Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Call for Papers: Reparing Community: Faith-Based Responses to Racial Disparities and Conflict

African-descended communities across the globe are suffering effects of political, economic and social inequities whose consequences include alarming levels of disease, unemployment, incarceration, and systemic violence. What institutional, cultural, public policy, and faith-centered responses can be mobilized in response to this state of affairs?

The 2015 Transatlantic Roundtable on religion and race aims to focus on the role of faith based organisations, leaders, community activists and others in confronting key issues impacting groups where racial disparities and/ or racial/religious conflict are a key feature of community life. Historical and contemporary examples of faith based engagement and activism in the context of dealing with disparities and conflict across Africa and the African Diaspora are welcome. We invite proposals outlining “best-practices” and practical dimensions as well as conceptual and applied scholarly papers that explore these or related themes.

Please submit 150-250 word abstracts by Jan. 30, 2015 to Dr. William Ackah (Univ. of London) w.ackah@bbk.ac.uk or Dr. R. Drew Smith (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) rsmith@pts.edu.

The Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race (TRRR) was founded in 2010 with the aim of bringing together scholars, religious leaders and community activists from across the African diaspora and continent to facilitate dialogue, intellectual output, and activism in the cause of improving the lives of people of African descent and heritage around the world. Though TRRR’s approach is scholarly, its commitment is to advancing informed and progressive approaches to persistent racial problems in dialogue and collaboration with broad publics. Our 2015 conference in the United Kingdom will be the fifth TRRR conference, following successful conferences in South Africa (2014), Ghana (2013), United Kingdom (2012), and South Africa (2011).
Blogger Tricks

Godless Millennials Could End the Political Power of the Religious Right

The 2014 midterm elections are drawing near, and it appears that the Democrats may well lose the Senate, since they’re fighting on unfriendly territory – a large number of seats in red states are up for grabs.

But if you look deeper than the national picture, there’s a more interesting story. In southern states like Georgia and Kentucky – which in the past would have been easy Republican holds - the races are unexpectedly tight. In fact, the only reason that the questions of which party will control the Senate in 2015 is unsettled at all is that an unusual number of races in dark red states are toss-ups, despite an overall political climate that generally favors conservatives.

What we’re seeing may well be the first distant rumblings of a trend that’s been quietly gathering momentum for years: America is becoming less Christian. In every region of the country, in every Christian denomination, membership is either stagnant or declining. Meanwhile, the number of religiously unaffiliated people – atheists, agnostics, those who are indifferent to religion, or those who follow no conventional faith – is growing. In some surprising places, these “nones” (as in “none of the above”) now rank among the largest slices of the demographic pie.

Even in the deep South, the Republican base of white evangelical Christians is shrinking – and in some traditional conservative redoubts like Arkansas, Georgia and Kentucky, it’s declined as a percentage of the population by double digits.Even Alabama is becoming less Christian. Meanwhile, there’s been a corresponding increase in the religiously unaffiliated, who tend to vote more Democratic.

What’s driving the steady weakening of Christianity? The answer, it would seem, is demographic turnover.

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Theology at the Service of Humanity

Like the authors of Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude, I find in many of my encounters with U.S. Christian communities the assumption that Christianity is clean, comforting, friendly, moderately well-off, and capable of making the world a better place by giving some aid to people in need. Like the authors, I find the vitality of faith in communities where the gospel has led people into a more costly, less certain, more joyous form of life together. I sympathize with the authors’ work to call attention to God’s presence with people in their struggle and to a church that is a diverse community of people engaged in that struggle. Like them, I see in the Occupy movement an invitation and challenge to Christian communities. And like them, I work to understand “the ways religious sentiments and concepts have been used to reinforce . . . domination” (62). My own work on the history of Christian “stewardship” attempts to address this very problem.1
But for all that, I disagree with the authors’ analysis of what has gone wrong and with their agenda for addressing it. Though I share their conviction that theology matters, I hold that its crucial task—for the good of all—is quite other than what the authors propose.
The authors of Occupy Religion argue that “theology is not a luxury, but finds itself at the heart of efforts to present alternative ways and solutions” (58). Theology’s role is two-fold: first, to address “the ways that religious sentiments and concepts have been used to reinforce . . . domination” (62); second, to promote understandings of power as bottom-up and of the Other as honored collaborator, by giving accounts of God that support those values so that social life may be organized around such a vision. They engage certain questions of Christian theology, but their focus is on promoting among all people an understanding of power and difference that will support the struggle of the multitude. “Our project is not reconciling different notions of divinity, whatever they may be, but reimagining divinity in all religions” (90). While they expect their account of God to be new to most people, they also hold that for the Occupy movement’s 99 percent, religion matters as “a multiplicity of popular traditions that preach not only concern for the least of these but also a reversal and broadening of power, which moves from the bottom up, so that all can participate in the production of life” (28).
Theology, then, matters because different accounts of God’s power are at work in the world, some that perpetuate oppression and some that recognize and encourage pluralistic, widely-distributed, creative power for the multitude. Theology that is faithful to the best of what humans have learned about God will speak of a God who is present in the struggle. The authors focus on Christianity, presumably because it is their tradition and the faith most commonly appealed to in the US. It is a major part of the problem; it could be a major part of better solutions. Their concern is not doctrine set in the past, particularly when that past has included many examples of God’s name being used to justify oppression. What matters is a practical, diverse, open-ended, shared struggle for a new society.
Rieger and Kwok identify their theological enemy as “status quo” or “mainline” theologies. “The deepest problem of our most common images of God, supported by conservatives and liberals alike, is that images of the divine as omnipotent, impassible, and immutable tend to mirror the dominant power that be, from ancient emperors to modern CEOs” (88). This belief in and adoration of top-down power is a key to an oppressive symbol system, as they see it. They do not cite any specific present-day authors who are responsible for promoting this view, perhaps because they take it to be “virtually omnipresent” (96). But the generality of the claim leaves me wondering: who is promoting this view and how? Who accepts it and why?
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Candy in the Wilderness: The Hagar Narrative as a Subtext in Tyler Perry’s “Madea Goes to Jail”

R3 Contributor

“Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt’…But Abram said to Sarai, ‘Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.’ Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.”-Gen. 16:3-6, (NRSV)

The biblical Hagar narrative inhabits a clearly defined space as a critical story within African American, and most specifically womanist, theology. Founding womanist theologian Delores Williams spends a great deal of time unpacking the Hagar narrative in her pivotal work Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk. She writes, “The African American community has taken Hagar’s story unto itself. Hagar has ‘spoken’ to generation after generation of black women because her story has been validated as true by suffering black people” (33). Shifting gears from black theology to black cinema – specifically, the films of Tyler Perry – I am interested in exploring the Hagar motif as it appears in one of Perry’s cinematic productions, Madea Goes to Jail. Perry critics and supporters alike widely acknowledge that his primary audience is comprised of black, church-going women. Keeping this primary audience in mind, I believe Perry – either consciously or subconsciously – imbues Madea Goes to Jail with nuances of the Hagar story as manifested in the relationships between Josh (Abram), Linda (Sarai) and Candy, the prostitute (Hagar).

