Friday, July 10, 2009

But what's it all MEAN, man?

[Note: I wrote this bit of absurd randomness as a Note on Facebook - look me up if you Facbook. That's where I waste most of my Internet time these days.]

I'm beginning to learn why Zen masters are so reticent to share their accumulated wisdom.

I've got degrees in philosophy and theology, and have spent my adult life either working in or rebelling against churches. On top of that, I've spent most of my life neurotically asking questions that emerge from anxiety but pretend to be deep. I've been locked in a relentless struggle to wrestle meaning from the universe.

So, if you're having some kind of existential crisis, and you either know me or know someone who knows me, I'm the guy you go to. I'm the guy you bring your deepest, darkest questions to.

And I love it. I really do. It is an honor to be of some use to someone who is wrestling with whatever it is we wrestle with from time to time. That divine being who was locked in combat with Jacob, wrenched his hip out of socket when he wouldn't let go, and then gave him a new name: Israel. "Isra" "El," one who "wrestles" with "God."

Interestingly, that prefix, "Isra," has multiple meanings in the Hebrew. In keeping with the strange story of Jacob and the divine being, it means "to wrestle," "to struggle," or "to fight." And so, Israel is the one who wrestles with, who struggles with, who fights with "El," a generic Semetic word for God. But, "Isra" also means "to live." Israel, "Isra" "El" is thus not only the one who wrestles with God, but also the one who lives with God, who shares space with God.

That "to live" with and "to struggle" with are the same word isn't a huge shock, perhaps, for those of us who have ever tried to live with someone. Perhaps not a shock, either, for those of us who have even tried to live, which I hope is all of us. Life is a struggle, a fight, a giant wrestling match that is both interminably long and over in a blink.

But what is it that those of us who live, and who struggle, are fighting with? God? Ourselves? Some bad pizza we ate too late last night, chased by too many beers?

I can't answer that question any more than I can answer the stoner's question that serves as the title to this hastily assembled "Note" or "post" or whatever the hell this random scribble is supposed to be. And that brings me back to the Zen master who won't divulge what she learned in her moment of Satori, her point of enlightenment.

Well, it kind of does. It actually, first, brings me to movies.

Movies often point to a disaffection with life that also shows up in too many works of philosophy or theology. Movies like the Matrix, or the Thirteenth Floor, or Vanilla Sky, or Dark City (my favorite of the lot, which my friend Chappy once described as the Matrix on a bad acid trip with a baseball bat crying out "here kitty kitty kitty") follow a similar pattern, not in their plot so much as in their psychology. They begin with a sense that things are not as they seem. That something is fundamentally wrong. The normal, the mundane, is not only empty, but in its emptiness somehow sinister.

But(!) as the plot unfolds there is a kind of answer to the existential problem, the fundamental wrongness of the here and now, the given. That answer is the Other. The unveiling of some hidden reality, that then mysteriously enters the wrong given and somehow rights it.

As a Christian, that appeals to me. But, as a human being, it sometimes leads me astray.

I've spent my whole life wrestling with, searching for, trying to uncover that Other, that hidden reality that will then swoop into my fucked up current situation and miraculously make it all make sense. And, there have been moments when I think I may have peered behind the curtain, sometimes translucent, sometimes damn near opaque, that divides the here and now from the Other, the - to use the terms employed by Mircea Eliade and others - "profane" from the "sacred."

So where has that gotten me? I'm not sure. Distracted, perhaps, more than anything else.

There's a book sitting in my library - I won't bore you with the details of it, because it isn't worth reading - titled "Quest for Meaning." That title sums up the whole enterprise. Life is some sort of a puzzle to be solved, a riddle whose meaning is to be teased out, a mythic quest that ends at some concrete point, some grand destination. Except that, the longer I life and the longer I wrestle, the more I think it isn't.

"What's it all mean?" I often get asked. "What's this all about?"

I don't mind the question, but more and more I feel like that Zen master who, when faced with that great existential question responds with "just breathe."

"What's the point?" To live. To breathe in and out, each moment of each day.

"What's it all mean?" Who says it has to MEAN anything.

Life is life. Plain and simple. And while I don't mind asking those great unanswerable questions (I've already got two degrees for doing that, and am hoping to start working on a third next year) I wonder if those questions aren't used lazily. It is, after all, far easier to ask a question and expect an answer than it is to live life each day, every day.

My advice to anyone who wants to know the meaning of life is to sit down and breathe. Or go look at a tree. Or follow the flight path of sparrows. Or watch grass grow. Or stare into the eyes of a child. Or cook a decent meal. Or really, do ANYTHING, so long as you are fully present, fully engaged in the activity.

Because that breath you took doesn't mean anything. And that tree you stared at doesn't mean anything. And the flight of the birds doesn't mean anything. And the grass doesn't mean anything. And the child's eyes don't mean anything. And the great meal doesn't mean anything.

Not anything you can say out loud, anyway. Not anything you can write down in a book. Not anything you can even think. Not rationally, anyway. Life can't be reduced to meaning. And human beings can't expect to be happy constantly looking away from life to find the meaning in life.

And the Zen master can't tell you what she learned in her moment of Satori. Because she didn't learn anything. She was just sitting there, breathing in and out. Living.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

King the Theologian, Part III: The Christology of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

[Note: This is the third part of a planned three-part series on taking Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seriously as a theologian. You can find part one, as well as an introduction to the whole series, here. You can find part two here.

I may add to this series later - I am especially interested in eventually adding posts both on King's understanding of the church and on his views on the relationship between resistance and reconciliation. But, for the moment, I'm leaving it at this.

This final post, as you no doubt guessed from the title, is on King's view of what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ. Because it has such a broad and important topic, it is also considerably longer than most of my admittedly already taxingly-long posts. Hopefully, then, it rewards the time and effort you spend reading it.

