting Jesus and all of his disciples were black. The painting was immediately hung up in our sanctuary, a proud testimony to our ability to see Jesus on the side of and made incarnate in the marginalized and oppressed.

But our liberal pastor was soon replaced by a fundamentalist, and shortly after I left to pursue my own failed attempt at a pastoral career. That partnership dissolved, and I have no idea where the painting of the Black Last Supper is.

Can we really stomach looking into the face of those we have dehumanized, and seeing there the face of Christ?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Please Help Me Chew This

I've been reading Black Theology and Black Power by James H. Cone. Published in 1969, it is an admittedly limited book, with two critical failings:

1. Despite its attempt to build up a "black theology," it interacts almost exclusively with white, European theologians.

2. Despite its language of empowering the powerless, it uses exclusively masculine language, not just for God but also for humans.

Looking back at the book twenty years after its initial publication, Cone decided, despite having those failings brought painfully to his attention, to leave them in, unedited. This is, he claims, to remind him of his own participation in a kind of dehumanizing prejudice. One does not heal the wounds of the past by covering them up, but by letting them breathe, open for all to see.

I mention these critical failings because I am about to post two paragraphs from this book that really challenge me, and I don't want especially the second failing (the use of exclusively masculine language) to interfere with your reading.

At some point in the future, as I digest these and other words by Cone, I'll post some reflections of my own. In the meantime I am reeling. So, here are two paragraphs that have metaphorically knocked me down and disoriented me. I'd like for you, dear reader, to help me digest them:

The black man's response to God's act in Christ must be different from the white's because his life experiences are different. Christian love is never fully embodied in an act. Love is the motive or the rationale for action. The attempt of some to measure love exclusively through specific actions, such as nonviolence, is theologically incorrect. Christian love comprises the being of a man whereby he behaves as if God is the essence of his existence. It means that God has hold of him and his movement in the world. But this does not take away the finiteness of man, the existential doubt in making decisions in the world. To accept Christ means both self-acceptance and neighbor-acceptance with the existential threat of nonbeing. What existentialists call non-being is never removed from man's existence. Thus the love of self and the love of neighbor, which constitute the heart of one's being in God, never escape the possibility of self-annihilation and destruction of the neighbor. The violence in the cities, which appears to contradict Christian love, is nothing but the black man's attempt to say Yes to his being as defined by God in a world that would make his being into nonbeing. If the riots are the black man's courage to say Yes to himself as a creature of God, and if in affirming self he affirms Yes to the neighbor, then violence may be the black man's expression, sometimes the only possible expression, of Christian love to the white oppressor. From the perspective of a Christian theologian seeking to take seriously the black man's condition in America, what other view is possible?

It seems that the mistake of most whites, religionists included, is their insistence on telling blacks how to respond "as Christians" to racism, insisting that nonviolence is the only appropriate response. But there is an ugly contrast between the sweet, nonviolent language of white Christians and their participation in a violently unjust system. Maybe the oppressor's being is so warped by his own view of himself that every analysis made by him merely reveals his own inflated self-evaluation. Certainly as long as he can count on blacks remaining nonviolent by turning the other cheek and accepting the conditions of slavery, there will be no real pressure to confront the black man as a person. If he can be sure that blacks will not threaten his wealth, his superiority, his power in the world, there will be no need to give up his control of the black man's destiny.

Like I said, right now I'm reeling from the potency of Cone's words, words that I, despite my commitment to non-violence, must take seriously, because I stand condemned by them. I'm hoping to discuss this passage here, if anyone feels so inclined, and to eventually write an essay that attempts to address these concerns from the framework of non-violent resistance, rather than mere non-violence.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Second Peace Blogger Interview

The Second Peace Blogger Interview is up at Levellers. Check it out.

And, if you missed it, check out mine, as well.

Augustine's Theodicy Redeemed

This will be a shorter post - perhaps only a fragment of an idea - because I have to get started on a paper for one of my classes. This post, then, is my pre-writing activity, a way to jump start my theological thinking so that it can eventually be applied to something that will get graded.

Most of you know by now my opinion of theodicy. I don't mask it very well. I think that by and large the product of theodicy is a flawed one, seeking to explain suffering away rather than entering into it and responding both compassionately and constructively to it.

