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.
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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?

Read the rest here

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.”

Read the rest here

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.

Read the rest here

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.
Read the rest here

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.

Read the rest here

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.
Read the rest here

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.

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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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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ebola and the Problem of (Our) Isolation

by R .Drew Smith, PhD.
First Posted on KineticsLive


We are isolating persons infected and affected by the Ebola crisis, but not along the lines the medical and public health sectors are promoting as a strategic response to the outbreak. Rather, America’s response to the recent Ebola outbreak throughout much of its deadly march across Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone has been largely one of “out of sight, out of mind.”

Though fairly visible to Americans through media sources, the Ebola crisis had not been seen or acknowledged by many of us in ways resulting in large-scale, systematic action. Perhaps this can be traced to compassion fatigue or a general sense of helplessness in the face of so many tragedies occurring around the globe.

But American inattention to this crisis also stems from a long-standing isolationist emphasis within U.S. foreign policy and frequently within American culture in general, where too often we view problems beyond our borders as largely outside our realm of responsibility—unless of course those problems happen to jeopardize our political and economic interests abroad or our security here at home. With the announcement on September 30 of a confirmed case of Ebola in Texas and with the death of that patient, Oct. 8, and the announcement of the infection of a nurse involved in the treatment of that patient, the crisis has now been brought dramatically closer to home. President Obama referred to Ebola in a September 25 U.N. speech as a regional security threat, but it grows clearer with each day that Ebola’s reach is decidedly more than regional.

Moreover, the reasons the epidemic should concern us go well beyond security matters – especially to the extent we believe the U.S. stands for more in the world than simply its own strategic and security interests. For many, the U.S. is also defined by humanitarian interests and moral imperatives inspired by the noblest instincts within American faith and civic traditions. The global obligations and opportunities deriving from American power and privilege have been articulated by many representing those sectors, none perhaps more eloquently than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In King’s 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, he describes the interrelatedness of persons and nations in terms of a “world house in which we all have to live together… a family…who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.” In that same passage comes one of his more well-known phrases: “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Although the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was formally acknowledged in March of this year, it was not until late-September that significant U.S. governmental and private sector resources were deployed in response to the crisis in West Africa. This included a U.S. governmental deployment to West Africa of several thousand military personnel tasked with enhancing medical response capacities through logistical support and construction of treatment and training facilities. The Obama Administration has also committed more than $100 million via USAID and potentially $500 million more through Pentagon channels, and it has asked Congress to provide additional monies. Meanwhile, in late-September the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced it is contributing $50 million to fighting the West African outbreak.

All of the resources targeted at West Africa to halt the spread of the virus are to be commended. But as the numbers of persons infected with the virus grow exponentially (the Center for Disease Control projects as many as 1.4 million persons potentially infected by January) resource allocations may not be nearly enough to keep pace with economic costs of responding to the outbreak. Early-September calculations of the cost for combating the virus were in the $600 million range, which may or may not be projections anticipating the September jump in infections from 3,500 confirmed cases in early-September to almost 7,500 cases by early-October (based on World Health Organization figures).

Currently, five new cases are occurring every hour in Sierra Leone according to the organization Save the Children and the number is expected to increase to 10 new cases per hour within the next three weeks. In light of the escalating levels of infection and the more than 4,000 confirmed deaths, questions have emerged from many directions about what could have or should have been done by the world community (especially through America’s global leadership) to have better contained the outbreak.

In a morbid way, the seemingly unrelenting spread of the Ebola virus reinforces King’s observations about people never again living apart and about all being affected in some way by what happens to any one of us. Even if Americans felt little solidarity with West Africans in the previous months of the Ebola crisis, the confirmation of infections among the American populace might make us more willing to see this as a global crisis where isolationist instincts have to give way to a full-fledged U.S. response. Hopefully, we will indeed respond to the urgency of this crisis with what will be equally urgent levels of compassion and resource mobilization—not simply because Ebola has reached our shores, but because whoever is touched by this calamity is tied to every one of us through a common humanity.


R. Drew Smith, PhD. is a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is co-convener of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race. He first traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia in 1984 as an Operation Crossroads Africa group leader and has remained active in faith-based community development activities in the two countries.

A Moral Monday Letter to Ferguson

In Ferguson, MO, faith leaders led a Moral Monday civil disobedience action today. Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, chief architect of the Moral Movement in North Carolina, sent the following letter of support, encouragement, and lessons from the struggle.