Nyasha Junior, an assistant professor of Old Testament at the Howard University School of Divinity, asserts that “popular media forms may be considered biblical in that they include veiled or explicit references to biblical texts, characters, and images” (27). Junior suggests that artistic use of biblical themes in this way allows for the assumption on behalf of those consuming the media content that the content reflects biblical values. As such, I propose that the presence of a Hagar subtext in Madea Goes to Jail speaks to Perry’s audience members as a variation on an empowering biblical theme, reflecting the triumph of a Hagar-esque character in a contemporary setting. Although Candy’s narrative includes reference to a personal spiritual transformation toward the end of her time in jail, her happy ending features Perry’s classic motif of salvation and a fresh start in the company of a good man, rather than in the arms of the Lord.

Madea Goes to Jail – Perry’s highest-grossing film, adapted from one of his most popular stage plays – tells the story of Josh Hardaway, an assistant district attorney; his relationship with his fiancé, fellow attorney Linda Holmes; and a relationship disruption in the form of Candace “Candy” Washington, a prostitute who is a childhood friend of Josh’s and a client of Linda’s. Of immediate note is the fact that Josh and Linda are equally yoked in this story – a rarity among couples in Perry’s cinematic works. Both are intelligent, well-educated,

successful and financially sound, and both seem to be on track for career advancements within the district attorney’s office. Unlike Linda, however, who appears to hail from an upper-class environment, Josh refers throughout the film to his upbringing in a dangerous and unstable neighborhood. This disparity in their backgrounds does not seem to be an issue for the couple until Candy appears on the scene and her friendship with Josh is rekindled. The audience first encounters Candy as a minor character in the courtroom where she has been arrested for prostitution. Josh, her court-appointed attorney, quickly recognizes Candy as his childhood friend and college acquaintance, necessitating his fiancé, Linda, to take over her case. The equal footing and camaraderie between Josh and Linda is heavily underscored in this scene, as the two swap cases and favors as easily as if they were trading baseball cards. Much like, as Williams notes, “Hagar’s well-being was determined by Sarai” (17), Candy’s well-being is in Linda’s hands once Linda assumes responsibility for Candy’s prosecution.

When Josh attempts to reconnect with Candy and offer her help despite her protests, Linda and the couple’s friend and colleague, Tanya, staunchly criticize him. Tanya chastises Josh for his feelings of guilt, stating, “I made it out of the ghetto, too, but I don’t apologize for it. These people will never let you forget, and as long as you let them do that, you will always feel a sense of obligation to them.” Linda echoes Tanya’s sentiment, arguing that Candy and Josh’s other childhood companions “were afforded the same opportunities you were. You did something and they didn’t.” In an ensuing argument back at Josh’s apartment, Josh decries this oversimplification, telling Linda, “You’ve always had things handed to you. You’ve always been like Daddy’s little princess.” Although Josh agrees at the end of this argument not to help Candy any further, he soon comes to her aid after she flees from an abusive pimp. Linda is enraged at the sight of Candy asleep on Josh’s couch (although Josh is clearly not trying to hide anything from Linda), and she tells Josh he has “some decisions to make” before storming out.

At this point in the film, Candy’s story has not yet dovetailed with the Hagar narrative. Sarai encouraged Abram to sleep with Hagar in the hopes that she might bear him a son; Linda, on the other hand, is outraged by the very notion that Josh would offer help to this hooker, much less foster a friendship with her. Soon, though, the narratives collide. Much like Sarai’s harsh dealings with Hagar incite Hagar to run away, Linda’s harsh dealings with Josh about Candy drive Candy away, back into the dangerous and hostile “wilderness” of the streets where she is soon arrested once more for engaging in prostitution. Later in the Genesis narrative, Sarah insists that Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael to ensure that Isaac’s inheritance is not compromised, much to Abraham’s distress. This neatly mirrors Linda’s insistence, rooted in jealousy and insecurity about Josh’s motives and fidelity, that Candy be removed as a threat and cast into jail. The contemporary version of the story, however, positions woman, not man, as the one with the power to eliminate the competition. In the biblical setting, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away at his wife’s behest, but Josh is rendered powerless against Linda’s actions in the modern telling. He has traded Candy’s case away and is fully deprived of agency. Even though another colleague, Chuck, attempts to intercede on Candy’s behalf, telling Linda, “This woman has done nothing to you…he’s not in love with her, he loves you,” Linda remains unswayed. She has padded Candy’s file with charges from a closed case in an attempt to levy more severe sentencing, and she is successful, earning Candy a prison sentence of 17 years. Candy has been effectively exiled.

Linda is a clear allegorical counterpart to Sarah, but her story also contains overtones of the biblical Jezebel. Here we encounter an interesting dual-interpretation of the jezebel theme within Tyler Perry movies. Examining contemporary depictions of the jezebel character within black cinema, the jezebel is identified by African American media studies scholars Bishetta D. Merritt and Melbourne S. Cummings as “the innately promiscuous, seductive, bad Black ‘gal’” (190). In contemporary films, this modern jezebel often manifests as “the Black prostitute in either minor speaking roles as informants or in background images of police station squad rooms and extras populating street corners” (Merritt and Cummings, 190). According to these descriptors, Candy, not Linda, closely fits the jezebel template. However, in accordance with Scripture, Linda’s actions align with those of Jezebel.

Like Jezebel conspiring against Naboth in 1 Kings 21, Linda bears false witness against another for the sake of personal gain. In Linda’s case, she significantly pads the evidence against Candy, exaggerating the severity of her charges to warrant harsher sentencing. Much like Jezebel lies and guarantees Naboth’s death so that her husband, King Ahab, can take possession of Naboth’s vineyard, Linda ensures through her deceitful dealings that Candy will spend almost two decades of her life behind bars – and, conveniently, out of Josh’s life. Although Linda does not meet the same gruesome end as Jezebel – thrown from a window by her own servants and eaten by dogs – she does experience both the untimely demise of her career and the certainty that she herself will now spend time behind bars. Chuck, though not Linda’s servant, is a friend and colleague who metaphorically “throws her to the wolves” when he confesses Linda’s wrongdoings to Josh. As a prosecutor, Linda will be at risk for personal harm once she is sent to prison with inmates she helped to convict. She may, in a figurative sense, find herself eaten alive.

Candy, on the other hand, enjoys both newfound freedom and the promise of a future with Josh as a byproduct of Linda’s misdeeds. In some ways, Candy embodies the subtle persona of a new-styled jezebel, who is “willing and able to gain revenge against corrupt officials, drug dealers, and violent criminals” (Merritt and Cummings, 191). She does not act directly as an agent of vengeance and violence, but her ability to outwit and escape from Donna’s pimp, and her unwitting participation in Linda’s scheme, both contribute to the overthrow of corruption. If not for Josh and Chuck’s close proximity to Candy’s case, Linda most likely would have continued to maintain her 89% conviction rate on the backs of people who were more innocent than she portrayed them to be.