Theodicy is an attempt to rationally reconcile an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, perfectly good God to the fact of suffering and evil. As a friend of mine once put it, something's got to give: God, or suffering. Noting this, early attempts at theodicy tried to make suffering give way.

One of Augustine's theodicies - a theodicy so ingrained in our theological heritage that many people who know both it and Augustine still fail to connect the two - was a kind of ontological theodicy. That is, it attacked the ontology, the being, of evil. Augustine argued that evil was not a thing in and of itself, but rather a privation or perversion of being. A wound that fed on the festering flesh of being.

This was an important argument, because it kept a single, good creator God from being directly responsible for the creation of evil. Why? Because evil wasn't created, nor was it, properly speaking, a thing. In fact, ontologically speaking, it didn't exist at all. Yes, evil could be experienced, but only as a kind of contingent thing, existing in and feeding off that which God created to be good.

When I first encountered this theodicy, I was immediately impressed by it. I remember, at 18 or 19 years old, walking through a church parking lot meditating on this concept of evil as a privation of being. Deep in thought, I stared down at my feet and noticed that I was walking past the decaying corpse of a sparrow. Then it hit me that this might just have been what Augustine was talking about.

The evil, the suffering, that up until that point I had pressed hard against, was death. Now, staring into the face of death, I realized that death was not a thing at all, but the absence of a thing, the destruction of a thing. The sparrow was the created good. The sparrow had an existence of its own. Death, while it had overtaken that created good, was not, properly speaking, a thing, and so did not find its origin in God. God wasn't responsible for it, and God hadn't created it. It merely existed - to the extent that one can say it existed at all - in a good thing that had been created.

But that kind of thinking only puts the problem back a step, and doesn't really address our concern at all. While I got an intellectual high from contemplating the mysteries of suffering and death in that moment, that contemplation provided no defense against the deeper existential problem. You see, whether or not God gets off on a technicality because we declare evil to be a privation of being rather than an instance of being, we still experience evil, we still experience suffering. In my case, the suffering caused in me by the loss of loved ones, and the existential suffering buried deep inside me by the anxiety of my own anticipated death, did not go away just because some clever theologian "proved" that such suffering wasn't really God's fault.

Theodicy, then, could be a distraction from rather than a solution for the problem posed by evil.

But, it turns out, that doesn't mean that we can't make some constructive use of Augustine's concept of evil as a privation or perversion of being. In my Resistance and Reconciliation class I just read a marvelous essay in Stone and Stivers' text, Resistance and Theological Ethics. Mark Douglas' "Resistance, Affirmation, and the Sovereignty of God" looks at resistance from a Reform perspective. That perspective is heavily influenced by Augustine - so much so that Douglas presents Augustine's concept of evil as though it were the Reform position, without even referencing Augustine. He writes:

If God has created all things and all that God has created is good, it follows that the Reform tradition takes a radically anti-dualistic view of the universe and all that inhabits it. Evil has no separate, alternative existence over against that which God has created but can only exist as a perversion or privation of what God has created.

That view is Augustinian, through and through. But, where Douglas goes next redeems the Augustinian view of evil for, rather than using it to explain evil away, he employs this concept of evil as a way to enter into and engage evil, with both compassion and humility:

It follows not only that we ought to treat what we are resisting as somehow related to God - even if that relationship has been significantly warped - and capable of being redeemed by the same God that created it, but that no person or group is ever in the position of declaring its opponent either wholly evil or, for that matter, wholly wrong. Reformed resistance is tempered by the humility that comes from thinking of one's opponents as created by God, no matter how far from their creator they mat appear.

The rest of the essay is about engaging suffering, and using our shared experience of suffering as a tool for engaging the problems we see in this world. Here, then, the notion that evil exists only contingently, and as such does not find its origin in God, is not used as a way to explain how evil came to be in some abstract sense. Rather, it is used to engage evil where it exists, in created beings who were made good and can, thus, be remade good.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Bad Ass Methodist Preacher Story Forces Some Reflection

I've been living with Timothy Tyson's haunting Blood Done Sign My Name, a book about growing up in rural North Carolina in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Tyson's father - a central figure in the story, of course - was a Methodist preacher from a long line of Methodist preachers. His father and each of his brothers also had served as Methodist clergy in North Carolina, and each had difficult careers because of their stand on the "race issue."