My brothers and sisters,

I bring you greetings and offer solidarity from the Forward Together Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina. I so wanted to be there with you as you take this bold step toward addressing injustice, racial profiling, and systemic inequality. We are in Ohio, helping to train the organizers of this state’s Moral Movement, gearing up for the Long March to Justice here.

I know that you know this, but you are right to protest and to build a movement and not a moment. You must ensure that, as Jeremiah said, the cry of Rachel mourning over her children is heard throughout America. You must, like Jesus in the gospel of Luke, refuse to accept the untimely deaths and killing of our children. Just as Jesus shook the casket, you must shake the conscience of this nation.

We must declare that if death by police and mass incarceration and economic exploitation are the continuing forms of crucifixion, the crucifixion demands a witness against it. Someone must expose it for what it is and lift up a vision of a better way. We must bear witness to the resurrection.

You have said that your actions today are modeled after the Moral Monday events in North Carolina. Let me lift up just a few key elements that we have learned.

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The Only 'Outside Agitators' Left in Ferguson

Thousands of people from around the nation have traveled here under the banner #FergusonOctober to protest the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. And while local citizens and politicians, visiting demonstrators and even media personnel have been subject to police confrontation since the earliest days of action, the latest round of demonstrations around the city have resulted in dozens of arrests – including those of Union Seminary professor Cornel West and African Methodist Episcopal pastor Renita Lamkin, who was also recently shot with a rubber bullet.

Although local organizations called for protestors to gather in St Louis last weekend, many in the press and general public are still questioning the presence and politics of what some – including Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson – have called “outside agitators”.

Some of us, however, are asking a radically different question: what and who, exactly, is an “outside agitator”? Because, depending on the definition, I might be considered one.

I first went to Ferguson in August with #BlackLivesMatter, a national movement that serves as a “response to the tragic history of racial supremacy – one that renders black life valueless”. We witnessed the tanks and teargas. We saw local police officers uniformed in military gear. The American midwest looked more like the Middle East, and 2014 felt more like 1964.

Just when it seemed like the mainstream media was done reporting on Ferguson, another black teenager from the St Louis area, Vonderrit Myers, was gunned down by an off-duty white police officer, enraging an already infuriated community and putting the area back in the spotlight. The entire nation – and much of the world – has its eyes on Ferguson, once again. And as police repression continues to increase, so do questions of who should be involved in the resistance to it.

“Outside agitator” rhetoric is far from new. In 1964, in the midst of Freedom Summer, Mississippi governor Ross Barnett called workers organizing voter registration drives “outside agitators”.

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A Pastoral Letter to Members of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Force

Sisters and brothers on the Ferguson police force,

Grace and peace to you. On Monday I stood outside the Ferguson police station with hundreds of other clergy, asking for justice for Michael Brown, and for a change in our police culture. I was one of the faith leaders reading a litany through a bullhorn.

As part of that demonstration, I watched my colleagues in ministry – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist – approach those of you who were holding the line. Those clergy came very close to you. They got in your personal space, I could tell by your body language. I couldn’t hear what they said to each of you. We had agreed that those who spoke with you would say, “You are part of the system that has killed Michael Brown. I call you to repentance, and I offer to hear your confession.” Maybe they actually said that to you; maybe they just followed their hearts. Many of them talked for a long time.

Some of you conversed with the clergy in front of you. A few of you smiled, and even took hands with those who were speaking with you. Others of you stared straight ahead, or looked with controlled anger at the clergy who were facing you. I could see the strain on your faces: the strain of the situation, and a weariness from this long, 67-day siege that has surrounded your department. I understand that this kind of experience takes its toll on a person. I hope that you have support – family, and counseling, and some kind of spiritual support as well. I want you to know that I noticed how you were faring, and that I prayed for each one of you that I saw, moving from face to face.

As you can probably sense, even if you wouldn’t say it this way, it’s so easy for us to lose sight of the deeper communion that we share. It’s so easy to lose sight of the humanity of the African American youth who are leading this movement. The racist narrative is so strong, with the 24-hour news cycle eager for conflict, painting them as bloodthirsty and wild rather than as brave and tenacious. The conflict itself, day after day, can cause us – can cause you – to lose sight of the flame of the holy in each of them. I’ve heard some of the things they have said to you, and some of the things you’ve said to them. I thought of them as I watched you, because I sensed how we can easily lose sight of your humanity as well, hidden away as it is behind riot gear and the stern veil of discipline that is needed for your work.

