Sacred and Profane Power in the Church

Is there still power in the pew?

One of the most disturbing aspects of the accusations (indeed, they are just that as of now – ACCUSATIONS) against Bishop Eddie Long is the claim that he used religious ceremonies to coerce and convince his alleged victims to perform and participate in sexual activities.  Understandably, I’ve read certain commentaries that point out that Bishop Long is not the first Ecclesial Leader to abuse his power (the Catholic church is the most outstanding (counter-)example). Still the idea that long may have used pseudo-sacrements in route to violating the bodies and minds of these men (and simultaneously violating the body Christ) is both terrifying and infuriating. The old cliche-question: Is nothing sacred? comes immediately to mind.

Recently, an interesting dialog regarding the status and role of the black church has raised questions about the moral and political role/memory of the institution that was born and developed in slavery. At the same time, the Catholic church continues to reel in a seemingly ubiquitous sex scandal. How can we as Christians make sense of these occurrences without trekking out marginally helpful arguments regarding the imperfection of human nature? Eventually, we have to do something about the religious structures that harbor such a strong potential for these types of sexual improprieties.

The alleged use of religious ceremonies in the sexual abuse of the young men who have come forward lead me to wonder when/if the black church in particular and Christian churches in general will begin to rethink some of its ecclesial structure, traditions, and notions of power in the name of caring for and honoring the bodies of congregants (as well as the body of Christ). It seems to me that as long as we retain ecclesial structures and traditions in which the Pastor is unquestionable and untouchable while simultaneously overtly and covertly supporting the pastor’s power to question and touch whoever he/she (but certainly predominately HE) wants the church will remain morally and politically paralyzed.

My intention is not simply to blame black church members (or church members in general), but to recall the power that is in the pew. I remember being at a Black Religious Scholars gathering a few years back when a woman in the audience asked theologian James Cone how to approach the problem of sexism in churches. Cone’s response to the woman was to stop going to church! Now, I’m not saying that we should do away with church gatherings (I have friends who are wonderful Pastors and have worked to implement some of the structural changes I’m pointing towards). Indeed, community is an essential part of the Christian life, and in our overworked society, church can still help to maintain strong communities. I’m also not plugging for the Emergent Church movement, which has limitations of its own. I do, however, think that the reevaluation of traditional ecclesial power structures has a strong possibility of leading to reassessments of the social and political role of churches in general…but what do you think???

Rethinking the theological ethics of burning Qurans

Pastor Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach has made headlines over the last week due to his plans to lead “International Burn a Koran Day” at his Florida church. I’ve been a part of quite a few dialogs over the last few days that consider the ramifications of Pastor Jones’ plans and for the most part, folks have agreed on two things. First, that the idea of burning a Quran to make a statement against “Extremist Muslims” is just a bad idea. Second, that the idea of burning a Quran to make a statement against so-called “Extreme Muslims” represents a particular form of Christianity – one that is not new.

I’ve been thinking some about the second point. It is no secret that the history of Christianity in the Western world is, in large part (and there are important exceptions!), a history of imperialism. That is, a history of violently forcing a religion, culture, language, and worldview upon “discovered” people. Whether or not one has studied this history, many of us know of this tragic fact (the fact of Christian imperialism) through cultural memory. That is, through the ways we recall our coming to be as a society and peoples. We all know that Native Americans experienced near-genocide through colonization, we know that Africans were enslaved and dehumanized through colonization, and we also know that we, as U.S. citizens, inhabit the lands on which these atrocities occurred. We know all of these things.

The challenge is to raise questions like: what does it mean that the United States was born not only of a Revolution against imperial power, but also through the implementation and continuation of that power onto and into the lives of those deemed as something less than human? To do this as Christians who reside in the United States is to stare hypocrisy and tragedy in the face as we work out our faiths. Furthermore, it seems that Pastor Jones’ plans have occasioned the opportunity to raise this and other questions.