My friend Charles is a contemporary of Rev. Vernon Tyson who began his career preaching in rural South Carolina. He tells many stories of confronting Southern racism - perhaps more honest than Northern racism - both in himself and in his first few congregations. Those stories, stories of facing down angry congregants, gave me some comfort as I went through my own trial by ordeal. Unlike Charles, or Vernon Tyson, however, my stand was not quite as principled, and my career did not survive it.

Preaching racial equality in the South during the Civil Rights movement was akin to career suicide. The few white preachers who had the courage or gall to do it found themselves quickly in search of a new home. For Charles in meant moving to Louisville and earning a PhD in history from the University of Louisville, pursuing a career in academia to supplement and at times even supplant his pastoral ministry. For Vernon Tyson and others it meant moving from appointment to appointment, and often running into difficulty with the bishop's office.

In Blood Done Sign My Name, Timothy Tyson tells more than a few stories from his father's career that remind me so much of stories that my friend Charles has told me. One of them takes place in Oxford, North Carolina, just after the assignation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Some of the clergy in Oxford would like to hold a memorial service for King, despite the prominent view among the whites in town that King's death, far from a tragedy, was both deserved and a step in the right direction. Tyson reminds us that

we should not forget that comparatively few [white Americans] applauded King while he lived. In the years since his murder, we have transformed King into a kind of innocuous black Santa Claus, genial and vacant, a benign vessel that can be filled with whatever generic good wished the occasion dictates. Politicians who oppose everything King worked for now jostle their way onto podiums to honor his memory.

Since his death, King's life has been co-opted by a culture that opposed him while he lived. As such, so far removed from him, it is easy for us to forget that he was seen by some as the greatest internal threat that America had ever faced. In 1968, when a group of clergy in Oxford, North Carolina proposed an inter-racial memorial service for Martin Luther King, Jr., it was quite possibly the most controversial idea that could have ever come up with, short of, perhaps, performing an inter-racial wedding.

The problem with this idea was that, if the service was held at a black church, no whites would have attended it, which would have kept it from being an inter-racial service. But no white pastor was foolish or suicidal enough to propose that the event be held at their church. Radical ideas, after all, are best kept in the abstract, and preferably as far from home as possible.

Enter Rev. Vernon Tyson, Timothy Tyson's father, and at this point pastor of the all white Oxford United Methodist Church. After consulting the Book of Discipline, the governing document of the United Methodist Church, he realized that, unlike his Baptist colleagues, he could hold the service in his church without getting any sort of permission or approval from any board, body, or group in his church. While he had already been run out of one church for inviting a black preacher to address his all white congregation, he decided to offer to hold the inter-racial memorial service at his church. His offer was quickly accepted, and the group of pastors decided not to say anything about the service to anyone until Sunday morning, when they would each announce the service - to be held at 5pm that night -simultaneously to their respective congregations. The hope was that this move would give "the opposition... little time to mobilize." Timothy Tyson writes:

The roomful of indignant men that met us the next morning clearly revealed that someone had failed to keep the agreement. "This ain't your church, Vernon, it's our church," the spokesman repeated. "You can't have a church full of n* [Note: I have chosen to edit this word out, though Tyson repeats it verbatim, a powerful literary device. I do not use it here, however, because - while I have few linguistic hang-ups - I simply can't bring myself to type it. You should know what unmentionable word begins with an n. - CB] in here. This is our church." An angry clamor of assent echoed around the cool, white plaster of the walls lined with books, and now also lined with churchmen young and old. Eli Regan stood silently near the back, letting this younger fellow do the talking.

"The last time I checked, it was God's church," my father replied. "I think it probably still is." He made his way around the desk and took the robe that his daddy had given him off the coat rack. Nestling it around his shoulders, he straightened his tie in the small mirror in the corner and ran a comb through his hair.

"Well, you can say whatever you want, Vernon, but you can't do it," the man replied. "You are not having any damn Martin Luther King service in our church, and that's a fact. You can't do it. We're not going to let you do it. So you may as well get on the telephone right now and tell them that it is not happening in our church."

