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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dan Schweissing pointed me to an excellent remark on pop theology at a blog called Mental Slavery. In a post called "You Have the Power," Ward Minnis comments on Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi and Morgan Freeman as God as examples of a certain kind of character in movies, and I guess in other stories.

They play the minority figure as "wise and enlightened sidekick." It takes one back to the days of yesteryear, the Lone Ranger and Tonto. The major action and making a difference is left to the white protagonist, but the wise minority sidekick plays an instrumental role in helping the whites reach their destiny of world changing and world managing.

In modern, or should I say post-modern, culture, God is often thought of as the wise sidekick who may occasionally give a tip or some advice that helps the white protagonists achieve their destinies. They, not God, are really running things. So Minnis points out that a black God figure in the movies may not be so clear a statement of the goodness and capacity of blackness as some might think. When God becomes quaint enough, then no longer is it necessary to portray God as the dominant cultural icon, a white male.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Robert Parham said exactly what needed to be said. Frank Page did not preserve the confidentiality of Rudy Giuliani. Telling a crowd about his conversations with candidates for president is to be expected for the president of an organization such as the Southern Baptist Convention. That's why candidates meet with presidents of large organizations. They want to get to the organization through the president. But when the conversation became a very pointed and personal appeal for Giuliani to adopt Page's theology of salvation, it went from public consultation to pastoral counseling. In that case, it is Giuliani, not Page, who should determine whether it gets reported. Thanks, Robert.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

John Perkins has been saying lately that "we have over-evangelized the world too lightly." He is remarking on the contrast between the reported religiosity of the U. S. in comparison with the lack of fruit in the form of compassion, justice, and reconciliation. He is pointing out that the so-called evangelistic fervor of modern churches has asked less and less of the convert. A mere momentary statement of desire to know God becomes enough to be deemed "saved" or "Christian." He challenges evangelical and evangelistic churches to review the Great Commission, which says to go and make disciples through teaching and training in the ways of Jesus. What we have is Christian Lite, Church Lite, Jesus Lite.

A professor from another institution took me aside after my workshop at the Christian Community Development Association on Thursday. The workshop title was "On-the-Ground Theology: Seminaries Learning from Faithful Practices," and I was reporting on some parts of my research on exemplary churches and church-related organizations. This professor wanted to talk more about what I had said about how these churches understand the term "gospel." He said that he and another professor from his institution had discussed this same topic after hearing some speakers earlier in the program. If they were to accept what they were hearing at CCDA, and if they were to hope to teach it at their school, they would have to spend some time redefining "gospel" among their constituencies. He was right. Christian Community Development is not merely a set of techniques and programs. It's a theological renewal movement.

I have found myself over a number of years experimenting with ways to articulate this very issue. Gospel has been watered down so much in the U. S. churches that it often has little resemblance to the ways that it was used in stories told about Jesus and in his recorded sayings. It's almost a homeopathic gospel--like a solution so diluted that no more molecules of the active ingredient remain. Often, it seems the gospel comes down to following a four-step syllogism and repeating a prayer composed by someone else. That is considered by many the essence of bearing good news. The assumed result is an invisible transaction in a hidden place within a person.

The CCDA movement has been committed to sharing the whole gospel for the whole person and the whole community. They resist the temptation to boil down and dilute the gospel. They look to the word when it is spoken by Jesus (Luke 4:16-21), and find it to be inseparably linked with liberation of the poor and oppressed. John Perkins talks about how God finds us at our point of deepest need and brings good news to us. Those needs can take many forms, including physical needs, economic issues, and longings for justice. They also recognize that the redemptive work of Christ includes the establishment of loving community according to the pattern of God's intention for creation. Community itself is good news. That was Jesus' way of describing how people would know which group were his followers--because of the love they have for one another (John 13:34-35).

Why would we have settled for anything less than the full richness of the whole gospel? The beauty of the good news is far greater than many of us have ever heard in church. It's time we swear off Gospel Lite.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The three former lacrosse players who were wrongly accused of rape have filed suit against a long list of law enforcement officials in Durham, NC, as well as against the City of Durham and a lab which played a role in the investigation of their case. Repeatedly saying that the suit is not about the money, punitive damages of $30 million are being sought.

That means that each of three lawyers intends to make at least $4 million dollars off the citizens of Durham, for a total of $12 million. It's a shame.

According to the Durham Herald-Sun, the lawyers wrote in superlatives when they claimed their case is "one of the most chilling episodes of premeditated police, prosecutorial and scientific misconduct in modern American history." Hmmm . . .

