Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Politics of Love

For a long period in the history of the United States, Christians understood that progressive political action for structural social change was a necessary means toward the end of living out the gospel.  They understood that charity would never solve the nation's social ills.  Their religious faith translated into a faith in democracy as the means to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Today the Salvation Army is hardly associated with progressive politics.  But in the 1890's, Barrington Booth, commander of the Salvation Army in the United States, said that "To right the social wrong by charity is like bailing out the ocean with a thimble... We must readjust our social machinery so that the producers of wealth become also owners of wealth."  
Many fundamentalist Christians in America in the late 19th and early 20th century were political leftists, and did not hesitate to use religious rhetoric in political support of the labor movement and legislative efforts to reign in the runaway power of corporate trusts and monopoly capital. 
William Jennings Bryan was a fundamentalist Presbyterian who ran unsuccessfully three times for the presidency as the Democratic nominee.  Hard to imagine today, but then he was attacked by the Republicans for being strident and public about his traditional religious beliefs. 
His most notable uses of religious rhetoric were not based on fundamentalist dogma, however, but on spiritual imagery that could resonate with most Americans.  He was a vigorous advocate of "bi-metallism," which would have allowed the U.S. central bank more flexibility in monetary policy that would have benefited farmers and workers.  The business elite defended the gold standard.  He famously declaimed:  "If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."
In the '80s, a revitalized conservative political movement allied itself with evangelical Christianity.  This alliance began in earnest when fundamentalist colleges that refused to admit black students were penalized by the Internal Revenue Service, prompting a backlash against this perceived government intrusion against religion.  Religion in politics became identified with fundamentalist Christian doctrine and the "pelvic issues" of opposition to abortion and homosexuality. Many political progressives abandoned religious rhetoric altogether, for fear of being identified as biblical literalists.  Meanwhile, conservatives began a relentless campaign to condemn and dismantle government as the enemy of freedom.  The Republican Party backed up this characterization by governing badly when in power.  The result?  The demoralization of the electorate.  A loss of faith in democracy.  And, over time, a loss of faith in faith itself.  2014 marked the lowest voter turnout in midterm elections in 72 years, at 36.3 percent of the electorate.  There is a corresponding exodus from evangelical and fundamentalist churches in America as young people in particular are dropping out in record numbers.  This past weekend, I had long chats with two young women who graduated from a nearby evangelical Christian college.  They were so disgusted by their college's discrimination against gays and lesbians that they have turned their backs on evangelical culture altogether.

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Blogger Tricks

Is God The Problem With American Politics?

"You’re the anti-Christ, you will be destroyed,” screamed an incensed heckler during a speech by Barack Obama in June this year. It was not the first time Obama had heard this very pointed line, nor was he the first President to hear it.

Anti-Obama rallies are often decorated with signs or t-shirts carrying overtly religious messages, whether it’s likening him to the Devil, demanding that Christian prayers be returned to schools or suggesting that America has a divine mission – one the “Muslim” in the White House is currently derailing.

These remain in a minority. Populist movements such as the Tea Party are predominantly concerned with economic issues, and most signs and banners reflect that – but it is a notable difference from the UK and Western Europe that anti-government rallies include any religious motifs at all.

Despite polling showing a waning in religion’s influence in the US, the country remains one of the most devout in the Western world, an outlier amongst the secular, industrialised democracies, with more than 50% of Americans saying that religion is important to them, almost three times as many as most of Western Europe.

Centuries of bloodshed over God finally persuaded Europeans to extricate religion from political life. The US experience ran counter, with religion and politics becoming inextricably fused, pushed together during the 20th century by the preaching of Billy Graham, the “good versus evil” framing of the Cold War and the end of the self-imposed exile of the evangelical right.

As the German sociologist Hans Joas noted, “The more secularised large parts of Europe became, the more exotic the religiosity of the United States seemed to European observers.”

Which brings us to today: an America in crisis - limp, hobbled and unable to function. All but the opening act of Obama’s six-year vignette has been mired in political dysfunction, the tribes parting as Republicans retreated to an ideological hinterland formerly the redoubt of biblical literalists, economic fantasists and men with too many guns and too little life experience.

Last October, Republicans courted global economic calamity by failing to pass legislation to appropriate sufficient funds to pay America’s international debts - shutting down the government for two weeks, a bizarre act of retribution against the President, enacted by the Tea Party-wing of the GOP for his attempt to reform healthcare.

The current (113th) Congress is the least productive in modern American history. Its divided factions passing so few pieces of legislation that is has garnered a staggering public disapproval rating of 83%. Following the Republican victory in the recent midterm elections, the deadlock looks set to continue at least until the end of the Obama presidency, but very likely beyond for a generation.

Sitting at the heart of this intransigence appears to be religion, with the Republicans, once the party of business and a strong military, morphing into an entity preoccupied with so-called “Christian values.” Representing this change is a new class of politician – Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz et al – emblems of an outspoken Christian political class, fused together by scripture, distrust of the federal government (even though they’re part of it), a fear of Islamism and a sincere belief that the man in the White House is a demon.

As Princeton historian Sean Wilentz pointed out during the presidential campaign of 2012, "'God's Own Party' now really is just that."
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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Black Religion and Vietnam

On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at Riverside Church in New York City. In his sermon (listen to it here) he publicly broke ranks with the policies of President Lyndon Johnson and the white liberal establishment (which still largely supported the war) as he condemned American involvement in Vietnam.
King articulated what increasing numbers of Americans were beginning to feel—that Vietnam, civil rights, and economics were deeply interconnected. Just as the policies of Johnson’s Great Society had begun to confront black poverty at home, King observed, the United States began pouring soldiers and resources into Southeast Asia. With the military buildup, commitment to domestic justice and equality faded. For every $53 Washington spent to help a poor person in the United States, Andrew Preston has noted, it spent $500,000 to kill a person in Vietnam.
Moreover, African Americans and other minorities were dying in extraordinarily high proportions in the early years of the war even though they accounted for a small percentage of the population. “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society,” King charged, “and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” As a result, Americans faced the “cruel irony” of watching black and white American boys kill and die together in the service of a country “that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.” It was a powerful sermon, one that has recently resurfaced in the public consciousness upon the death of its author Vincent Harding.
But King’s sermon did not reflect the opinions of rank-and-file African Americans. In a just-released book entitled American Protestants and the Debate over the Vietnam War, George Bogaski chronicles the fascinating non-response of black evangelicals to King’s speech and the intensifying war in Southeast Asia.
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Friday, November 14, 2014