There are two main problems with trying to identify and articulate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Christology, his understanding of what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ. The first is that there is not much overtly Christological material available from King. While his life was a powerful Christian witness motivated by deep theological commitments, and while his sermons and writing have great theological depth, he was not a systematic theologian. He lived his life in service of the church and the Civil Rights movement, not in the service of academic theology. So while he had a PhD in theology, upon receiving that degree from Boston University he rarely had time to sit down and map out a system of belief. He was, frankly, busy doing other, more important things.

Even if, however, he had somehow managed to find the time, between his obligations to his church, to the movement, and to his family, to find the time to work up some kind of theological system that overtly dealt with Christology, it is doubtful he would have done so. This is because many of his beliefs, spelled out so boldly, would not have been appealing to the majority of his followers. King was deeply suspicious of “superstition” in religion, and regarded many traditional Christian beliefs as being superstitious. His interpretation of what many consider to be core Christian doctrine was much more metaphorical than literal, and his understanding of Jesus, shaped in large part by Howard Thurman, would have had more in common with elements of today’s Jesus Seminar than with the average Baptist congregant of King’s day. As such, much of what he did say and write about Jesus was more ethical than theological, focusing on the witness of the historical Jesus rather than a theological understanding of what it means to claim that Jesus is the Christ.

This brings us to the second difficulty: Because King’s ethic, and indeed his very life, is so Christocentric, it is difficult to classify his Christology in terms of the traditional “low” or “high” Christology. While, in terms of doctrine, King may have had a “low” Christology, that deemphasized the superstitious or supernatural character of Christian belief and doctrine, his emphasis on the centrality of Jesus and his consistent application of the way of Jesus to human affairs – even building an entire program of non-violent resistance from applying the way of Jesus to the political realm – makes a mockery of any claim that his Christology was “low.” In light of his continued faith in the way and person of Jesus, and his constant emphasis on the centrality of Jesus, King’s Christology – while neither superstitious nor particularly supernatural – was anything but “low.”

The only place where King overtly spells out his understanding of what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ is in his papers as a seminary student. Here you can see King, the student, building a theological system from the ground up, wrestling with new ideas and trying to incorporate those ideas into his faith. In these papers you can witness his growth, as he puts his childhood faith (and, it should be noted, his collegiate rebellion against said faith) in dialogue with rich new theological resources.

Much of this essay is built on what King wrote in a course at Crozer Theological Seminary, Christian Theology for Today, taught by George Washington Davis. While there can be no doubt that the adult King continued to grow and develop after his seminary education, both at Boston University and in the “real world” – a world that included both pastoral and prophetic Christian ministry – this class may have been the last time King had to lay out exactly what he believed concerning core Christian doctrine. It thus lays out intellectual commitments that helped shape the course of his life and ministry. In the papers from this course King wrestles with key Christological questions, questions of the humanity and divinity of Jesus, the identity of Jesus, and the life and death of Jesus and how it affected the world. In addition to these papers, this essay also considers references to Jesus in some of King’s sermons, and also takes very seriously Howard Thurman’s influence on King’s understanding of Jesus.

King, not surprisingly, uses the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth as a starting point for his Christology. In his writings on Jesus in George Davis’ class, King emphasizes the humanity – and especially the Jewishness – of Jesus of Nazareth. “The Christian Church,” King writes, “has tended to overlook its Judaic origins, but the fact is that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew of Palestine.” It is impossible, according to King, to understand Christianity without understanding the fact that Jesus lived his entire life as a first century Palestinian Jew. This echoes the concern of Rudolph Bultmann, whose work King undoubtedly was exposed to as a seminary student. Additionally, Bultmann’s approach to understanding the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth helped shape Howard Thurman’s understanding of Jesus – especially in his Jesus and the Disinherited – and that in turn had a tremendous influence on King.

In his Jesus and the Word, Bultmann begins his study of Jesus by with a brief overview of Jewish history and belief, recognizing the impossibility of understanding Jesus apart from his context as a first-century Palestinian Jew. Bultmann’s study of Judaism as the setting of Jesus starts with an appreciation of law in the Jewish context. King, too, begins his reflections with an appreciation of law. After defending Jesus’ fidelity to his own Jewish identity, writing “There is no justification of the view that Jesus was attempting to find a church distinct from the Synagogue,” King notes, “It is evident that Jesus had profound respect for the law as did every true Jew.” This respect for the law – which was properly Jewish – was not, however, legalistic in King’s view. Rather, he writes, “it is significant to note that he [Jesus] always sought to get at the spirit of the law. He sought to get back to the ultimate purpose of the law rather than the exact letter.” This helps paint a picture of Jesus as a Jewish reformer, rather than someone who broke away from Judaism to start a new religion.

King’s understanding of Jesus as someone faithful to the religion of his birth, seeking to reform it from the inside rather than rebel against it or overturn it, anticipates King’s work as a faithful critic of his own Christian religion. This shows up in many of his sermons, but perhaps most notably in “A knock at midnight.” There, after laying out a metaphor of social crisis as “midnight,” hurting people and groups as “weary travelers” knocking on a door at midnight, and the church as the house whose door is being so inconveniently knocked on, he observes this:

How often have men [sic] experienced a similar disappointment when they knock on the door of the church. Millions of Africans, patiently knocking on the door of the Christian church where they seek the bread of social justice, have either been ignored or told to wait until later, which almost always means never. Millions of American Negroes, starving for want of the bread of freedom, have knocked again and again on the door of the so-called white churches, but they have usually been greeted by a cold indifference or blatant hypocrisy… One of the shameful tragedies of history is that the institution which should remove man [sic] from the midnight of racial segregation participates in creating and perpetuating the midnight.

King then identifies yet more midnights at which the church, by and large, will not answer the knock on its doors, and yet more breads the church, by and large, will not distribute to those in need. In the “midnight of war” the church will not distribute the “bread of peace.” In the “midnight of economic privation” the church will not distribute the “bread of economic justice.” Yet, despite his clear disappointment with the church, King remains a faithful Christian and pastor. Rather than revolting, or merely leaving, King strives to reform the church from within, laying out a vision for what the church ought to be, rather than trying to start his own religion. This may follow from King’s understanding of Jesus’ relationship to Judaism, which was one of faithful reform. Faithful, in that Jesus – in King’s view – unquestionably remained a Jew his entire life, working as a religious teacher within Judaism, motivated by his own understanding of Jewish teachings, especially with regard to the law. But reform, in that Jesus, in King’s view, gave himself permission to question and critique an emerging legalism within Judaism, by affirming his own distinctly Jewish understanding of the law.