I can’t help but compare the burning of Qurans to the burning of crosses. Some will quickly say, “Wait! Aren’t you being a bit extreme?!” I don’t think so. The proposed (and there is still time for Pastor Jones to change his mind!!! pray for him!!! remember that he two was created in the image of God!) burning of Qurans is the mutating of a religious symbol in the name of letting a group know that “we” will not put up with “their” way of life violating “our” way of life. This seems to me to be PRECISELY what the burning of crosses was: the mutating of a religious symbol in the name of letting a group know that “we” (the nature of this “we” may have shifted some in our contemporary example) will not put up with “their” way of life violating “our” way of life!

Pastor Jones wants to show extremist Muslims that America, especially American Christians (though I wouldn’t be surprised if Pastor Jones were to wrongly argue that America is a Christian nation and thus that American and Christian are, ideally, synonymous), will not back down from the terrorizing practices of extreme Islam. Racist whites wanted (and want – lest we mistakenly believe that racism and the burning of crosses is a thing of the past) to show blacks, as well as other terrorized racial and ethnic minorities, that the white supremacist culture that drew deep and clear lines between whites and non-whites could not and would not be transgressed. Both practices emerge from a type of theo-logic, a rationalizing of God, that begets tragic ethics.

Opposition to Jones’ plans need to go beyond merely disagreeing with his plans. We should also think deeply about what type of religious consciousness leads to this type of action; the type of action that “burns” foreign perspectives before ever gaining familiarity with them. Historically, the burning of crosses is closely knit to the burning of bodies. And more generally, violent ways of thinking about God often lead to violent actions against people who hold different belief systems. It is difficult to be vulnerable and to dare to commune with those different from you. But this is the perspective we need to exalt, one that is open to communing with and learning from perspectives different than our own. Undoubtedly our communion partners will learn from us as well, and this is the best of what it means to be  a Christian: to be open to the possibility not only of changing someone else, but of being changed in turn.

Well, that’s what I think anyway. What about you?

History, Tragedy, and the Cultural Construction of Hope; or Movie Night with a PhD Student

Remember a while back, around Christmas and the start of the new year when I said I was gonna write often and regularly and stuff like that??? Well you see, what had happened was… 🙂 To borrow from my friend Josef Sorett, I’ve become quite the “back-sliddin’ blogger.” Anyway, I’m back! (For now…)

My fiance and I recently watched a movie called “Before I Say I Do.” It was a romantic comedy about a guy (George) whose fiance (Jane) gets cold feet and leaves him because of her fears stemming from a previously failed marriage. (I know what you’re thinking: “What’s romantic or comical about THAT?”) In a late night effort to get Jane back, George runs a yellow light and, following a light-running custom, makes a wish as he belatedly enters the intersection. Heartbroken, he wishes that he had met his fiance before she had married for the first. As he goes through the intersection he gets t-boned by another car (Hold on, there IS romance. I promise! :)).

When George comes-to, his wish has been fulfilled and he has traversed time, traveling from the year 2009 back to 1999. Graced with the opportunity to save the love of his life from a marriage that will ruin his chances of marrying her, George plots and plans and eventually helps Jane to see her current/past fiance, Doug, the dirt-bag that he really is/was. He successfully stops Jane from marrying Doug and George and Jane live happily ever after.

My fiance was gracious enough to allow me to ruin a perfectly good romance movie with a reflection about tragedy, history, and hope (ahhh, the joys of being in relationship with a PhD student :)). I got to thinking about our society’s persistent and determined efforts to evade the reality of tragedy, by manipulating history, and subsequently hope. The movie, for all its romance and wedding bliss (I’m NOT trying to be a killjoy. Really, I’m not!), mimicked our society’s attempt to evade the reality of the tragic by manipulating the past and producing unrealistic hope.

