Divided by Faith (and Race…)

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I really do think that every American Christian ought to read Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. This book has been one of the most powerful ones I’ve read so far in seminary. The two authors approach race relations in America through a robust sociological survey. They particularly relate this to how evangelical Christians understand race and form political beliefs.

It is imperative for Christians to look into what people like Emerson and Smith have to say because race problems continue in America, despite abolition, the Civil Rights movement, and other political developments. I think this is pretty obvious considering what has been going on in Ferguson, Missouri with Mike Brown’s death. A colleague of mine recently found out that each year, more African American males will obtain a GED in prison than graduate from college degree. People accuse others of inciting “race wars” and may claim that discrimination is just a thing of the past. Whether we like it or not, race (though socially constructed) continues to play a major role in our society.

Through their actual survey Emerson and Smith find unique answers among white evangelicals. Because of an overwhelming emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, they find that evangelicals are even more so individualistic than the average American. This leads many evangelicals to assume that racism is solely an internal problem rooted in individual human sin. Instead of addressing systematic oppression created by laws and institutions, evangelicals largely see racism as tied to slurs, off-color jokes, and bigotry (to which blacks are equally if not more prone to than whites). The researchers argue that while evaluating individual behavior is an important part of the picture, this group rarely recognizes institutionalized bias. Several survey respondents even articulated feelings of resentment towards certain aspects of black culture and cited a supposed lack of motivation to do anything about their current situation (dubbed the lazy-butt account–i.e. “We have problems because Blacks are just lazy”). Individuality in evangelicalism largely affirms the optimistic, privatized, and libertarian ethos so prevalent in American culture. A transformation of public attitude about the causes and mechanisms of racial bias is necessary in order to fully address this multifaceted issue. Ultimately, the authors argue that generally speaking, the evangelical population fuels the continual racialization of America. Faith actually leads to more and more division.

In Houston, I can only think of a couple of truly multicultural United Methodist churches. This limited number is tragic because of the diversity found in virtually every part of the city. Likewise, Divided by Faith offers us an important analysis of our situation. While Paul’s radical message of equality in Galatians 3:28 tears down constructed boundaries and unites us all as brothers and sisters, the racial social construct is deeply ingrained in us and how we view other human beings, even without us realizing it.

Even more troubling, in my opinion, is the reality that racism is not limited to ethical action. Denying racist presuppositions usually entails claiming that one has not cast verbal or social judgment upon someone of another race (like using the n-word or telling “racist” jokes). Racism is then supposedly avoided through promoting politically correct discourse. If we were to recognize that racism is largely a systematic problem (that does have indeed personal/ethical effects), then we must address the unpleasant reality that one may affirm oppression without even realizing it.

It is important for the church to recognize that we live in a racialized country. I think that one of the most keen observations on this has been the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown campaign on social media. We continually fall short in sharing God’s love to all peoples. Being transformed about race would not only convict us about the places where we are inadequate, but would likewise allow Christ to renew us and to tear down this cycle of violence.

One does not need to abandon “evangelicalism” altogether. When considering how white evangelical Christians view race, I would say a big dose of humility is in order. Many times we are blind to the sinful structures at place in our world. We are all sinful, wounding and hurting others around us. Such propositions are completely in line with evangelical religion. Perhaps we’ve allowed our individualism to blind us to the oppression faced by black brothers and sisters in Christ.

Martin Luther King Jr. once called Sunday morning 11:00am “the most segregated hour in Christian America.” Are King’s words still true today? In many ways, I would say yes. What can we as a church do to fix this?

I know what you don’t believe about the #Bible…. What DO you believe?

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Billy McMahon:

Some great thoughts about how we approach the bible. It is incredibly easy to live out a reactionary sort of faith where you define yourself against something or someone. I think Watson offers a solid Methodist perspective on biblical affirmations.

Originally posted on David F. Watson:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with mainline Protestants over the years, it’s that we’re really good at identifying what we don’t believe about scripture. Basically, the claim I have heard over and over again is that we don’t read it the way “fundamentalists” read it. Okay…. Fair enough. That, however, is a very uninteresting statement. It’s much rarer, and more difficult, to describe positively and specifically how we think scripture functions.

To be fair, some people have tried to do this. N. T. Wright, Marcus Borg, and Adam Hamilton, for example, haveall offered positive proposals about the inspiration and authority of scripture. There is an excellent book by Christopher Bryan on the subject called, And God Spoke: The Authority of the Bible for the Church Today. (Please note: by referring to “positive proposals,” I’m not saying that I necessarily think they are right, but that such proposals involve affirmations, rather…

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Humility Before God’s Throne

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David Sipress – The New Yorker

I had this thought the other night. It actually kept me up for a couple of hours thinking about it.