But Jesus was unique, even as a Jew. Unique not in the sense that he deviated from Judaism, or was not properly speaking a true product of his Judaism, but rather unique in the sense that his character and personality were such that he, in King’s view, was simply put the most important person to ever walk the earth. On this King writes:

Jesus remains the most persistent, inescapable, and influential figure that ever entered history. It was such a personality that split history into A.D. and B.C. It was this personality, born under the humblest of conditions in a conquered province in the Roman Empire, that was able in some thirty years only, of which only a few month [sic] were spent in public ministry, to change for many the whole complexion of the world.

What was it about Jesus that, in King’s mind, led him to have such a profound impact on the history of the world in such a short span of time? To answer that question one must turn to another paper King wrote as a student, which overtly deals with a theological understanding of Jesus.

In “The Humanity and Divinity of Jesus,” another paper he wrote for George Washington Davis, the young King is concerned with a central Christological question. Starting with the question Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you think I am?” King unpacks his own Christology in dialogue with Christian theological claims of divine-human cohabitation in the person of Jesus. In it King lays out three basic approaches to the question: “total divinity… with little concern for humanity,” total humanity “with no divine dimensions,” and the doctrine of “Jesus as fully human and fully divine.” And while that final position is held by most Christians as the orthodox Christological doctrine, the final word on the subject, King expresses some concern, writing, “This [Christological] question, which was so prominent in the thinking of the early Christian centuries, was not answered once and for all at the council of Chalcedon.”

“[R]ather”, King writes, “it lurks forth in modern theological thinking with an amazing degree of freshness.” This statement, which refuses to allow the doctrinal door to be shut against further theological thinking, affirms efforts to explore anew Jesus’ relationship with God, the extent to which God worked and works through Jesus, and was and is revealed in Jesus. It reopens the question of what it means for Christians to affirm that Jesus is the Christ.

Here as in his earlier paper on the subject of Jesus, King begins with the humanity of Jesus. “If there is one thing of which modern Christians have been certain”, King writes, “it is that Jesus was a true man, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh.” To deny the humanity of Jesus is deeply unchristian. In being fully human, Jesus is of necessity as limited as any other human being. In support of this King notes that Jesus was subject to temptation no less than any other person – a fact that King himself, so often subject to the temptations of the flesh, no doubt found comforting. In addition to suffering temptation King notes that Jesus grew hungry, thirsty, and tired. He was, in other words, subject to the limitations of mortal life. And not just the physical limitations, the need to eat, drink, and sleep, but also the mental and emotional ones. He had to be taught things, suffered grief, shed tears, and felt pain. He prayed – and sometimes his prayers reflected profound anxiety.

Further, he was clearly, King notes, not omniscient, but rather acknowledged his own ignorance concerning some matters. This is an important point to King, who quotes H.R. Mackintosh to support his claim:

Not only is it related that Jesus asked questions to elicit information – regarding the site of Lazarus’ tomb, for example, or the number of loaves, or the name of the demented Gadarene – but at one point there is clear acknowledgment of ignorance. ‘Of that day and hour,’ He said, respecting the Parousia, ‘knoweth no man, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.’ If he could thus be ignorant of a detail connected in some measure with his redemptive work, the conclusion is unavoidable that in secular affairs His knowledge was but the knowledge of His time.

This ignorance – or, perhaps better this innate limitation – outlined by Mackintosh confirms for King that Jesus fully shared the human experience of those of his time. “Jesus”, King writes, “fully shared our human life.”

What then made and makes him so unique? King addresses this question in the second half of his paper. “After establishing the humanity of Jesus”, he writes, “we still find an element in his life that transcends the human.” Properly identifying this transcendent element is at the core of Christology. In this it is easier to articulate what King could not affirm about Jesus than what he could affirm. Part of this is because he does not fully unpack what he affirms. Jesus, to King, is properly seen “as a human being surrounded by divinity,” a phrase so ambiguous that in grading the paper George Davis rightly asks him to clarify what he means. By contrast, King is very clear when he criticizes the orthodox position of Jesus’ divinity:

The orthodox attempt to explain the divinity of Jesus in terms of an inherent metaphysical substance within him seems inadequate. To say that the Christ, whose example for living we are bid to share, is divine in an ontological sense is actually harmful and detrimental. To invest this Christ with such supernatural qualities makes the rejoinder: “Oh, well, he had a better chance for that kind of life than we can possibly have.” In other words, one could easily use this as a means to hide behind his [sic] failures.

Thus, despite the fact that King almost certainly viewed this Christological approach as being physically impossible, the product of superstition rather than clear thinking, his overt critique is not philosophical, but rather pastoral and ethical. In this sense it sets a pattern he would follow throughout his career: rather than take a “superstitious” doctrine head on, critiquing it in light of developing modern thought, he would – as a pastor and a public ethicist who often offering stinging prophetic critiques – express his concern pastorally. The problem with a supernatural view of Jesus as inherently ontologically divine is not, thus, that such a situation would be physically impossible. Rather, the problem is that it could lead one to opt out of following the example of Jesus, setting up the convenient cop out that, as literally ontologically divine, Jesus could live up to a standard that of course human beings could not realistically be expected to follow.

For King what it principally means to say that Jesus is the Christ is to say that Jesus serves as a model for authentic human life. Jesus, King writes, serves as a “prototype.” That is his function as the Christ. Whatever divinity may be ascribed to him comes not as a matter of “inherent metaphysical substance,” but rather as a product of the example of his life. An example, by the way, that all humans are called by God to follow. In this, part of what it thus means to say that Jesus is the Christ is to say that Jesus invites all humans to participate in a fully human way of living, in which all humans, at least potentially can become really like Christ.

