Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Contest for Caucasion Theologians: Name Non-White Influences

I have charged that too many white theologians (biblical scholars, philosophers of religion, pastors, etc.) ignore theological voices from persons of color or from outside the Western world. (There are exceptions, who are wonderful.) But maybe I’m not being charitable. So, prove me wrong white theo-bloggers. Name at least 3 theological influences who are persons of color and list at least one major way they’ve influenced you.

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. was the first person I read on nonviolence, even before reading Yoder. His collection of sermons, Strength to Love, is still powerful to me.  I find his last published book prior to his death, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? to still outline the major crises and choices facing the world, especially in the USA. (My dissertation was, in part, on King’s use of Scripture in his political ethic.)
  • James Hal Cone‘s work God of the Oppressed is a classic. His, Martin, Malcolm, and America helped me grasp the importance of Malcolm X.  I learned deeply from his autobiographical, My Soul Looks Back and how to do theological reflection on music from The Spirituals and the Blues.  I am looking forward to his next book, relating the cross to lynchings.
  • J. Deotis Roberts, Liberation and Reconciliation conveyed for me the essence of the gospel.  His work comparing Bonhoeffer and King led me to design a theology course comparing and contrasting the two.
  • Kazoh Kitamori, Theology of the Pain of God helped me become a theopaschite even before I read Moltmann’s The Crucified God.  Later, I saw this theme even deeper from the work of my friend, David Emmanuel Goatley, who left the classroom to head the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention (the largest mission agency of Black Baptists), in his published dissertation, Were You There? connecting the experience of slave Christians to the cry of dereliction uttered by Jesus on the cross.
  • Desmond Tutu, especially his No Future Without Forgiveness. [I’ve been asked to add additional examples.]
  • Elsa Tamez has added to my understanding of grace (and it’s relation to struggles for justice) and the interpretation of the Book of James.
  • Miguel de la Torre (a friend of mine from seminary days) has helped me understand Latino culture, biblical interpretation “from the margins,” how different approaches to sexuality are embedded in different cultures, and much else.
  • Allan Boesak of South Africa has greatly added to my understanding of both Job and Revelation–books better understood by those with less power.
  • Darryl Trimiew, an African-American Christian ethicist in the Disciples of Christ, has done ground-breaking work on economic justice and has reexamined H. Richard Niebuhr’s concept of “the responsible self,” by looking at communities with less power, rather than the empowered selves which HRN took for granted.

I could go on for some time and I regularly interact with diverse thinkers from other cultures on this blog and elsewhere–but I don’t see much of that from other white theo-bloggers (with the exceptions linked above), so I throw down this gauntlet and hope to be proven wrong.

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August 30, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

A Brief Note on Glenn Beck’s Horrid Usurpation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Legacy

I haven’t written on this because it has made me so angry.  But I cannot let it pass.  Saturday was the 47th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  As the climax of that historic march, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” Speech. The real title was “Normalcy: Never Again!” and the “Dream” refrain was a spur of the moment riff–since King’s public speaking style was shaped by Black Church preaching, which is a dialogue in which preacher’s adapt due both to the leading of God’s Spirit and to feedback from the congregation.  Sadly most people known only a few words of the speech and dismiss Dr. King as “the Dreamer,” never seeing him as the nonviolent WARRIOR for justice, peace, and the Beloved Community that he was. (J. Edgar Hoover, the evil, paranoid, and very racist founding Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation did not describe King as “the most dangerous Negro in America” because he was a harmless dreamer.)  While this was not his most radical speech (I’d give that award either to his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” or the sermon given the night before he was assassinated in 1968, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”), because so very few know the whole “Dream” speech, I am glad my friend Dan Trabue has reprinted it in full here.  I urge you to take your time and read it slowly and ponder it deeply–then go to Youtube and watch/listen to the speech given in Dr. King’s amazing delivery.

But Saturday the nation did not reflect on the March, the speech, and how far we still are from realizing the Dream.  Instead, tens of thousands of (mostly white) people poured into D.C. to attend a “Restore Honor” rally organized by former rodeo clown turned rightwing “news” pundit, Glenn Beck and hear speeches by him and Sarah Palin and others on how today white people are the only victims of racism, Pres. Barack Obama (of whom I am a critic from the Left–as Dr. King would be) is an evil tyrant who hates white people and free enterprise, how we need to have more wars in order to “restore honor” to the nation–and other pure bullshit! (I do not often use scatalogical language and I see this blog as a family-friendly forum, so I hesitate to use that term–but no other will do. The Apostle Paul counted his life before Christ as “all shit” (Phil. 3:8). ) Isaiah’s judgment on those who call evil “good” and good “evil” quickly comes to mind.