The Musical Jesus: From James Hal Cone to Jesus Walks

James Cone’s work The Spirituals and the Blues is a unique expression of African American political theology. In this text he seeks to examine the unique cultural foundation that has shaped both Spiritual and the genre of Blues as a form of musical expression. For Cone music can represent a cross section between political ideology and theological frameworks. Through this piece it is apparent that the distinctive experiences of African American has radically shape their view of politics and religion and that the connection between Spirituals and Blues makes sheds some light on this point. For him both are deeply connected to the point that you cannot one from the other. Furthermore, he believes that the use of Spirituals and the Blues have both been utilized by African American to subvert the oppressive forces of Western white supremacist culture. He writes: “Black music is also social and political. It is social because it is black and thus articulates the separateness of the black community. It is an artistic rebellion against the humiliating deadness of western culture.” (p5-6). Ultimately for Cone the use of Spirituality and the Blues serves as a way for African American to seek liberation from political and theological institution that is both destructive and oppressive.

Cone does great work in explicating the differences between traditional notions of Spirituals and how he believes African Americans have actually used Spirituals. This begins with his rejection of a Marxian view of Spirituals. Marx believes that the Spirituals sung by the Africans slaves’ sole purpose was to act as an opiate for them in relation to their slave masters. Marx’s ideology is marred by his concept of class consciousness. From this he believed that Spirituals allowed the slaves to passively conform to the desires of their slave masters. Cone however, vehemently disagrees with this assessment. He believes that African slaves were keenly aware of the power of musical interpretation and inherently new the dangers it posed to the authority of the slave masters. Thus, the slaves had to be subtle in the ways that they used Spirituals as theme for liberation without alarming their white slave masters. The Exodus story and Moses served as one way that the slaves could elude to liberation that did not alert their masters to their intentions.

The Exodus narrative as a slave spiritual had a profound implication on the way the slaves envisioned their lives both politically as well as theologically. Moses’ message of liberation called for divine liberation in heaven as well as earthly liberation from the slave masters. Cone points to slaves like Nat Turner who courageously learned to interpret the bible for himself. It is from his version of scripture that he saw the Christian imperative for not only a spiritual liberation heaven but its Earthly manifestation in the mist of slavery.

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'I’d Rather Go to Hell for Telling the Truth'

Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter asked me to repeat those words as we walked and talked in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Rev. Meeter was my field education supervisor during my final year at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is a progressive White pastor of a congregation that is part of the Reformed Church of America. As he encouraged me to repeat those words, I thought, “this man can’t be saved.”

As a product of Black churches—formerly a member of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), baptized in “Jesus’s name” at an Apostolic church, attendee of a tongues-speaking, foot-stomping holiness church in my childhood—I was convinced that God despised and would deliver me from the “spirit of homosexuality” that seemingly had its grip on me.

Despite the fact that I left the Church after being suspended from ministerial preparation at the last church of which I was a member, I was still scarred so deeply that Rev. Meeters’ words seemed to be paradoxical. I could not believe, even then—even after having nearly finished seminary, God loved (gay) me.

That is why I was not surprised when a video of a self-proclaimed ex-gay COGIC member lauding his newfound attraction to women, in front of thousands, at the denomination’s 107thHoly Convocation was widely circulated in social media. While I was never bold enough to publicly denounce my queerness, I did so in private, often.

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Why the Internet is Slowly Strangling Religion

While the burgeoning atheist movement loves throwing conferences and selling books, a huge chunk–possibly most–of its resources go toward the Internet. This isn’t borne out of laziness or a hostility to wearing pants so much as a belief that the Internet is uniquely positioned as the perfect tool for sharing arguments against religion with believers who are experiencing doubts. It’s searchable, it allows back-and-forth debate, and it makes proving your arguments through links much easier. Above all else, it’s private. An online search on atheism is much easier to hide than, say, a copy of The God Delusion on your nightstand.
In recent months, this sense that the Internet is the key for atheist outreach has started to move from “hunch” to actual, evidence-based theory. Earlier this year, Allen Downey of the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts examined the spike in people declaring they had no religion that started in the ’90s and found that while there are many factors contributing to it–dropping familial pressure, increased levels of college education–increased Internet usage was likely a huge part of it, accounting for up to 25 percent of the decline in religious belief. While cautioning that correlation does not mean causation, Downey did go on to point out that since so many other factors were controlled for, it’s a safe bet to conclude that the access to varied thought and debate the Internet provides is persuading people to drop their religions.
But in the past few months, that hypothesis grew even stronger when a major American religion basically had to admit that Internet arguments against their faith is putting them on their heels. The Church of Latter Day Saints has quietly released a series of essays, put together by church historians, addressing some of the less savory aspects of their history, such as the practice of polygamy or the ban on black members. The church sent out a memo in September telling church leaders to direct believers who have questions about their religion’s history to these essays, which they presented as a counter to “detractors” who “spread misinformation and doubt.”
While there are plenty of detractors who will share their opinions offline, there’s little doubt that the bulk of the detractors plaguing the church are explaining their views online, which is why this has become a problem now for a church that used to act like it could exert total control over believers’ access to information.
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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Keeping #Ferguson Alive

Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Oscar J. Grant III, James Byrd Jr., Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Denise McNair: their names represent a legacy of gunned down, beaten, broken, burnt, asphyxiated, castrated, torn apart, and lynched black bodies. The justification for their murders, and the hubris among the perpetrators that their crimes would go unpunished, were intended to show the world the powerlessness of a people. Instead, the callousness of the perpetrators exposed a culture of violence embedded deep within the spirit of America. It is a violence that not only preys upon black bodies, but on all those that dare to believe that they are worth more than the limitations of their status within the caste system that is America. Join (insert participants names here) as they discuss this sinful legacy.

Needed: A Progressive Christianity

Election 2014: Something important has just happened.

Big money bought an election. Fear prevailed over confidence and loathing over reason. The majority chose not to vote, allowing a passionate minority — older, whiter — to change the balance of power. Attack ads drowned out issues. A broken political system tolerated cheating and bullying.