Imagine you are standing before God in heaven’s throne room. Maybe you’ve died. Or maybe this is just a funky near-death experience that you could make millions off of by writing a book after you wake up.

You and God do an inventory of your life. One by one, God looks at your beliefs and actions. God takes note of what you “got right” and where you might have been misguided. Some things seem trivial–maybe we humans got quantum physics all wrong. But other things might be more serious. Some places you were just flat-out wrong about some extremely important ethical or theological issues.

How would you react to this sort of divine learning experience? Would you be quick to abandon all of the wrongs? Or would it be a bit more difficult?

We’re all confident about a lot of things. We often worship the idol of certainty. I cling to a lot of things, too. To speak for myself:

  • I’m confident that God has called me to work in outreach and to incorporate that into whatever ministry I have in the future.
  • I’m confident in my Arminian theology. I’m entirely sold on it. God, acting in sovereignty and grace, grants us free will to chose.
  • I’m confident in my egalitarianism regarding gender roles. From seeing female clergy as a necessity to being comfortable with my wife potentially being the breadwinner, I believe that we are all called and gifted by God, regardless of gender.
  • I’m confident that Scripture beckons us to be near to those who are oppressed and suffering. I resonate with liberation theology.
  • I’m confident in my views on pacifism. I believe that the most faithful expression of a life with Jesus involves non-violence.
  • I’m confident that the Wesleyan tradition can revive Christianity in our modern world. Same with Anabaptism, too.

This is not to say that everything we might chose to believe is utterly lost. For instance, I believe my confidence in God’s calling is obviously rooted in divine revelation and experience–a sort of direct message from God. On the other hand, however, being confident that this or that political party is what Jesus would have wanted is a bit of a stretch.

We read that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble in several places throughout our bible. This doesn’t simply mean abstaining from a boastful attitude. I believe it also related to how we chose to belief things and how we interact with other people who may disagree. Epistemic humility is something that we all could work on.

William Friend McMahon is my fifth great grandfather, living from 1776 to 1862. Here is an interesting passage about his conversion from the autobiography of William Stevenson, one of the pioneers of Methodism in Arkansas and Texas.

At length we arrived in the settlement where my brother lived, but did not reach his home before night, but stayed at the house of Mr. [Friend] McMahon, who had once been a member of the Baptist Church in Kentucky. He had greatly backslidden. At the moment, I was introduced to him by my brother, he looked wild and somewhat surprised, and said within himself, Is it possible that God has sent a preacher among us? This I learned of him afterwards. He was kind, fed us and our horses, and his wife also received us cheerfully. All soon became acquainted, conversation free and social; but turning on the subject of religion, he appeared not rightly to understand the gift that had come upon all men unto justification of life. After hearing the word of God read on those points, I saw joy spring up in his eyes; for he had been for several years nearly in despair, and truly it is good news to hear that Christ died for all. Night came on, we proposed to have prayer; all was right and when we knelt to pray, I felt like God was near, for Mr. McMahon cried aloud for mercy; his wife wept, and some of his children, the oldest in particular. Here the work began in this family; they were evidently the first fruits of my labors in that part called the state of Arkansas.

Reforming a Nation

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John Wesley’s political views are documented among pamphlets, sermons, and the works of biographers, but they are not necessarily as well-known as other aspects of his life. Perhaps the most concise summary of early Methodism was to reform the nation, the church, and to spread scriptural holiness. This mission, I believe, is deeply political.

So, what is the best way to reform a nation?

In some general comments on Wesley’s ethics, John Lunn notes that:

In most cases, Wesley appealed to people, either individually or as members of groups, to act out of love for God and for neighbor. He did not urge structural changes in either society or government, and usually did not urge passage of specific legislation… Wesley believed government authority was derived from God rather than from the people, so he supported the constitutional monarchy of Eighteenth Century England. While he was a strong advocate for the poor, he refused to align himself with many of the political reformers of the day. An important exception to this emphasized [in the book John Wesley's Social Ethics]  involves the issue of slavery. Wesley supported the efforts of Wilberforce and other anti-slavery leaders. In general, though, Wesley relied on the efforts of individuals as organized in societies and on the art of persuasion and exhortation to effect change.

I’ve heard it argued that Wesley did not view the government as the keeper of morality, which is something that would be hard to grasp for any contemporary mainstream political party. Even though he personally supported the English monarchy, this was not his central focus for ethics. Instead, the church must act as a holy witness to the world. This is obviously where Anabaptists find great resonance with the Wesleyan tradition. Ecclesiology, or how we formulate the politic of the church, is absolutely crucial for how we Christians live and act in the world. Reforming the nation comes through the work of Christians with strangely warmed hearts, doing odd things like visiting the imprisoned, protesting industrialism, and caring for widows.