This is where King’s Christology – which reflects the dialogical approach he would flesh out in more detail later in his life – explodes the distinction between “low” and “high.” It is “low” in the sense that Jesus is not literally metaphysically divine. Yet, rather than retreat from the standard critique of such “low” Christologies – that they are insufficiently Christian – he points out the pastoral and ethical limitations of the “high” Christology. Thus that which has served as orthodox Christian doctrine, though it may pass the test of orthodoxis – of right belief – fails the more vital test of orthopraxis – of right practice. Good Christian doctrine is, in King’s view, doctrine that enables one to live a thoroughly Christian life, not doctrine that enables one to pass some doctrinal test. This is where it becomes evident that, though in his later career he wisely refused to spell out his doctrinal beliefs concerning the metaphysical nature of Jesus, it is impossible to make a sharp distinction between King’s Christology and his ethic. That is because his ethic is a Christocentric ethic, and his Christology is concerned principally with advancing his ethic; that is, with motivating Christians to behave like Jesus, to pattern their lives after the example of Jesus.

And though King does not spell out his beliefs concerning Jesus in his ministry, he does often hold Jesus up as a moral example. King cites the Jesus, for instance, as a primary motivation for the Civil Rights movement, writing this of the relationship between Jesus and the Montgomery Bus Boycott:

It was the Sermon on the Mount, rather than a doctrine of passive resistance, that initially inspired the Negroes of Montgomery to dignified social action. It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love.

King may have been skeptical of bodily resurrection, but it is clear from the way that he refers to the very present influence of Jesus here that the person of Jesus endures, whatever one believes concerning resurrection. The image of Jesus stirring oppressed persons to action is an image of an active, enduring presence experienced by a community in need of help, motivating that community to moral and political action. In this case Jesus’ enduring action provides a twofold moral example, both spurring resistance to dehumanizing oppression, and shaping the nature of the resistance. In this King is following Howard Thurman, an old family friend, and dean of the chapel at Boston University while King was pursuing his PhD there.

In his Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman, Johnny Bernard Hill says, “offers a remarkable ‘1940s’ version of a Christocentric liberation theology.” He begins with an interpretation of Jesus, an interpretation that no doubt helped shape King’s own thought concerning Jesus. This interpretation – like King’s – begins with the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, and rarely if ever strays into speculative metaphysics. The central mechanism in this interpretation is Thurman’s sharp distinction between “Christianity” – which “often has been sterile and of little avail” to “those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity” despite having “their backs against the wall” – and “the religion of Jesus.” It is “the religion of Jesus” – which stems from the example and teachings of Jesus – that is of most concern to Thurman, who sees it as being of vital significance “to people who stand with their backs against the wall.”

And what, according to Thurman, is the center, the core, of the religion of Jesus? Love. “The religion of Jesus makes the love-ethic central.” It is love, a political ethic of love, that Jesus, in Thurman’s reading of him, offers as a response to “the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited.” Those hounds of hell are fear, deception, and hate, and love is their undoing. Not love that naively believes the best about others, that is full of romanticized feelings, and a denial of evil. Rather, love that explodes the category of “enemy,” the paradigm of “us” against “them.” Such a love, that transcends fickle feelings without, of course, discounting the emotional aspect of human personality, is very difficult, and makes strong demands on the oppressed and the oppressor alike. Such a love aims for reconciliation, but not a cheap reconciliation brought about by a denial of past harms and present conditions. It aims instead for an authentic reconciliation brought about by repentance and forgiveness. And, in Thurman’s reading, you can’t have one without the other. The oppressor must repent – which involves confession and contrition as well as a concrete change in behavior – or reconciliation is impossible, because oppression still exists.

It is clear from his life and work that King, with his insistence that resistance be non-violent, follows this understanding of the love-ethic of Jesus, central to the religion of Jesus. Here Jesus as the Christ serves as the model for a political ethic. Modern exegetes like Walter Wink have spelled out in great detail how the teachings of Jesus, such as “turning the other cheek” or “walking an extra mile” are, rather than calls to set aside one’s own basic dignity and humanity in the face of injustice, actually creative tools for undermining injustice. King did not, however, need such potent exegetical tools to understand that the way of Jesus, the love-ethic of Jesus, serves those on the margins rather than those in power. For him it was a matter of faith, and a matter of tradition, that Jesus was on the side of the oppressed. And for him the way of Jesus – which includes a political ethic of love – was the most potent tool for fighting systemic oppression.

This is, for King, what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ. It is not an ontological statement, a statement concerning Jesus’ metaphysical nature, his being, his essence. It is instead a pastoral statement, an ethical statement, a political statement. It is also a statement of faith, that the way of Jesus is the right way, a pattern for all of humanity – and especially the oppressed to follow. Unpacking the nature of Jesus as the Christ requires looking not to early theological documents for records of Christian beliefs concerning Jesus, but rather to the Gospels as sources of information about the life, teachings, and witness of the historical Jesus.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

King the Theologian, Part II: The Beloved Community Today

[Note: This is part two of a planned three-part series on taking Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seriously as a theologian. You can find Part I, as well as an introduction to the series as a whole, here.

Like that first post, this post comes out of Johnny Bernard Hill's class on King at Louisville Seminary, my alma mater. It also, however, comes out of my conviction that eschatology, Christian doctrine concerning "the end," can be understood as a political theology. That is, in laying out their beliefs concerning God's anticipated future intervention in history, Christians give creative voice to their deepest political ideals, giving themselves freedom to dream of God's intention for creation and human community unsullied by the corruption of sin. Thus studying eschatology is not, ultimately, a distraction from the concerns of this world in the here and now, but rather an entering deeply into creative expressions of very pressing worldly concerns.

That is certainly the case for King's eschatological vision, which he called the Beloved Community.