In addition, worthy of note in the film is the fact that Josh and Linda are engaged and planning a wedding, but not yet married. This scenario perfectly mirrors that of the three major characters in Perry’s 2012 film Good Deeds, which tells the story of a well-to-do businessman who abandons his predictable, elegant life (and fiancé) for a more real and exciting life with the cleaning woman in his office building – a single mother on the verge of destitution. In both films, the male leads are fast approaching their wedding days, but the nuptials are called off before the men enter in to the covenant of marriage. I believe Perry wishes both to emphasize that the working class women in these narratives are not home wreckers – a notion that would most certainly impact their likability – and to avoid any depictions of “good” men deserting their roles within the nuclear family. Divorce, for Perry’s couples, appears to be reserved for the “bad” and the battered. Preserving the sanctity of marriage for these two unlikely couples seems key.

Indeed, marriage appears to be the happy ending in store for Josh and Candy. Even before Josh dramatically breaks off his engagement to Linda at the altar, he is depicted as assuming the savior role for Candy. When Candy finally allows Josh to visit her in prison, she speaks to him of her spiritual awakening and says, “If you love the Lord, everything’s going to work out for good for you. [I know] I believe that’s true…‘cause I’ve gotta believe in something.” Without hesitation, Josh steps into the role of savor, stating, “You can believe in me.” At this point, Candy forgives Josh for their checkered history, and another Perry motif – forgiveness as a gateway to personal transformation – is fulfilled. Although Williams celebrates Hagar’s willingness to trust her fate to God (239), she is also hesitant to extol Hagar as an exemplar of female liberation:

Womanist theology would be reticent to designate either Hagar or the Virgin Mary as models of liberated human beings since both women are always powerless and never able to take care of their own business or set their own agenda for their lives. Throughout most of the biblical story about her, Hagar was a slave. And when she was freed, she was freed into poverty and what looked like an impossible life-situation. (Williams 182)

When Candy is freed, she is freed into prosperity and what looks to be a restorative life-situation. However, like Williams’s imagining of Hagar, who was at the mercy of divine powers to save her from the effects of human agents, Candy has thus far been unable to handle her business or set a meaningful agenda for her own life. In light of Josh’s promises to “get you outta here…get you home…help you kick that crap and get you off the streets…” it appears that Candy, like Hagar, will assume the persona of a rescued damsel in distress rather than a liberated, empowered woman. Both characters may serve to inspire the women who encounter them as proof of possible redemption from isolation and suffering, but women who encounter either of these narratives are unlikely to infer, based on the endings, that transformative redemption is possible to achieve on one’s own.

Works Referenced

Good Deeds. Dir. Tyler Perry. Perf. Tyler Perry, Thandie Newton, Gabrielle Union. Lionsgate, 2012. DVD.

Junior, Nyasha. “Tyler Perry Reads Scripture.” Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Productions. Ed. LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, Tamura A. Lomax and Carol B. Duncan. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014. 27-40. Print.

Madea Goes to Jail. Dir. Tyler Perry. Perf. Derek Luke, Keisha Knight Pulliam, Ion Overman, Viola Davis, Tyler Perry. Lionsgate, 2009. DVD.

Merritt, Bishetta D. and Melbourne S. Cummings. “The African American Woman on Film.” Interpreting Tyler Perry: Perspectives on Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. Ed. Jamel Santa Cruze Bell and Ronald L. Jackson II. New York: Routledge, 2014. 187-195. Print.

Williams, Delores S. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk. New York: Orbis Books, 1993. Print.

R3 Contributor: Katherine Whitfield

Katherine Whitfield moved to Memphis, Tenn., in 2000 to attend Rhodes College. She graduated in 2004 with a degree in English and a minor in Religious Studies. Immediately after college, Katherine worked for four years coordinating PR and marketing efforts for an independent bookstore. Since 2008, she has served on the marketing and communications team at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, facilitating on-campus communications, collaborating on culture-shaping initiatives and partnering with Le Bonheur families to ensure the best possible care experience. Katherine began her studies at Memphis Theological Seminary in fall of 2014, and she intends to explore the relationship between faith and health during her tenure at MTS. In her spare time, Katherine loves to travel, to sing and play the piano, to read, and to spend time with friends, family, and four-legged furballs in her beloved Memphis.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

White Fragility and White Violence in America

In 1900, W. E. B. Du Bois declared that "the problem of the 20th century" would be "the problem of the color line." His prediction turns out to be just as true for our 21st century. Black men and women in contemporary America are judged not by the content of their character, but by the color of their skin. And for black Americans, such judgment is not merely hurtful or offensive. It is often fatal. It has become a literal matter of life or death.
The number of African Americans killed because of their skin color is legion, and showing no signs of slowing down:
  • Michael Brown was shot to death by police in Ferguson, MO, while walking on a street.
  • Two days later, Ezell Ford was shot and killed by LAPD officers.
  • John Crawford was shot to death by police after he dropped a toy gun in an Ohio Walmart.
  • Jonathan Ferrell was shot 10 times and killed by Charlotte, NC police, while he sought medical aid after sustaining injuries in a car collision.
  • Eric Garner was suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes, and choked to death by the NYPD.
Far too many more human lives--not mere statistics--could be added to this tragic and unnecessary list. Lives such as Trayvon Martin or VonDerrit Myers.
This litany of unarmed, modern Emmett Tills is a reminder that in America, black is the new black. To be black is to bear in one's own body an undeserving target, made permanently and indelibly visible by the color of one's skin.
The scourge of lynching which plagued the American South has yet to come to a definitive end. It has certainly changed and evolved in many significant ways. What remains the same, however, is the identity of the victims of white brutality: black men, black women and black children. Accompanying the new Jim Crow in America is this not-so-new legal lynching.
Compounding the tragedy of American legal lynching is that it is often executed by people charged to serve and protect. Malcolm X had reason to quip that the KKK traded in their white hoods for police uniforms. When those who kill African Americans wear a badge, they usually are immune from justice. "Pedestrian check" seems to be the new Jim Crow code for: "What are you doing around here, boy?"
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Theologies of Word and State: Some Reflections on the Ottawa Shooting

The shooting in Ottawa on 22 October 2014 has uncovered the remarkable way that the Canadian state remains theologically constituted. In some ways, this is a relatively uncontroversial argument. The White House press conference immediately following the attacks made a link between the Canadian support for military action against the Islamic State and the deaths of both Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent on October 20 in Quebec and Cpl. Nathan Cirllo of the Argyll and Sutherland Higlanders on the October 22. When one says that Ottawa shootings have a religious dimension, the gut response is that my argument will be about Muslims in Canada and the potential for radicalization.

However, I am less interested in the link to the “Islamic State” and more interested in the ways that the putatively secular, multicultural Canadian state is doing theology in this moment. The chatter in the public sphere has mostly revolved around Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act in 1970, especially because the alleged shooter was Québecois. The last time in recent memory that this sort of panic happened in Ottawa, it was because the Front du libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner, James Cross, and the Quebec Labour Minister, Pierre Laporte. Trudeau’s response at the time was to meet ideology with ideology. If the FLQ adopted a Marxist ideology to denounce the embeddedness of the Canadian political economy with elite American power and to call for a new Quebecois political sovereignty, Trudeau criminalized them and argued that they represented “the emergence of a parallel power which defies the elected power in the country” that “must be stopped.” Both the FLQ and Trudeau articulated their political positions in secular ideological terms.