A classic question of political theory is how to explain societal ailments. More often than not, this question is answered with an either/or framework: either individuals are at fault, or broken social systems cause the problems. Generally speaking, ideological conservatives will focus on the individual while ideological liberals will focus on the system. Arguments such as welfare just gives a free handout to lazy people and the like fit into these very neat propositions. Laws, reforms, and/or structures are central, depending on where you stand.

I would say that most American Christians hold a trickle-down approach to social ethics that is intertwined with democracy. From the top of our government comes order and good. Either craft an indestructible system or elect highly moral individuals and you will have your problems fixed. Either give tax incentives for this or vote for laws that prohibit that, and true progress will supposedly come.

But Wesleyan theology has long been recognized as a theology for the common, plain person. It was (and hopefully continues to be) a grassroots effort rooted in the conversion experience and witness of laity. Because of his focus on personal and communal acts as a means to transform society, I see Wesley as advocating for a ground-up approach to social ethics. In empowering others to act in neighbor-love, God’s Spirit changes the world around us. The answer comes not from creating righteous individuals or agencies through human-made efforts. Peace and reconciliation spring forth from the ground of the body of Christ.

What does all of this mean given what has been going on this week?

Protests continue to happen across the country over unaccompanied minors at our nation’s borders. Palestinian and Israeli blood continues to flow in an ever-mounting conflict fueled by billions of dollars of firepower and complex social, religious, and historical dynamics. Our world is a mess.

The message we send as a church regarding these conflicts matters. Our witness could lead to the reformation of our world. Will that message be that of the sword? Or will it be of compassion?

A Sexist Gospel?

In the Women’s Bible Commentary, Jane Schaberg argues that Luke is dangerous because of its portrayal of women. Here’s a brief except from this commentary:

The Gospel of Luke is an extremely dangerous text, perhaps the most dangerous in the Bible. Because it contains a great deal of material about women that is found nowhere else in the Gospel, many readers insist that the author is enhancing or promoting the status of women… The danger lies in the subtle artistic power of the story to seduce the reader into uncritical acceptance of it as simple history, and into acceptance of depicted gender roles as divinely ordained.

St. David’s Episcopal Church stained glass (James Mcgahey)

While it seems as though Luke tells of a radically egalitarian community, Schaberg posits that this is not the case once considering the details of the narrative. Ultimately, men play the most integral roles in the storyline. Disciples such as Peter are well-developed and named. The twelve male disciples are key characters to the gospel. Furthermore, the entire Acts narrative is largely oriented towards the activities and journeys of (male) characters like Paul and the apostles throughout the Mediterranean world.

On the other hand, women are supposedly cast off as secondary and minor characters. For example, while women are included among Jesus’ followers in Luke 8, they are not given names or identities. It appears as though Luke-Acts itself actually affirms the patriarchal system in which it was written in. While women may become followers of Jesus, they are essentially secondary beings and ultimately insignificant in comparison to their male counterparts. Schaberg asserts that women in Luke are praised for being submissive and quiet. In other words, while a “quick reading” of the narrative appears to affirm the dignity and role of women in the mission of Jesus, at closer inspection do more oppressive elements surface.

This charade of egalitarianism carries dire consequences for contemporary times. If this understanding is to be taken as normative, then women today must be nameless, secondary, and even submissive in contrast to the superiority of men. Likewise, Luke is indeed dangerous in that such interpretations may be used to systematically discriminate women.

Schaberg’s argument is quite similar to two other feminist scholars, Esther Fuchs and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Fuchs examines how women have been portrayed in the Hebrew bible and ultimately argues that there is a systematic erasure of women. Instead of receiving commendation for their acts of prophecy and heroism (as Moses, Isaiah, and the like receive), the roles of people like Deborah and Miriam are essentially minimized. While Fuchs does not deal with Christian texts in her erasure argument, this directly correlates to the situation and depiction of women in Luke. Additionally, Schüssler Fiorenza, focusing in on early church history, approaches texts through a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” This is especially helpful when considering how patriarchal cultures portray women in their sacred texts. Likewise, there must be a cautionary hesitation on part of the reader when studying a narrative such as Luke-Acts. The supposed message of equality does not necessary result in proper praxis. Instead of unquestionably assuming an egalitarian ideal, Schaberg and other feminist scholars are more critical of this matter. Luke may potentially prove dangerous to contemporary readers with its submissive and silenced depiction of the second sex.