The Beloved Community was how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated his understanding of God’s eschatological vision for humanity and human communities. At times King spoke of this as an actual community that could go into existence in history, though like any eschatological vision, King saw this community as being principally in the “not yet” rather than the “now.” In fact, it is not clear that the “not yet” is ever destined to become “now.”

John J. Ansbro argues that aspects of King’s articulation of the Beloved Community indicate that he thought that it could never completely become “a historical reality.” His understanding of universal human sinfulness, in line with Niebuhr’s Christian realism, meant that humans could never completely overcome our innate moral limitations to allow ourselves to inhabit a historical community guided purely by selfless agape love.

This begs a question, even before the content of King’s understanding of the Beloved Community is engaged: Of what good is an eschatological vision, if it will never come into fulfillment in history?

The first way to answer this question might be to dispute its premise. King may share Niebuhr’s dim view of human nature, and he may believe, again, with Niebuhr, that left to itself humanity will never overcome its innate moral limitations (though one should be careful with such language, that paints all of humanity in a single hue, giving all of humanity a single nature). But humanity (whatever is meant by the term) is presumably not left to itself. For both King and Niebuhr there is a God who works in history with humans. And a part of any eschatological vision is the assumption that God has not only plans for creation, but also the capacity to intervene in the created order in history, to create new history. When King speaks of the Beloved Community as though it were a vision for a future social order bound to come into reality in history, he may have this impending divine intervention in mind.

But assuming that God’s literal establishment of the Beloved Community in concrete history is not inevitable, the question above remains: Of what value is an eschatological vision that is not bound to come into existence in history? What purpose is served by dreaming fantastic dreams of a promised future that is, in fact, neither promised nor to come in the future? Is it merely a phantasmagoria offered to delight and distract?

Black Liberation theologian James Cone offers some help in answering this question by arguing that it is the job of eschatology not so much to predict the future as to “challenge the present order."

“If contemplation about the future distorts the present reality of injustice and reconciles the oppressed to unjust treatment committed against them,” he writes, “then it is unchristian and thus has nothing to do with the Christ who came to liberate us.” Proper eschatology, good eschatology, Christian eschatology, in Cone’s view, does not do this. Rather than focusing attention on the promised future, it uses language of the promised future to draw attention to present injustice.

It is in this way – in its ability to draw attention to and to challenge injustice in the present – that eschatological visions of the future “become present,” (ibid). Thus, while the vision of the hoped for and promised future may never be perfectly instituted in history, it comes into history by standing in contrast with the present situation, and by empowering those who are oppressed to challenge their oppression, to root out social evil. Christian eschatology is thus always made present when Christians use it to impact the present.

So, what of King’s eschatological vision? What of his Beloved Community? Did it and does it challenge the present social order? Did it and does it drive Christians – especially in oppressed communities – to strive to change the present social order? How is it – even if it is neither inevitable nor likely to become fully real in history – becoming present in the present? Where, in other words, is King’s Beloved Community today?

This is where the content of the Beloved Community must be engaged. As a human community guided exclusively by agape love, the Beloved Community challenges all forms and sources of division within the broader human community. Emerging out of the segregated South, the principle form of division King’s vision challenged was racism. But while King’s public career began in the arena of combating systematic segregation on the basis of race, his understanding of what divided humans from each other was more nuanced than that. Racism, as King understood it, was just one of many axes of oppression that divided humans from each other. In the American South (as well, in a slightly more subtle way, in the North) racism was the most visible source of division, with Jim Crow segregation being the very law of the land. But racism participated with other social evils to pit some human communities against others, perpetually dividing humanity.

King made deep connections between racism, poverty, and militarism. His understanding of the Beloved Community challenged the way these social evils worked together to divide the human community. To this we could today add other social evils that King was either blind to, actively participated in, or was simply unconcerned about: sexism and misogyny, heterosexism and homophobia spring first to mind. Each of these social evils serve to pit some humans against others, forcing harsh dichotomies of rich v. poor, Black v. White, nation v. nation, male v. female, straight v. gay.

King used his vision of the Beloved Community, God’s eschatological vision for humanity, to challenge white supremacy, to challenge economic oppression, to challenge segregation, to challenge the war in Vietnam, to challenge the military industrial complex. He used powerful prophetic rhetoric to frame the social problems of his day in manageable terms, turning the oppression that was and is all too normative on its side, and to open up a point of attack against it.

The Beloved Community – whether or not it was or is destined to become a concrete historical reality – stood as a vision for human community in sharp contrast to the social evils of King’s day. Thus, to find the Beloved Community today, one must look for challenges to contemporary social evils. Some of those evils are almost identical to the one’s King strove against. In offering his “Report Card on Black America,” for instance, Michael Eric Dyson finds that Blacks in America still face many obstacles related to institutional racism. These obstacles are certainly more subtle than overt segregation, but they play themselves out in many of the same areas. Jim Crow was designed to deny equal education and economic opportunities to Blacks, and today Blacks as a group still fare poorly relative to the general population in those areas. For instance, Dyson notes that as of 2004, the median Black household income is only 61% of that of Whites. And even that income is in peril, with middle class Black families all too often falling below the poverty line within a single generation.

Some of this is due to inequalities in educational opportunities. While Black academic achievement has been on the rise in the 41 years since King’s assassination, Blacks are still less likely than their White peers to complete high school and college. Dyson attributes this to “a pernicious trend toward subtle resegregation of schools across the nation as more and more public and primary schools in urban areas are drained of upwardly mobile whites and affluent blacks who seek private educational opportunities.” This may be neither as intentional nor as damaging as Jim Crow, but it still points to a persistent social evil.

King’s vision of the Beloved Community challenges this with its understanding of the interconnected and interdependent nature of the world. Pockets of humanity cannot cordon themselves off from the rest of the human community, hiding behind the provisional security their wealth affords them. Nor can they quarantine whichever parts of the human community whose claims to fundamental rights and even whose very existence they would want to deny. They cannot so easily disentangle their fate from the fate of those they push to the margins of society. The world simply isn’t structured that way.

