Thursday, December 18, 2014

Secular, Spiritual, Religious: American Religion Beyond the Baby Boomers

In his wide-ranging interview with Dusty Hoesly, Wade Clark Roof both re-emphasizes the importance of the baby boomer generation and suggests some ways to think beyond it. In the second half of the interview, in particular, he offers two different narratives for understanding the boomers, their uniqueness, and their place in the history of American religion. Looking at each in turn, this short essay uses recent scholarship to build on Roof’s observations and point to some facets of the current sea change in American religion.

Roof’s first historical narrative culminates in a deadlocked polarization. He suggests that the 1960s were a time of upheaval, and he sees the conservatism of the 1980s and Generation X as a direct response. This story of antagonism is consistent with Robert Wuthnow’s account in The Restructuring of American Religion (1988). Throughout the 1980s, the cleavage between religious conservatives and liberals began to correspond to that between political conservatives and liberals. The 1990s inaugurated a period in which high levels of religiosity began predicting membership in the Republican party—with Catholics and Black Protestants as notable exceptions (Campbell and Putnam 2010:290-321). Religious antagonism that grew out of a backlash against the 1960s became so polarized that it began predicting political antagonism, as well.

Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer (2002) narrate this polarization as one of the catalysts behind the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, or the so-called “nones,” who now comprise around a fifth of the American population (Funk, Smith, and Lugo 2012). The percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation doubled through the 1990s, jumping from 7 to 14% after remaining relatively stable for the two decades prior. Hout and Fischer explain this change in two ways. The first is demographic: more Americans than ever were raised with no religion in the wake of 1960s counterculture. In the second, they argue that the rise of the Religious Right led political moderates and liberals with weak religious attachments to disavow their religious affiliations.

Read the rest here
Blogger Tricks

Does the Gospel Mandate Racial Reconciliation?

African American pastors are less likely than white pastors to believe that the gospel mandates racial reconciliation, but more likely to be actively involved in reconciliation efforts, according to a new LifeWay Research survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors.

More than three-quarters of white pastors (77%) strongly agree that racial reconciliation is a gospel mandate, while only two-thirds of African American pastors (64%) say the same. Meanwhile, more than half of African American pastors (53%) strongly agree that their church is personally involved with racial reconciliation at the local level, while only one-third of white pastors (32%) say the same.

Overall, 72 percent of pastors say their church is personally involved in racial reconciliation, and 90 percent of pastors strongly or somewhat agree that racial reconciliation is mandated by the gospel, the LifeWay study found.

Among the many other findings: About three-quarters of evangelicals (74 percent) say religious leaders play a positive role in US race relations, compared to 61 percent of other Americans. But evangelicals are slightly less likely than other Americans to say racial diversity is good for the country (80 percent vs. 89 percent).

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Mere Republicanity? How Millenials are Changing the “Christian Right” (Pt. 2)

[This is the second half of an article adapted from a paper delivered at the 2014 American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, 24th Nov. 2014. See Pt. I here.]

The Christian right generational shift

So what do the findings I have shared indicate for the future of the Christian right? They demonstrate despite the Republicans recent 2014-midterm results, that millennial Christians are more ambivalent about politics than their parents. According to Pew Research, millennial turnout in 2014 was down 6 points on the 2012 Presidential election, whilst there was 6 point increase amongst baby boomers aged 50-68. Older white Christian males swung the election in the GOP’s favour.[1] Though this temporarily bodes well for GOP-Christian right relations, it is clear that there will be a significant age-gap problem very soon, for partisan ties are very much weaker amongst millennials. Though educated in a Christian conservative environment at college, being Republican is no longer the default position for many students who seek greater political independence, averse to the polarizing and reductionist “Republican”, “Christian right” tags. Moreover, millennial Christians are more comfortable with America’s post-traditional faith environment. Though they see their own private faith as an important guide in their lives, a framing worldview, they are not motivated enough to clothe the public square, for many students see the Christian right’s activism to-date as counter-productive, intolerant, even one-dimensional. As Smidt has observed, there has been a shift in how millennials take their faith forward into politics.[2] Unlike their parents’ generation they are not as convinced that America is a Christian nation guided and governed by conservative Christian imperatives and that there are liberal secularizing forces working against America’s status as a ‘shining city on a hill’ endangering America’s future or Christian identity. Millennials have come to accept that the picture of American values and demographics has changed considerably, Christianity is less central to daily life, and that for Christian conservatives the exclusive relationship with Republicans appears to be fading. This acceptance, and lack of political activism will likely make the Christian right a greying concern, one that is less appealing to the Republican machine as the young-old voting gap widens. As Guth observes, the evangelical share of the population is both declining and graying, [and] in the long run, this means that the Republican constituency is going to be shrinking on the religious end…’ [3]

Though there is considerable hesitancy amongst millennial Christians to see partisan politics as the solution, domestically they have inherited their parents’ social views on abortion and homosexual marriage, and while not politically motivated at present, millennial Christians may come back into play in future elections if these life issue concerns persist. Nonetheless this would undoubtedly be contingent on breaking millennials’ skepticism of politics; as a recent BARNA study noted, ‘millennials seek authenticity’—politics doesn’t provide this.[4] Lastly international passivity amongst millennial Christians indicates domestic issues at home dominate their political concerns. The international simply doesn’t figure, amongst this demographic it is unlikely that the plight of Israel or the US’s stake in the Middle East will stir a protective foreign policy reaction. Overall, one observes that institutional political perspectives are not being transferred to evangelical-Protestant students, most are apolitical and politically liberated, keeping their politics and faith private. The fidelity of the GOP’s-Christian right marriage comes from its sense of political permanence, of deep-rooted intertwined interests; terming this unconditional bond republicanity therefore seems apt for baby boomers; but amongst millennial Christians its a misappropriation, for any melding of faith and politics there is contingent and fragile, and far less emotive.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

How Religion Was Misused In CIA Interrogations

The release of the CIA torture report uncovered and detailed the many brutal tactics employed by U.S. interrogators. But what about the role of religion? We take a look at how it was misused in an attempt to break detainees' own religious faith. Panelists included:
  • Rev. Ron Stief @NRCATtweets (Washington, DC) Executive Director, National Religious Campaign Against Torture 
  • Ibrahim Hooper @CAIRNational (Washington, DC) Communications Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) 
  • Rev. Paul Raushenbush @raushenbush (New York, NY) HuffPost Executive Religion Editor

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Church Sex Scandals Are Rooted in Theology

At this point, there are so many sex scandals among conservative religious organizations, we’re no longer surprised by any of them. The latest revelation—that for decades, the evangelical Bob Jones University blamed victims of sexual assault and discouraged the prosecution of predators—should be shocking, but probably isn’t.

Yet, the recent report on BJU’s misconduct is different. Unusually for such a document, it makes a theological case against sexual abuse—but in so doing, it points to the deep roots of rape culture that may not be so easily uprooted.

The fact pattern is by now familiar—though a little different in the BJU case, which covers counseling for all reported sexual abuse, not just abuse perpetrated by members of the Bob Jones community. Of the 166 respondents to the BJU survey who reported sexual abuse, about half of the abuse took place before they came to the university; this particular report is more about counseling victims than prosecuting perpetrators. This is not another cover-up.

The university’s responses, though, were depressingly familiar. Only 7.6 percent of victims were encouraged by BJU staff to report their abuse to the police. Forty-seven percent were actively told not to do so and 55 percent said the university’s attitude toward abuse reports was “blaming and disparaging.” Women were invited to confess what they had done to entice the abuser—the wearing of revealing clothing, for example. And if their bodies “responded favorably,” then they, too, had sinned.