I somewhat agree with Schaberg in her criticism, though her argument must meet further qualification for my support. My partial criticism is twofold:

  • I would like to note that this issue must be considered a significant hermeneutical matter. In other words, criticism of this gospel in-and-of-itself is groundless. This is because texts are inherently flexible. Readers must form interpretation and craft meaning once encountering scripture. Authorial intent and the “real Jesus” or the “real Luke” are ambiguous matters. I think Schaberg constructs a sort of dummy-argument by attacking the abstract essence of “Luke.”
  • This text contains its own historical context. The way in which Schaberg criticizes the nature of the Lukan narrative is cause for hesitation. Holding texts and other cultures accountable to our contemporary westernized understanding of liberal egalitarianism fails to recognize that history and culture are both evolving processes. While some readings of Luke may appear to us modern day readers as potentially sexist, I argue that Luke would read quite differently given a less egalitarian era. Historical insight into the text does prove valuable in this critical issues. In sum, with characters such as Mary, Elizabeth, and Anna, Luke may have actually been one of the most radical messages for its time. One must also beware of a “hermeneutics of paranoia” in this manner.

Once considering my initial hesitation, I would argue that certain interpretations of Luke can be dangerous. While this revised statement is similar to Schaberg’s argumentation, these qualifications are necessary. The danger lies not in Luke itself, but with where our hermeneutics may take us–could this be used to advance complementarianism, or is Luke liberative?

Personally, I have found the Gospel of Luke to be highly profound, from the traditional focus of Jesus as healer to its truly revolutionary message. Schaberg’s arguments are worth considering, but I do believe that this gospel is a bit more radical than most people expect.

Naive Christianity

This coming Sunday morning, millions of prayers and words of praise will be offered up in worship services. The sacramental church will recite Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. The Baptist church will thank God for atoning us through the blood of Christ. The charismatic church will proclaim the powerful, transforming presence of the Spirit in our world.

Words have incredible power. For example, calling a spouse beautiful affirms that individual’s worth. In this sense, naming things creates meaning for our lives. Words create, mend, and sustain our relationships with others. The opposite is true: calling someone worthless can fracture entire worlds and persons. Instead of developing a connection with someone, we can become distant and detached.

More specifically with Christian belief, this word-deed relationship is crucial for how we relate to and experience God and world. Anabaptist theology is particularly profound in this manner–namely that because Jesus lived the way of love, we in the here-and-now are to embrace non-violence in all that we do. Praying in the name of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, in my opinion, carries dynamic potential as God begins to shape our lives and actions to look like Jesus. Words are formative, even if they are indeed “abstract.”

But I recognize that this is oftentimes not the case for Christianity. We who pray in Jesus’ name will leave the church service to return our “real-world” lives. Sure, hymns or praise songs provide personalized comfort, but faith is commonly limited to the pews, a Christian radio station, or a daily devotional done by ourselves. We water down the thy kingdom come of the Lord’s prayer, especially considering that right now, tens of thousands of vulnerable children from Latin American countries are caught up in a border crisis, bearing the brunt of political games and apathy.

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There’s a massive disconnect between what may be spoken in the sanctuary on Sunday morning and what we see in our broken world. Whether using the Church as a crutch or simply wanting to distance ourselves from the bad events of the world, naivety can wiggle its way into our thinking.

Lee C. Camp shares this powerful story in Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World:

One winter in the early 1970s, nearing Christmas, my father-in-law was working as a reporter for WSM television in Nashville. Having just completed a story at the state capitol building, he heard a call on his scanner: a “10-52-64,” the “10-52,” he told me, indicating someone had been shot, and the “10-64″ indicating someone was dead. The location of the scene of the apparent crime was but a few miles away, in a public housing complex, where the police had discovered an elderly man dead in his apartment. But as they began to investigate, it turned out that the original suspicion was all wrong. There had been no shooting. Instead, the man did not have electricity, and so had frozen to death. What had originally been thought to be a gun wound was no gun wound at all, but the wound from a rat gnawing on the old man’s body. As my father-in-law exited the apartment complex, he happened to see the glow emitted from a sign, perched for the Christmas holidays atop one of Nashville’s high-rises, announcing “Peace on Earth.”

Such an event serves as a parable for a compartmentalized grace: the heartwarming religious message, “peace on earth,” that somehow never gets connected to the real world of a poverty-stricken old man.

Peace on earth. Jesus is risen. Christ died for you sins. O Lord, make haste to help us. God loves you.

How do these proclamations relate to the poverty-stricken old man? How do they relate to the illegal immigrant fleeing from violence and instability?

Given the reality that we worship a savior who suffered, I think they relate in an inseparable way. These aren’t just words. God can awaken us and shape us to see them become reality, or on earth as it is in heaven, as someone once said.