As an ideal, the Beloved Community – though it may never come to fulfillment in history – points to a concrete truth: everything is connected. Race is connected to poverty. Poverty is connected to violence. And oppressed communities respond to their oppression too often with violence, a violence made inevitable by the original violence of oppression. King saw the race riots of his day through this lens, and it applies no less today. Persistent inequality, persistent division, gives rise to a violence that revisits those who try to disconnect themselves from the rest of the human community. King’s Beloved Community as a social vision is the antidote to this. And, even if it never comes to fulfillment in history, it is still a more pragmatic social vision than one that would pit human communities against each other, competing for social interests divided against each other.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

King the Theologian, Part I: Tillich's Influence on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Understanding of Love and Power

[Note: This post is the first of a three-part series, stemming from a class at my alma mater, Louisville Seminary, taught by Johnny Bernard Hill, on Martin Luther King, Jr. as a theologian. It is also, obviously, my first post in a long time, and I'll explain that in more detail later. In the meantime, this post is on Tillich's timely influence on King's understanding of love and power. The next post will be on King's eschatological vision of the Beloved Community, and the final post will be on King's Christology.

I think that it is vitally important for Christians today to take King seriously as a theologian, though he did not work as an academic. That is because he offers a vital challenge to the church, as well as a vision for being church in the world, that responds to immediate social problems and needs. I may later write on King's ecclesiology, his understanding of the church. But, for now, the three I've already written are good enough, and will be posted here in this series.

This first post is a response to the question, "Who do you think had the biggest influence on the development of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s thought?"

Paul Tillich is not the obvious choice for the biggest influence on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and thought. In all honesty, he may not even be the best choice. The contributions of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau, and Howard Thurman to the development of King’s ethics, of Anders Nygren to the development of King’s understanding of Agape love, and of Personalist thinkers like George Washington Davis, L. Harold DeWolf, and Edgar S. Brightman to King’s understanding of the nature and concerns of God are invaluable. But, because of both the timing and the nature of Tillich’s influence on King, he is my choice.

One of Dr. King’s most significant contributions is his understanding and application of what he called “the love ethic of Jesus.” Yet, as John J. Ansbro narrates it, there was a time in the young King’s life when he despaired altogether of the political power and efficacy of Christian love.

While a student a Crozer Theological Seminary, King encountered Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals and The Will to Power. Nietzsche’s harsh criticism of Christian ethics, which he viewed as “a glorification of weakness” that kept the oppressed in perpetual servitude and denied them their natural drive to power, to self-affirmation, shook King’s faith in the political power of love. He was forced by his own intellectual honesty, in the face of Nietzsche’s critique, to conclude that the love ethic of Jesus “is effective only in conflicts among individuals, but is not useful in resolving conflicts among racial groups and nations."

Love, in other words, stood for King in opposition to power. It lacked the political potency to transform human society. And given how Jesus’ message had been long twisted by dominant classes to be a message of non-resistance, the only shock may be that it took an encounter with Nietzsche for the young King to conclude that an ethic long twisted by oppressors could not be an effective tool for resisting oppression.

Much has rightly been made of Gandhi’s role in changing King’s understanding of love. Gandhi’s Satyagraha is at least in part a political application of Jesus’ ethic of love. The influence both of Gandhi’s powerful articulation of the potency of this love for enemies that strives to resist evil with love and its practical application in both South Africa and India cannot be understated. But it should also be noted that, as a Christian minister and theologian, King needed a distinctly Christian voice to reinforce Gandhi’s understanding of the political power of the love ethic of Jesus. His encounter with the writings of a German political philosopher turned systematic theologian, Paul Tillich, began to meet this need.

Tillich’s ontology has, Ronald Stone notes, been used by King and other “Christian spokesmen for… minorities” to advocate for “groups with only limited access to the structures of power,” who “continue to be denied their full right to be.” This powerful and faithfully Christian call to embody the “courage to be” stands in sharp contrast to Nietzsche’s criticism of Christian ethics. But it was Tillich’s articulation of the relationship between love, power, and justice that most influenced King.

In Love, Power, and Justice Tillich makes a distinction between eros, philia, and agape; a distinction, made also by Anders Nygren, that was very important for King. In it, he also seeks to articulate and reconcile what he calls “the tension between love and power.” The key to this is found in the very nature of God, being-itself and the ground of all being. God’s nature as the “ultimate reality, the really real” means that all concepts of love and power ultimately participate in, correspond to, and find whatever reality they possess in divine love and divine power. And, in God, love, power, and justice are ultimately one.

This unity of love, power, and justice changes the way that we think about love and power. It has, not surprisingly, powerful political implications, and stands as a sharp challenge to Nietzsche’s understanding of Christian ethics as “slave ethics.” If love and power are, in Christian theology, joined in the nature of God, then love is not only in opposition to power. It can also be a form of power. Not a coercive power that seeks to impose its will over and against the will of others, but rather a power that stands in opposition to systemic domination, the subordination of some people and groups for the benefit of other people and groups.

This is something Martin Luther King, Jr. understood well. His sermon “Love in Action” speaks to the power of love. It is one of the better articulations of the love ethic of Jesus, and how that love ethic relates to power. In it, King declares:

Jesus eloquently affirmed from the cross a higher law. He knew that the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy would leave everyone blind. He did not seek to overcome evil with evil. He overcame evil with good. Although crucified by hate, he responded with aggressive love.

What a magnificent lesson! Generations will rise and fall; men [sic.] will continue to worship the god of revenge and bow before the altar of retaliation; but ever again and again this noble lesson of Calvary will be a nagging reminder that only goodness can drive out evil and only love can conquer hate.

This powerful articulation of faith in the efficacy of love comes not from a puppet of entrenched power, nor from a dupe conditioned by a slave ethic to remain in perpetual servitude. Rather it comes from someone whose faith calls him to stand against the powers that would deny him and those like him their right to fully be. In it love stands not in opposition to power, nor under power, but rather as a kind of ultimate power. Power over the power of oppression. Power over the power of fear. Power over the power of humiliation. Power over the power of violence.