Indeed, even if their bodies hadn’t “responded favorably” to being raped or abused, abuse survivors were still regarded as “damaged goods,” according to the report, because virginity is prized above all, and any illicit sex—consensual or not—is sinful. That may be hard for non-religious people to wrap their heads around, but remember, if sex is bad and virginity is good, that’s true no matter the circumstances, no matter the presence or absence of consent.

Interestingly, the Bob Jones University report is, itself, a kind of religious document. Produced by an organization called GRACE, whose mission is “to empower the Christian community through education and training to recognize and respond to the sin of sexual abuse,” it is full of biblical citations and theological argument. For example, the report argues against victim-blaming by citing Matthew 5:28 (“Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart”) and stating that “If a dress code encourages men to see women for their bodies—whether they dress modestly or not—then women become objects, and often, mere objects of lust.”

That is some good theological reasoning, and wouldn’t be out of place in any number of progressive religious contexts. What’s interesting is that Bob Jones University isn’t one of those.

Read the rest here

Monday, December 15, 2014

Being and Blackness: The Significance of Black Lived Experience in Ferguson

by Katherine Whitfield
R3 Contributor

“For manifestly, you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression ‘being.’ We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.”– Martin Heidegger, Being and Time

“The black experience is existence in a system of white racism.”– James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation

Within a matter of hours, a grand jury convened to deliberate on the police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown earlier this year in Ferguson, Mo., will release its difficult – and possibly history-altering – decision. The country’s eyes are fixed squarely on Ferguson as thousands of individuals in and around that community await the verdict with bated breath. Engaged citizens, students, activists and members of the faith community have gathered throughout the city to hold their own deliberations and plan organized responses to the grand jury verdict. “They have made it clear that they plan to again take to Ferguson’s streets, no matter what the grand jury concludes,” wrote John Eligon, reporter for The New York Times. As the Ferguson community steels itself for the impending announcement, its citizens – and, indeed, many throughout the country – may find themselves asking, “How did we get here?”

Victor Anderson poses a similar existential question – specifically, the origin of the black being and its existence as an agent of free will – in his essay, “Black Ontology and Theology.” Anderson argues that because of the longstanding social adherence to certain hierarchical dualisms – such as soul over body, human over animal, mind over matter, and white over black – the very question of black Being “reconstitutes itself as the existential question of the meaning of black existence” (391). African American theology rejects these traditional Western dualisms “in favor of the multidimensionality of subjectivity” (Anderson 394), which is evidenced in the emphasis on the black lived experience over being. Anderson invokes the writing of philosopher Lewis Gordon when presenting a framework for this theory of existentialism (essentially, how we exist as free beings) versus ontology (the notion of being itself), stating that to adequately reflect upon the existential meaning of blackness, one must consider the tangible, concrete moments of suffering in the lived, black human experience (391).

As with any philosophical quandary, the notion of the tangible and concrete can seem quite fleeting. Philosophy is, by definition, a study of abstractions – subjective ideas that pertain to that which we think, feel and believe, rather than that which we can lay our hands on. But Anderson quickly grounds the reader in the concrete with a simple study of opposites. He reminds us that the actuality of black suffering is constantly pitted against “the impinging threat of nothingness, of nonbeing” (392). According to Gordon, this threat of nonbeing poses the danger of exposing “a world that will ultimately be better off without blacks. Blacks from such a standpoint ‘must’ provide justification for their continued presence” (Anderson 392). Such an argument might seem extreme until Gordon’s words are used to illuminate the existential experience of the Jews during and after the time of the Holocaust – a time when people became so convinced that the world would ultimately be better off without Jews that an entire population became complicit in their systematic extermination. Similarly, American slavery constitutes a time when an entire population advocated for the existence of the black body ­only – using blackness in its most basic, ontological sense to signify “neither a person nor a place but a ‘thing’: situated flesh” (Anderson 392).

Ontologically speaking, Michael Brown was simply a black body, standing at 6-foot-4 and weighing in at nearly 300 pounds. It’s likely that with his hands raised, Mike Brown stood even taller. When viewed through the abstract and hypersimplified lens of “black male body,” one man’s sign of surrender could even wrongly function as another man’s heightened perception of threat. As a body, Brown almost certainly fell victim to the condition known as negrophobia, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “dislike or fear of black people.” In an op-ed piece written for Time magazine, Brandon Hill more aptly defines the term as an unjustified fear of black people, further positing negrophobia as that which “fuels the triangular system of oppression that keeps people of color pinned into hapless ghettos between the pillars of militarized police, starved inner-city schools, and voracious prisons.” Brown’s death is the quintessential example of how white America’s intrinsic fear of the black body, or being, sets the stage for an endless cycle of unjust treatment, disproportionate distribution of resources and stymied opportunities for meaningful growth.

But shifting beyond being to the myriad moments that comprised Brown’s lived experience as a young, black man, we may arrive at what Anderson describes as “an economy of black existential hope” (392). Anderson cites a multitude of African American forms of expression – including sermons, autobiographies, blues, literature and theological discourse – as means of imbuing the black lived experience with value. Simply put, these artistic expressions and recorded moments in time qualify blackness as a “consciously lived experience” (Anderson 393). According to reports from Michael Brown’s family and friends, the elements that serve as a testament to his consciously lived experience include a sense of humor, a penchant for problem solving, a desire to serve as a role model for his younger siblings, a commitment to higher education, appreciation for Kanye West’s music and the St. Louis Rams, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a reputation as a loyal friend and a “gentle giant.” While the nature of Brown’s personal character should have no bearing on the shooting itself, an awareness and deeper understanding of Brown beyond his ontological being and into the realm of his existential self helps to further situate his life with meaning, and, by extension, with value. As Anderson puts it, each of these situated moments is “infinitely possible, that is, potentially repeatable, even as the conditions for its possibilities persist in situated moments of black suffering, oppression, anguish, closure, freedom, responsibility, community, liberation, and more” (393). Honoring Brown’s essence in the wake of his existence gives his being a continued voice.

Anderson identifies parallels for his notion of an economy of black existential hope in the writings and teachings of numerous counterparts. For example, he draws a connection between black existential hope and what political theologian Terrence L. Johnson identifies as the black tragic soul-life. In the schema of ontological significance, this tragic soul-life situates a moral philosophy within black culture that “centers blacks’ struggle for liberation and ‘human fulfillment’ within a democratic society fractured by antiblack racism, homophobia, sexism, and class alienation” (Anderson 393). Humanist Anthony Pinn describes a similar ideology but defines it as “the quest for ‘complex subjectivity’” (Anderson 394). Black theologian James Cone places similar emphasis on the black soul, which he defines as emerging from the lived experience of existing boldly within a society that threatens your place and your very right to being, and a series of womanist theologians speak of the carefully constructed ethical values that shepherd their economy of “struggle, survival, resistance, and quality of life” (Anderson 398). Anderson highlights variations on a similar theme – his economy of black existential hope – in a number of theologies, all of which are effectively construed as religious pursuits because each “addresses the search for ultimate meaning” (394).

And what of an economy of black existential hope in Ferguson? Certainly, Michael Brown’s death is a specific, situated moment within the black struggle for liberation in a society of white privilege. In his writings on the quest for complex subjectivity, Anthony Pinn admits that said quest “may not result in sustained sociopolitical and cultural transformation, (but) it does involve a new life meaning that encourages continued struggle for a more liberated existence” (Anderson 395). As demonstrators continue to take to the streets in Ferguson, and as people of all races, genders and classes continue to travel to this community to join the protest, that “new life meaning” that lends credence and validation to the struggle for a better, more egalitarian existence takes shape.

Michael Brown was a casualty of a broken system; his death is a tragedy. But those who speak up and advocate for justice in his name – and in the name of countless others – tap into that tragic soul-life; the quest for subjectivity; the black soul; the struggle of continued resistance; the economy of black existential hope. Every such death brings us one step closer to the tipping point – the moment when the inexcusable loss of a black being will no longer be met with tacit social acceptance. In the meantime, Brian Curtis, a 24-year-old Ferguson resident, offers a glimpse into his community’s mindset: “If we don’t get no justice, we got to start taking matters into our own hands; something got to be done to make our voices heard. Me being a young black brother…that could have been me out there” (Eligon).