Most worrisome is the absence of the virtues that enable a democracy to function in a challenging world. Civic-mindedness gave way to clever voter-suppression tactics. Freedom of the press got lost in attack ads and deliberate distortions of reality. Respect for opponents is gone. So too is the search for common ground, competing ideas, confidence in the nation, confidence in government, confidence in the future. Gone, gone, gone.

How could this happen? Several reasons — from intellectual laziness to self-serving leaders. The reason that touches my world is the collapse of progressive Christianity as a teacher of civic virtues.

Progressive Christianity is only one voice on the spectrum of religious opinions. But over the years it has had a large impact in its insistence on honesty, fairness, tolerance and humility. Progressive Christians have fought slavery, racial injustice and oppression of the vulnerable. Our search for truth has allowed room for other truths, other voices — a critical attitude in preserving democracy.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

#TylerPerry: Are Good Deeds Good Enough?

by Bernardo A. Zapata
Special to R3

Carol Miles reads Tyler Perry’s movie Good Deeds through the glasses of the familiar biblical text of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)[1]. Even though in this movie Perry does not make reference to specific religious themes, the author still tries to find the Christian moral in the story, perhaps influenced by the popular perception that most of Perry’s work has at least a subtly embedded religious tone. One of the movie’s narratives goes around the life of two brothers, children of privilege and wealth, one of them Tyler Perry’s character named Wesley who is the picture perfect ‘good man’; the other one is his misogynistic, arrogant, hateful brother Walter. Miles’ reverse use of the parable of the prodigal son is quite an interesting approach to the relationship between the biblical text and the movie. Miles proposes that even though Walter is the quintessential candidate for the role of the prodigal son, it is in fact Wesley who at the end becomes such character, given his decision to leave everything behind to fulfill his quest for finding his true self.

Even though Miles approach is commendable because of its originality, I do not see a plausible reason along the movie’s narrative that may connect these two characters with the narrative in Scripture. Wesley has always been his parents’ favorite, he has not defiled their relationship, he is not one in need of redemption; he may be tired of always playing the Mr. Right’s role, but he is only searching for his true self, he is not a broken man. On the other hand, the revengeful and resentful Walter, the true broken man is not redeemed because he never sought and was never offered forgiveness and redemption. Miles reading is plausible from the humanistic point of view which I would argue, is the same point of view used by Perry in his work; there is not a theological reading either to Miles construct, nor to Perry’s work. Wesley is both portrayed by Perry and viewed by Miles as a ‘decent, hard-working man’ (p. 1) with a profound need to define himself, who is searching for happiness by means of plunging himself in the unchartered waters of adventure and unpredictability. Similarly, Walter faces his demise in both constructs mainly because he never sought for alternatives beyond the boundaries of his egotistic behavior, he got the penalty he deserved when he was demoted of his role in the family company; a more secular, humanistic portrait of these two characters is difficult to find.

I would also argue, that Miles writing falls short on critiquing Good Deeds shallow portray of what might be the core of the narrative in the movie: a fairy tale with no moral attached. By the most part Good Deeds’ intent is to represent the idea of a wealthy, well-educated man who is almost without blemish, and who through his ‘good deeds’ is a close candidate to become a real-life hero, similar to those fiction characters idolized in popular culture so prevalent not only on Sunday’s comic-strips but in everyday media as well. Perry uses Wesley Deeds’ wealth, mild manners and heart for charity as the vehicle to portray the new quasi-universal construct of a ‘good man’; even though Miles seems to recognize the stereotype Perry develops, she fails to call out Perry’s veiled attempt to harmonize wealth and good deeds as a trademark for most of the roles Perry himself plays in his movies and plays. 

I would suggest that Miles’ failure to address this constant in Perry’s work is not the result of an intentional effort on her part to disguise Perry’s intent as lovable. Perhaps her reading is an exemplification of how deep this secular, individualistic idea of kindness and goodness is so encysted in today’s American culture, that even those supposed to critically address it miss the point. Philanthropy is the medium used by those in the high circles of power to overshadow the disservices and injustices done to the meek and hungry; philanthropy or good deeds is the backdrop that covers inequities and oppression against the poor and the dispossessed. 

Wesley Deeds uses his wealth and power to solve the individual needs of a person who has entered into his life at random; his role is that of a savior or redeemer that magically with his Midas touch provides for the desperate need of the one meek person in which he has a vested interest. Miles rightly portrays such behavior as almost extravagant in his generosity (p. 2). Deeds uses not his privilege and position within the dominant circles of power to intentionally influence corporate America towards a more just society where people are paid justly and earn enough money to make a living; he is not even aware, perhaps he is oblivious to the fact that he may lead his own multi-million dollar enterprise to become the model for such more just, less divisive society.

Hand by hand with the super-hero trend, goes Perry’s movement away from the familial shallow theology he presented his audience with in some of his movies, and in most of his plays. Miles suggests that the more sophisticated both the targeted audience and the movie’s characters become, the more evident is that the need for calling Jesus’ name, and to solve all conflicts by invoking the use of prayer is less of prevalent. For Perry upward mobility clearly mark the partition between those who have the need for religion and those who don’t (p. 5) Miles concludes; even insubstantial religion I would add.

I understand that the goal for Perry’s enterprises is not other than generate the biggest possible profit through the movies, plays, and media products that such enterprise develops and sells; it cannot be understood in any other ways in the neo-liberal atmosphere that permeates today’s America. Although his propaganda machine tells his target audience otherwise, he is not an undercover Christian apologist; Perry is a sharp businessman with an acute knowledge of his surroundings as well as of the community in which he was groomed. That is the main reason why he has been able to almost seamlessly make the move for the ‘chitlin’ circuit to mainstream films; he can almost intimately relate to people’s life experiences in the ‘hood’ and with no effort on his part he can transcend on the opposite side of the spectrum amongst the wealthy and powerful, almost as magically as the teleported characters of Star trek did.

What perplexes me the most is that Perry has been able to establish himself almost as a religious guru, even among scholars and other authors in the field of critical thinking. Miles, in this particular paper is capable of reading Good Deeds as essentially a retelling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (p. 2), even though as I contended above it is a humanistic reading rather than a theological one. If one were to analyze Good Deeds from a Christian prospective I would argue, it should be done by looking into what the narrative does not address. It is precisely because of its lack of a hint of social justice all along the movie that I would counter Perry’s narrative against the parable of the rich man in Mark 10. That’s how much of a Christian movie, this one is.