Take for example, the contemporary fact that 1 out of 3 black men are bound to the criminal justice system. It is NOT the case that 1 of every 3 black men is IN PRISON. It is however, true that 1 of every 3 black men is either in prison, on parole or on probation. Add to this the fact that the overwhelming majority of black men are imprisoned on drug related crimes which are considered felonies, and are then labeled felons by a society which discriminates against felons in hiring practices and denies felons the ability to vote, receive food stamps, and act as a member of a jury (hence part of the difficulty of “finding” black jurors for the black accused), and you have what Michelle Alexander refers to in her new and important book as The New Jim Crow. Mass incarceration has replaced de jure segregation as the new systemic method through which blacks, especially black men, are locked out of mainstream society.

The tricky aspect of this new form of segregation is that it is enacted devoid of the nasty overt racist language that we’ve come to associate with southern racism, especially Eugene “Bull” Connor and his cronies. Yet the effects are just as, if not MORE, devastating. Instead of “nigger” or “coon” law enforcement has gotten tough on crime in the War Against Drugs, and black men are the most oft convicted criminals (this despite the fact that black men are LESS likely than white men to use or sell drugs). This new, nicer form of discrimination falls right in line with popular historiographic accounts of Civil Rights Movement as the rapture of this world from racism. In reality, black America is WORSE off in many areas of social and economic life than it was before the CRM. It can, however, be extremely difficult to make tangible sense of this tragic social reality given the historical narrative which equates the absence of (as many) burning crosses with the end of racism.

In essence, romanticized American history travels back into the past and teaches us that Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination somehow ushered in a new and better social order. Theologically, this rendering functions as twisted Christology: in the same way that Jesus HAD TO DIE for our sins to be forgiven, King HAD TO DIE in order for America to have new racial and ethnic life. As a Christian, I believe in the saving power of birth, death, life, and resurrection (always interpreted together!) of Jesus. However, also as a Christian, I believe that to worship Jesus’ death ALONE can lead to a masochistic brand of religion that demands innocent blood in the name of salvific work. This just ain’t good. Hence, history and historiography (i.e. – the study of the way history has been written and interpreted) , as J. Kameron Carter has argued, bears tremendous theological importance. The way that we interpret the past will have deep and lasting consequences for how we orient ourselves to the present, as well as for how we construct our hope for the future.

Now, I’m not saying that we ought to celebrate tragedy – this would be to double-back on the Christological claims I made above about the importance of remembering ALL of who Jesus was and is. I am however arguing that tragedy, as terrible and horrific as it is, is a part of our REAL lives. It is a part of our social, political, and economic lives, and so it ought to be a part of our religious and theological lives. In other words, the reality of tragedy ought to be something that we pray on and meditate. The reality of tragedy helps us to understand why Paul challenged us to work out our faith in fear and trembling; the reality of tragedy is seen clearly in the cry of dereliction from the cross (“Father, Father, why hast thou forsaken me?!”);  it seen clearly in the masses of black and brown bodies that are continually jammed into prison cells; and it is seen in religious intolerance that would rather kill than learn.

I love happy and romantic endings just as much as the next person; and I believe that God’s justice, grace, and love will have the final say. However, when our desire for happy endings lead us to attempt to usher in the eschaton (God’s final judgment) for ourselves, happy and romantic endings become/remain impossible. What would it look like to dare to attempt to live in such a way that our faith helps us to stare the tragic in the face? Not to traverse time and space in order to avoid the tragic, but to actually believe that there is something else on the other side of this social order on this earth (as it is in heaven!). To actually believe that there is a way out of a racism dominated society and culture into a different way of being?

Martin and Malcolm and America and Lattes

This quarter I am TAing (which means I am the teacher’s assistant) in class being taught by my adviser Miguel De La Torre called “Ethical Analysis and Advocacy.” (I have taken A LOT from the experience of being on the teaching side of things in this particular class and am still processing lessons learned en route to constructing my own pedagogy. More on this in a different blog). In a couple of weeks we are reading James Cone’s very important book Martin and Malcolm and America (Orbis, 1991). I read this book for the first time just as I was beginning my first semester at Union Theological Seminary in the fall of 2005. It left an incredible mark on me and certainly played a major role in framing my earliest experiences living in Harlem (now, through the ongoing process of gentrification, the section of Harlem in which I reside is called “Morningside Heights.” I guess its easier to convince potential Columbia students to attend when you are telling them that they will be living in Morningside Heights instead of Harlem…again, for another blog).