The responses from the official party leaders have revealed that these state ideologies have always been theological. Prime Minister Stephen Harper framed the National War Memorial where the shooting occurred as “a sacred place that pays tribute to those who gave their lives so that we can live in a free, democratic and safe society” and also sent his “thoughts and prayers” with Patrice Vincent. New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair cast the “thoughts and prayers of everyone here in our nation’s capital” with Cirillo’s family as an act of Canadian solidarity in a society marked by ideological difference. In addition to mentioning the War Memorial as “one of our nation’s most sacred monuments,” Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau also reached out to the Muslim community to say that “acts such as these committed in the name of Islam are an aberration of your faith,” calling for “mutual respect and admiration…to prevent the influence of distorted ideological propaganda posing as religion.” While the debates among these party leaders has been fierce in the past, they demonstrated that they represent three strands of the same Canadian state theology: bound by our solidarity in times of war, the coming together of Canadians of all political and ideological stripes is a sacralized bond.

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Are the Gods Afraid of Black Sexuality?

We are living through a moment of tremendous change at the intersection of race, religion, and sexuality, which has significant implications both for those who study and practice religion alike. “Are the Gods Afraid of Black Sexuality?” will bring scholars, activists and religious leaders together to explore a range of historical and contemporary phenomena associated with religion, race and sexuality, as they coalesce and converge. The task before us is not to address a single problem, but rather to unearth and engage with the often-unstated normative claims -- surrounding race and religion, gender and sex -- that continue to inform the work of scholars of (and the lives of people within) the US and the African Diaspora.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Alex Haley’s 1965 Playboy Interview with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1964, after he had won the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat down for a series of interviews with the author Alex Haley that were edited into one interview that ran in Playboy in 1965—the longest interview King ever gave any publication.

In January 1965, Playboy published Alex Haley’s interview with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., shortly after King received the Nobel Peace Prize. In those days, the magazine still wasn’t identifying the interviewer by name, so Haley reported anonymously:

“So heavy were Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitments when we called him last summer for an interview that two months elapsed before he was able to accept our request for an appointment. We kept it—only to spend a week in Atlanta waiting in vain for him to find a moment for more than an apology and a hurried handshake… King was finally able to sandwich in a series of hour and half-hour conversations with us among the other demands of a grueling week. The resultant interview is the longest he has ever granted to any publication.

“Though he spoke with heartfelt and often eloquent sincerity, his tone was one of businesslike detachment. And his mood, except for one or two flickering smiles of irony, was gravely serious.”

Haley: As one who grew up in the economically comfortable, socially insulated environment of a middle-income home in Atlanta, can you recall when it was that you yourself first became painfully and personally aware of racial prejudice?

King: Very clearly. When I was 14, I had traveled from Atlanta to Dublin, Georgia, with a dear teacher of mine, Mrs. Bradley; she’s dead now. I had participated there in an oratorical contest sponsored by the Negro Elks. It turned out to be a memorable day, for I had succeeded in winning the contest. My subject, I recall, ironically enough, was “The Negro and the Constitution.” Anyway, that night, Mrs. Bradley and I were on a bus returning to Atlanta, and at a small town along the way, some white passengers boarded the bus, and the white driver ordered us to get up and give the whites our seats. We didn’t move quickly enough to suit him, so he began cursing us, calling us “black sons of bitches.” I intended to stay right in that seat, but Mrs. Bradley finally urged me up, saying we had to obey the law. And so we stood up in the aisle for the 90 miles to Atlanta. That night will never leave my memory. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.

Haley: Wasn’t it another such incident on a bus, years later, that thrust you into your present role as a civil rights leader?

King: Yes, it was—in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. E. D. Nixon, a Pullman porter long identified with the NAACP, telephoned me late one night to tell me that Mrs. Rosa Parks had been arrested around 7:30 that evening when a bus driver demanded that she give up her seat, and she refused—because her feet hurt. Nixon had already bonded Mrs. Parks out of prison. He said, “It’s time this stops; we ought to boycott the buses.” I agreed and said, “Now.” The next night we called a meeting of Negro community leaders to discuss it, and on Saturday and Sunday we appealed to the Negro community, with leaflets and from the pulpits, to boycott the buses on Monday. We had in mind a one-day boycott, and we were banking on 60 percent success. But the boycott saw instantaneous 99 percent success. We were so pleasantly surprised and impressed that we continued, and for the next 381 days the boycott of Montgomery’s buses by Negroes was 99-9/10 percent successful.

Haley: Can you recall any mistakes you’ve made in leading the movement?

King: Well, the most pervasive mistake I have made was in believing that because our cause was just, we could be sure that the white ministers of the South, once their Christian consciences were challenged, would rise to our aid. I felt that white ministers would take our cause to the white power structure. I ended up, of course, chastened and disillusioned. As our movement unfolded, and direct appeals were made to white ministers, most folded their hands—and some even took stands against us.

Let me hasten to say there are some outstanding exceptions. As one whose Christian roots go back through three generations of ministers—my father, grandfather and great-grandfather—I will remain true to the church as long as I live. But the laxity of the white church collectively has caused me to weep tears of love. There cannot be deep disappointment without deep love. Time and again in my travels, as I have seen the outward beauty of white churches, I have had to ask myself, “What kind of people worship there? Who is their God? Is their God the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and is their Savior the Savior who hung on the cross at Golgotha? Where were their voices when a black race took upon itself the cross of protest against man’s injustice to man? Where were their voices when defiance and hatred were called for by white men who sat in these very churches?”

I shall never forget the grief and bitterness I felt on that terrible September morning when a bomb blew out the lives of those four little, innocent girls sitting in their Sunday-school class in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. I think of how a woman cried out, crunching through broken glass, “My God, we’re not even safe in church!” I think of how that explosion blew the face of Jesus Christ from a stained-glass window. It was symbolic of how sin and evil had blotted out the life of Christ. I can remember thinking that if men were this bestial, was it all worth it? Was there any hope? Was there any way out?

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2014 Beecher Lectures: Otis Moss III

R3 Contributor: Nikia Smith Robert

Rev. Nikia Smith Robert enthusiastically embraces her divine purpose to preach, teach and engage in social activism. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Information Systems and Finance from Fairfield University (Connecticut). Rev. Robert pursued graduate studies at Union Theological Seminary and obtained a Master of Divinity degree in Systematic Theology and Social Ethics. Rev. Robert completed her master thesis entitled, “Penitence, Plantation and the Penitentiary – A Liberation Theology for Lockdown America.” She has matriculated post-graduate studies in Homiletics at the University of Oxford (England, UK) and Economic and Community Development at Harvard University (Cambridge, MA). Rev. Robert is currently pursuing a Doctorate of Philosophy degree at Claremont University where her scholarly interest focuses on race, religion and punishment.