[1] Film Review by Carol Miles (2012), ‘Good Deeds’ in Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 16, Issue 1, Article 15. University of Nebraska, Omaha

What is a Seminary Faculty?

As we discuss curriculum revision at my own seminary, I’ve found myself thinking anew about what it means to be part of a seminary faculty. Watching events embroil other seminary faculties in troubling conflict, that question has gained considerable urgency.

The question may seem abstract, but an answer might go some way toward answering the questions about the mission of today’s seminaries. The answer also has the potential for answering questions about the relationship between seminary boards, their administrative leaders, and the faculties themselves. And, of course, it could shape the way in which we understand the relationship between seminary faculty and their students.

In bold relief, my own answer to the question is this:

Unlike other faculties, a seminary faculty is committed to both learning and spiritual formation.

They give themselves to the same level of academic rigor, but seminary faculty embrace a commitment abandoned a long time ago. The larger academy is neutral, if not negative about the existence of the divine. Seminaries are not, nor can they be. The study of religion without a commitment to the existence of the divine, never mind a specific construal of what God is all about, is the focus of university’s department of religious studies. In those settings the tools of understanding are philosophy, history, anthropology, psychology, and sociology. In a seminary, theology remains “the queen of the sciences.” The other disciplines amplify the seminary’s understanding of God, but they cannot replace it. For that reason, seminary faculties hold that it is not just possible to learn about God. It is actually possible to encounter God.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

The Warrior Wives of Evangelical Christianity

"Your husband will want sex way more than you do," advises Elizabeth of the blog Warrior Wives in a post called "Wifey Sex Confessions." God just made him to think about sex more than you. ... Never demean this about him. Never laugh at him or make fun of him. Accept it as a difference." 

Accept it as a difference. It may sound like so much cliched marital advice, but this is a much-discussed idea about sexuality in the evangelical Christian community: Men and women are different. "There's a lot of concern among evangelical men and women about traditional roles being overturned," said Amy DeRogatis, an associate professor of religion at Michigan State University, in an interview. Her new book, Saving Sex, focuses on the anxieties evangelicals feel about sexuality in American culture. But not other people's sexuality—their own.

Amid the recent wave of gay-marriage legalizations and debates over reproductive rights that were sparked by this summer's Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby, it can be easy to assume that evangelical teachings on sexuality are straightforwardly traditional. But "how you have sex, when you have sex, the amount of sex you have, when you have children—even the smallest act within an evangelical marriage can have these larger-than-life meanings," said DeRogatis. "How you have sex within marriage is incredibly important for you as a Christian, and also as a form of witnessing."

What this means is that there's a surprising amount of sex talk within the evangelical community.

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What I Am Learning From My White Grandchildren -- Truths About Race

by Tony Peterson

This talk was given at a local TEDx event, produced independently of the TED Conferences. Are we in a post-racial society? Do we want to be? R3 Contributor Anthony (Tony) Peterson, an African American, draws from current research and from conversations with his Anglo American grandchildren to address truths about race in 21st century America.                             

We Are NOT Post-Racial

by Tony Peterson
R3 Contributor

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Thomas Jefferson penned those words in 1776, and for the rest of his life he wondered whether that equality applied to “the black man” as it did “the white man” and “the Indian.” According to brilliant historian Winthrop Jordan, author of White Man’s Burden, Jefferson, our third U.S. President, struggled with the differences among the races. Specifically, he wrote to the Marquis de Chastellux: I believe the Indian…to be, in body and mind, equal to the white man. I have supposed the black man, in his present state, might not be so…

Jefferson clearly wanted to believe in that equality. But he found difficulty in reconciling the picture of slaves in their servitude with the possibility that they might somehow and someday be equal to free whites and Native Americans.

The President of the United States is a bi-racial man who identifies as black. American slavery ended 150 years ago. Jim Crow laws stopped 50 years ago. The United States is now more multicultural than ever, and we see people of every ethnicity in influential places of government, business, academia, and popular culture. There is no denying the progress. Perhaps it is time to stop talking about race. Is it time to begin to celebrate a post-racial society in the United States?

There are many reasons to stop talking about race in America. We resist mentioning race and ethnicity unless absolutely necessary. Maybe it’s the fear that someone will be called a racist. Maybe it’s the fear that no good can come from race-talk. Maybe it’s the belief that talking only makes things worse. Maybe it’s simply that we have been taught not to talk about race in polite company. So is there any value in talking openly about race?

Some of us will always be aware of the place ethnicity plays in our lives. I am an African American man married to an Anglo woman. We have raised her four Anglo children together, and we now enjoy the love of our nine Anglo grandchildren. It is not surprising that race would be at least an occasional topic of conversation among our family members.

Some other families claim the luxury of rarely, if ever, discussing race. But luxuries come at a cost. We see the cost when certain incidents occur in our societal lives. We can recognize the flashpoints through a collection of code words. Ferguson, OJ, 9-11, Donald Sterling, Immigration, Trayvon, Zimmerman, Fast and Furious, Fort Hood, Beer Summit.

These words refer to incidents that take us by surprise in their racial import. Often the incident itself seems tragic but somehow innocent or irrelevant to us—until we see the polarized responses. That polarization does not necessarily break on racial lines, but it often reveals racial sentiments. Issues that most of us believe were settled come to the surface. And our dreams of post racialism seem to be simply dreams from a deep sleep. We wake to the reality: We do not live in a post-racial society. And all of our ethnicity issues are not over.