That anyone could see Glenn Beck as a contemporary standard bearer for the values of Dr. King shows how much King’s image has been “tamed” over the years.  Maybe it was a mistake to ever make his birthday into a national holiday.  Maybe it helped us forget the “dangerous Negro,” that the Dreamer was a radical democratic socialist who called his nation “the world’s largest purveyor of violence,” who wept over the funerals of 4 little girls killed at Sunday School by white terrorists and said “My dream has become a nightmare,” who called for a “revolution of values” in this nation, who spent the last year of his life organizing a Poor People’s Campaign of African Americans, whites from Appalachia, Native Americans, Mexican-American migrant workers, and others.  This man with a Ph.D. from Boston University was assassinated for marching for the rights of garbage workers in Memphis, TN.  We have too much tamed Martin King when Glenn Beck and his followers can see themselves as his legacy!!

And it enfuriates me that, 47 years later, most white pastors have still not read King’s writings–or the writings of any African-American theologian.  It should be IMPOSSIBLE to get a theological education in 2010 without wrestling with major non-white, non-Western figures.  But it is.  That’s the only way to explain how ignorant voices could portray Rev. Jeremiah Wright as a “hatemonger” based on snippets from one sermon or accuse James H. Cone, one of the founders of Black Liberation Theology, of “reverse racism” and hatred.

It should be impossible to graduate university or even high school without having to read major non-white voices alongside white and Western ones.  How can our children grow up without ever encountering Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Sojourner Truth, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois or Martin Luther King, alongside Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, and others?  Why is it that nearly every African-American (and Latino/a and Asian) pastor and theologian in this country knows the white, Western intellectual tradition, but so few whites bother to learn anything from others?  That unconscious racism, the “othering” by eliminating those voices from the conversation, is what allows rewriting of history and allows the ignorance displayed by the Glenn Beck usurpation.

Are there conservative African Americans? Sure.  Do Beck and others have the right to gather and make a case for their (individualistic, libertarian) view of society in which corporations can do no wrong, but any attempt at government work for the common good is denounced as “socialism?” Sure.  Do they have the right to try to convince Christians and others that “social justice” is a betrayal of the gospel? Sure.  But should anyone be taken in by their nonsense? No–and they can only be so taken in because of our failure to educate.  We reduce the Black Freedom movement to Rosa Parks sitting down one day and Martin King giving a speech the next day and think, “Poof! Segregation disappeared.” Our amnesia is leading to the resegregation of our schools. We rightly celebrate the first time a non-white person was elected president by a nation where whites are still the majority (although not by the middle of this century when we will have no majority ethnic group and whites will simply be the largest minority). But while Barack Obama gets to live in a White House built by slaves, we have a greater percentage  African Americans in prison than during the darkest days of segregation.  Dr. King would be more concerned about the latter–and Glenn Beck’s libertarian dream is not.

Al Sharpton had a counter-march on Saturday to “reclaim the dream.”  But to reclaim the dream of a non-racial society in which there are no poor people, which is characterized by justice and peace and in which people, not corporations, decide things, we have to first remember what the dream was.  I challenge white pastors and theologians and seminary students to do their part–by introducing themselves and their congregations to voices long ignored and silenced–including Martin King’s.

August 30, 2010 Posted by | civil rights, History, justice, racial justice | Leave a comment

In Memorium: Donald G. Bloesch (1928-2010)

This August has been a hard month on evangelical theologians–or, rather, on those left in this exile as they pass to homecoming.  As I noted earlier, Canadian Baptist theologian Clark Pinnock (1927-2010) died of advanced Alzheimer’s disease on 15 August.  Well, this past Tues., 24 August, Donald G. Bloesch, evangelical theologian of renewal in the United Church of Christ, died as well.

I have read some nasty tributes that have praised Bloesch by running down his denomination, portrayed as a sinkhole of “rank liberalism.”  That is not the way that Bloesch saw his part of the Body of Christ and that has not been my experience of the UCC. Sure, the UCC contains process theologians (Daniel Day Williams, a process theologian first at the University of Chicago and then at Union Theological Seminary of New York, was one of the pioneers of those who used the process metaphysics pioneered by philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Charlese Hartshorne in the service of Christian theology) and many other classic liberal or neo-liberal thinkers.  But the UCC is congregational in polity and each congregation varies greatly in theology.  The UCC’s theological giants also contain the Niebuhr brothers, Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, the 19th C. historical theologians Philip Schaff (who founded the American Society of Church History) and John Williamson Nevin (founder of the American Theologica Society), minister and civil rights leader Andrew Young (later mayor of Atlanta, GA and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Jimmy Carter), public theologian Max Stackhouse, Gabriel Fackre, Enoch Oglesby, and many others who could not be classified as “blindly liberal” in theology.  So I don’t see the need for evangelical theologians in other traditions to try to build the late Dr. Bloesch up by running down his denomination.