Works Referenced

Anderson, Victor. “Black Ontology and Theology.” The Oxford Handbook of African American Theology. Ed. Katie G. Cannon and Anthony B. Pinn. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. 390-401. Print. 

Eligon, John. "This Time, theDemonstrators in Ferguson May Decide to Pass." New York Times 22 Nov. 2014: A1. Print.

Hill, Brandon. “Negrophobia: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, andAmerica’s Fear of Black People.” Time 29 Aug. 2014: n. pag. Web. 3 Sept. 2014.

A Statement about the #FergusonFiasco

Students in the Fall 2014 African American Religious Thought class at Memphis Theological Seminary created a statement regarding the #FergusonFiasco. Below is the statement. 

Ferguson is not solely a black and white issue; it is an issue of equal rights for all human beings. The failure to resolve the issue of recurring injustice against black people perpetuates and reinforces a divide between the races. We believe the solution to societal ills come from the bottom up rather than the top down. Therefore, we seek solutions from a communal grassroots perspective, while continuing to further our cause by engaging in the pursuit of freedom and equality.

The media, perhaps at the behest of the principalities and powers that Paul writes about, also continues to exploit and prey upon the fears of people. The media shifts the narrative from the peaceful, sustained and long-standing actions of the many, advocating for equal treatment of all human beings, toward the sporadic and unsanctioned violent acts of the few, which are not representative of the larger picture.

Therefore, we who are representatives of the church must commit to listening to our communities in order to identify pressing issues and further commit to walk side by side with that particular community in an effort to assist wherever we can. We realize that every community is unique in its makeup and therefore, rather than swallowing and regurgitating the “facts” fed to them by the principalities and powers, we further commit to being a conduit of change irrespective of religious beliefs. Moreover, the church must help individuals critically discern the lived realities around them. A church that does not value the lives of all its people and black people specifically, can no longer serve as the mouthpiece for any of the people.

While we believe that one of the answers to issues such as a Ferguson Fiasco is love, we also believe it is more important how we express that love. Love that grounds itself in the biases of inferiority and racist attitudes and beliefs is no type of love. However, we call for a love that listens, affirms and expressly state that black truth matters. We believe that until this happens, nothing else will change us; nothing else will move us forward.

Dr. Andre E. Johnson

Reginald Boyce
Barbara Boyd
Alexander Carson
Johan Daza Rivera
Hattie Freeman
Erin Grant
Joshua Harper
Gene Jones
Paul Kinuthia
Felecia LaVant
John Lowrance
Rochester Neely
Mike Reno
Carrol Seldon
Katherine Whitfield

God Who Delivers the Oppressed

The events of the last few weeks have left many people in our country weary. When the grandjury in Ferguson decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for killing Mike Brown, the shoulders of many black people fell. Our hearts, already broken and bruised as a result of living in an oppressive society, broke even more. Once again, a nation that never intended for us to make it, that never intended for us to do well, failed us. Though to be expected, we couldn’t keep ourselves from weeping. We could not keep ourselves from grieving. And we certainly could not help the feelings of utter disappointment and rage from boiling in our bones, pressing against our bodies, dying to get out. For a moment, we allowed ourselves to hope in a justice system that has had a long track record of treating us with malice. And hope failed us.

For nearly 400 years, our story has remained relatively the same. For nearly 400 years, blacks in this country have been marginalized and exploited by one form of oppression or another.


Convict leasing system.

Jim Crow.

Mass Incarceration.


Generational poverty.

Police Brutality.

Though all of these techniques have different faces, the aim of each is to ensure that blacks don’t know peace.

After 400 years of this, you simply have to wonder when will things change. When will those of us who have been oppressed break free? When will we, at last, be able to break the yoke of white supremacy off of our necks? When will we stop drowning in this sea of perpetual turmoil and be able to finally come up from air? When will we be able to stop fighting to simply exist?

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Monica Miller and Christopher Driscoll Engage in Impolite Conversation with John L. Jackson, Jr.

In the first installment in this new series, Conversations in Black, Miller and Driscoll talk to John L. Jackson, Jr. about his new book with Cora Daniels, Impolite Conversations: On Race, Politics, Sex, Money, and Religion.

MM/CD: Impolite Conversations is an issues-driven dialogue between you and journalist Cora Daniels, both of you friends since high school. Could you tell us a bit about how the project came together, and how it took specific shape as this series of “impolite conversations?”

JJ: Ever since Cora and I were in high school, Brooklyn Tech in New York City, we’ve been threatening to write something together. Back then, I’m not sure we thought that it would be a bona fide book of any kind, but we knew we wanted to be in critical conversation with one another as thinkers and would-be writers. I went to Howard in DC. She went to Yale in New Haven. I came back to New York to study anthropology at Columbia and to produce 16mm films at just about the same time that she returned to NYC, also set up shop at Columbia (in the Journalism School), and continued to enhance her skills as a news reporter. Jump-cut to a couple of years ago, and we were still fantasizing about some kind of writerly collaboration, threatening to craft something together. We’ve both had the opportunity to write other things. Cora has written some books. I’ve written some. We’d read each other’s work, of course. And we still couldn’t clear space to actually commit to concretizing what some kind of co-written piece might look like. We never got beyond the dinner party mentions, always in passing, ever-wistfully.

So, we finally said either we do this, or we stop talking about it. So we finally brainstormed a bit about the idea, and things just started to come together. I consider our book a kind of soft provocation, a Swiftian spoof on the very notion of “public dialogues.” It is also a commentary on the devolving nature of public discourse today. Some of that devolution is linked to impoverished understandings of political correctness, which I talked about in my book Racial Paranoia. Political Correctness is least effective, I think, when it is imagined as an endgame in and of itself and not merely a potential starting block, a means to an entirely different finish line: creating a safe space for as many people as possible to feel like they have a legitimate and recognized role in a civic discourse that will necessarily be uncomfortable — for everyone. Cora and I thought that we’d use our essays in Impolite Conversations (some of them personal, some of them polemical) to talk about things we knew would be unpopular (and even somewhat controversial or embarrassing), but we wanted to do that with the “good faith” goal of modeling a form of discursive honesty that we hoped could help to reboot popular discussions and debates about the future of American society.

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#DialInForJustice: A Faith-Rooted Initiative To End Police Brutality

by Andrew Wilkes
Special to R3

This first appeared on HuffingtonPost

To be black in America is to listen to death daily. To hear mothers wailing at unnecessary funerals, to see fathers mourning lost sons, to offer graveside prayers that puncture the heart of God - this is the sorrow song of a people, and a nation, haunted by racism.

Over our heads however, I hear the sweet, dark sounds of freedom in the air, calling for the dry bones of democracy to arise from the segregated sinews of our society. The multiracial chorus of protestors chanting "I Can't Breathe"; the die-ins, walk-outs, and highway-halting actions of youth from New York to Chicago to Tallahassee to Los Angeles represent a thirst and hunger for righteousness that includes and yet transcends voting.

To join within this symphony of justice, I am calling faith communities to participate in a national #DialInForJustice during the month of December. The goal is to call the Unites States Department of Justice and local police departments, communicating our desire to see systemic reforms to policing in America. This initiative seeks to lift up faith-filled voices alongside the already existing trumpet blasts of groups like the Organization of Black Struggle, Dream Defenders, PICO, Sojourners, and so on.