Some would suggest that we should stop mentioning race altogether and that anyone who mentions it only aggravates the problem. Theses code words and their referenced incidents should warn us otherwise. But we hope or pretend that these things do not matter. Whatever the reason, race is one of those topics most of us refuse to discuss openly.
But many of us dare to invoke race when we believe we are in the midst of people like us, whether they be people who look like us or people we believe think like us. And we do so with potential danger. So with that potential danger, should we talk about race at all?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Faith Factor In The 2014 Midterms

Welcome to this week’s ALL TOGETHER, the podcast dedicated to exploring how religious ideas and spiritual practice inform and shape our personal lives, our communities and our world. The show is hosted by Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, the Executive Editor of HuffPost Religion.
This weeks All Together investigates The Faith Factor In The 2014 Midterm Elections.
What a difference two years can make. In 2012, President Obama won every faith group in America aside from White Christians. The looks to be true for 2014, and yet White Evangelical voters appeared to have tipped the scale towards the GOP in important Senate and Governor races across the country.
What made the difference? Were voters convinced by the threat to religious freedom rhetoric? Did gay marriage factor in? What about the Jewish vote? And the growing nones? Or should politicians worry about the 'faith vote' at all?
To help me think through these questions I have assembled some veteran faith and politics academics, pollsters and political operators including Burns Strider, Hillary Clinton's Senior Advisor in 2008, Joshua Dubois, Head of President Obama's 2008 Campaign and the White House Faith and Community Partnerships, Mark Silk, Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, and Robert Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute.
Here the podcast here

Big Evangelical Turnout for Midterms

Last night’s results show that pollster Robert Jones was far, far too optimistic about the impact of declining numbers of white evangelicals on Senate races in the South. In an October 17 Atlantic piece, Jones identified five races–Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and North Carolina–in which those demographic changes could help either keep Senate seats in Democratic hands, or tip Republican-held seats to the Democrats.

2014, Jones wrote, “may be the year that the underlying demographic trends finally exert enough force to make themselves felt.”

I was skeptical, pointing out that turnout and intensity matter more than these numbers. (Religion News Service’s Tobin Grant disputed Jones’ claim that white evangelicals are declining at all.)

Last night, the Republican Senate candidates won in Arkansas (Tom Cotton defeating Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor), Georgia (Republican David Perdue defeating Democrat Michelle Nunn), Kentucky (incumbent Mitch McConnell handily defeating Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes), and North Carolina (Republican challenger Thom Tillis defeating incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan). In Louisiana, Democratic incumbent Mary Landreiu is headed for a run-off.

Preliminary exit polling shows that if Jones is right about overall declining numbers of white Southern evangelicals, they nonetheless turned out in much higher percentages than in Jones’ data, exerting an opposite force from the one Jones predicted.

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Football and Religion: The Odd Relationship Between God and the Gridiron

When I played high school football, we knelt down before every contest. The coach asked God and the Lord Jesus Christ to help us play a fair game, not do significant bodily harm to the opposition and not to sustain serious injury ourselves. The coach asked that we might win the game if we were deserving. Then we said a prayer: usually it was the “Our Father.” Football, it seemed, was a Christian game.

Things haven’t changed all that much, at least from what I can tell. Pro and college teams still pray before games; coaches still invoke Jesus and God. When certain players hit the end zone, they hold a finger up in the air: I owe it all to you, Lord. When a man goes down and stays down, players from both squads get on their knees and pray for him. When I visited the University of Virginia football team this fall, matters were little different than they were forty years ago in my high school locker-room: the head coach invoked God’s blessing and led the team in prayer

We’ve come to take this fusion of football and religion pretty much for granted. So too do we take the fusion of military values and football values as a matter of course. We’re not surprised when representatives from all four service branches bring the colors out before the game or when Navy jets stream over at half time. Nor are we much surprised when coaches talk about God and the Savior and when we see footage of players praying before games. It’s no surprise that Notre Dame, a school dedicated to religion, is also dedicated to football. No one seems perplexed that a mural depicting the savior with his arms raised is visible behind the stadium: Touchdown Jesus, he’s called.

Football is a game beloved by conservatives. Conservatives love football; conservatives love faith. What more is there to say?

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Preserving the Confederacy and Christianity in Mississippi

If passed, a measure being considered for Mississippi’s 2016 ballots would make Christianity the state religion, English the official language, and, according to its creators, preserve the state’s Confederate heritage. That’s not all — the measure aims to ‘restrict or define’ Mississippi’s heritage in a number of areas: state flag and nickname, and even university mascots.

It’s currently officially defined as ‘Initiative 46,’ but proponents of the plan call it the ‘Heritage Initiative.’ If the petition garners enough response, it should show up on the Mississippi ballots in the 2016 election.

Promoted by the Magnolia State Heritage Campaign, the initiative proposes to do the following:
  • Acknowledge Mississippi as a “principally Christian and quintessentially Southern state” and the Christian Bible as a “foremost source of her founding principles, inspiration, and virtues.”
  • Declare English the official language in the state, and require all government and public communications to be in English only. (There is an exception for foreign language instruction, and those places where Latin or French are traditional, such as in medicine and law.
  • The flag adopted in 1894 and confirmed by vote in 2001 will be declared the state flag. (See below.) The salute will be “I salute the flag of Mississippi and the sovereign state for which it stands with pride in her history and achievements and with confidence in her future under the guidance of Almighty God.”

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Millennials and Religion

Retribution and Rhetoric in the NT Epistles - Brad Jersak with Peter Hordern

The following is a dialogue between Brad Jersak and Peter Hordern, about Pauls' use of retribution language (in 2 Thessalonians 1), rhetorical criticism and the nonviolence of God.

Peter: I'm continuing to wrestle with the idea of God as nonviolent. I feel like I see the truth of God's nonviolence through Christ and his teachings, particularly on forgiveness. However, then I also read what Paul writes, especially in his epistles to the Thessalonians, which refer to end times and Gods punishment.

What do we do with that? Is it our wishful thinking that God really is as loving as we want Him to be? Or do we pass off Paul's writings as a man trying to encourage a church in persecution with Gods justice, in order to give meaning to their suffering? Are there different translation possibilities? What do the words 'punishment' that Paul writes about really mean?

Brad: I do have some thoughts about this, as did certain church fathers like Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD). First, he pointed out that Paul never uses the Greek words that we'd associate with retributive 'punishment,' but rather, always uses words best translated 'correction.' Let's start with him. The following is an excerpt from my book, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut:

Clement’s importance, in my mind, is that he clarifies the New Testament language for “punishment.” (cf. esp. Paed. 1.5; 1.8 ANF 2). Clement insists that God’s “correction” (paideia—Heb 12:9) and “chastisement” (kolasis—Matt 25:46) is as a loving Father, only and always meant for the healing and salvation of the whole world. He denies that God ever inflicts “punishment” (timōria—Heb 10:29—vengeance) in the vengeful sense, a word Jesus never used. Watch how Clement ties judgment to correction with a view to redemption:

For all things are arranged with a view to the salvation of the universe by the Lord of the universe, both generally and particularly. . . But necessarycorrections, through the goodness of the great overseeing Judge, both by the attendant angels, and by various acts of anticipative judgment, and by the perfect judgment, compel egregious sinners to repent. (Strom. 7.2 ANF 2).