Rev. Robert is an ordained Itinerant Elder in African Methodism. She is also a Chaplain at Huntington Memorial Hospital where she provides emotional and spiritual support to individuals in crisis. Rev. Robert currently serves on the ministerial staf at First African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Pasadena, California. Previously, she served as Associate Minister at the historic First AME Church: Bethel in Harlem, NY. As Associate Minister, Rev. Robert significantly impacted membership growth and participation through preaching, programming and planting ministries to grow disciples. She has lectured nationally on topics integrating biblical themes with social justice. Rev. Robert is a sought after ecumenical preacher and budding activist. She is listed as an ethical leader to watch by the Middle Project and was featured by NPR, Sojourners Magazine, Post Colonial Networks and the inaugural United Kingdom Festival Tour of African American Preaching.

Rev. Robert’s ministry is catapulted by the prophetic mandate to do justice, love kindly and walk humbly. In addition to working more than ten years on Wall Street in Public Accounting and Investment Banking, she has worked with non profit organizations committed to justice. Moreover, she has served on the Board of Directors for Casa de Esperanza, which supports women and children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS and on the Board of Directors for Friends of CPE, which raises funds for educational endeavors to support a public elementary school in Harlem. Currently, Rev. Robert serves as an advisor for the Community Outreach committee to the Board of Directors for the AIDS Service Center.

Rev. Robert is the founder of Reverend Daughter Ministries where she provides faith-based social justice models through radical preaching, teaching and social activism to empower individuals to engage social transformation. She is also the founder of Kin-dom Consulting, which provides financial and advisory services to individuals and not-for-profit organizations.

Rev. Robert is a native New Yorker and currently resides in California with her loving husband, daughter, and son. She can be found on here on Facebook.

When and Where I Grieve

By Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D.,
from KineticsLive.com

The tears started while I was sitting in a Barnes and Noble bookstore and they refused to stop. I gathered my laptop and purse, hurried back to the car, and sat quietly – expecting the flow to cease. But it would not. Tears were in my eyes on the way back home and tears stayed with me throughout the day. I wept while folding the laundry and while trying to decide what to cook for dinner. There is a moment when you grieve that you can no longer make tears – instead, your silent cries are felt in the pit of your stomach or in the wordless moans that escape your mouth.

It is difficult to put into words what triggered this particular moment of grief. All I can explain is that the weight of being black in a world that hates black existence came rushing forward and I could no longer contain my anger, rage, or grief in a series of polite conversations and academic panels. I could no longer form the right words to describe how it feels to wake up in a world where a police officer can brutally assault and rape black women, violate the terms of his bail, and yet again be released from jail a second time since the courts have determined that he poses “no significant threat” while he awaits trial. I no longer had the means for polite discourse when trying to describe how police leaving the dead body of a murdered teen uncovered on the street for over four hours paralleled the worse of the American tradition for lynching. I did not have the right language to express my horror at the multiple deaths of black women whose only “crime” had been to say no to sexual advances. I had no language in response to the horrors of racism and misogyny that greeted me each morning.

Our culture privileges words and texts. If you want to be taken seriously and considered intelligent and rational, you are asked to respond to horrific events with sustained textual or oral analysis. I had been doing my best…writing, when I was asked to write, and speaking and preaching, when asked to do so. I’ve lectured and written on the historical, theological, racial, and societal implications of several recent events. But while sitting in Barnes and Nobles, my words failed because my words were no longer adequate. Living with terror requires more than just words. Dealing with the realities of the terrorized black body in America requires my entire soul…and my soul wept. The horrors had simply surpassed the ability of my pen to write and so my tears took up where my pen left off.

On that particular morning, my tears were triggered by a rendition of “There is Room at the Cross,” playing on my headphones. I thought about all the various meanings of the cross for Christians: a place of atonement and redemption; a place of suffering and shame; a place of lynching and execution; even a place of promise and resurrection. But on that particular morning, the cross represented a place where I was encouraged to grieve. Whatever the cross means in a person’s own theology, we know that the family of Jesus and his disciples grieved the death of one whom they loved. We know that tears were shed at the death of a beloved child, a cherished teacher, a dear friend, and a valued leader whose entire existence confounded Roman authority. The cross is a place where there is always more room for the grieving.

The foot of the cross is a place where I can grieve for all the deaths and for all the people that are “ungrievable.” And so I grieve for the women whose claims of rape aren’t taken seriously because they are sex workers. I grieve for those whose only crime is walking while black or driving while black. I grieve for the mothers and fathers burying their children much too soon. I grieve for women who stay home rather than face street harassment. I grieve for those triggered by the sight of blue lights in their rearview windows. I grieve for parents who have to teach racial life lessons while their children are still toddlers. I grieve for black women whose murdered bodies barely rate a mention during the evening’s news. And I grieve for those who do not have a community to support them while they grieve.

At the foot of the cross, or at the site of any of these lynchings, state executions, murders, or injustices, there must be a place to allow the tears to flow and the moans to escape. There must be a place – beyond words or sermons or essays – which allows the body to grieve. Before we can heal the land, repair the breach, or right the wrongs, our souls are crying for a moment to mourn. The grief is both personal and collective as we grieve for our own losses and for the losses of others. But when and where I grieve, my heart, body, and soul insist that this space, this moment, and this loss must be acknowledged. I grieve because it matters. I grieve because even when my voice is silenced, my tears will tell their own story.

Dr. Yolanda Pierce is the Elmer G. Homrighausen Associate Professor of African American Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, and Liaison with the Princeton University Center for African American Studies. She blogs @ Reflections of an Afro-Christian Scholar

Ferguson and the Church’s Responsibility: A Call to Black Power

In July 1966, an informal group of clergy met to discuss events that had happened a month earlier.

In June, Stokely Carmichael lit the world on fire with his call to consciousness in his cry of “black power.” Carmichael’s black power cry was the culmination of years of black freedom struggle that endured police and mob lynchings, voting law restrictions, unfair arrests and prison sentences, inequitable education, and separate but (un)equal public accommodations (sound familiar?). Carmichael and his colleagues in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee were fed up and black power was the expression of their anger and frustration. The loosely tied group of mostly Northern male black clergy met to discuss the implications of black power and its meaning for the black church in particular and the universal church in general. This group of clergy, who would later name themselves the National Committee of Black Churchmen (NCBC), released a statement in The New York Times. The statement began:
We realize that neither the term “power” nor the term “Christian Conscience” are easy matters to talk about, and especially in the context of race relations in America. The fundamental distortion facing us in the controversy about “black power” is rooted in a gross imbalance of power and conscience between Negros and white Americans. It is this distortion, mainly, which is responsible for the widespread, though often inarticulate, assumption that white people are justified in getting what they want through the use of power, but that Negro Americans must, either by nature or by circumstances, make their appeal only through conscience. As a result, the power of white men and the conscience of black men have both been corrupted. The power of white men is corrupted because it meets little meaningful resistance from Negros to temper it and keep white men from aping God. The conscience of black men is corrupted because, having no power to implement the demands of conscience, the concern for justice is transmuted into a distorted form of love, which, in the absence of justice, becomes chaotic self-surrender. Powerlessness breeds a race of beggars. We are faced now with a situation where conscienceless power meets powerless conscience, threatening the very foundations of our nation.