Why a dial-in for justice? Because the Zimmerman civil rights case, opened in August 2012, needs to close. Because the United States Department of Justice needs to open a patterns or practice investigation into the operation of the New York City Police Department and other localities. Because the the federal government must help adjust what local cities and jurisdictions can or will not alter - the disportionate, life-destroying use of power against people of color in the land of the almost free, home of the sometimes brave.

Renewed democracy requires reworking inherited traditions of social action. Phone banking for a cause is a proven way to mobilize not only votes, but to stir souls and share policy demands in the direction of racial justice.

It is our constitutional right to petition the government for the redress of grievances. Further, it is the sacred duty of all religious institutions - as a Christian preacher, I am especially but not exclusively concerned about the church - to call the State to fulfill its mandate to advance the common good (Romans 13:4). The catastrophic calamities of blue-on-black violence confront us in city after city. Our children are not safe within nor beyond our sanctuaries. A dial-in for justice will not resolve the implicit bias of cops who associate men of color with criminality or conceive of sun-kissed women as sassy threats for surveillance. This joint effort, however, will ensure that we are talking to a primary entity - the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice - with the ability to address our manifold issues. When faith communities speak as one voice among others, we can make a difference. In the words of Rev. Dr. William Barber, let us move forward together, not one step back!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Learning the Live with Labels

by Kimberly Macharia
Special to R3

When labels are placed onto human beings, something scary happens. They lose their identity. Before they have a chance to defend themselves, judgments have already been made. Labels are demeaning. They make it inherently difficult to be viewed as an individual. Once a person has been gifted with a label, they begin an uphill battle. Sadly, it is not a fair one. It was never meant to be fair. The author of the biblical book Ruth placed labels onto people like Ruth; her labels, like the ones that have been placed upon myself, shape the way members of our respective societies view us. 

Ruth is a Moabite. This label means that she is foreign. From a modern perspective, the word foreign, when applied to women, strings along with it a set of adjectives which include enticing, exotic, and sexy. From a biblical perspective, the word foreign strings along with it another set of adjectives including controversial, dangerous, and nonconforming. Despite the stigma associated with foreign women like herself, Ruth managed to gain the admiration of Boaz. Boaz was from Bethlehem; therefore, he was an Israelite. His fondness for her was as shocking to Ruth as it would have been to the original audience of this passage. He displayed genuine concern for Ruth, and her immediate reaction was to question him saying, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” She realized in the presence of someone like him she should be viewed as inferior.

Ruth is a Moabite. However, she is willing to change. Her willingness to adapt is initially made known when she decides to stay with her mother-in-law despite the death of what had originally linked them together: her husband. Furthermore, Ruth did not merely choose to accompany Naomi. She truly desired to adopt Naomi’s beliefs, and Ruth’s determination was undeniably evident as she told Naomi “your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die-there will I be buried.” Adopting Naomi’s beliefs signified that Ruth was no longer a threat to the Israelites. In order to be looked upon favorably by the original audience, it was necessary that Ruth denied who she was and where she came from. This allowed her to later be redeemed and taken as a wife by Boaz. She lucked out and got a happy ending in a foreign society. Ruth succeeded in leading the life of someone who belonged.

Ruth is a Moabite. Her conversion does not change this. Her assimilation into a foreign culture does not change this. Till the end of the book, her title was still Ruth the Moabite. I am afraid that till the day I leave this earth I will be viewed as Kimberly the black woman. I do not have the power to change this. Like Ruth, the way I am perceived by the world is heavily determined by the labels that have been placed upon me. Despite our efforts to conform, our labels will never abandon us.

Kimberly Macharia is a black woman. My assimilation into the white washed world around me does not change that. Yes, coming to terms with this is frustrating, but it does not embitter me. Life has taught me that I cannot rely on the world around me to determine my value. It is irrelevant that the media and the consumers of this media continue to condone labels that portray black women as angry or hypersexual. If I allowed these perceptions that are held against people like me to bother me, my soul would be slaughtered.

Kimberly Macharia is a black woman. I have accepted that when referring to myself as black I must negate stereotypes that say I am ignorant and dangerous. I've accepted that when referring to myself as a woman I must negate stereotypes that say I am weak and overemotional. I've accepted that when referring to myself as a black woman I must negate stereotypes that say I am mean and bitter. I have accepted that conformity is often not strong enough to combat these stereotypes. Excelling in my academics and taking on positions of leadership should be sufficient, but they just don’t seem to be enough. Yes, there are a multitude of ways in which I can aid people who don’t look like me in their understanding of me, but just because they understand me does not mean they will change the way they view me. My words do not have the power to eradicate the beliefs held against people like me: beliefs that have been instilled within them and continue to be subliminally ground into their minds. And that is okay, but it doesn't make it any easier to accept it. My mind will not let me accept it because the second I do, accept this numbing idea is the second I begin to put my soul into a choke hold. And if I were to do that, I do not think I would give my soul a second chance. I’m sure once the acceptance gripped my mind the screams of my soul to let it live, to let it breathe would go unheard.

I am a black woman. This is my label. It has the power to hurt me, but I have decided that I also have the power to rise above its influence. Society has granted the labels it itself created with so much authority. Nevertheless, in order to safeguard my soul, I do not allow these labels to make me feel inferior. Instead I take pride in my label. In order for anyone else to find value in me, I must first find value in myself.

Kimberly Macharia is a first year student at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee

Friday, December 12, 2014

Faith, Inc. and Criminal Justice Reform

Nothing about religion in the public sphere is uncomplicated. And those attendant complications permeate the juggernaut of so-called “bipartisan prison/criminal justice reform.”

Many liberal/progressive communities of faith, advocacy organizations, pundits, and politicians have been reluctant, if not reflexively averse, to engaging these issues in any but the most simplistic or reactive ways. The result is that the evangelical Christian Right, in concert with “unfettered free market/everything’s a commodity” corporate interests, now dominates the terrain of sentencing and corrections reform. The exception may be the movement to abolish the death penalty.

Here’s a brief primer on how this is playing out and what it means for us for the future.

Background: Religious Involvement in Prison Work and Reform

Religious and spiritual communities have always played significant roles in and even driven a great deal of criminal legal system reform in this country. Quakers and other religious reformers, for example, were instrumental in the creation of the penitentiary as a purportedly humane alternative to brutal forms of corporal punishment and the death penalty – a reform with horrifically and structurally violent consequences that continue to accrue today.

From the inception of the penitentiary, responding to ancient religious exhortations to visit and provide solace and care to those who are imprisoned, people of many different Christian denominations and faith traditions, across the political spectrum, have undertaken many different forms of outreach, service, and ministry to incarcerated people and their families.

These include, for example, the Quaker Alternatives to Violence Program, support for incarcerated Jewish people and their families through Aleph Institute’s Sparks of Light Prison Program and Jewish Prisoner Services International, and the Buddhist-created Prison Mindfulness Institute

Muslim prison work focuses on support, spiritual care, and access to services for people who are incarcerated, and support for incarcerated American Indian/Native American and other Indigenous peoples, including Native Alaskans, seeks to provide access to spiritual guidance, in-prison and re-entry resources, and participation in sacred ceremonies and cultural practices for incarcerated members of many different cultures, nations, bands, and tribes.

Almost all of these religious and spiritual communities and organizations support varying kinds of prison and criminal legal system reform. But all prison ministries are not equal in access to prisoners or to money, corporate power, and political influence, and even the concept of “religious freedom” can be used to trump the religious and civil rights and liberties of some groups.

And that matters, because throughout U.S. history, “prison and criminal justice reforms,” despite the humanitarian impulses of those who support them, have had a disturbing tendency to “widen the net” – that is, expand the number of people who come under some form of correctional control. They also tend to progressively blur the lines between church and state, between government and the production of private profit. And they have always made hash of the “free exercise” clause of the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, reforms almost invariably leave the criminalization of selected communities – especially communities of color, Muslims, and LGBTQ peoples – intact or even intensify it, primarily through highly selective ways in which even neutrally worded laws and policies are enforced. This true even when the reforms are meant to protect those vulnerable and marginalized communities.