... One can see how Clement read God’s corrective acts through the parental love emphasized in Heb 12:5–11, where we read that God disciplines those that he loves as dear children. For Clement, Providence uses corrections (padeiai) or chastisements (kolasis) when we fall away, but only for our good, only for our salvation. But God does not punish (timōria),which is retaliation for evil. (Strom. 7.16 ANF 2).

God deals with sin through correction, not punishment. That’s Clement, that’s Hebrews, that’s Hosea. The chastisements of God are disciplinary: not because divine justice demands satisfaction, payback, or wrath, but because a patient God is raising beloved children who tend to learn the hard way. The hardest lesson we learn is the lesson of the Cross: the jarring revelation that somehow each of us is complicit in the crucifixion of perfect Love (Zech 12:10), yet in love God forgave us (1 John 4:9–10). 

...The Cross is a revelation of God’s love, our violence, and Jesus’ power to forgive and redeem—all at once. Don’t miss this point, because it marks a major fork in the theological trail. For centuries, I fear that we veered when Clement already had it right.

There are a also a few strange things at play in texts like 2 Thess. 1 and broader trends across the New Testament meta-narrative that require careful consideration. Here are a few starting points:

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Religion and Electronic Media

In an average week, one-in-five Americans share their religious faith online, about the same percentage that tune in to religious talk radio, watch religious TV programs or listen to Christian rock music. And nearly half of U.S. adults see someone else share their religious faith online in a typical week.

These are among the key findings from a survey conducted in May and June of 2014 that asked 3,217 adults from the Pew Research Center’s nationally representative American Trends Panel whether they had engaged in various kinds of religious activities during the previous week.

Fully 20% of Americans said they had shared their religious faith on social networking websites or apps (such as Facebook and Twitter) in the past week, and 46% said they had seen someone else share “something about their religious faith” online. The percentage of Americans who shared their own faith online is similar to the proportions who said they watched a religious TV program (23%), listened to religious talk radio (20%) or listened to Christian rock music (19%). Even more (40%) said they shared something about their religious faith “offline, in a real-life setting.” By way of comparison, in Pew Research telephone surveys conducted in 2014, 35% of Americans have reported attending religious services at least once a week.

The survey suggests that religious engagement through TV, radio, music and the internet generally complements – rather than replaces – traditional kinds of religious participation, such as going to church. Americans who said they frequently attend religious services were more likely to engage in these electronic religious activities than those who said they attend religious services less often. And white evangelicals and black Protestants — two groups with high levels of traditional religious observance — shared their faith online, watched religious TV and listened to religious talk radio more often than other large U.S. religious groups.

The survey also finds that young adults (ages 18-29) are about twice as likely as Americans ages 50 and older to see people sharing their faith online. This pattern reflects broader generational differences in technology adoption and media consumption, with young adults using the internet more than older people do. By contrast, watching religious television is considerably more common among older adults than among those under 30.

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Engaging the City: Urban Theology After #Ferguson

R3 editor, Dr. Andre E. Johnson, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Religion and African American Studies at Memphis Theological Seminary will offer a one week intensive immersion class for the January term titled, Engaging the City: Urban Theology After Ferguson: The Ferguson Fiasco. Dr. Johnson will offer the class on the campus of Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, January 12-16, 2015. 

Classes in urban theology explore and focus on the current dynamics found in urban society that call and challenge the church to re-examine ways of ministry. In addition, it allows students to examine their own theological positions as they specifically relate to urban situations of poverty, addiction, racism, sexism, violence, unemployment, environmental toxicity, prison, and inadequate education. The course description and required texts for the class are below.  For more information, please email Dr. Johnson at

Course Description:
This reading and practical application course will explore and focus on the current dynamics found in urban society that call and challenge the church to re-examine ways of ministry. Drawing from their particular ministry location and realizing that any authentic theology
must be contextual, I further expect students to examine their own theological positions through the contextual lens of what I call the Ferguson Fiasco. In this class, among other things, we will examine how an urban theology would speak to the events and happenings in Ferguson. In addition, we will also examine how people construct the sacred in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death. Classes will consist of class lectures and fieldwork in Ferguson, Missouri.

Required Texts:

Cone, James. The Cross and Lynching Tree. Orbis Books, 2011

Harvey, Jennifer. Dear White Christians (Prophetic Christianity), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014

Peters, Ronald. Urban Ministry: An Introduction. Abingdon Press. 2007

Was God Around for Michael Brown? A Humanist Perspective on Ferguson

by Katherine Whitfield
R3 Contributor

Follow Katherine on Twitter @curlyheff

Humanism is roughly defined as a belief system that assigns primary importance to human, rather than divine or supernatural, matters. Tenets of humanism emphasize the inherent potential for human good, the common ground shared among all human beings and the need for solutions to human problems based solely on rational possibilities, not divine interventions. In his chapter titled

“Humanism in African American Theology,” religious studies professor and formative humanist Anthony B. Pinn spends less time explaining the function of humanism within a theological context than on establishing a foundation for what humanism is not. Namely, humanism is not, at its core, an extension of the black church tradition nor of the Christ Event, despite its overlap with African American theology’s emphasis on liberation from racism and oppression (“Humanism” 280). Pinn posits African American humanist theology as promoting a study of people “grounded not in imago Dei but rather in science and culture” (“Humanism” 288). Essentially, Pinn advocates for a “slice of life” theology, suggesting that everything we do and feel, as humans, is source material in our search to infuse our lives with purpose. Put simply, God-centric religion does not have the market cornered on meaningful existence.