This understanding of love as power is of course heavily indebted to Gandhi. It also has strong roots in the black church. It certainly echoes Howard Thurman. But, in addition to that, it stems from Tillich’s understanding of the union of love and power in the nature of God.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Scandal on Wall Street: Corporate Bonuses Amidst Depression = Class Warfare

While scandalously high corporate bonuses have been the norm of late, as executive "compensation" has badly outpaced the pay of people who actually work for a living, it seems especially flagrant to "reward" executives with hefty bonuses as the financial sector tumbles. Yet, according to Ben White of the New York Times, that is exactly what's happening.

My meager stock portfolio - like the portfolios of so many - is worth on paper a fraction of what it claimed to be worth a couple of years ago. Yet as banks fail and the financial sector raids the American taxpayers, first in the portfolio and then, gun and ski-mask in hand, in the form of government subsidies we laughingly call a "bailout," those who have run these economic institutions into the ground have been rewarded with billions in bonuses, the sixth largest such haul in history.

Bonuses, part of the great euphemistic system that grants "compensation" to the great sages of the marketplace with the rest of us earn our paltry salaries, serve a two-fold purpose: to reward performance, and to retain the services of those who have performed well. But who on Wall Street merits a bonus in this economic climate? White captures the scandal of it well in this understated line:

...Wall Street disbursed billions despite staggering loses and a shrinking job market.

In other words, to say that these bonuses - which amount to the sixth largest in history! - are without justification may be the greatest understatement I will utter this young year. They can't be a reward for good performance, as there has been no good performance to reward. In fact, many of the companies offering these bonuses have been run into the ground by those they are now "compensating." And, these bonuses are certainly not offered to retain the service of valuable employees. In this job market, where are they going to go?

White notes that Merrill Lynch - a once-proud institution who has now appeared twice in Washington, hat in hand, begging for a "bailout" - just paid out somewhere between $4 and $5 billion in bonuses. Let me get this straight. They did so poorly that they now need my tax dollars to secure their very survival, yet they can afford to pay out billions in bonuses to the people who have put them in critical condition!

I heard an awful lot, during the most recent presidential campaign, about "class warfare." Let me stipulate that this is class warfare. The use of my tax dollars to subsidize billions in corporate bonuses so that the rich don't have to give up their inalienable right to obscene wealth, is class warfare. It is robbing to poor to pay the rich, and should be infinitely more scandalous than president Obama's plan to raise the taxes on the highest income bracket to pre-Bush levels.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Good Tillich and Buber Story

Since two of my greatest theological debts are to Martin Buber and Paul Tillich (there may be no Jewish thinker to whom I owe more than Buber, and there is certainly no Christian thinker to whom I owe more than Tillich), I read the essay "Buber and Tillich" in Jewish theologian David Novak's Talking With Christians with great interest. It is a very interesting and important essay, and I may write a serious engagement with it later. However, what interests me most at the moment is a story that Novak relays. So, for the moment, let me simply share it with you:

...the relationship between the older Buber and the younger Tillich [Buber, born in 1878, was eight years older than Tillich, born in 1886. They both died in 1965. - CB] is best illustrated by the following story that I heard from someone who was in attendance at a lecture Buber delivered at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1952, during his first visit to America, a visit that made a profound impression on American intellectual circles. At the end of the lecture, Buber indicated that he would entertain questions from the audience. From the back of the crowded lecture hall, Paul Tillich arose and quite respectfully (as was his usual manner) addressed a rather complicated question to Buber. According to my reliable informant, Buber looked up from his text and said, "Ah, Paulus, it is you." The he walked down the aisle and stood directly in front of Tillich, who was considerably taller than he, raised his index finger up at Tillich's startled face and said, "Paulus, Paulus, you asked me the same question in Germany thirty years ago. Don't you remember what I answered you then?!"

Monday, January 12, 2009

Being in a "Palace in Time"

On the seventh day God had finished all the work of creation, and so, on that seventh day, God rested. God blessed the seventh day and called it sacred, because on it God rested from all the work of creation.

- Genesis 2:2-3. The Inclusive Bible

The first creation myth in Genesis is generally attributed by scholars to the Priestly source, and reflects both the theological and social concerns of the class of priests of ancient Israel. For our purposes the details of those concerns matter less than an understanding that this text - though both Jews and Christians see it as the Word of God - has human authorship, and reflects deeply human concerns. In fact, rather than contradicting it status as revelation from and concerning God, understanding the human authorship of and deeply human concerns in this text may help connect us to God more deeply than seeing this text as a literal representation of concrete historical events.

There are two related themes in the first creation myth that I will gloss over far too quickly, before we discuss what I really want to deal with today: the Sabbath, Shabbat, what Heschel called "a Palace in Time."

The first that creation can be understood as an ongoing process.

An initial reading of the text seems to contradict this. After all, most English translations render the opening line of the myth (and, in fact, the opening line of the Bible):

"In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth..."

"Created" implies a past event, an event that has already been completed.

The closing also indicates completed past activity. After all, as we read above, by the seventh day God had finished. The activity is over, finished, through. It is/was an event in the past.

This reading of the text has the activity of creation completely in the past. It is a singular event at the dawn of time. But it is not the only way to read the text.

The tense of the Hebrew for the opening line is ambiguous. Thus, while most English translations render it "when God created" the Jewish Publication Society offers another, equally valid translation:

"When God began to create heaven and earth..."

Creation here is not a completed past event, but rather an ongoing process. A process that has been started, and started by God, but which is not yet complete. The activity of creation is not entirely in the past.

Of course, by the end of the myth the JPS translation has the activity of creation completed, noting in 2:1,

"The heaven and earth were finished, and all their array."