Whenever religion is intensely politicized in service of domination and supremacy, those already suffering the heaviest brunt of structural violence are going to get hit even harder by the fist of triumphalism. That’s what’s happening today.

Read the rest here

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Mere Republicanity? How Millennials are Changing the “Christian Right” (Pt. 1)

[This article has been adapted from a paper delivered at the 2014 American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, 24th Nov. 2014]

Following Bush’s consecutive victories in 2000 and 2004 the Christian right have been labeled the ‘backbone’ and ‘base’ behind the Republican Party’s electoral successes.[1] Evangelical born-again Christians constitute around 26% of the US electorate according the latest Pew Research poll, of whom three-quarters consistently vote Republican.[2] For forty years the considerable convening power of these faithful conservatives have made them an attractive constituency for Republicans to court. Aligning with their social and cultural concerns, this relationship has generated a distinguishing feature amongst Western politics, the American ‘values voter’. The issues that stir Christian conservatives are well known as they are often at odds with the secular-liberal trend of American society, generating the “culture-war”. These hot-button social, cultural and religious issues, or as Senator Danforth labels them ‘wedge issues’, cleave American society into one camp and another. They include opposition to abortion, stem-cell research and homosexual marriage, efforts to make Christianity ‘visible’ in courthouses and schools with attempts to display the Ten Commandments, teaching intelligent design and creationism in public high schools and universities as equally valid theories to evolution, opposing ‘Big’ government, most notably the 2010 Affordable Care Act (or ‘ObamaCare’), deficit spending and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), demanding a ‘righteous government and judiciary’, opposing the decline of the traditional nuclear family amongst many others.[3] Equally well versed (amongst academics who follow the social movement) is the narrative of GOP-Christian right relations. 

As Meacham, Putnam and Campbell, Domke and Coe, Dochuk and others note, since Reagan in the 1980s, Republicans have pitched themselves as the ‘religion friendly party’ of America, with a Christian nationalist narrative, reaching out to a predominantly Protestant evangelical base by promising to enact moral legislation in return for evangelical votes and support.[4] Christian conservatives in response picket, strategize and vote Republicans to power to push their countercultural moral Christian agenda into the public square, to ‘turn America back to God’ to ‘reclaim America’ from their liberal and secular-humanist opponents.[5] In the 2000’s under Bush, an avowed evangelical, this relationship—or as Domke and Coe term it, ‘God Strategy’—appeared to reach its apogee; with the fusion of the spiritual and political blurring the lines of Christian theology and conservative ideology.[6] Linker and Laderman saw the legislative agenda and actions of conservative evangelicals and GOP as hybrid, that America was witnessing a form of ‘republicanity’ or ‘theo-conservatism’.[7] As Arnal comments the result of this ‘R’evival of religion in American politics spawned ‘a cottage industry, busy fretting about the Christian right’ ranging from the inquisitive and scholarly, to the fear-mongering diatribe and the polemical ‘hatchet-job’.[8] (Good examples of the latter include Hedges, ‘American Fascists’ and Kaplan’s ‘With God on their Side’.[9])

Whether the Bush era should be cited as another religious awakening in American politics as Linker and Laderman argue is debatable. Given the rise of the ‘Nones’, America’s declining religiosity and embrace of secular mores, aligning the Bush years to previous awakenings such as the Fundamentalist 1920s seems to stretch a point. Less contested is how the GOP and Christian right’s co-dependency is inflated by the academy’s boilerplate repetition, a noise that gives the constituency’s narrow vision for America credence, legitimating in part the increasingly dualistic nature of America’s religious politics, furthering the simplistic partisan binary, and the lexis of cultural warfare.

Commonly overlooked in this narrative however, is the generation game, that GOP-Christian right relations are based on the interactions of baby boomers. As the millennials (or Generation Y) take the wheel, so too should we update our views on this relationship that many have taken for granted.[10] Taking inspiration from Lindsay’s seminal work, ‘Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite’ (2007), that traced the rise of evangelical power in government through their Republican partners, and their increasing command and control of business, entertainment and law;this paper looks to developments within Christian higher education.[11] In particular it looks at the views of fifty millennial students in 2013 from five Christian conservative colleges in America’s Mid-West and North-East, to discover their politics, and to review whether republicanity amongst millennial Christians is quite the foregone conclusion it is made out to be.

Read the rest here

Jesus Can’t Breathe: a Spiritual Problem That Begs a Spiritual Response

My friend, Peter Heltzel, and a cohort of some 75 faith leaders in New York have called the lack of Police accountability in New York and elsewhere “a spiritual problem.” They’re right, and it’s a problem that requires a spiritual response.

Those faith leaders converged on New York’s city hall for a “Die in” protest in response to the death of Eric Garner, an African-American man who died of suffocation while being choked by officer Daniel Pantaleo, a New York City police officer. It is one of several cultural flash points which have raised the issue of police violence – particularly white officers on people of color – to the forefront of our national conversation. In the case of Michael Brown, the protests continue in Ferguson, MO, where officers responsible for the young man’s death also were not indicted, or even tried, much like officer Pantaleo. And of course the most recent groundswell in concern around this began about a year and a half ago in Florida when Trayvon Martin was shot, though not by an officer.

There are many issues at play in each of these incidents, including the militarization of our police forces, racial tensions in our midst that too often go ignored, and doubts about the impartiality about our Grand Jury and greater judicial systems. Perhaps almost equally as important is how perspectives on the results of these cases as they’ve been judicially reviewed, inevitably break largely across racial lines.

The faith leaders gathered in New York are right about the spiritual malady indicated by the apparent lack of accountability within our police forces, but the spiritual sickness goes much deeper, and is far more complex than any one policy, a single death or a trial (or lack thereof). Yes, we need to address these specific problems head-on, but until we consider the more existential deficits we’re suffering from in our communities, these problems will inevitably continue.

Read the rest here

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

White Evangelicals, Southern Baptists, and #BlackLivesMatter

As several recent posts here show, I’m not terribly optimistic about the capacity of white evangelicalism to confront and correct its longstanding complicity in America’s sins of white supremacy, racism and injustice.

The history, spirituality, hermeneutics and religious ideology of white evangelicalism just seem too intertwined with racial injustice. To sever those connections would require a radical transformation — so radical that it would no longer be white evangelicalism, but something else, something different and new. And evangelicals are conditioned to fear that kind of radical change — to regard it as apostasy, a falling away, a form of rebellion.

Witnessing much of the white evangelical reaction to Ferguson and to the killing of Eric Garner has only made me less optimistic. Consider, for example, the horrible “Christian” responses to Christian rapper Lecrae’s recent tweet about Ferguson. Or the hideous commentary that gushed out when popular white evangelical blogger Jen Hatmaker wrote a modest plea for white Christians simply to listen to what black Christians are saying.

Or consider the many churchified attempts to derail, dismiss or distract from any focus on the black lives taken with impunity. The “black-on-black crime” garbage, or the fatuously pious version of that dodge that focuses on black women and abortion. (Because what could be more “pro-life” than to ignore or defend the killing of unarmed people in the street?)

Hate and ignorance are plenty ugly on their own, but add a thick layer of sanctimony and they look even worse. So all of that has been incredibly disheartening to witness.

Read the rest here

After Ferguson: America Must Abandon "Sick Christianity"

Our present moment is not about the occasional killing of black men, or about poor training of police officers, or even about better relationships between law enforcement and black and Hispanic communities. It is about violence. We have been bathed in it, and nurtured in it. It flows through our veins and covers our skin like a thick layer of sweat. From our seduction by guns to our formation as a people within gun cultures, Americans have made weapons part of our national confession, “….the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” We Christians have rarely resisted that seduction or that formation. In fact we helped create it on both the frontier and the plantation, and bound to this seduction and formation has been our blind commitment to abstract ideas of law and order.

Law and order have always been hallowed words on the American landscape filled with two abiding realities: our racial animus and our obsession with property. We repeat the mistake continuously in this country of trying to address our racial animus as though it is a virus that occasionally attacks our social body, rather than seeing that racial animus isa constituting reality of our social body. The ideas of law and order have always encoded the work of white bodies controlling dark bodies for the sake of controlling the land, organizing spaces of commerce, and monitoring the movements of racial others. We live always in the midst of geographic struggles with deep racial underpinnings, where policing presence tasked with controlling space moves unremittingly toward confrontation with black bodies, whether in malls, parks, neighborhoods, or stores.

We live also in the midst of a horrible calculus, the weighing of human life against private property and commerce. Only in a distorted world turned completely into commodity, could a life be weighed against private property. Yet we hear constantly the comparison between loss of life and the destruction of property as though these things are on the same plane of moral existence. Black life has always lost out in that calculus, because the ideas of law and order have overwhelmingly been orientated toward the protection of property and not black bodies. Christianity in America has much too often served as the high priest of this sick reality of law and order, too quickly aligning our biblical visions of sin and punishment to ideas of crime and punishment, and lending our support to forms of policing that are betrothed to the control of space and married to violence.

Violence has won in America, and we live always in the break, in the silence, like that of a musical break between movements where violence is being prepared to answer back to violence, and where someone is about to be seduced into believing that peace and stability will be established through violence. Black life is always in the break, and we have heard the before and after for so long that we have grown accustomed to it, like white noise. Black Death in America has reached a sanctioned ubiquity rooted in the normalization of fear.

Read the rest here

Monday, December 8, 2014

Communion and White Fear

As demonstrations continue around the country, protesting the deaths of African American men at the hands of police, we need to talk about White fear. Like many of the posts on this blog, it may seem to have little to do with Holy Communion, but from what I can see, it has everything to do with it — at least for those of us who are trying to follow in the way of Jesus. It’s just that our practice of Holy Communion has become so impoverished that we don’t see how deeply they’re connected. White fear is a symptom of a kind of spiritual poverty that Holy Communion, as a spiritual practice, was meant to heal. The fact that it doesn’t, the fact that Holy Communion does little or nothing to reduce White fear in this country, and in many cases actually reinforces it, speaks condemnation upon the church.

If you’re White like me, then White fear isn’t always that easy to see. It mostly looks like nice, clean neighborhoods, and employment opportunity based on hard work, and police who are willing to do the difficult job of defending communities and the rule of law. White fear sounds like the voice of reason: we need to be unified. We need to pull together and talk the problem out. Peace and safety first, then we can address grievances.

Chances are, White fear has been a little easier for you to see lately, but just in case you’re still not seeing it clearly, I’ll try, with my own limited ability, to help. When a White police officer with a gun sees a Black teen his own height as a giant who makes him feel like a five-year-old, that is at least partly White fear. When civic leaders send out armored personnel carriers and instruct police to aim loaded guns at crowds of unarmed, mostly Black civilians, that is the face of White fear. (Have you seen all the police pointing loaded guns at unruly White college students who are burning cars after football games? No? Exactly.) 

When the governor, or the mayor, or the chief of police speaks of unity and calm without ever acknowledging a problem, or warns protestors to stop being unruly “before someone gets killed” (Who could that be? Hint: it’s not the police), that is White fear. When gun sales in the St. Louis area go up 300 percent before then grand jury decision, that is White fear. (You don’t really think all those gun buyers were African American, do you?) When African Americans are relentlessly stopped by police while driving through White neighborhoods, or walking through White neighborhoods, or shopping in grocery stores in White neighborhoods, or standing around looking too grumpy in White neighborhoods, that is White fear.

Read the rest here

On the Journey to White Shame

The human relations I valued most were held cheap by the world I lived in.

White lesbian Southern novelist and woman of letters Lillian Smith wrote these words(and those that follow in italics) in 1949, the same year my parents were born — one to white Catholic carpenters in Iowa, the other to white Protestant farmers and share croppers in central Louisiana. Growing up in north Louisiana in the 80s and 90s, I would never have imagined that Smith’s words from so long ago would resonate as powerfully today. Written in response to her growing awareness that, in America, to be loved by “white” meant she could not love “black,” they tell a tale of the two-ness of white life in America, its unreconciled bondage to a moral binary of guilt and shame reinforcing the way we saw the world then and continue to see the world, ourselves, and those around us now. If the notion that #blacklivesmatter teaches white Americans anything, it is that our white relationships — those based on denial, silence, privilege, and blood — have not allowed us to see black bodies as fully human, as mattering at all.

I was brought up to reject race and racism, to uphold a sense of civic and social duty and to respect authorities, and to recognize the plight of black Americans as their failure to acquiesce to the way things are (and are “supposed to be”) in America. I was raised to feel guilty when I failed at upholding my duty to god, country, and family, and to shame those who seemingly didn’t fall in line with the social arrangement. I was told as a child that there were “blacks” and there were “niggers.” That the latter existed at all in our minds was not my fault, nor that of my white family, friends, church, or teachers. I grew up not explicitly judging blacks by their skin color, while at the same time celebrating American might, southern pride with rebel flags, and sentimentally ingesting underground country music that told sad tales of “working like a nigger for my room and board” and the tragedies that befall white “nigger fuckers.”

But I was certain I wasn’t racist.

Neither was my father who told me to call bluejays “niggerbirds” because they hog all the bird feed. Neither was my scout leader who told me that black kids can’t swim because “their bodies are different from ours.” Neither was my pastor who didn’t have a word to say from the pulpit as the KKK protested one Sunday on the sidewalk of our church grounds (they weren’t protesting us, mind you, but felt comfortable enough to choose that location). Neither were my friends, who, in high school, upon hearing I was interested in a beautiful black classmate reminded me under hushed breath, “but she’s a nigger.”

Despite these egregious, explicitly racist pastimes, we denied our racism under the cover of a self-evident arrogance attached to our white relationships and bloated sense of worth. The terrible irony, echoed recently by many white responses to Ferguson and protests nationwide, is that we protected ourselves through charges that they were the racists, responsible for their own condition, the ones that can’t help but think in “black”;they were the race-baiters. For we shameless whites, we couldn’t be “racist,” because we thought of racism as a moral failure, and the shameless can never be guilty of such things. We weren’t racist; they were.

Read the rest here

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Healing the Racial Wounds in America

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis and Rev. Dr. Serene Jones talk about the importance of love, faith and connection in healing the fault lines of race in America.

In Troubled Times, Does 'The Black Church' Still Matter?

African-American clergy, academics and activists will hold a march on Washington this week, protesting the grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Mo. and New York City and call on the federal government to intervene in the prosecutions of police officers accused of unjustified use of force.

I talked with Reverend Raphael Warnock and Eddie Glaude, Jr., two prominent African-American religious thinkers, about the role of black churches in the wake of major protests and demonstrations inspired by events in Ferguson and New York City. Warnock is the senior pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. — a pulpit once held by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — and was in Washington to attend a conference hosted by the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality. Glaude is a professor of religion and chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. In 2010, he wrote an attention-grabbing essay called "The Black Church is Dead."

Read the rest here

How Jesus saves through Michael Brown and Eric Garner

One thing that I never tire of pondering as a Christian is how Jesus’ cross saves me and what it saves me from. Growing up evangelical, the answer was simple: Jesus took the punishment for my sin to save me from an angry, perfectionist God who wanted to burn me in hell forever. But this explanation looks nothing like the salvation that takes place in response to Peter’s first sermon about Jesus’ cross in Acts 2. Peter says nothing whatsoever about hell. So what does he say that people need to be saved from? He tells the crowd, “Save yourself from this corrupt generation” (v. 40). And how does the cross accomplish this salvation for Peter? It causes his hearers to be “cut to the heart” (v. 37) after Peter tells the crowd that they killed their messiah. They are saved not by being legally exonerated in some abstract heavenly courtroom, but by having their hearts mortally wounded by their implication in the murder of their king. In other words, Jesus’ cross saves them by unmasking their sin and putting it on public display in the ugliness of his brutal death. None of the modern formulaic Romans Road “four spiritual laws” account of salvation was part of the experience of the original three thousand converts to the Christian faith. Since we are two thousand years removed from Jesus’ crucifixion, it’s an abstraction to associate our sin directly with Jesus’ cross, so we cannot be saved in the same manner as the first 3000 Christians, unless we recognize that our sin continues to crucify Jesus in places like Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York in the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

There are three places in Acts where the phrase “cut to the heart” is used. In Acts 2:37, the crowd that is “cut to the heart” by Peter responds with abject humility, saying “Brothers, what should we do?” So Peter baptizes them and they become the original Jerusalem church. In this first case, being “cut to the heart” results in repentance. But in Acts 5:33 and 7:54, the Sanhedrin council of religious authorities are “cut to the heart” in a very different way by the testimony of Peter and Stephen respectively (the phrase in Greek is dieprionto tais kardiais, which should be translated literally “cut to the heart” as it is in the King James Bible even though the NRSV translation paraphrases it as “enraged”). The cutting of the Sanhedrin’s hearts has the opposite result from the crowd that was saved by Peter’s sermon. They are hardened into rage instead of being broken into repentance. In Peter’s case in Acts 5, his life is spared by Gamaliel who warns his fellow religious authorities that they might be fighting against God if they kill Peter. In Stephen’s case in Acts 7, he is taken out and stoned to death. When people are “cut to the heart” by the recognition that they have blood on their hands, they either respond with remorseful surrender or angry defensiveness.

So “cut to the heart” can have two opposite results. Kind of like how there are two opposite ways to respond to the naked injustice that has been put on display by the crucified bodies of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The more that the river of blood from dead black bodies makes it impossible to say that we don’t live in a racist society anymore, the angrier it makes white people who resent being cut to the heart by the conviction of the core defining sin of American society whose existence they adamantly refuse to recognize. Meanwhile other white people see this injustice and are put to shame by it, which becomes the means of their salvation from “this corrupt generation” in which racism is alive and well.

What if the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, and all the other black men who die every 28 hours at the hands of police are the means by which Jesus is separating the sheep from the goats among his professed followers just like he describes in Matthew 25:31-46?

Read the rest here

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Silent Black Megachurch Pastor: We Need To Wake Up, Y'All

by Crystal St. Marie Lewis
R3 Contributor

First Published in Window on Religion

Like most of you, I’ve been following news stories about Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice over the course of the past several weeks and days. I watched in horror as St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert P. McCulloch announced that Darren Wilson would not be indicted in Brown’s death. I looked on with unspeakable grief as headlines flooded my social media accounts, all indicating that no charges would be filed against the officer who choked Eric Garner to death. I’ve read with deep offense numerous stories seeking to criminalize twelve-year-old Tamir Rice.

As I’ve followed these stories via various news outlets and in the world of social media, I’ve experienced a deep sensitivity to the phenomena of absence and silence. I’ve paid special attention to the ways in which influential faith leaders are (or are not) using their platforms to call out the injustices which have diminished and even extinguished Black lives in America. Almost predictably, there are certain white pastors whose presences are conspicuously absent– but their silence is not my concern. Of greater concern to me is the silence of Black ministers, many of whom pastor megachurches consisting of thousands of African American Christians.

For instance, it’s impossible not to notice that the Facebook and Twitter pages belonging to T.D. Jakes (which currently host 3.85 million and 1.68 million followers respectively) are devoid of references to the deaths of Brown, Garner and Rice. The same is true for the heavily-followed social media accounts belonging to folks like Creflo Dollar, Frederick Price and Juanita Bynum. However, abundantly distributed on all of their accounts are posts inviting devotees to “press into their anointing,” “go to the next level,” “defeat the devil,” and of course— buy a new book or register for the next conference.

You may feel tempted to dismiss those named here as low-hanging fruit– but before you do, please consider this: These “low-hanging fruit” are operating the most successful church model(s) in the country today. They have a certain something that pastors all over the country have been trying to cultivate and duplicate: Credibility. Broad Appeal. Undeterred Followers. Staying Power. They are the empowered few—wielding television and media reach, but yielding little in terms of advocacy at a time when compelling mobilizers are needed more than ever. I think it’s more than fair to ask why the people who are arguably the Black community’s most influential religious leaders have had little if anything to say about issues that impact our lives so profoundly.

And so, in recent weeks I’ve felt repeatedly drawn to consider what it means for high-profile Black religious figures who have captive audiences of thousands of people (diverse populations, no less) to forfeit their prophetic mantle when Black folks most need their ministry.[1] I’ve thought about the state of Christianity in America, and the ever-growing need for the justice-centered message of Jesus to overtake and supplant the self-centered message of salvation that has come to dominate Protestant theology. And unceasingly, I’ve ruminated on the degree to which “Religion is the opiate of the masses…”[2]’—that is, I’ve thought about the condition of our collective consciousness as religious Black folks. At times, it does indeed seem as though we’ve been sedated—as if we’re asleep. I’ve wondered whether the success of the new civil rights era will require religious Black people to abandon the prosperity preachers who “cry out ‘Peace, peace!’ when there is no peace…”[3]

What does it mean to succumb to sedation at the hands of religious leaders who are more concerned with taking us to some nondescript “next level in God” than they are concerned with the level of oppression we experience? What is the cure for this kind of sedation? Can we wake up?



[1] By “prophetic,” I’m speaking to the responsibility to call an oppressed people into freedom, and not to the practice of telling people that God is getting ready to give them a new house, car or husband/wife. Yes, I have very strong opinions about the latter, but this article is not the appropriate space in which to air those concerns.

[2] Karl Marx said this.

[3] “From the least to the greatest, their lives are ruled by greed. From prophets to priests, they are all frauds. They offer superficial treatments for my people’s mortal wound. They give assurances of peace when there is no peace.” Jeremiah 6:13-14

Friday, December 5, 2014

No Justice, No Christmas? Why Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s Deaths Make Advent Matter

This week the streets all over our country have been filled with protesters expressing grief, anger, shock and sorrow that Officer Darren Wilson (who shot and killed the unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown) and Officer Daniel Pantaleo (who held the also-unarmed Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold during his arrest) failed to be indicted for their actions.
Last night crowds across the U.S. staged sit-ins and die-ins, clogged bridges, and shut down major highways. Many of them chanted, “No Justice, No Christmas.”
No Justice, No Christmas.
At first glance, I agreed with them. Screw it. Let’s just shut it all down. Shut down the bridges, the roads, the rivers, the train stations and the airports. Shut down the mall Santas and the Christmas pageants and the holiday parties and the family get-togethers. And then let’s shut down Christmas itself.
Because who wants to open a stocking filled with candy and socks and lip gloss when the Brown and Garner families will be grieving for their loved ones who are no longer with them? Who wants to sing about joy when our country is feeling so much pain? Who wants to proclaim, “Peace on earth, good will to men” when peace and goodwill are precisely the things we’re lacking right now?
No Justice, No Christmas. Seems like a good idea, right?
Last night, after reading countless articles, watching live news feeds and following the #ShutItDown, #ICantBreathe, and #HandsUpDontShoot hashtags that were trending on Twitter, my heart was overwhelmed. I shut off my laptop and climbed into bed, watching a candle on my nightstand flicker in the dark.
Read the rest here

Thursday, December 4, 2014

More than Ferguson

by Miles S Mullin, II
R3 Contributor

After the St. Louis County (MO) Grand Jury in Ferguson declined to indict Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, chaos ensued. Certainly, chaos ensued in the streets of Ferguson as protests turned into riots throughout the city. At the same time, chaos of a different sort emerged among evangelicals. In the aggregate, evangelicals (and here I really mean white evangelicals) were uncertain how to respond to the developments in Ferguson. On the one hand, many felt a natural inclination to support former Officer Wilson’s version events. On the other hand, many others–having come through the racial reconciliation emphases of the 1990s–felt discomfited by such a “conservative approach” due to the circumstances of the case.