The statement released by the NCBC was discussing black power, but they very well could have been talking about recent events unfolding in Ferguson, Shaw, Dayton, New York, and around the United States. In light of the lynching deaths of Mike Brown, Vonderrit Myers, John Crawford, and Eric Gardner, I’m calling for another call-to-conscience-ness and another black power cry. White Americans must again be reminded that they cannot do what they want through the use of power and force. Black Americans must be reminded that we cannot appeal to the morality of people who, as Carmichael once argued, apparently don’t have a conscience. We must demand, by any means necessary, that black lives matter and that we will not wait for justice. We must have justice now.

Read the rest here

Atheists in Foxholes: The Military Chaplaincy’s Humanist Problem

Do American military chaplains need to believe in God? Or, as the Navy Times once asked, “Who supports the atheists in the military?” These questions attracted renewed attention this year after the Army formally recognized humanism as a religious preference for soldiers in April, and the Navy rejected the application of a humanist chaplain to join its ranks in June. The issue of how to meet the needs of non-theists in the military is neither new nor incidental. Rather, “who supports the atheists” is a question that has vexed the military for the better part of a century, as the U.S. tries to determine how to best serve a religiously diverse population. 

More recently, a growing percentage of the military population has identified as non-theist. A 2012 Pentagon survey found more than 13,000 atheist or agnostic personnel, along with 276,000 troops (nearly a fourth of all personnel) who claimed no religious preference—a proportion of whom may also be non-theist. Since 1993, the chaplaincy has welcomed Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist chaplains, but Christians still comprise more than 90 percent of the current chaplain corps. For humanists, atheists, and their allies, the absence of any representative leaders within the chaplaincy remains a significant problem as it leaves them without any official support. 

The military chaplaincy is as old as the nation itself, but its recognition of and commitment to ecumenism and pluralism developed slowly over the twentieth century. When the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, only mainline Protestants and Catholics served as military clergy. Six months—and a successful lobbying effort—later, Congress formally opened the chaplaincy to Christian Scientists, the Eastern Orthodox, Jews, Mormons, and the Salvation Army. Military demobilization after the war ended may have thwarted this tentative step toward a more religiously inclusive military, for only a small percentage of chaplains remained in the peacetime armed forces. The 1920 National Defense Act granted the chaplaincy organizational autonomy and permanent leadership in the form of a Chief of Chaplains. Buoyed by positive feedback about interfaith cooperation in the midst of war, the chaplaincy embarked on an expansive effort to define and refine its work in times of peace. 

In 1926, the Army convened an array of military, civilian, religious, and lay leaders for a “Pan-Denominational Conference” on the moral welfare of soldiers. The invitation list was extensive, spanning numerous denominations, crossing the color-line, and bridging political differences. But one group was explicitly not invited: the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (AAAA).

Read the rest here

Monday, October 20, 2014

Ferguson: ‘The ‘Come to Jesus’ Moment for Us in the Church’

Danielle Dowd was back in front of the Ferguson police department Oct. 15, just two days after being arrested there while protesting the fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown and other African-American youths.

Since Brown’s Aug. 9 death, “I’ve come a couple of days every week, except for when my 7-year-old daughter had her tonsils out and I needed to do the mom thing. I’ve been able to form some good relationships with young people, whose voices need to be heard,” Dowd, 26, youth missioner for the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, told the Episcopal News Service (ENS).

Similarly, the Rev. Jon Stratton, director of Episcopal Service Corps in the diocese, spent Oct. 13 – his 30th birthday – marching, singing, chanting “Whose streets? Our streets. Whose streets? God’s streets,” and ultimately, being arrested.

They and other Episcopalians were among dozens jailed during a “Moral Monday” action at the Ferguson police department. It was part of a weekend series of acts of civil disobedience across the St. Louis region coordinated by “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and the Organization for Black Struggle.

The emerging movement, its youthful leadership and developing relationships have been compared to 1960s civil rights activism by some and called a human rights movement by others. It has also brought into the open long-festering tensions between the African-American community and the police department, and spawned calls for sweeping educational, economic and institutional change.

The moment presents interesting opportunities for the church, says the Very Rev. Mike Kinman, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis. “This is the ‘come to Jesus’ moment for us in the church.”

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Sean Scott on Religious Rhetoric in the US Civil War

As we approach the sesquicentennial mark of the cessation of hostilities in the US Civil War, Prof. Sean Scott – visiting assistant professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University – joins us to talk about the religious views of the “common folk” in the “Old Northwest” and his book A Visitation of God: Northern Civilians Interpret the Civil War. His research dives into the personal letters, diaries, sermons, and other forms of correspondence of individuals living in the Great Lakes states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa.

The conversation begins with Prof. Scott describing one of his previous jobs, namely searching for “lost” documents related to President Abraham Lincoln. We find out that he had success in finding a few pieces of correspondence that were not yet documented and he received a special reward for doing so! This then sends us into a discussion about how Scott became interested in the Civil War era and the more specific topic of religious rhetoric in the mid-1800s. While much of his interest in the subject was generated in graduate school, he does note that he wrote a paper on the Civil War in junior high school which may have prompted his current interest.

We then look at his recent research on how Northerners tended to use religious imagery and language to correspond with one another during this tumultuous era in American history. Tony asks a number of methodological questions about who was included in the study, how were documents tracked down, what was the nature of those documents, and whether Sean ever had a “chill up his spine” when reading these sometimes very emotional documents. We talk about Sean’s emphasis on “common folk” who included everyone from individual soldiers, to farmers, housewives, preachers, and even a prominent banker or two. Prof. Scott also notes that few scholars have studied the area of the Old Northwest, favoring instead the South, mid-Atlantic states, or New England. Sean makes the case that his region of focus represented an interesting melting pot of different people as many of these states had just been settled in the few decades before the Civil War and were still attracting a wide range of individuals from across the country. Many of these folks were not necessarily in favor of the abolition of slavery or shared the same views of secession that other Yankees might.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Beyond Belief: Postmodernity & Religion

As I have read more writing on postmodernism I have begun to question many of the assumptions that I have learned throughout my education career. Recently, I have begun to question my own belief about the study of religion. Specifically, through reading Anderson’s piece on postmodernism and religion I question my previous notions of what categorizes religion. I attended TCU as an undergraduate and religion was one of my majors. I chose religion as my major because I wanted to have an objective understanding of religion before deciding how committed I wanted to be in making ministry part of my career. My undergraduate career culminated with a senior seminar course in religion. Throughout this course we discussed various definitions of religion from Thomas Tweed, Fredrich Schleiermacher, Diane Eck, Anthony Pinn, and a variety of others who articulated various definitions of religion. I noticed at that time that many of those scholars were focused on objective views of religion. For me religion has always been something that a person feels. It is an internal conviction with various outward expressions that cannot be quantified. I chose to attend Brite and seminary in general as an attempt to formulate my own subjective ideology about religion. It is from this that I have come to understand religion as beyond traditional notions of belief. From understanding religion in a postmodern context I have come to several realizations.