This past weekend I was blessed with the opportunity to fly back to New York City and surprise my fiance for her birthday (which falls on Valentine’s day). After church on Sunday, we were walking through Harlem, I was thinking about Martin and Malcolm, and we came upon the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. (125th St.) and Malcom X Avenue. There, right on the corner where these two passageways named after two historical and ethical giants meet; right there on the corner where the American Dream meets the American nightmare and the God of whiteness meets the God of Black self-love, right there, rests a Starbucks. I couldn’t help but chuckle a painful chuckle.

Yet at this point, where I laugh to keep other emotions at bay, is where we need to raise many complex questions. The locale of this Starbucks is more than just an ironic business move (though it is certainly this), it is also (I want to argue) a symbol, perhaps a reflection, of the contentious space that is blackness in the post Civil-Rights era. After King’s Dream and Malcolm’s nightmare worked together to tell America about itself (Cone’s work does a brilliant job of making this case), we now live in a world in which a minority of the U.S. black population has access to social and economic power in historic ways. Yet black folk (along with racial and ethnic minorities of other shades and poor whites) are socially and economically marginalized as they have never been before. This certainly is not what the cry of “Black Power!” aimed for…was it?

How do we situate the historical relevance of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements within this space? When it seems sociologically, politically, and economically, that King, Malcolm and countless others gave their lives for freedom that now amounts to a latte, what history counters this narrative? And, what kind of social and political movements might we be able to build out of these counter-histories?

The God that empowered Martin and Malcolm to display courage that I still find unimaginable seems far from us now. The dream of a beloved community, the nightmare of what occurs when the possibility for community is suffocated, both seem to be concealed within the racialized logic of capitalist gain. I’m trying to pray, think, and live my way into a different reality…

As always, I appreciate constructive criticism, thinkers and books that I mind find helpful, inspirational music, or whatever else you all might have to give me out of love.

The Politics of Possibility

...the birth of possibility...

Merry Christmas! I’ve been thinking about the phrase “the politics of possibility” for a little while now. In terms of my academic endeavors, I have been thinking through how self-understandings – produced as they are by the socially and politically saturated stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our communities – come to infuse our beliefs (and subsequently the actions we are willing or unwilling to take in relationship to these beliefs) in what is possible in the future. Take, for example, the issue that has concerned me, racial understandings of the self (by the way, theologian J. Kameron Carter has written a powerful book on the concept of race and its modern furnishings that has done a lot to form my thinking on this issue. Definitely worth the read for anyone interested in theology, race, or the church. Warning: it is NOT a light read.) Race has undoubtedly played a central and pivotal role in the development of the U.S. (indeed, the world!). I know that I grew up with all kinds of socially and politically charged stories about why I could trust certain shades of pigmentation more than others. And while I can testify all too well to the persistence of individual AND systemic racism (how do we ever separate the two?), I have also learned that skin color, ethnicity, or economic background is no guarantee that I will agree or disagree with another person about politics, economics, religion, or any of the other topics we use to talk about God.

On a more personal level, I got engaged the day before Thanksgiving, and have therefore been thinking very deeply about how possibility is formed and circumscribed by the nature of our social and political system. For example, ideally, two people get married because they love each other and can garner enough support from their community to support the beautiful yet terrifying covenant of marriage.  The couple comes together and walks into the mystery that is the future with faith that their God and their community will corroborate in such a way that, through the Holy Spirit, they will be encouraged to remember the promises that they’ve made to each other – especially when times get rough. However, our society places all kinds of hurdles in the way of this “idealistic” rendering of marriage. “Realistically,” a couple must consider health insurance, salary, the possibility of “unplanned” pregnancy, and a host of other things that require an economic response. It is inside of these possibilities that many modern marriages are forged; and within these possibilities faith, hope, and love become things that can be purchased. (Just note the popularity of the Prosperity Gospel in this regard. By the way, another book nod comes to mind here. Jonathan Walton has written a great book on the Televangelism in the black community titled “Watch This!: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism. Definitely a worthy read.) Perhaps it is no wonder that the divorce rate is so high in our country.