My father again plucked up his copy of the Methodist
Book of Discipline from the shelf behind his desk, opening it to the page he had marked the day before. "I don't mean to be arrogant, you understand," Daddy said, "and I understand that you're not happy about it. I hear that, and I'm not saying that you have to come to the service. But we're all Methodists here, and part of that is having methods, you might say, for doing certain things. This book lists them, and it says right here" - he opened the page, holding the book out toward his interrogator - "that the pastor of this church can determine the number and nature of services held in the sanctuary. And, for the moment at least, I believe that I am still the pastor of this church." He scribbled a number on the back of his business card and handed it to the speechless spokesman. "And here's the bishop's phone number. If he says I am not the pastor of this church, I can't do it. Otherwise I plan to proceed."

Daddy started rummaging through his satchel for his sermon notes. There was a stunned silence. Nobody knew quite what to do or say. The study was so packed that it was literally hard for the men to leave. But Eli Regan shuffled around to the front of Daddy's desk, stepping in front of the man who had been speaking. Regan was probably as conservative a man as you could have found in the state of North Carolina, and he spoke with great authority in this group as the lay leader and as one of the senior men in the church. "Well, Preacher," he said, "I have two things to say about all this. The first thing is that I believe in my heart that Martin Luther King is the worst enemy that America has had in my lifetime - the very worst. You don't think so, but that's what I think, and I think most of these men agree with me." There were nods of assent all around the small room. "And the second thing I want to tell you," Regan continued, "is that if anybody in this room knocks you down, Preacher, I'm gonna pick you back up again. You're still
my preacher."

My career as a pastor ended with my voluntary resignation of my only appointment, one week after my District Superintendent and I were accosted at a Charge Conference by an angry group from the church who literally stormed the floor, took over the meeting, and forced us to listen to their list of "concerns" about me. I say "voluntary resignation" almost ironically, as there is little volition involved in the decision to remove yourself from a violent and abusive situation.

During the week between the Charge Conference and my final service at the church, my wife and I agreed both that she and Adam would never step foot in the building again, and that I would exit that charge as quickly as possible. My District Superintendent encouraged me to resign immediately, without so much as even saying goodbye. He feared for my safety, and offered to retrieve all of my belongings from the church for me. But I wanted to face that church one more time, to leave on my own terms.

I'm glad that I did. Before my final service, several kind people from the church told me how much they appreciated me, and how ashamed they were of how their friends treated me. They said that they had been raised better than to treat people like that - especially pastors. They told me that this had happened before. In fact, the person I replaced had been run out of town just like this. Ever since their beloved "Brother Burns" had died, they couldn't find a preacher they liked. The problem, these kind people assured me, was with the church, and not with me.

But, too much damage had been done already, and I'd already made up my mind. I don't know what, if anything, remains of that church. It was sinking fast when I got there, and running off their last few pastors certainly would not have endeared it to the bishop's office. But, reading Tyson's story reminded me a little bit of some of the events that surrounded my departure from pastoral ministry.

It also reminded me of a story that my friend Charles - who served on my District Committee on Ministry and who was my United Methodist Polity professor, and who, now retired, worships with me every week - told me while I was going through my own personal hell. He went through a similar situation after having the audacity to tell a church full of whites that God was color blind with respect to persons. He saw Civil Rights as an essential part of the Gospel, and was not afraid to tell his churches that.

One week he overheard two men - opponents of his - talking in the back of the sanctuary after service. One of them laid into Charles behind his back, cursing his talk of "race mixing." The other said softly, "I don't like this any more than you do, but if our preacher can't tell us what he really thinks about something, we've got nothing."

These stories swirl around in my head, and I don't know what to make of them. I'm not sure I can draw any moral out of them, save to say that I am convinced that God calls us from time to time to take prophetic stands, and I wish I had the courage to make some of my own.

Telling a church full of fundamentalists that God is a God of Mercy, not a God of Wrath, or writing from the safety and security of my basement office that gays and lesbians should have the right to have their relationships recognized by both the church and the state; these don't quite count as prophetic stands. But when Jesus took his stand the authorities nailed him to a cross, and while we don't hang dissenters today, that fear still permeates those of us who want to be seen a people of good conscience, even as we harbor those secret fears that paralyze our would-be-prophetic tongues.

Rev. Vernon Tyson, roughly two years after his Book of Discipline wielding stand, was forced to leave yet another town. My friend Charles had to leave his home state. My friend Gil - another Southern white Methodist who took a stand - nearly has his house blown up for marching with blacks during the Civil Rights movement, and has since been ostracized by our Conference for performing a same-sex wedding.

What sacrifice will I make for what I believe in?