I have wondered how the Judaeo-Christian context as well as the Western context of religion has influenced scholarship in the field of religious studies. Does Christianity continue to determine the central and privileged norms in global debates about culturally specific ritual practices, localized beliefs on suffering, life, death, and immortality? Certainly not all but there are definitely a great number of religious scholarships that dwells on religious aspects of life, death, and the afterlife. These tools for sifting through various religious beliefs are a decidedly modern Western Christian centric enterprise. Western Christianity’s fascination with the life death and resurrection narrative can taint the way other religion are viewed. For example, it is easy to study religions such as Buddhism and the concept of atman is often viewed as having the “no soul.” The term denotes detachment from a permanent sense of self. However, this is a Western Christian view of atman. The concept of Atman can also be used to describe universal impermanence as opposed to personal impermanence. Universal impermanence means that there are no absolutes. This view of atman allows for more religious plurality and does not confine religious constructs to monolithic interpretations.

I have also questioned to notion of belief as the decisive epistemological term with respect to defining religion. Religion can be easily defined based on the practices and beliefs that a pertinent to a particular group of people.

Read the rest here

Saturday, October 18, 2014

What or Who is Driving Americans Away from Religion?

In 2002, then-Berkeley (now-NYU) sociologist Michael Hout and I published apaper pointing out a new trend in Americans’ religious identity: A rapidly increasing proportion of survey respondents answered “no religion” when asked questions such as “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?” In the 1991 General Social Survey, about 7 percent answered no religion and in the 2000 GSS, 14 percent did. [1] We explained the trend this way:
the increase was not connected to a loss of religious piety, [but] it was connected to politics. In the 1990s many people who had weak attachments to religion and either moderate or liberal political views found themselves at odds with the conservative political agenda of the Christian Right and reacted by renouncing their weak attachment to organized religion.
If that is what religion is, most of the “Nones” seemed to be saying, count me out.
In the years since, the trend has continued, Nones reaching 20 percent in the 2012 GSS. And a good deal of research has also accumulated on the topic (some of it reported in an earlier post). Notably, Robert Putnam and David Campbell refined our argument in their 2010 book, American Grace, pointing more sharply to lifestyle issues as the triggers for Americans declaring no religious identity.
Mike and I have just published a paper in Sociological Science updating the trend over an additional dozen years, applying new methods to the trend, and retesting explanations for the rise in Nones. We—actually it is 90 percent Mike’s work—find that our earlier account stands up even more strongly.
It is Not About Declining Belief
Here is the overall trend, the percentage of GSS respondents answering “no religion,” from 1972 through 2012:
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The Life of 'Scholar Activist' Rosemary Radford Ruether

Rosemary Radford Ruether embodies the theological vocation well lived. Her scope is awesome, her writing compelling, her commitment to a livable planet unceasing. The impact of her work can be found in so many fields and hearts that she fairly defines the term "scholar activist," teaching and mentoring generations of appreciative colleagues, myself included, by challenging fundamental ways of thinking.
I met Rosemary in the fall of 1972 when we accidentally sat down at the same table in the refectory of Harvard Divinity School. She was a visiting professor in Roman Catholic studies and I was a new student. Our lunch ended prematurely when Rosemary realized that the Women's Caucus was meeting in a nearby small dining room. She picked up her tray and her briefcase that sported a "Question Authority" sticker and joined the group. I finished my lunch in solitude, not quite sure what a women's caucus was. Thanks to Rosemary, I learned that and a lot more.
In her recent autobiography, My Quests for Hope and Meaning, Rosemary reflects on her upbringing in "matricentric enclaves." Born in 1936 in Minnesota, she was the youngest of three daughters of a Catholic mother and an Episcopalian father. She was raised in Washington, D.C., and La Jolla, Calif. Wars and work made men scarce in her early years, and her father died when she was 12.
Her mother, an aunt and several significant women friends of her mother saw to her education, mainly in Catholic schools staffed by the Sisters of Providence from St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Ind. The nuns were strong women role models.

Her mother's crowd of intelligent, critical-thinking women included prominent social activist Helen Marston Beardsley, who exposed Rosemary to the finer arts of protest and demonstrations against war and for civil rights.
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Theological Education Inside Out

In a previous blog I suggested that The idea that the human relationship to religion is of questioner to provider of answers may ultimately destroy both religion and our humanity.

If theological education is intended primarily to form leaders in Christian ministry, then within mainline denominations dominated by post-Schleiermachian liberal theology it may need to undergo dramatic changes away from its current model. That model, shaped by modernity, assumes that Christianity is an answer to a human question, the solution to a human problem. Thus it focuses on training leaders who can answer the questions and solve the problems that their congregations, and society as a whole, pose.

In theological education at its most modern the study of scripture is the intensive, critical investigation that yields credible answers to the inquiries of human readers about the meaning of Biblical texts. Whether this involves now old fashioned “higher criticism” or new analytical frameworks provided by post-colonial theory or queer theory the result may be the same: The student is taught to take ownership of the book and to interrogate it until it yields credible answers and guidance.

The Christian leader as theologian is taught to critically examine the symbols of the Christian faith until, through proper analysis they are fully understood and rationalized as a human expression of human faith. Then these can become the credible and coherent, but peculiarly Christian language by which God is both interrogated and allowed to answer our human questions about the meaning of existence, justice, peace, love, and so on.

Then, in a second step referred to as “public theology” this Christian language can be translated into the common secular language of civil discourse if the church seeks a voice in influencing society.

Christian history becomes the study of Church history, the history of human faith in the midst of human societies in their ever transforming patterns of addressing God with their questions and needs. It is quite possible that it will not ever inquire as to how or what God is or has been doing.

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What is African American Religion?

Scholars have written a lot about the difficulties in the study of religion generally. Those difficulties become even messier when we use the words black or African American to describe religion. The adjectives bear the burden of a difficult history that colors the way religion is practiced and understood in the United States. They register the horror of slavery and the terror of Jim Crow as well as the richly textured experiences of a captured people, for whom sorrow stands alongside joy. It is in this context, one characterized by the ever-present need to account for one’s presence in the world in the face of the dehumanizing practice of white supremacy, that African American religion takes on such significance.
To be clear, African American religious life is not reducible to those wounds. That life contains within it avenues for solace and comfort in God, answers to questions about who we take ourselves to be and about our relation to the mysteries of the universe; moreover, meaning is found, for some, in submission to God, in obedience to creed and dogma, and in ritual practice. Here evil is accounted for. And hope, at least for some, assured. In short, African American religious life is as rich and as complicated as the religious life of other groups in the United States, but African American religion emerges in the encounter between faith, in all of its complexity, and white supremacy.
I take it that if the phrase African American religion is to have any descriptive usefulness at all, it must signify something more than African Americans who are religious. African Americans practice a number of different religions. There are black people who are BuddhistJehovah WitnessMormon, and Baha’i. But the fact that African Americans practice these traditions does not lead us to describe them as black Buddhism or black Mormonism. African American religion singles out something more substantive than that.
The adjective refers instead to a racial context within which religious meanings have been produced and reproduced. The history of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States birthed particular religious formations among African Americans. African Americans converted to Christianity, for example, in the context of slavery. Many left predominantly white denominations to form their own in pursuit of a sense of self- determination. Some embraced a distinctive interpretation of Islam to make sense of their condition in the United States. Given that history, we can reasonably describe certain variants of Christianity and Islam as African American and mean something beyond the rather uninteresting claim that black individuals belong to these different religious traditions.
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Friday, October 17, 2014