So, I want you to know that I stood on the other side of the standoff Monday and saw your humanity, saw you as men and women who are affected by what is happening.

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#BiblicalJustice: Turning Tables and Snatching Wigs: A Biblical Response to Ferguson and Forney, Part 1

The events in Ferguson and Forney have made more visible to more people the divisions that many of us have long known are present in our society. This time of heightened visibility offers us an opportunity for a sustained response across our subdivisions and invites reflection on some recurring and enduring patterns and, the potential for their disruption and transformation.

The response evoked by the title of this teaching— turning tables — is a holy, wholly prophetic, kinetic, theologically justifiable, violently disruptive response to state sanctioned violence against historically subjugated peoples. A modern day womanist corollary to tuning tables is snatching wigs, the rhetorical practice of exposing that which poseurs and perpetrators want to keep hidden under the cosmetic veneer of respectability.

Today I am snatching the wig of the white supremacist infrastructure of institutional America including and particularly the framework of policing, citizenship and the institutional church including the patriarchy with which it colludes. But perhaps it is not I but God who, through the scriptures, is the real wig-snatcher.

Because I’m a biblical scholar and a priest, and because I’m a preacher who learned my craft in the black community, I look to the scriptures of Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures, for a word in response to the blood of black women and men crying out from the ground, from even their own homes, crying out from the asphalt, crying out from the sidewalk, crying out from the pavement, crying out from the streets where some of their bodies were left to lay in disrespect for hours upon hours.

The word I hear in and from the scriptures is justice.

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Equipping the Saints: Promising Practices in Black Congregational Life-Day Two

he 98th Annual Convocation, Equipping the Saints: Promising Practices in Black Congregational Life, will be held October 14-16, 2014 at the Howard University School of Divinity. Based on research conducted by Howard University School of Divinity’s Equipping the Saints: Promising Practices in Black Congregational Life research project, the convocation will address “wholeness and well being” within the context of The Preached Word, Gentrification, Economics and Health, Youth and Family Services, and Openness and Inclusion. Streaming by KineticsLive.
Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Cornel West Was Right All Along: Why America Needs a Moment of Clarity Now

This past weekend, protesters and activists, including students, clergy, and concerned citizens descended on Ferguson, Missouri, for a weekend of marches, protests, sit-ins, and civil disobedience billed Ferguson October. Yesterday as one activist, Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, an organizer with Black Lives Matter tweeted exultantly from the inside of a St. Louis County jail cell about having taken over a Wal-Mart, I waited to hear news of her safe release alongside rapper-activist Tef Poe, attorney and legal observer Justin Hansford, and Palestinian activist Bassem Masri, who handled live streaming for the Organization for Black Struggle.

Of course, many on Twitter, could not understand why disturbing the peace in a private business should be acceptable. The point is – we are no longer standing for business as usual. Lest we forget, racial segregation of old happened in “private” businesses, too, in stores like Woolworth’s and Hecht’s. That John Crawford could not step into a Beaver Creek, Ohio Wal-Mart, wander aimlessly, as so many of us have done on a casual shopping trip, and reasonably expect to come out alive, suggests that time is out for business as usual.

This nation proclaims Black America backwards, sees us as stuck in the past, declares that our obsession with race –not racism itself – is holding back progress. But really, Black people are the hands on our national clock, controlling the timing of America’s social progress. This time both hands are up, pointing straight to the sky. It is high noon in America. It is the deepest midnight in our hearts. But, “from the darkness cometh the light,” Lucy A. Delaney proclaimed in the title of her 1891 autobiography. Until those hands move, no longer held hostage by a state-issued weapon, nobody is going anywhere.

Biblical platitudes don’t go far with this crowd, but I’m reminded of a verse: “it is high time to awake out of sleep. (Romans 13:11)”

In college, some youth government leaders used this verse with the slogan, “The Awakening. Don’t sleep.” These days, young folks have remixed it, proclaiming “stay woke.” I am sitting with what it means that we have moved from “Don’t Sleep to Stay Woke.”

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Equipping the Saints: Promising Practices in Black Congregational Life

The 98th Annual Convocation, Equipping the Saints: Promising Practices in Black Congregational Life, will be held October 14-16, 2014 at the Howard University School of Divinity. Based on research conducted by Howard University School of Divinity’s Equipping the Saints: Promising Practices in Black Congregational Life research project, the convocation will address “wholeness and well being” within the context of The Preached Word, Gentrification, Economics and Health, Youth and Family Services, and Openness and Inclusion. Streaming by KineticsLive.
Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream