Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Visions of Sisterhood

by KimberlyPeeler-Ringer
R3 Contributor

Have you ever been watching a newscast, learned some awful crime has happened and images flash across the screen of news photographers rushing to line up and catch those first shots of the perpetrator? News producers call that the “perp walk.” I’ve seen probably hundreds of perp walks. Now raise your hand if you’ve ever prayed the silent prayer, “please don’t let the perp be a Black person.” This speaks to some real feelings of shame we are expected to feel when somehow, a single person represents an entire race of people. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to defend all of Black womanhood to some brotha who had a single encounter with a sista who was loud, obnoxious, and whose only goal in life was having a man with money, I could retire today. In style.

I was all set to experience something similar when I heard there was going to be a reality show portraying the lives of pastor’s wives, The Learning Channel’s The Sisterhood. After all, the odds of being ashamed by a reality show are in my favor, right? Reality shows that prominently feature Black women are not necessarily known for their flattering images of Black womanhood. The message these shows seem to yell at us from the screen is that Black women cannot get along with each other. So yes, I will admit a slight feeling of dread about The Sisterhood. After I watched the first four episodes, my dread meter was off the charts...but not for the reasons you might think.  

            The featured wives on The Sisterhood seem to have been selected at least partially because they do not represent typical Christian church pastors and their wives. The show is set in the Bible belt of Atlanta, Georgia, and follows the lives of Ivy; married to Mark, the pastor of the Emmanuel Tabernacle, Christina; married to Anthony, the pastor of the Oasis Family Life Church, Tara; married to Brian, the pastor of the Phenomenal Life Church (these two were asked to leave a church for reasons yet unclear); and Domonique; married to Scott, former pastor of the Good Life Church (it was explained in the first episode that their church had to close its doors for financial reasons and this is apparently putting some strain on their marriage); and DeLana, married to Myles, the pastor of the Worship With Wonders Church.

Although the churches themselves are not exclusively Black churches, they do appear to be evangelical churches. The Sisterhood seems to have gone out of its way to be both multicultural and fashionable. At first glance, The Sisterhood seems to be a blend of evangelical Christianity with Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta or VH1’s Love and Hip Hop. As Christina says, “I am not the typical first lady who sits in the front pew and wears a big hat.” As she puts it, she is “number two in command” at the Oasis Family Life Church.  The wardrobe on the show seems to back up Christina’s claim that they are not “typical first ladies,” because they wear leather, stiletto heels, have tattoos, body piercings, and wear body conscious clothing with larger than life accessories.

            This show has generated quite a bit of conversation—even outrage—since its debut on Jan. 1. After I watched the first episode, all I could do is scratch my head and wonder what the big deal is. The show has its problems, to be sure. But for me the show’s problem have less to do with the scathing indictments from people who feel the show is “unrealistic” (and what reality show is realistic?), and more to do with the fact that certain persons are outraged because the show may cast a negative light on the Black church.

The Examiner.com quotes Marvin Sapp as saying: “Let's pray for those who are on the show, as the show begins to move forward, that there is some discernment and discretion that comes forth. Why? Because there are certain things that the world does not need to see, know and understand about the church.” These words speak of a real need by some to hold the church in a pristine light without blemish or stain. Some people think that the church should always be presented in a positive light no matter what. However, having grown up in the church, I also get that not everyone’s experience of church is a positive one. Just ask some of our same gender loving brothers and sisters. Or ask anyone who has had children without the benefit of marriage. For some, the church has been a place where more shaming than transforming took place. The conversation where we acknowledge that both of these realities exist in our churches is long overdue.  

And therein lies the rub. Apparently it is not a problem to show Black women in a negative light, but it becomes a huge problem once that light is shone on the church. Reality shows routinely bombard us with negative images of women, should we even be surprised that this lens has now turned to the place where women are nearly always the majority—the church?

And where was all this concern about negative images of women when Flavor of Love was one of the highest rated shows on VH1? I’m still trying to figure out The Bad Girls Club, and there seems to be a sista with issues on every episode of My Shopping Addiction or My Strange Addiction. The sad truth is there has been very little formal backlash about the content of these reality shows. Instead, we watch them. These shows would not be making money if they did not have loyal viewers. And the stereotypes about Black women equal big profits for the networks that broadcast these shows. There have been very few complaints from the Black community about the reinforcement of images of Black women as the sharp-tongued Sapphire, the oversexed Jezebel, and the angry Black women not to mention someone is taking these images all the way to the bank.  

So rather than bash the show for following the highly profitable reality show format (the only difference here is that the pastors’ wives get together, argue, get together to apologize for arguing, and then argue some more) let’s talk about what the hoopla is really about: the masks we wear. Interestingly enough, revelation is problematic in the church. Most of the complaints about this show condemn it for revealing too much. These are, after all, church ladies whose only conversation about the Bible so far was to admonish Tara for quoting it too much. Maybe Marvin Sapp is upset about the sex toys Ivy and Mark admitted to using…as well their glee when describing how active their sex life is. And let’s not even start on Pastor Anthony’s condom demonstration for his daughters, because after all, if you are going to sin, sin smart, right?

In the second episode, “Thou Shalt Not Jump to Judgment,” Domonique made the following statement: “as a preacher’s wife I feel like there is this expectation that you have to be a strong Christian…so to be struggling with so many issues? It’s definitely going to be seen as a weakness.”

People in positions of power are often invested in keeping things as they are, and some would prefer not to upset the balance of power in some churches. Whether churches are conservative or liberal, traditional or progressive, women make up the majority of membership yet hold few places of leadership and/or authority.

The Sisterhood simply reminds us of those elements of the church we wish not to deal with and would rather romanticize than deal with. The Sisterhood reveals there is jealousy in the church, that there is gossip in the church, that there is intolerance in the church, and that there is judgment in the church. But rather than give us a bird’s eye view about the myriad ways the church has failed women, I would love to see the women featured on The Sisterhood have a conversation about how they can best affirm the women in their own churches, and likewise each other.  

Ivy, Christina, Tara, DeLana and Domonique as a sisterhood do not represent all of the complexities that come with being married to a pastor. But they could certainly get the conversation ball rolling about why so many churches avoid conversations about how the majority of the congregation—its women—are faring in and out of the pews.  

Bible-Minded Cities

From its place in schools, to the public square, to people’s individual lives, the current and future role of the Bible in U.S. society is an often-debated topic. A new release from Barna Group shows how this debate plays out regionally and takes a look at how 96 of the largest cities in the nation view the Bible.

The report ranks the most and least “Bible-minded” cities by looking at how people in those cities view the Bible. The study is based on 42,855 interviews conducted nationwide and the analysis of Bible trends was commissioned by American Bible Society. Individuals who report reading the Bible in a typical week and who strongly assert the Bible is accurate in the principles it teaches are considered to be Bible-minded. This definition captures action and attitude—those who both engage and esteem the Christian scriptures. The rankings thus reflect an overall openness or resistance to the Bible in the country’s largest markets.
Read the report here

‘New Evangelical’-Progressive Alliance? Not So Fast

What do evangelicals want? Marcia Pally attempts to answer that question for at least some evangelicals in a recent essay at The Immanent Frame titled “Evangelicals who have left the right.” As with many previous pronouncements that something new—less judgmental, more generous—was afoot in evangelical-land, the little ripple of excitement around Pally’s essay gives me a distinct sense of deja vu. “The Beginning of the End of Christianism?” asked Andrew Sullivan; “The End of the Religious Right?” pondered Walter Russell Mead.
I’ve heard that ripple before—I watched Richard Cizik describe, in 2007, this “slow-moving earthquake”; in 2008 I covered a group of evangelicals unveiling “The Evangelical Manifesto” that Pally makes much of, though I’ve not heard a single person mention it since. Each election cycle since 2006 has generated a little burst of God-talk from Democrats in the hope of wooing disgruntled evangelicals from the GOP. It’s slow, alright, and perhaps more of a rumble than a quake. And while the durability of a new movement is always difficult to assess when it’s young, it is nonetheless already clear that the politics of the “new” evangelicals are more complicated than its evangelists often portray.
Pally’s essay is an update of her 2011 book and essay on the same subject, both of which appeared during the 2012 presidential campaign. In this latest essay she takes stock of evangelical voting trends in the election—79% of white evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney—and seeks to persuade us, in spite of this rather homogeneous voting pattern, that they are not as monolithic as we might think. 
Read the rest here

Black Theology and Leadership Institute

The Black Theology and Leadership Institute is a week long intensive continuing education event for the training, worship, and fellowship of clergy and laity. The institute is designed for clergy and lay leaders who may not have formal theological training, as well for those who do have theological training but would like to deepen their thinking and preaching by learning from preeminent scholars of theology and religion. Priority will be given to non-seminary trained clergy/church leaders; however, all are urged to apply.
Fellows will have a week to think deeply about theology and leadership through robust academics and thoughtful discernment. The demanding schedule includes:
  • In-depth Orientation of the week
  • Three plenaries each on Creation, Christology, Theodicy, and Pneumatology.
  • A one-day immersion on Leadership
  • Access to Princeton Seminary’s world-renowned libraries and generous study time
  • Daily Q&A
  • Guided discussions in cohort groups
  • Worship and mentorship experiences
Particular to the Black Theology and Leadership Institute is an emphasis on direct mentorship from outstanding church, civic, and academic experts. Time will be set aside for one-on-one appointments as well as deliberate moments in the schedule for networking and fellowship.
Read the rest here

Monday, January 28, 2013

Race, Politics, and American Christianity

Back in 2003, when the US went to war with Iraq, I was working in youth ministry at a primarily white church in the working-class city of Tacoma, WA. I have a vivid memory of sitting in a worship service during that time in which the preacher delivered a sermon in which he declared that John the Baptist was a patriot and, therefore, we should be patriots as well and support the war effort. More specifically, we were told that President G.W. Bush was God’s appointed for a time of trial and, therefore, we should not question but support his decisions.
Back in 2007, when Barack Obama was running for president, I was working in young adult ministry at a primarily black church in inner-city Los Angeles. The Sunday after the election, on which I was blessed to preach the sermon, many people proudly wore shirts bearing the image of President-elect Obama, and prayers were offered calling upon God to protect the soon-to-be president and to give him the wisdom required for such a position. In addition, several references were made to the “miracle” which had just occurred which many in the audience thought they would never see come to fruition – namely, a black man elected as president of the United States.
Leading up to that election I had a long conversation with my mentor from the church in Tacoma in which he professed his admiration of Sarah Palin and disbelief and inability to comprehend how a Christian, let alone the majority of a congregation, could vote for Obama in light of his position on abortion. For him, there was no way he could conceive of a justifiable reason to cast a vote for someone who supports abortion in any way. We talked about the ways that race influences politics and the complicated nature in which theological beliefs are translated into political policies and stances, but for him there was still no way that he could make sense of a “Christian” vote for a Democrat.
Read the rest here

Initial Evidence of Religious Practice and Belief in Depressed African American Cancer Patients



This study examined spiritual coping (beliefs and practices) of depressed African American cancer patients through a comparison with depressed White cancer patients and non-depressed African American cancer patients.


Using mixed methods, 74 breast (n=41) and prostate (n=33) cancer survivors including 34 depressed and 23 nondepressed African Americans and 17 depressed Whites were interviewed. The interviews were audiotaped and transcribed. Qualitative data analysis identified themes that were coded. The codes were entered into SPSS software. The Fisher’s exact test was performed to examine group differences in self-reported spiritual coping.


Significantly more depressed African Americans questioned God when learning of a cancer diagnosis than the non-depressed African Americans (p=.03), but they did not differ from the depressed Whites in this regard (p=.70). Significantly more depressed African Americans reported having faith in God (p=.04), reading the bible (p=.02), and conversing with God (p=.01) than did the depressed Whites. They also reported praying alone (p=.01) more frequently than the depressed Whites who, on the other hand, reported praying with others (non-family members) together for one’s own health more frequently (p=.04).


Depression is associated with a deepening need for spirituality and it affects religious beliefs and practices more in African American than White cancer patients. Given its important role in the lives of African American cancer patients, spirituality may be utilized as a reasonable, culturally-based approach to better assess and treat depression in these patients.
Read the paper here


In a richly insightful reflection on the public contributions and prospects of black religion scholarship, Gayraud Wilmore’s 1999 essay on “Black Theology at the Turn of the Century” (published in Dwight Hopkins’ Black Faith and Public Talk) outlines several “unmet needs” pertaining to “the future of African American religious thought and praxis.” One of the unmet needs identified by Wilmore is “a renewed contact and bonding with African, Caribbean, and black Latin American churches, mosques, intellectuals and religious leaders” and with the “religiously oriented African Diaspora” in England, the European continent, and elsewhere. “The time is ripe for our church people and theologians to forge new, mutually beneficial relationships with brothers and sisters abroad,” writes Wilmore thirty years after “Black Theology” began coursing its way through black religious thought and practice, and five years after the 1994 democratic transition in South Africa signaled the end of white minority rule on the African continent.
 African American religion scholars have made progress toward meeting the challenge outlined by Wilmore, including through African American engagement with such initiatives as the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians and the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians; through transnational collaborative research initiatives by scholars such as Dwight Hopkins, Peter Paris, and others; and through international conversations convened by SSBR in places such as Jamaica, Brazil, and Ontario. Yet, black religion scholars are a long way from fully embracing Professor Wilmore’s challenge, especially as it relates to the kind of engagement of public issues and black popular struggles he calls for in his essay.
Read the rest here

Saturday, January 26, 2013

In Obama’s Inauguration Speech, a New American Religion

In the days following President Obama’s inauguration address,commentators across the political spectrum have made much about how it overtly expressed a progressive agenda.
It was not only a politically progressive speech, however, it was a masterwork of progressive theology: a public sermon on the meaning of America, a creedal statement and a call to practice that faith in the world. It was an expression of a genuinely pluralistic America, the first inaugural address of a new sort of American civil spirituality.
President Obama is a Christian but made few, if any, direct appeals to religion during his recent campaign. As president, he has a new historical problem when it comes to speaking of faith. Through the twentieth century, presidents were able to craft a generally religious language that addressed America’s three most influential groups-Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. When President Kennedy delivered his inaugural address, it was considered the best public sermon in this tradition of American civil religion.
But the old civil religion is no longer enough. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the percentage of the Christian population has declined as the number of nones, atheists, agnostics, and those adhering to non-Christian religions increased exponentially. In 2011, according to the Pew Forum, the United States became an officially pluralistic religious country for the first time in its history, with no single faith tradition claiming the allegiance of 50 percent of the population. Overtly Judeo-Christian understandings of God are no longer adequate to address and include all of America’s people. President Obama is the first president who, as a Christian person, has to speak to and for the new communities of American faiths.
Read the rest here

From the Dream to the Mountain Top and Beyond: Martin Luther King and the African American Prophetic Tradition

by Andre E. Johnson
R3 Editor

*This is part of the keynote speech I gave at Viterbo University on King Day, January 21, 2013 

There is a story found in the book of Matthew. It is right at the beginning of chapter 11 in that book and it’s the story of John while in prison wondering if Jesus was the One. You are probably familiar with the story—he sent word by his disciples to ask Jesus this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Now Jesus in Jesus fashion answered John this way, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

Now if that was not crazy enough, Jesus then turned to the crowd gathered and asked, "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” And using this a starting point in our conversation tonight, I came to ask in a similar vein, Why are we here tonight? What did we come out to see? What did we hope to see? In short, why are we celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tonight? Why are we here for this man?

This man, who while living was called the most dangerous man in America by the head of the FBI. This man, who was called everything but a child of God. This man, who was constantly surveyed and spied upon—every phone call, every meeting and just about every time he opened his mouth. This man, who folks called a troublemaker; folks who thought he was a glory hound; folks who called him a socialist, a communist, a rabble-rouser. This man, who if truth be told was not loved by everyone in the Black community. There were many folks within the black church that had problems with this man coming to their towns and starting trouble. So I ask sincerely and seriously, why are we here tonight celebrating the life and legacy of this man? What did we expect to see—what did we expect to hear?

Well many of us are here because this holiday and weekend has turn into a day of service. That’s what we say—that since Dr. King serve, we too must serve, we should all be about serving others. So on this day off, we turn it into a “day on,”—a day of service. Many of us go out and service in our communities doing a host of projects—painting and cleaning, offering food and clothes, helping and assisting others. We do this because we feel that we are honoring the life and legacy of Dr. King.

But then again, some of us in here know that it’s much more than that. Some of us here know that it goes much deeper. So maybe for some of us, we are here because we heard that King was a Civil Rights leader—from the days of the Montgomery boycott to his death. We watch series like “Eyes of the Prize” and we come away with a since of awe of just what it took to achieve some of the rights that many of us take for granted today. So we come here tonight to celebrate the Civil Rights icon.

Maybe we are here because we heard how King was a staunch supporter for worker rights and how we wish we had a powerful voice that could command an audience and move the crowd that talked about the importance and dignity of workers. Maybe we are here because we heard how King was a proponent of non-violence and supporter of the Peace movement. We heard how his non-violence stand eventually led him to come out against the war in Vietnam.

Maybe we are here because we heard that King was first and foremost a preacher—a minister of the gospel and he told that to anybody who would listen. King clearly stated that what I am doing is because of my call and commitment to the gospel that I preach. So again, why are we here?

What I want to suggest tonight is that for whatever reason we are here celebrating this King Day—let us remember that King, for most of his public life, adopted a prophetic persona to house his most stirring oratory. In short, King participated in the prophetic tradition—but more explicitly, the African American prophetic tradition. So whatever we say and think about King and whatever we do in this and subsequent King days, let us remember that King came speaking and preaching in the prophetic tradition, housed within the African American community and given birth out of the black church tradition.

Birth from slavery and shaped in Jim and Jane Crow America, the African American version of the prophetic tradition has been the primary vehicle that has comforted and given voice to many African Americans. Through struggle and sacrifice, this tradition has expressed black people’s call for unity and cooperation as well as the community’s anger and frustrations. It has been both hopeful and pessimistic. It has celebrated the beauty and myth of the American exceptionalism and its special place in the world, while at the same time damning it to hell for not living up to the ideals America espouses. It is a tradition that celebrates God’s hand in history—offering “hallelujahs” for deliverance from slavery and Jim and Jane Crow, while at the same time asking, “Where in the hell is God—during tough and trying times. It is a tradition that develops a theological outlook quite different at times from orthodoxy—one that finds again God very close, but—so far away.

It is this tradition that shaped King. Adopting the prophetic persona of prophetic figures that preceded him—figures such as Richard Allen, Maria Stewart, Frederick Douglass, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Henry McNeal Turner, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, Sojourner Truth and a host of others, King joined the great cloud of witnesses that called folks to the better angels of their natures.

King’s prophetic trajectory also lines up perfectly with the African American prophetic tradition. While we want to freeze King at the Lincoln Memorial dreaming, King soon leaves there and begins a journey of discovery and discernment. King starts as an optimistic visionary believing in the American ideals and that if America would just practice “what you said on paper,” that everything will be all right. However, as time went on and as King saw the massive resistance, both in the South and North—as the economic plight of the poor did not change even though we declared a war on poverty, King begin to become more of a pessimistic prophet—one who abandoned an absolute belief in the inherent goodness of the country to one who began to question the very fabric of America. This deep questioning and reflecting did not make King run away or hide. I suggest it made him stronger. It made him still get up every day and to pronounce that God is still at work—and while we cannot see God or understand what God is doing all the time, nevertheless, God is still here.

So what did you come here to see?? Why are you celebrating King Day? This question became clear to me while sitting in a graduate seminar that focused on the rhetoric of King. Throughout the semester, we traced King’s rhetorical trajectory—starting with his speech he delivered at Holt Street Baptist Church and ending of course with the Mountain Top speech. However, we began to notice a shift in King’s rhetoric around 1965-66. King seemed to shift from the conciliatory “I have a Dream,” to a more, at least for King and some of his supporters, a radical position. Then we got to the Vietnam speech and it really just did not make any sense.

And I remember our professor asking a question out loud, “Why would King make this type of speech?” By asking that question, what our professor attempted to do was to get us to look at the rhetorical situation because in truth, politically and rhetorically, “Beyond Vietnam” did not make any sense. It did not make any sense because to come out against the Vietnam War was to alienate the administration that helped usher in major Civil Rights legislation—to in some estimation, finish the job started in Reconstruction. And even though King had his detractors, he had a groundswell of support and he above all things, loved America—so the question of why King—why change was an appropriate one to ask.

I remember sitting there with all the other students as we tried to answer the question and then all of a sudden I just said, “He was a prophet.” My professor asked me to explain my answer and I said that the prophet is always moving us to do better. In short, while we are celebrating gains and victories and resting on our laurels, the prophet is always discerning; always listening; always seeking the Spirit of God. For King, the next step was economics; because he quickly realized that it does not do any good for folks to sit at lunch counters when they cannot afford the meal. Why are we celebrating King Day? So what did you come hear to see tonight? A prophet—I say yes, a prophet indeed.

A prophet—one who got his start at his kitchen table one night after some deranged man called and threaten his life. A prophet—one who stood up to the powers that be and challenged the consciousness of a nation. A prophet—one who would not rest on his laurels, one who did not stay above the fray, but dwelled in it. A prophet—one who called out the nations sins and offered a nation to repent. A prophet—one who saw the face of God even in his enemies and one who pushed us to see another dream—the dream of the Beloved Community.

And people always ask me, Johnson, how can we achieve King’s dream? And I always answer back, I think it would be good at least to be on the same page when we talk about King’s dream. King’s dream has been hijack by some of the same people who would have been and who were diametrically opposed to what King stood for. When people can claim that by having a gun appreciation day is a good way to celebrate the life and legacy of King, we know we have gotten off track. And if we are not careful, we too can get caught up in all things masquerading as authentic King.

Let us be clear, King’s dream is not about declaring a service day where we go out and fix up and paint. King’s dream isn’t about King Day sales or King day parties. King’s dream isn’t about getting some folks to move up to the “middle class” so we can live in gated communities and forget about our past. King’s dream isn’t about Obama or any other person of color getting into the White House. King dream isn’t about any of that.

But to stand on the side of the dream, is to stand with the poor and marginalized and to see the world from their vantage point. To stand on the side of the dream, is to stand for a livable wage; good decent health care and dignity of and in work. To stand on the side of the dream, is to stand for an inclusive community that does not strip you of who you are, but celebrates the diversity—unity but not uniformity. To stand on the side of the dream, is to stand for non-violence is all forms and to be concern for Newtown and Chi-Town, uptown and downtown, urban and suburban, city and rural, religious and non-religious, gay, straight, PhD to no D, from CEO’s to mopping floors, to stand on the side of the dream, is to stand for and with humanity! That’s what King was doing in his last days. Out of this prophetic pessimism came the answer for King—the Beloved Community.

So I charge us today, to take this day as the starting day of establishing in our communities the Beloved community. A place where all people are invited to sit at the table of sisterhood and brotherhood. A place where people of faith and people of no faith can come and reason together. A place where race is not erased, but seen in all of its complexity and historical context. The goal here is not postracial, but post racist—not to transform race into the ubiquitous melting pot of whiteness, but to transcend race to a point that our racist presuppositions do not override the beauty of our diversity. A place where love abounds and we no longer have to be afraid of the other, but at the table of fellowship, we get to know the other—we recognize the humanity in the other because we see ourselves in the other and for us who claim faith, dare I say, we see God in the other.

That’s our charge, but it is also our hope. May we continue until that day comes.

Thank you

Follow Andre on twitter @aejohnsonphd

Thursday, January 24, 2013

New Survey Finds Increased Support for Better Mental Health Services to Prevent Future Mass Shootings, Stricter Gun Control Laws

Americans are more likely to believe that improving mental health screening and support is the best way to prevent mass shootings, compared to enacting stricter gun laws, putting a greater emphasis on God and morality in school and society, having stricter security at public gatherings, or allowing more private citizens to carry guns, a new survey released today finds.
Three-in-ten (30 percent) Americans say that better mental health screening and support is the best way to prevent mass shootings from occurring in the United States, an eight-point increase from a survey conducted in August 2012 (22 percent). The first part of the January Religion and Politics Tracking Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute, finds increased support for improving mental health services among both Democrats (24 percent in August vs. 31 percent today) and Republicans (17 percent in August vs. 27 percent today).
Over the past six months, which have included shootings in a Connecticut elementary school, a Colorado movie theater and a Wisconsin Sikh temple, the new survey also finds that support for stricter gun laws has increased by eight percentage points, from 52 percent in August 2012 to 60 percent today.
“Few issues are as polarizing as gun control,” said Daniel Cox, PRRI Research Director. “Two-thirds of Republicans oppose stricter gun control laws, while 85 percent of Democrats support it. Yet, over the last few months, we are seeing greater agreement among Republicans and Democrats on the importance of better mental health screening and support as a way to reduce mass shootings.”
The new survey confirms earlier PRRI research demonstrating the complexity of how Americans identify with the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” and the influence these identities have on particular issues.
Read the rest here

When Patriarchy Trumps Theology

by Carol Howard Merritt
R3 Contributor

I picked up the Tribune, and my mouth fell open at the headline on the bottom of the front page. It was 1993 and I was living in Chicago. The paper made an editorial decision to not only report the cold hard facts of the homicides in the city, but to tell at least one story each day exploring the details of the childish accidents, domestic violence, and premeditated revenge. Reading the heart-breaking articles, seeing the innocent faces, and feeling the deep wounds—the stories seemed to pierce the city. The narratives changed me. I had been an Evangelical Christian, a born-again believer, who supported gun laws. But after seeing the harm that they caused every day, I could no longer hold to my political stance.

It’s been twenty years and I haven’t wavered in my position, and each time I read about a new shooting, I become more resolved about gun safety. Scriptures make me long for the day when our “swords would be beaten into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks.” I cannot think of a more beautiful urge--our tools will be used feed one another rather than kill each other. 
Oddly, today Public Religion Research just came out with a report that says that 64% of evangelicals who say “pro-life” describes them very well oppose stricter gun laws.
How can this be? If life is the most important thing in a political and theological belief system, why would you support the death penalty, support wars and oppose gun violence prevention? For many people, the term "pro-life" ought to lead to pacifism, so this system of ideals seems completely perplexing.

One way to understand why this contradictory set of views makes sense in the minds of so many is to remember the nature of patriarchy. A very crude understanding of a patriarchal culture points to a system where a father figure will provide and protect. Others in a family system will give up some of their rights and choice for that provision and protection—or they “submit.”
Many white Evangelicals point to Scriptures that say that the husband is the head of the household, as Christ is the head of the church. In the minds of some, it follows that guns, war, and the death penalty are means of protecting their families.
When an issue like birth control comes up, you might also be confused why some Evangelicals would be against it. With the rise of birth control, women became more educated and they entered the workforce. As a result, women began to increase their agency. They did not need to be protected or provided for in the same ways as they may have in the past. Women were able to divorce a spouse without the fear of not being able to survive.
Christianity has been entangled in patriarchy so much that many believe that it can never be unraveled. Because Evangelicalism was so closely tied to patriarchy, I left the Evangelical movement. Yet, I still identify as “born-again.” Being "born again" reminds me of a Holy Spirit Mother who gives birth. It reminds me of the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit broke the bonds of patriarchy, so that women and girls began to prophesy and see visions. It reminds me of the fact that in Jesus Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. It reminds me of the movement of God, who empowers women to become educated, to provide for their families, and to leave their abusers. And the Spirit gives us the strength to imagine a world in which we pound down our weapons into tools to nourish one another.
Follow Carol on Twitter @carolhoward

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Faith in Values: The President and the Poet

At Monday’s Inauguration ceremony a poet echoed a president, transforming themes of connection and equality into vivid images of color, texture, and sound. Richard Blanco was the perfect choice for inaugural poet, embodying the rich kaleidoscope of our nation’s people. Blanco was conceived in Cuba, born in Spain, and came to the United States when he was two months old. Like President Barack Obama, he grew up negotiating different identities. And like the president, he loves his country.
Blanco read his poem after the president gave his inaugural speech. Although Blanco had written it before he’d heard the speech, his poem was an uncannily close—and beautiful—reflection of the president’s themes.
In the poem’s first lines, Blanco paralleled President Obama’s emphasis on “We, the people”—the notion that we are all connected, even as each of us is unique. “One sun rose over us today,” Blanco began. “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors, each one yawning to life.”
As if in call-and-response, President Obama said, “America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. … we are made for this moment, and we will seize it—so long as we seize it together.
Read the rest here

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Second Inauguration of Barack Obama

Presidential Inaugurations: Celebration of Civil Religion

Civil religion is the folk religion of a nation; in the United States, invocation of religion is expected by Americans at events such as the Presidential inauguration, mention of God in political speeches, and of course an example of civil religion can be found on our money, which asserts "In God We Trust."    God has been invoked during times of war.  The New World Encyclopedia says that "In 1763, Jean-Jacques Rousseau coined the term "civil religion" in his The Social Contract, to describe what he regarded as the moral and spiritual foundation essential for any modern society. In the 1950s and 1960s, scholars studied civil religion as a cultural phenomenon, attempting to identify the actual tenets of civil religion in the United States of America, or to study civil religion as a phenomenon of cultural anthropology."

Dr. Gary Scott Smith says in his op-ed piece of the same title in Penn Live that civil religion binds the nation:
“The knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny,” Barack Obama proclaimed in his first inaugural address, “is the source of our confidence.” Obama also accentuated God’s grace and asked Him to bless the United States. In both campaigning for office and as president, Obama has testified to his personal faith. While he strives to represent and serve all Americans—“Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers”—as he put in his first inaugural address, he has frequently confessed his “faith in Jesus Christ as his savior and Lord.” He used religious language and scriptural quotations to comfort families who lost members at Aurora and Newtown.
Read the rest here


by Crystal St. Marie Lewis

R3 Contributor

I’m taking an interfaith conflict resolution course at my seminary. Tonight, the professor briefly touched on the difficulties experienced by religious people when attempting to solve problems within their own faiths.
During her lecture, a certain student raised her hand to share that in her opinion, one example of internal religious conflict occurred several months ago when Chick-Fil-A’s CEO expressed that he felt the “institution of marriage” should be “protected” by reserving it for heterosexual relationships. She felt the backlash from the public was wrong– and that in our country, religious people who express their opinions on issues of “morality” are often unfairly targeted, unheard or misunderstood.
The professor (whom I actually interpret to be rather liberal) attempted to move on by inviting another student to speak. An older gentleman raised his hand and said that he believes some conflicts require us to “agree to disagree” because that’s the more peaceful thing to do.
Everyone nodded along, but this bothered me. A lot. So I raised my hand.
I explained that in my opinion, there are times when justice requires us to stop “agreeing to disagree”. Inaction and complacency can in themselves become forms of violence. My comments seemed to make the students uncomfortable… After all, the topic of same-sex relationships is one that has been inflammatory in other classroom settings, and is intentionally avoided by the faculty. I think the professors are instructed to stay away from the topic because they scurry like hell to change the subject when it rears its head. The students often avoid it because they’re worried that their comments might cause division.
Read the rest here

Monday, January 21, 2013

Martin Luther King Jr. on Human Solidarity, An Inescapable Network of Mutuality, and the Dangers of Un-interrogated “Whiteness”

by Cynthia Nielsen
R3 Contributor

In Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s essay, “Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” he observes that true peace requires “the presence of some positive force—justice, good will and brotherhood.” In today’s world, this sense of solidarity and concern for the good of others—the poor, the incarcerated, the immigrant, the unemployed, those with little or no access to healthcare and so forth—seems to have diminished significantly.
In contrast, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was animated by a strong sense of human solidarity, believing that as those created in God’s image we belong to one another. In addition, Dr. King’s belief in human solidarity, the inherent dignity of all human beings, and the need to work toward creating a world where all humans can flourish compelled him to action. As we know, he chose the path of non-violent direct action and protest, convinced that this was the path most consonant with his Christian faith. Of course this was not an easy path. He received criticism from black activists as well as white society. His protests even landed him in jail and ultimately cost him his life.
In Dr. King’s famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” he writes, “‘I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.’ Then a few lines later he continues, “[m]oreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
In what  follows I address what critical race theorists and sociologists refer to as white advantage, white privilege, white habitus, or the “invisibility” and normativity of whiteness.  My hope is that by interrogating whiteness we might become aware of and uproot racial prejudices in our own thinking and awaken in ourselves a sense of solidarity and genuine concern for human flourishing for all.
Read the rest here

Them Niggas Got Shot: The Disturbing Idolatry of King & Obama

by Gee Joyner
R3 Contributor

I’m sure I’ll be rhetorically crucified in cyberspace by the American Negro. I am almost positive this text may have an adverse effect on my personal, and. possibly, professional networks and even my occupation. But I must do this. I must write this. I must continue writing this piece in order for me to rid myself, and my constituency of an internal and explicit hypocrisy. A few times a year I travel to scholarly/academic conferences and listen to presentations of the numerous nuances of the ills of the “Black American Community” or the “Black Problem in America” or “What Blacks Need to Do Better” and I get disgusted, fidgety, and begin to feel out of place. Just as out of place as I did when I was in elementary school when I was always the only Black kid in the class, or at recess, and, sometimes, at lunch. The majority, in my opinion, was the other. I guess you could say that I had reverse-xenophobia. 

 I always feel socially uncomfortable with the gullible or those who revel in media interpretations of an event or an individual. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of principles and a man of flaws. Just like Barack Hussein Obama. Except King’s social infidelities are more widely known because of J.Edgar Hoover (i.e. whore mongering, marital infidelities, sexual deviances  if you will—he allegedly patronized prostitutes per Hoover and the late Rev. Ralph Abernathy). Yet, we all must understand, that Obama, just as Dr. King, is and was human. I fear that too many of us laud these men’s secular accomplishments and deem the two to be deities in a sense as it pertains to the Black American struggle and pseudo-triumph over U.S. racist institutions (i.e. social, economical, and political). 

I have been mildly entertained and hugely perturbed by cyber-debates that give analyses as to whether President Obama should be publicly sworn into office on the nation’s reserved federal holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the analogous anecdotes of irony that have inundated Facebook posts and the Twittersphere. Many believe that it is only fitting that the first Black President of the United States is being sworn in on the King holiday and will be sworn in with a bible which once belonged to Dr. King to take the oath. The ironic thing to me is that we, as a very informed and knowledgeable audience, are even comparing the two men. One is a prophet at the least and the other is a politician at best. One dedicated his adult life to the Black Civil Rights Movement, as well as the Poor People’s Movement and the anti-war effort concerning the United States’ involvement and occupancy of Vietnam, and the other is a politician whom, whether it is in his heart or a mere political agenda to sway voters, has fought for women’s and LGBT rights and is a warmonger by default (no U.S. politician can be elected Head of State without a plan for “national security” which is political jargon for U.S. protection via war and the possibility of war).

King’s Lessons Remain Relevant Today

On Monday, our nation will celebrate the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Our community’s celebration will be held at 7 p.m. in Viterbo University’s Fine Arts Center Main Theater. Everyone is welcome, as we invigorate our community spirit through music and fellowship.
Andre Johnson from the Memphis Theological Seminary will deliver the evening’s keynote address — “From a Dream to a Mountain Top and Beyond: Martin Luther King Jr. and the African American Prophetic Tradition.”
Johnson has researched and written about Henry McNeal Turner, who was an author himself, a civil rights activist, 12th bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the first black man to hold the position of chaplain in the U.S. Army.
For 12 years, Turner served as chancellor of Morris Brown University in Atlanta, but when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1866 unconstitutional, he grew increasingly disillusioned by the racial discrimination blacks encountered in the United States.
Later in life, Turner advocated emigration to Africa as black Americans’ best hope for equality.
King’s leadership during the civil rights movement brought white Americans to accept black Americans as equal citizens in society. When King was murdered in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968, he wasn’t there to visit the Theological Seminary where Johnson teaches. Rather King was there to support workers’ demands for human dignity and fair compensation.
Read the rest here

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Tony Peterson
R3 Contributor

First posted on Lifeway

I wasn't aware of Rev. Martin Luther King until he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. I was nine years old. I could tell from the behavior of the adults around me that something horrible had happened. When I asked Dad about it, he said "Dr. King was like the president of the Negro people." 

That explanation satisfied my nine-year-old mind. But when I got older, I realized that Dad had highly oversimplified Martin Luther King's life and message. As the King name has permeated American culture, many have heard or read the "I Have a Dream" speech from 1963's March on Washington. Myths have circulated about King, raising him to icon-like status. Other myths have sought to humanize him and have succeeded only in demonizing him. 

Like many Americans and many Christians, I have wanted to know more about the man. In high school I wrote a research paper on him. In graduate school, 25 years after Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, I took a class on his life and writings. Another 25 years have passed since my graduate school class, and I am sure as ever that he was neither angel nor demon. But I believe he has a message for 21st century Christians. Dr. Martin Luther King's core message was the Gospel proclamation of personal salvation and social restoration. Not only is that message the central core of the man's life and words, it is also the message that most resonates for us today. 

King spoke that message explicitly and candidly in a 1963 sermon titled, "How Should a Christian View Communism?" He chose this sermon topic probably because one of the most persistent myths about Dr. King is that he was a Marxist, or a Communist sympathizer. King wanted to state outright his reasons for opposing Communism. In the process he laid out a blueprint for Christian thinking and living that remains helpful today.
"At the center of the Christian faith is the affirmation that there is a God in the universe who is the ground and essence of all reality. ...[That] reality cannot be explained by matter in motion or the push and pull of economic forces. Christianity affirms that at the heart of reality is a Heart, a loving Father who works through history for the salvation of his children. Man cannot save himself, for man is not the measure of all things and humanity is not God. Bound by the chains of his own sin and finiteness, man needs a Savior."
Today Christians need that zeal to counter other stubborn philosophies, other false promises of good news. Terrorism, commercialism, nationalism, celebrity, hedonism, comfort and unchecked capitalism rival the gospel for control in the world and in our lives. Some of those philosophies are atheistic, some are state-centered rather than God-centered, and some justify any means toward a desired end.

As a final prescription, Dr. King proclaimed:
"We need to pledge ourselves anew to the cause of Christ. We must recapture the spirit of the early church. Wherever the early Christians went, they made a triumphant witness for Christ. Whether on the village streets or in the city jails, they daringly proclaimed the good news of the gospel."

Of course, my Dad was right. Dr. King was an unparalleled leader for African Americans and for their good news of freedom. But he fought for more than racial rights. He fought for freedom, justice, dignity, and hope for all people. And he preached Jesus' gospel message of personal and social transformation.

Quotations from in "How Should a Christian View Communism," recorded in Strength to Love, Harper & Row, 1963. New edition published 2010 by Fortress Press.

Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. - A sermon delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr.on February 28, 1954

Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr. (book)

Tony Dungy: Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Meet Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Civil Rights Movement

On April 9, 1968, Benjamin Elijah Mays had the burdensome honor of delivering a eulogy for Martin Luther King Jr. on the campus of Morehouse College. During that somber moment, the retired college president faced a crowd that stretched as far as the eye could see. They were looking to Mays for words of comfort and inspiration as they tried to comprehend the civil rights leader’s assassination and to summon the courage to continue the struggle.
Over the course of his lengthy career, Mays had eulogized numerous prominent figures within the circles of black colleges and black communities, but King’s eulogy was different in scale. It was to be given before the glaring spotlights and television cameras of the national and international press and would be beamed via satellite to audiences around the world. Before a world audience, he would have to restrain his own angry brokenheartedness. His task was difficult. He had to give tribute, provide comfort, and buoy the struggle for justice.
Mays was also mourning the loss of his spiritual son. King had been his student at Morehouse, which Mays had led as president for 27 years. King had figuratively grown up in the Mayses’ home since the age of 15. For the 13 years of King’s public career, Mays had served as one of his closest confidantes. Lerone Bennett, one of King’s classmates at Morehouse who became senior editor of Ebony magazine, captured Mays’s significance when he called him “the last great school master.” Mays, who defended students’ right to protest and boycott businesses that discriminated, was the most beloved president among those of Atlanta’s historically black colleges, as Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, recalled. According to Edelman, “He inspired and taught and stood by us when we challenged Atlanta’s racial discrimination. Some of his teachings I wrote in my college diary. Others, I internalized, and like many others who heard him frequently, I shared his words with others.”
Mays promoted African Americans’ educational aspirations and helped to define the theological dimensions of the civil rights movement in ways that few other black intellectuals were able to do. Through most of his life, he had worked in the South, led black institutions, and advocated a commitment to social justice among American Protestants. His teachings and example inspired generations of African American students and clergy to develop their intellectual talents and calibrate their ethical compass in order to challenge injustice. But of all that Mays accomplished in his life, he would be remembered primarily as King’s mentor. 
Read the rest here

Spiritual but Not Religious? Not So Fast: Disney, I-Clouds and New Religion

About a year ago I attended an excellent conference on the great American author, Flannery O'Connor, at Loyola University's Water Tower Campus. O'Connor is a colossal figure in American letters -- not only because of her superior literary craftwork, but because she resides in the Holy of Holies in the hierarchy of writers of Catholic fiction. Moreover, O'Connor always inspires deeper thought about what it means means to be "religious" and "spiritual" in the late modern age, a dichotomy that piques the interest of reflective people everywhere.
During one of the breaks at the O'Connor conference, a friend and I took advantage of the fine weather and strolled down Michigan Avenue to take in the sights. News of Steve Jobs's death had hit the wire and we suddenly found ourselves in front of the Apple Store in the midst of nothing less than a religious event. Scores of people gathered in mournful assembly to bear witness to Jobs' passing; hundreds of Post-It notes were bannered on the store windows with messages of farewell, gratitude and other forms of spontaneous prayer. If this was not the death of a god, at least it was one of a prophet of the age. I thought about it again, the insights from the O'Connor scholars effervescing and coalescing with my own ideas about new forms of religion and being religious in an increasingly secular age. Looking at the makeshift shrine on Michigan Avenue, I concluded again: people really are more religious than they give themselves credit for. But who are these new gods, what is this new spirituality, and what is the object of our new belief?
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‘So Help Me God’ -- The Second Inaugural of Barack Obama

On Monday the United States will celebrate one of its great festivals of civil religion as Barack Obama is inaugurated for a second time. Although nothing in the Constitution mandates it (the only things the Constitution specifies are the date and the wording of the oath), the ceremony will include an invocation, a benediction, undoubtedly one or more mentions of God in the inaugural address, and the words “so help me God” as part of the oath of office. These words are often attributed to George Washington (he allegedly added them to his oath in 1789, but no extant contemporary evidence proves that he did). The historical record indicates instead that these words were probably first spoken in 1881 by Chester Arthur when he was sworn in following James Garfield’s death. Of the nation’s 56 inaugural addresses, only Washington’s very brief second one (135 words) does not refer to God. All others have invoked His presence, asked for His blessings, and/or celebrated His relationship with the United States.
In addition, on Tuesday morning President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with numerous dignitaries and Americans of varied faiths, will attend a worship service at the Washington National Cathedral, which will include prayers, scriptural readings, and musical performances. The event is not open to the public, but it will be webcast live.
Why do the inauguration festivities include so many religious components? The basic answer is because of our civil religious traditions and the expectations of Americans. Throughout American history our national magistrates, whatever their private religious beliefs, have been guided by America’s civil religion in performing their official duties. Presidents have extensively employed religious rhetoric in various settings for numerous reasons: to express their deepest convictions, help accomplish their purposes, unite and inspire citizens, provide comfort and consolation, stimulate people to take certain actions, justify the nation’s exploits, and hold citizens and the country accountable to transcendent standards.
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Friday, January 18, 2013

Welcome Our Newest Contributor: Cynthia Nielsen

Cynthia R. Nielsen, Ph.D. is a Catherine of Siena Fellow at Villanova University. Nielsen’s work is highly interdisciplinary in nature and her research interests include ethics, social and political philosophy, critical race theory/philosophy of race, and the philosophy and sociology of music. Her forthcoming/recent publications include: Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue: On Social Construction and Freedom (Palgrave Macmillan March 2013), “Resistance is Not Futile: Frederick Douglass on Panoptic Plantations and the Un-Making of Docile Bodies and Enslaved Souls,” Philosophy and Literature 35.2 (2011): 251–68, “Unearthing Consonances in Foucault’s Account of Greco-Roman Self-Writing and Christian Technologies of the Self,” (forthcoming, Heythrop Journal 2013; online preview), “Resistance Through Re-Narration: Fanon on De-constructing Racialized Subjectivities,” (African Identities: Journal of Economics, Culture, and Society 9:4 (Dec. 2011): 363–85. She also blogs at Per Caritatem and you can follow her on twitter @cynthiaRnielsen.

Contributions by Cynthia:

1. Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. in 2013: On How Not to Sleep Through a Revolution
2. Martin Luther King Jr. on Human Solidarity, An Inescapable Network of Mutuality, and the Dangers of Un-interrogated “Whiteness”