Reinhold Niebuhr (whom many consider the most formidable theologian of the 20th century; he is also President Obama’s favorite Philosopher) built a career in what he called Christian Realism. Niebuhr believed, among other things, that people are more likely to make just decisions on an individual basis than they are as a part of groups (i.e., organizations, military, or countries.) For Niebuhr, the places where virtues such as love and justice are given priority (and sadly, history seems to have proven him right in most cases) are in relationships between individuals. Niebuhr’s social analysis says that history tells us what will most likely happen when groups, and especially countries, differ in opinion on what ought to happen at a given moment: war. Yet Niebuhr also said something else (and this is why I appreciate him so much). He said that Christians should never allow what history tells us is most probable to finally determine our present action. Indeed, popular misrepresentations of Niebuhr usually leave this part out.  To be fair to Neibuhr’s critics, Reinhold’s view of human nature was never optimistic. In the tradition of Augustine, he saw humanity as ultimately depraved without the help of God and believed that the loving justice of God was a reality that would come at the end of history.

This is the point at which I find myself sympathizing and even agreeing with Niebuhr’s critics: as Christians, we place our faith in a God who broke into history and changed the politics of possibility forever. Don’t we (after all, it is Christmas!) believed that God’s love has been seen most clearly in human form, in Jesus Christ? Isn’t the incarnation of God into human flesh the beginning of our hope that life, indeed history itself, might be different after all. The birth of Jesus is a rearticulation of God’s good and saving creation, it is the point at which we are profoundly reminded of how much we are loved, and therefore of how much is possible – radically possible!

Perhaps, it is just my youthful exuberance, but life seems more much worth living when the politics of possibility are determined in light of the impossible cracks through which love and justice have broken into history as opposed to the dominating narrative of war, oppression, and undue death. Love seems so much more of a real possibility when, in the face of what much of history has been, I can recall those marginalized stories of hope and persistence. When the terms of possibility are established by the seemingly impossible in history (behold: unto us a child is born!) and not merely by what is “realistic,” the future becomes a canvas on which we can and should carefully craft a work of loving hope. When the politics possibility trick us into believing that the future is already painted for us, then life loses its excitement and eventually its meaning, and nihilism (i.e. – the destruction of the self and the community in light of seeming meaninglessness) is never too far away.

Lets remember the important insight in realism – after all, we ought to never forget history, it is far too important – but let us also live lives  so packed with faith in the Impossible that our lives craft new foundations for new possibilities…

“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

…ahhh, the politics of possibility. How powerful they can be when grounded in the birth of Hope!

Hello world!

Merry Christmas, folks! I hope the Advent season has filled you with a powerful spirit of anticipation! As of right now, I have a few resolutions that I am hoping to bring into the new year. First, I’m hoping to establish better sleeping habits. I’m thinking between 7-9 hours a night at the least. Anyone who has ever been a PhD student will understand just how daunting of a task this will be. Nonetheless, in the name of health, sanity, and happiness, I’m gonna give it a whirl. Second, I’m gonna try to be 15 minutes early for most of my social functions, classes and meetings. I’ve been late to things WAY too often. Lastly (at least for now), I’m gonna try to keep a regular blog. I’ll try to get something up here at least weekly.

I have no idea what will end up here, but hopefully good (i.e., fruitful and critical) dialog will somehow spring forth. For now, I’d better get to keeping that first aspect of my resolution. Goodnight!