Bloesch was raised in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, a German immigrant denomination strongest in the Midwest that was one of the small denominations which merged in 1957 to form the United Church of Christ. (The E & R was itself a merger of two German-speaking immigrant denominations in the 19th C., one more Lutheran (Evangelische) and the other more Calvinist or Reformed, but both using the Heidelberg Catechism–which had tried to bridge the gap between the Lutherans and the Calvinists. ) He went to the major E & R college, Elmhurst College in Illinois (B.A.) and one of its seminaries, Chicago Theological Seminary (B.D.) before earning his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago Divinity School, an ecumenical (usually liberal) divinity school historically connected to the Northern/American Baptists. 

I encountered Bloesch as a young college student trying to find a middle ground between fundamentalism (either in its rationalist/empiricist form espoused by Carl F. H. Henry, or its rigid Calvinist presuppositionalist form championed by the likes of Cornelius van Till) and the liberal modernisms that seemed like watered-down faith.  Bloesch’s Essentials of Evangelical Theology included the entire evangelical tradition, including Wesleyanism, Pentecostalism, Anabaptism, and Pietism– all branches that Calvinist, Lutheran, and Calvinistic-Baptist evangelicals regularly ignored, disparaged, or gave second-rate status as “evangelical stepchildren.”  Bloesch himself was a blend of Reformed and Pietist thought.  He also firmly placed Karl Barth in the evangelical tradition (unlike van Till, or Henry, or, more recently Al Mohler) and saw Emil Brunner and the Niebuhr brothers as having at least one foot in the evangelical tradition.  Thus, his work was firmly evangelical, but also ecumenical and in dialogue with wider figures than most evangelicals in the U.S.  (He later expanded his dialogue to include Catholic and Orthodox voices.) My developing Anabaptist influence found Bloesch too stubbornly Reformed, but I loved the tone and spirit of his writing and his non-separatist ecclesiology.

He spent his life teaching at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa, which is formally connected to the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., but also has historic ties to the UCC and to several small evangelical denominations.  That lifelong commitment to one institution is also rare in this era of careerism. 

In 1985, Bloesch wrote The Battle for the Trinity (ironically, just before a major wave of renewal in trinitarian theology from widely divergent sectors of the Church universal).  Here, Bloesch, a supporter or the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, saw the primary danger as being feminist theology and especially feminist critiques of the use of only masculine imagery for God.  Then and now I saw Bloesch as having the right battle (as opposed to the endless “battles for the Bible” that mostly involved people talking past one another and confused real threats–and some exist–with mere shadows), but the wrong battle lines.  There are feminine images for God in Scripture and in the early Christian tradition! And, the exclusive use of masculine imagery, even by theologians who are well aware that God is NOT male and that men and women BOTH bear the image and likeness of God, does seem to make men more directly in God’s image and to make women only indirectly or less clearly bear the divine image.  So, while we want to avoid goddess language and be careful to let Scripture the way we speak of God, we cannot repudiate all feminine imagery for God–even in worship.  This was one of my major disagreements with Bloesch and with those influenced by his work–work which now includes a seven volume systematic, Christian Foundations.

I also disagreed with his approach to political theology.  Bloesch clearly repudiated the Religious Right, standing up for church-state separation, and a pluralistic democracy with a strong welfare state.  He also was far more outspoken about racial justice than most evangelicals.  But his political thought was controlled by his early doctoral work on Reinhold Niebuhr.  He never learned from either the pacifist witness of Anabaptist theologians such as John Howard Yoder or any form of liberation theology–in which he saw only the threat of Marxism (which he read through the Cold War lenses of Stalin and Mao). In this, he was quite at odds with many in his denomination.

But Bloesch’s approach to the arts and to Christian witness in a secular culture was refreshingly open in an era dominated by the likes of Francis A. Schaeffer.  His push to reclaim prayer and worship at the center of theological life and his openess to the charismatic movement were all major challenges from an evangelical Reformed theologian.  So was his insistence that if the church were to retain a term like “inerrancy” to describe Scripture, it must be only in the sacramental sense of the Word conveying the Spirit and not in rationalist-empiricist forms.

He helped introduce me to the work of Karl Barth (and, to a lesser extent, that of Emil Brunner).  So, though my Anabaptist-Liberationist influences moved my theology into a different orbit, I remain grateful for early helpf from Donald Bloesch. More, I appreciate his humble and pietist tone–which is all too lacking in theologians from many traditions.  The church is poorer without his witness.

August 30, 2010 Posted by | obituary, theologians | Leave a comment