Creating a connection between humanism, as an overarching concept, and the events in Ferguson, Mo., since the shooting of Michael Brown did not prove difficult. To quote Pinn’s thoughts about the functional ultimacy, or radical autonomy, of humans, “people act in the world, and these actions have ongoing meaning and consequence that is not overridden by divine maneuvers” (“Humanism” 285). Most certainly, the actions that transpired on Aug. 9 on Canfield Drive were not overridden by divine maneuvers. Mike Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, were not urged on to the sidewalk by an unseen guiding force. Officer Darren Wilson did not act upon an inexplicable sense to drive a different route that afternoon. Brown and Wilson collided and Mike Brown died, and the pair’s encounter has far-reaching meaning and consequence that is firmly rooted outside the religious world in the social and political contexts. If there are those who might argue that Brown’s death was divinely ordained, or even orchestrated – a necessary evil to serve as the tipping point to usher in the next movement for human rights – then I find myself tightly aligned with both the humanist and womanist schools of thought, seeking distance from any theology that currently requires the death of one for the life of many.

For most womanist theologians, that price was effectively paid by way of the Christ Event; injustice and suffering hold no place in God’s divine plan. Founding womanist theologian Delores Williams argues that “there is nothing divine in the blood of the Cross” (167). According to Williams, the death of Christ is not an endorsement of surrogacy, but rather a demonstration of the human capacity for wrongdoing. From the humanist perspective, Pinn maintains that the resolution of evil requires “an appeal to human accountability. Humans have created the problems presently encountered and humans are responsible for changing those conditions” (Murphy 219). Brown’s death, viewed through a humanist lens, is a harsh reality effected at the hands of manmade and flawed power structures. A humanist response to Ferguson focuses not on prayer and restoration through divine grace and healing, but on an appeal to the broken social systems whose faulty infrastructure allows for the permissive and fairly routine killing of black citizens. Pinn speaks at greater length about these disproportionate power structures in his book African American Humanist Principles, highlighting racial profiling as a particular threat to black citizenship. He writes, “An understanding of power as the ability to fix another’s identity should include an awareness of racial profiling as another mode of power through which black Americans have been overdetermined and fixed” (Humanist Principles 80). Statistics overwhelmingly suggest that if all circumstances in the Michael Brown shooting had been identical, save for the color of Brown’s skin, a white Michael Brown would still be alive today. Humans, not the divine, appear to be writing the rules and holding the keys to the kingdom these days, and so it is a change within humans that is necessary.

As such, Pinn calls for a radical paradigm shift, challenging the academic community to envision a theology devoid of God at its core – one that asserts humanism as its own form of religion and allows for the positioning of its theology “as the description and interrogation of human stories of meaning making” (“Humanism” 288). While the concept of a nontheistic theology seems to teeter on the brink of a semantical breakdown, I appreciate Pinn’s assertion that labeling humanism in this manner might “push beyond narrow understandings that seek to privilege theology as a mode of discourse and to disassociate it from other methodologies for studying human experience” (“Humanism” 288). Indeed, Pinn’s desire to strip certain belief structures down to their roots and reexamine what is necessary and just to create the ultimate lived black experience aligns with the call, in the wake of Ferguson, for a paradigm shift in how young black men are viewed in our society as compared to their white counterparts. Immediately following the shooting by cop of an unarmed black teen, ensuing debates about Brown’s potential gang affiliations, alleged wrongdoing prior to his shooting and other efforts to defame his personal character emerged as thinly-veiled attempts to plant seeds of justification for the shooting in the court of public opinion. “Arguing whether Brown was a good kid or not is functionally arguing over whether he specifically deserved to die, a way of acknowledging that some black men ought to be executed,” writes Deadspin staff writer Greg Howard. “To even acknowledge this line of debate is to start a larger argument about the worth, the very personhood, of a black man in America.” Howard’s assertion serves to emphasize the inherent worth of all human beings – a truth that stands in stark contrast to the reception and treatment of black citizens, particularly men, throughout the country.

In contrast to Howard’s humanistic acknowledgments, St. Louis minister and professor Christopher Grundy, in a recent open letter to the Ferguson police force, says, “The conflict itself, day after day, can cause us – can cause you – to lose sight of the flame of the holy in each of [the African American youth who are leading this movement].” The problem with Grundy’s statement is its theologically based assumption that all members of the white infrastructure share his belief that the flame of the holy is even present in the black body. Grundy operates from the perspective of one who believes Christian principles can serve as a unifying force to offset the dehumanization of both the black youth and the hyper-militarized officers. However, his notion that one human being should treat another well because the flame of God exists in each of us detracts from the more basic truth that one human should treat another human well simply because it is the right thing to do. In this case, religion serves almost as a distraction from the real matter at hand.

Pinn does not believe that African American humanism is a rejection of the commonly held African American tradition. Rather, he upholds that humanism “is an underappreciated but nonetheless vital dimension of this tradition” (“Humanism” 282-3). Considering the legacy of the African American tradition, I find myself wondering, how often (if ever) has the placement of God and Christ at the center stood in the way of true social progress or blinded African Americans to the real dangers – and opportunities – at hand? Drawing a biblical comparison, one could question whether, when the Babylonians destroyed the temple, razed Jerusalem and exiled nearly 5,000 Judeans to a foreign land, the Judeans’ expressed beliefs as God’s chosen people – that God had punished them and God would save them – stood in the way of their ability to formulate more creative or empowered solutions toward their own liberation? Perhaps the profound emphasis on God’s all-consuming power has fostered a “wait and hope” or “will of God” theology that is depriving those who are oppressed of immediate and deserved access to freedom and a better life. In a contemporary setting, one could argue that an overdependence on divine agency is helping to sustain isolating and misguided notions that breast cancer is a stigma or a punishment from God; that severely disproportionate distribution of wealth aligns with approved biblical social structures; or that the shooting of an unarmed teenager by a figure of authority is an acceptable, or at least unavoidable, part of the divine status quo.

Religion professor Kelly Brown Douglas seems to ask the ultimate question: “What is it about Christianity that has allowed it to be both a bane and a blessing for black people?” (Pinn, “Humanism” 285). Black theology’s extreme dependence on a “hermeneutic of revelation” (Pinn, “Humanism” 286) is not only overshadowing humanism’s contribution to the field, but may potentially serve as a stumbling block for African Americans whose faith in God’s divine agency is depriving them of their own. For African Americans who find the deck continually stacked against them, faith in God cannot be perpetually leaned upon as the only source of solace. Such a one-way faith conversation borders on the verge of an antihuman theology – one that favors divine dealings at the expense of the human experience with regard to suffering and evil. Current realities of the black experience in America suggest that the onus is now on the human, not solely the divine, to effect and sustain just and liberative change.