The Making of Ferguson

In August 2014, a Ferguson, Missouri, policeman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. Michael Brown’s death and the resulting protests and racial tension brought considerable attention to that town. Observers who had not been looking closely at our evolving demographic patterns were surprised to see ghetto conditions we had come to associate with inner cities now duplicated in a formerly white suburban community: racially segregated neighborhoods with high poverty and unemployment, poor student achievement in overwhelmingly black schools, oppressive policing, abandoned homes, and community powerlessness.

Media accounts of how Ferguson became Ferguson have typically explained that when African Americans moved to this suburb (and others like it), “white flight” followed, abandoning the town to African Americans who were trying to escape poor schools in the city. The conventional explanation adds that African Americans moved to a few places like Ferguson, not the suburbs generally, because prejudiced real estate agents steered black homebuyers away from other white suburbs. And in any event, those other suburbs were able to preserve their almost entirely white, upper-middle-class environments by enacting zoning rules that required only expensive single family homes, the thinking goes.

No doubt, private prejudice and suburbanites’ desire for homogenous affluent environments contributed to segregation in St. Louis and other metropolitan areas. But these explanations are too partial, and too conveniently excuse public policy from responsibility. A more powerful cause of metropolitan segregation in St. Louis and nationwide has been the explicit intents of federal, state, and local governments to create racially segregated metropolises.

Many of these explicitly segregationist governmental actions ended in the late 20thcentury but continue to determine today’s racial segregation patterns. In St. Louis these governmental policies included zoning rules that classified white neighborhoods as residential and black neighborhoods as commercial or industrial; segregated public housing projects that replaced integrated low-income areas; federal subsidies for suburban development conditioned on African American exclusion; federal and local requirements for, and enforcement of, property deeds and neighborhood agreements that prohibited resale of white-owned property to, or occupancy by, African Americans; tax favoritism for private institutions that practiced segregation; municipal boundary lines designed to separate black neighborhoods from white ones and to deny necessary services to the former; real estate, insurance, and banking regulators who tolerated and sometimes required racial segregation; and urban renewal plans whose purpose was to shift black populations from central cities like St. Louis to inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson.

Governmental actions in support of a segregated labor market supplemented these racial housing policies and prevented most African Americans from acquiring the economic strength to move to middle-class communities, even if they had been permitted to do so.

White flight certainly existed, and racial prejudice was certainly behind it, but not racial prejudice alone. Government policies turned black neighborhoods into overcrowded slums and white families came to associate African Americans with slum characteristics. White homeowners then fled when African Americans moved nearby, fearing their new neighbors would bring slum conditions with them.

That government, not mere private prejudice, was responsible for segregating greater St. Louis was once conventional informed opinion. A federal appeals court declared 40 years ago that “segregated housing in the St. Louis metropolitan area was … in large measure the result of deliberate racial discrimination in the housing market by the real estate industry and by agencies of the federal, state, and local governments.” Similar observations accurately describe every other large metropolitan area. This history, however, has now largely been forgotten.

When we blame private prejudice, suburban snobbishness, and black poverty for contemporary segregation, we not only whitewash our own history but avoid considering whether new policies might instead promote an integrated community. The federal government’s response to the Ferguson “Troubles” has been to treat the town as an isolated embarrassment, not a reflection of the nation in which it is embedded. The Department of Justice is investigating the killing of teenager Michael Brown and the practices of the Ferguson police department, but aside from the president’s concern that perhaps we have militarized all police forces too much, no broader inferences from the events of August 2014 are being drawn by policymakers.

The conditions that created Ferguson cannot be addressed without remedying a century of public policies that segregated our metropolitan landscape. Remedies are unlikely if we fail to recognize these policies and how their effects have endured.

Read the rest here

Has the Church Learned Anything From Ferguson?

It amazes me that the small town of Ferguson, essentially unknown to most of the country just 10 weeks ago, is now a part of conversations happening all over America and around the world. Its story has so impacted us that we use Ferguson as a noun, not to describe the city, but to more concisely say “the black community whose legal protests and acts of civil disobedience showcased to America that distrust of police is often the result of a history of exaggerated responses of violence toward people of color.”

Ferguson has become synonymous with resistance.

As Ferguson marches on, they have become a great teacher. They taught us about military-grade weapons being used in small, suburban towns. They reminded us of the importance of journalism and its necessity to record police abuses. They taught us the power of social media to bypass traditional modes of broadcasting and still capture the attention of people around the world. They asked us to make the systemic connections between Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Michael Brown, refusing to consider these deaths isolated incidents of coincidence.

More than 10 weeks since the first protests sparked, Ferguson is still teaching us about leading a sustained, creative movement. Ferguson forced us to revisit the words of Martin Luther King Jr., to dig up pictures of the 1960s protests, to ask ourselves, “how far have we really come?”

Ferguson is a great teacher, but are we great students?

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Numbers of Southern Evangelicals are Dwindling

Midterm elections are all about turning out base constituencies. Over the last few decades, there have been few more reliable voters for Republicans than white evangelical Protestants. This year, however, GOP candidates may be getting less help from this group—not because white evangelical Protestants are becoming less supportive or less motivated, but simply because they are declining as a proportion of the population, even in Southern states.

White evangelical Protestants have remained a steadfast Republican constituency in both presidential and midterm congressional elections ever since the Reagan presidency, which marked what political scientists Merle and Earl Black dubbed “the great white switch.”In 2008 and 2012, roughly three-quarters of white born-again Christians supported GOP nominees John McCain (73 percent) and Mitt Romney (78 percent). In the 2010 midterm election, similar numbers of white born-again Christians (77 percent) supported the GOP House candidate in their districts.

During the heady days of evangelical prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, white evangelical Protestant leaders frequently noted the decline of their more liberal mainline Protestant cousins, but now white evangelicals are seeing their own populations shrink. In recent years, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical denomination in the country, has reported steady declines in membership and new baptisms. Since 2007, the number of white evangelical Protestants nationwide has slipped from 22 percent in 2007 to 18 percent today.

A look at generational differences demonstrates that this is only the beginnings of a major shift away from a robust white evangelical presence and influence in the country. While white evangelical Protestants constitute roughly three in 10 (29 percent) seniors (age 65 and older), they account for only one in 10 (10 percent) members of the Millennial generation (age 18-29). In the last few national elections, however, because of high levels of voter turnout, white evangelical Protestants have managed to maintain an outsized presence at the ballot box according to national exit polls, representing roughly one-quarter of voters.

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