However, to say that this ending to the myth indicates that creation - whatever it is at the beginning of the myth - is understood as an entirely completed past event, is, in my view, to misunderstand how the myth functions. As a myth it is not the telling of some historical event, but rather a story designed to communicate the concerns of the authors, priests of ancient Israel. The activity of creation here takes place over the course of seven days not because the priests of ancient Israel believe that the activity of creation was completed in the course of seven 24 hour days, but because there are seven days in a week. In the story, those seven days are directional, moving to the seventh day, the climax of creation. Similarly, the Jewish understanding of the week is directional, moving toward the seventh day, the climax of the week. Ultimately, as we shall see later, this myth is about creation's movement toward Sabbath.

If the concept of Sabbath seems as strange and irrelevant to you as it does to me, I beg you to hang in there and keep reading. I promise this will not be some irrelevant abstraction that connects in no way to the concrete experience of your life. I'm growing less and less interested in theory, and more and more interested in application. If theology doesn't connect to the daily living of your life, then as far as I am concerned it is totally devoid of value and should be discarded at once. So this discussion of Sabbath as the climax of creation will, if I have any skill at all, ultimately connect with the daily living of life.

The second theme in the myth that I want to highlight here is related to the first. Not only is creation an ongoing process - a view much more in keeping with modern science, and also a view that invites human participation in the process of creation - but it is progressing somewhere. Creation is movement from chaos to order.

I have already written on this here, where I presented Israel Knohl's argument that this myth offers an explanation of the origins of evil. To rehash what i wrote there, the priestly creation myth depicts God not creation something out of nothing, but rather shaping preexistent primordial elements (earth - tohu v'vohu, darkness - hoshekh, and deep waters - tehom).

As I wrote in that post:

We see here a progressing process of ordering, making distinctions, and building up from preexisting substances. This movement from chaos to order in the myth is important, because it presents us with a both progressive and ongoing picture of Creation. Creation is not a one time event in the past, in which God made everything ex nihlo. Rather, it is an ongoing story that takes place in time, in which God shapes that which already existed, while adding to it, ordering it, and making important distinctions between "light" and "darkness," water "above" and water "below," and between "sea" and "land." These distinctions correspond to the three primordial materials that Knohl translates as "darkness," "deep waters," and "unformed and void earth."

The activity of creation is then the process of shaping chaos into order.

But ultimately the myth is less about the frenetic activity of creation, and more about the rest at the end. In fact, the rest, the abstention from doing, is not only the climax of the myth, it is also the most important activity. That's right, non-doing is here the ultimate doing.

Observance of the Sabbath is central to the Jewish faith, and an understanding of Sabbath is perhaps Judaism's greatest gift to humanity. And, speaking as someone who is not a Jew, but who would not have a religion if it weren't for Judaism's giving birth to Christianity, that's really saying something.

The Sabbath is so vital here that it has been written into the first creation myth in the Bible. There are here six days of frenetic activity, of doing. But the story ends with the seventh day, the day on which God rested from the activity of creation. Creation ends not with the activity, but with holy rest, not with doing, but with being. It is to that being that the activity of creation ultimately points. And, in my reading, at least, it is ultimately in that being that chaos is shaped into order.

Of the Sabbath, that holy day for being, Abraham Heschel, who along with Martin Buber is one of the two giants of 20th century Jewish thought, writes (in patriarchal language held captive to its time):

He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man. Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self...

The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude, but the climax of living.

Heschel's language here is captivating not just for its poetic brilliance, but also for its incisiveness. We live in a culture dominated by doing, where identity is subsumed in vocation. We ask each other constantly, "What do you do?" and in doing so seek to find the identity of that person in their occupation. The psychological damage of this approach to identity is most evident in today's economic climate, where the "real" unemployment rate (as opposed to the official statistic, which makes Twain's observation of the three kinds of lies, "lies, damned lies, and statistics" seem most apt) is roughly 14%.

In the face of our flurry of economic activity and our anxiety about its ceasing, Heschel calls us to "lay down the profanity of clattering commerce." He calls us to "unyoke" ourselves from our "toil," to recognize the "nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness," to cease our constant "wringing profit from the earth." Not because these things are bad, but because they are not enough. They do not define us. And when we allow them to define us, when we reduce ourselves to cogs in an economic machine, defined purely by our labor and our utility, we are not only diminished, but very nearly destroyed.

The first creation myth of ancient Israel, the priestly creation myth, in building the Sabbath into the very shape and structure of creation, says that we were not made purely for toil. We are not principally about doing, a product of our frenetic activity. We - who are made here in the very image of God (a God who is here Elohim, a plurality!) and are called to be imitators of God - are made for being.

This can be very disconcerting, because, if we are honest with ourselves, being is much, much more difficult than doing. Anyone who has ever tried meditating can tell you as much. If you don't believe me, give it a try. Sit down and don't do anything. Just be. Just breathe. Find yourself alone with yourself.

If you're anything like me, you'll find that you are, in fact, your own worst enemy. That most of your problems - problems that you outsource, shift onto other people and outside situations - can be boiled down to this: you aren't comfortable in your own skin.

I'm certainly not. If I unyoke myself from my toil, if I calm the whirlwind of constant activity, constant doing, and try to just be, I find out very quickly who I really am, underneath the persona I put on each day to face the world. I am a bundle of neuroses and an accumulation of bad habits covered by a thin, shiny, socially acceptable veneer. I daily manufacture a thousand false dramas, creating my own suffering.

But, rather than cease from my doing to concentrate on being, on becoming comfortable in my own skin, rather than commit myself to the task of dominating the self by ceasing from time to time from my toil, from my frenetic activity, I look for more and more things to do so that I don't have to come to terms with myself.

I'll bet you do to.

All of our ceaseless toil serves to help us bury the persons we wish we weren't.

But we cannot be reduced to our activity. We ultimately are not our doing. And no amount of doing will keep us from ultimately having to come to terms with who we are, and who we are not.

We who do not come from a tradition of keeping Sabbath can learn something from the practice. We can even model it, not by identifying 24 hour periods of ritual observance, but by creating Sabbaths in the midst of our days. By looking for moments of mindfulness, times for being instead of doing - whatever we call such moments - we can learn to make peace with the stranger in our skin.

This is the ultimate creative act, the shaping of the chaos inside into order.