Works Cited

Grundy, Christopher. “A Pastoral Letter to Members of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Force.” A More Peaceful Table 15 Oct. 2014: n. pag. Web. 26 Oct. 2014.

Howard, Greg. “America is Not for Black People.” The Concourse: Deadspin 12 Aug. 2014: n. pag. Web. 3 Sept. 2014.

Murphy, Larry G. “Evil and Sin in African American Theology.” The Oxford Handbook of African American Theology. Ed. Katie G. Cannon and Anthony B. Pinn. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. 212-227. Print.

Pinn, Anthony B. African American Humanist Principles: Living and Thinking Like the Children of Nimrod. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.

---. “Humanism in African American Theology.” The Oxford Handbook of African American Theology. Ed. Katie G. Cannon and Anthony B. Pinn. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. 280-291. Print.

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

Who Has the Authority to Write Theology?

We live in an age of unprecedented theological production. At no point in church history have so many people written so many books and articles, not to mention blogs, wikis, and e-newsletters, about the Christian faith. Twenty-seven years ago, when I began my college teaching career, publishing a book was a notable accomplishment even for scholars at prestigious universities. Nowadays, it is incumbent on every professor no matter where they teach (or what they have to say) to write for their supper. Not only has the oft-predicted collapse of the academic book market not materialized, but the web has revolutionized the very nature of authorship. The Protestant Reformers wanted every believer to be a priest, but they couldn’t have anticipated that anyone with an Internet connection could be a theologian.

The practical result is that theology is no longer only for professional theologians. Just as ecclesial traditions have lost their hold over the faithful, forcing churches to compete for members, universities and their publishing agents have lost control over theology. The sheer volume of theological discourse beaming through cyberspace flattens the hierarchy of authorities, setting a blog post alongside a scholarly monograph, a user-friendly Bible-commentary site right next to the most respected reference volumes. The web is a great equalizer of persons, and also of genres, methods, and styles. As the process continues, it is hard to imagine that anyone in the future will judge a work of theology by whether it is scholarly or popular, critical or apologetic, objective or passionate.

But does this mean that theology is a creature of the marketplace? And what about the role of churches in distinguishing between a theologian and any old religious writer?

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Race, Religion, and Teaching in Prison

by Miles S. Mullin, II
R3 Contributor
Post appeared first on the Anxious Bench Blog

The St. Louis County grand jury tasked with determining whether enough evidence exists to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown will announce its decision later this month. Regardless of the outcome of that inquiry, large groups of people will be disatisfied, even angry. Unfortunately, their reaction will not be determined by the details of the grand jury inquiry and what the evidence shows, but have been predetermined based on assumptions about race–evidence of the racialized nature of our society.

Last week, one of my lectures, “America in Black and White,” addressed the challenge of race in America. I had given this lecture before, but in a different environment. In the “free world,” the lecture and ensuing discussion had a more academic feel. This time, in the prison where I teach, it was more poignant.

In the free world, we discuss race in muted tones, if at all. For the most part, whites live in one neighborhood and blacks another. We interact at the margins, using our best manners. Race remains undiscussed until something like the Rodney King beating, the O.J. Simpson trial, or the death of Trayvon Martin or Mike Brown catapults us towards a fiery discussion.

The occupants in a prison do not have such luxuries. They are literally forced to lived together, with no chance to opt out by moving to another neighborhood. Racially-grounded gangs are commonplace. Prisoners know what many of us choose to ignore: that race matters profoundly in America. They understand–better than I do–that we do not live in a color-blind or post-racial society. We live in a racialized society.

Racialized is the term that Michael Emerson and Christian Smith employ in Divided by Faith (2000) to describe “a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships (7).” Statistically, it is an incontrovertible fact that race matters profoundly in America in those ways. Further, these differences in experiences, opportunities, and relationships shape how we see the world, forming our interpretive lenses, and, indeed our prejudices. Thus, when hear of a tragic event that touches on race, we have different expectations of what the facts will reveal once they are uncovered or what the “real story” is if evidence fails.

I tried to convey that reality to my class in this way: “Think back,” I said, “to the first time you heard about the death of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. Without knowing the details or having heard the facts of the case, each of you reacted in a particular way based on assumptions–prejudices, if you will–that you had about the kind of people involved. And that, in and of itself, is proof that we live in a racialized society in which race still shapes our thoughts and actions.”

By the time I had finished, an unusual hush had settled over a typically vocal and animated class. I had hit a nerve, describing something we all knew was true. To their credit, I also know these men well enough to know that they wished it were not.

Follow Miles on Twitter @msmullin

Revolutionary Emancipation and Religion

Religion and left revolution may seem like opposite ends of an insurmountable spectrum. After all, today’s media reminds us constantly of religion’s intolerance regarding the lives of women and its various justifications for war whether it’s waging holy war or justifying imperial ones. Realistically, though, religion is not always reactionary. Indeed, if one looks at history, it has often been used to justify liberation and social justice. From the revolutionary writings of Thomas Muntzer and the actions of his followers during the radical reformation of medieval Europe to Gustav Gutierrez and his Catholic theology of liberation, religion has proven its revolutionary possibilities. Other historical examples include the words and actions of the slavery abolitionists in nineteenth century United States and the words and actions of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights workers a century later.

Like Christianity, Islam has served as both a reactionary and revolutionary force in its history. There are elements of this tradition that uphold ideals of economic justice and social revolution. There are other elements that serve the wealthy and powerful. The same can be said for every religion known to humanity. To put it succinctly, the words of the prophets are subject to interpretation. Indeed, it is this very aspect that has helped fuel everything from endless debates to brutal wars.

Like I noted before, religion can play a revolutionary role. Jesus himself understood why the power elites of his time aligned themselves with the powerful religious leaders—the Scribes and Pharisees. It was this understanding, in fact, that inspired him to overturn the tables and throw out the vendors in the Temple in Jerusalem when he was barely a teen. Despite the revolutionary power of religion — something that one should expect given the often radical nature of various prophets’ pronouncements against their rich and powerful contemporaries — the historical fact is that when all is sorted out, religious forces usually end up on the side of power.

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