After Michael Brown was killed, Ed Stetzer began posting a series of articles on his Christianity Today blog entitled “A Time to Listen.” Listening is good, and many of the posts are helpful, instructive, and insightful. But why does it take tragic events to catalyze white evangelical listening? Unless they have been silenced by why-do-you-make-everything-about-race shaming, black evangelicals are willing to share something they know that we (white) evangelicals do not: white and black evangelicals experience life differently in the United States because of race.
Divided by Faith
Oxford, 2000

As white evangelicals, we may wish that this were not the case. We may wish that being white did not grant us the privilege of “no assumptions” in so many arenas of society. We may wish that we lived in the society of the catch phrases: a color-blind society; a post-racial society. But we do not. Instead, we live in a racialized society, “a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships (Emerson and Smith, 7).” White evangelicals have a difficult time coming to terms with this for several reasons.

First, the historic evangelical emphasis on the necessity of individual conversion through repentance and personal faith in Christ colors the way evangelicals view evil in the world. The (correct, in my estimation) emphasis leads them to see sin solely in personal terms, a position so eloquently expressed in the Facebook post by New Orleans Saint Benjamin Watson. And, while I certainly endorse that perspective, a myopic focus on it in relation to social ills fails to account for the fact that there is systemic evil and institutionalized wrongdoing that transcend the aggregation of individual sin in society. That is what we see in many of the idolatrous societies portrayed in the Old Testament as well as what we see, in part, in Paul’s reference to “powers and principalities.”

Second, regardless of the subversive heritage that American evangelicalism may (or may not) have possessed in the past, by the late twentieth century, its dominant form was reflexively conservative, characterized more by Billy Graham’s “politics of decency” than Ron Sider’s sort of “social action.” For the most part, contemporary white evangelicals respect authority and comfortably speak of “the rule of law.” As corollaries, two things occur.

First, this means that–despite their own doctrine of depravity–they have a propensity to believe the accounts of those in authority vis-√†-vis other witnesses, reflexively defending their actions. We see this in Ferguson, but also in the Rodney King debacle, when many white evangelicals ridiculously defended the actions of the police officers who beat King. Second, in describing their position they end up employing language with a history of racial oppression, using such phrases as “law and order.” Such terms have a weighty history that African Americans remember well, a history of being, at best, the position of white Southern moderates, at worst code words for segregation.

Third, white evangelicals have a hard time coming to terms with the difficult truth that the United States is a racialized society because they want it to be otherwise. They want America to be the sort of meritocracy of opportunity about which David Brooks dreams. That is a great desire and a worthy dream. But it will only be more closely approximated when both individual sin is confronted and the systemic ills that perpetuate injustices are addressed. It is not an either/or proposition, and it is about so much more than Ferguson.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

“Is God an Uncle Ruckus?”-Part 1

by Andre E. Johnson
R3 Editor

I have to admit, I was not surprised when State Prosecutor Bob McCulloch read as part of a  25 minute oration, the decision of the grand jury in the State of Missouri vs. Darren Wilson. By the way, I had to remind myself that is the correct name of the case, State of Missouri vs. Darren Wilson—because on hearing McCulloch, the media and a host of others put Michael Brown on trial, you would have thought that Michael Brown was the one that the grand jury was attempting to indict. It was Darren Wilson who killed an unarmed Mike Brown whose body laid dead in the street for hours.

Maybe I was not surprised because I had seen this movie before—we have all seen it before. Cop shoots unarmed black person, cop claims she or he feared for her or his life, black folk outraged, while others seem not to care. Mothers of dead victims crying and fathers having to be so called “strong” in the face of the public, many people write on about it, others write about it, while the first thing everyone wants to know is "what did he do to get shot by the police" as if the previous times that police shot and killed some black person that person had to have done something to cause her or his killing.

No, I wasn't surprised, but I was tired—tired of seeing this same old movie. Tired of seeing black men and women gunned down in the middle of street by scared and ineffective officers. Tired of hearing Charles Barkley and respectability proponents touting the same tired cliches'; "well if he didn't do this," "if he didn't do that," "if he would have done this," "if he would have done that, then maybe he would still be alive. Tell that to Tamir Rice's family, the 12 year old boy who police gunned down in Cleveland, Ohio. Tell that to Akai Gurley, the black man who was just walking down a flight of stairs in New York with his girlfriend. All of this led me to meditate on that age old question, “Where was God in all of this?

When James Cone wrote his important work on Black Theology he argued that God is on the side of the oppressed, and at the time of the writing, he declared that the oppressed are Black people in America. They were the ones with their backs were against the wall and that God was actively liberating Blacks from their position in society. Using the Exodus story as a theological starting point, Cone argued that the same God who delivered the saw the deliverance of the Hebrews as God’s deliverance of Blacks.

However, William R. Jones, in response to Cone's liberation ethic asked, “What proof do you have that God is on the side of the oppressed genuinely and black people specifically? In other words, for Jones, he asked in essence, "show me where God has done anything liberative for black people and oppressed people at the bottom." He argued that Black folks were in pretty much the same position as they always were; different times, but same stuff. Then he asked a question that still can get people up in arms: “Is God a White Racist?” What Jones surmised was that the hell many black folks go through, surely this God, who Black folks continue to cry out to and wait upon, this God must be a white racist.

However, Cone and his supporters had an answer—God is not a white racist because we serve a black God. For so long, God whether said or unsaid, was seen to be white. White of course equaled good and evil equaled black so when Cone boldly claimed what other black theologians and preachers said before him, it sent shock waves throughout the academy and gave many black people a different view of God.

Today, many black believers claimed God’s blackness because it strengthen us, it helps us to understand what made in the image of God is all about. To know and understand that "God is black," to see "God as black," and to talk about a "Black God," empowers us and gives us a sense that God is for us—that despite everybody and everything else that God is there and though evil persist in this world, God is right there to somehow or someway make it right by snatching the good out from the evil.

But as I continued to reflect on the death of Mike Brown, rioting, corrupt systems and justice as a whole, as I reflect on Cone’s theologies of liberation and the blackness of God, I come in the spirit of William Jones to ask “Is God an Uncle Ruckus?” In short, if God is black and stands with black people, is God  a Ruckus type of God?

Uncle Ruckus, from the Aaron McGruder show, the Boondocks, is a self-hating, self-loathing black man who really hates black people and blackness itself. Though dark skinned, he thinks that all black people are lazy and shiftless, they do not amount to anything, and they get what they deserve. In return, he worships anything white and believes that path to salvation for a black person is to renounce her or his blackness. He simply hates black people.

When we see all that is happening across this country; when we see dead bodies in streets or in parks; when we see cops beating up black women without any hesitation, when we see the prison industrial complex still making millions off of black and brown bodies; when we see churches, especially black churches still not saying anything about black death in the street, when we see all of the hurt, pain, tears, sorrow; when we see all of this, I am almost tempted to believe that the "black God" we serve is nothing but an Uncle Ruckus. In short, I wonder aloud if God is black, then God must really have some problems with dark skinned folks. So is God an Uncle Ruckus?  

To be Continued.......
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