Hundreds of lynchings from the late nineteenth century into the past decade have usually had the cooperation of law enforcement. The reporting of Ida B. Wells and others helped to reveal the collusion of the legal system with these festive gatherings for murder. The entire history of the enslavement of Africans included the cooperation of the legal system, with laws to enforce the subjugation. Laws would clearly be a kind of premeditated action.


In 1999 in the town of Tulia, Texas, an undercover cop organized a major "drug bust" based only on his testimony, in which 46 people were rounded up, including over 10% of all black residents of the town. By 2003, the discredited undercover cop was convicted of perjury, the Texas legislature had passed several laws to reform the system that had allowed this travesty, and all who had been convicted (and sentenced to as many as 431 years in prison) had been released. Judges and law enforcement officials had supported the prosecutions based on fabricated evidence.

As for scientific misconduct, the single word Tuskegee speaks volumes.

How many years did these young men spend in jail? How many of them were grabbed and beaten by a mob? How many died of their mistreatement?

What was done to them was wrong, but "one of the most chilling episodes" is way over the top.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Today is the anniversary of a tragedy--the despicable murder of children at an Amish school near Nickel Mine, PA. As I stated in the aftermath of that terrible day, it is a stark reminder of the devaluation of young women's lives in our culture. For all parents, all brothers and sisters, all aunts and uncles, all grandparents and godparents, it is a day to remember the gift of knowing and loving, and of being known and loved by a girl. As I reflect on that day, I am always brought to tears. God's gift of two girls and a boy to the marriage of Everly and Mike is wealth immeasurable.
In an NPR story yesterday, I was deeply moved to hear of the work being done among the grieving in southeastern Pennsylvania. Jonas Beiler, who lost his own daughter nineteen years ago in a tractor accident, emerged from that grief to become a family counselor among the Amish. The story paid close attention to his discussions of how families can work through their grief. The gospel shone brightly in his comments, such as these:
Tragedy changes you. You can't stay the same. Where that lands you don't always know. But what I found out in my own experience if you bring what little pieces you have left to God, he somehow helps you make good out of it. And I see that happening in this school shooting as well. One just simple thing that the whole world got to see was this simple message of forgiveness.
That work of God is a work of grace. When people become formed in virtue, they develop habits which guide them through their routine activities, but also guide them in their times of crisis. Habits of virtue regularly practiced become the structural elements of a community's identity. Thomas Aquinas says that this is true of human nature broadly, inherent in the design of humanity by a loving God. Yet he adds that when humanity unites itself to God in faithful relationship, the virtues become infused with grace to go beyond the mere morality of human striving. An article in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer examined this aspect of the Amish community of Nickel Mines.
The Amish famously avoid publicity, and they are even more protective of their privacy now. The school was closed yesterday and will remain closed today, and there will be no public ceremony or commemorative event. Privately, the Amish will observe the occasion by visiting each other's homes, talking, eating, praying, sharing memories of the departed children, and exchanging cards featuring poems of appreciation.

The way the Amish are handling the anniversary is of a piece with their behavior throughout. F. Scott Fitzgerald once defined style as "an unbroken series of perfect gestures." That could be said of the Amish response. But those gestures, undergirded by faith and moral resolve, surpassed mere style and became displays of grace. . . .

Hours after the shootings, several Amish, acting on their own, walked to the homes of the shooter's widow, parents and parents-in-law to express sympathy and offer forgiveness, by proxy, to the killer. One Amish man held Roberts' sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour, to comfort him. When Roberts was buried, about 30 members of the Amish community attended and mourned. When a local bank set up a fund for the Roberts children, the Amish contributed. The Nickel Mines Accountability Committee, which was organized to handle contributions to the community, gave some of its funds to Marie Roberts.

"Over the centuries, the Amish have learned that hostility destroys harmony and that if there are ill feelings among people, you have to confront them," says Herman Bontrager, an insurance executive who serves as spokesman for the accountability committee. "Forgiveness is a very important part of that. It's a decision that you're not going to let your life be controlled by vengeful thoughts, which are destructive for the self and for the community."
The article interviews the three authors of a new book about the events, aftermath, and community of Nickel Mines, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. All three are quoted in the following excerpt.
The Amish tradition of forgiveness is "in their cultural DNA," says Donald B. Kraybill, a coauthor of Amish Grace and a professor of Anabaptist and Pietist studies at Elizabethtown College.

"So much of Amish life is about submitting individual will to the will of the group and the will of God," says Steven M. Nolt, a coauthor of Amish Grace and a professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College. "For them, there's a clear connection between that lifelong process of sacrificing and giving up and what one needs to do in the process of forgiveness - give up grudges and the right to revenge."

In dealing with sorrow, the Amish are helped by distinctive rituals of grieving. As they readily admit, however, they are not saints. They fail and they sin like the rest of us, and they do not want to be put on pedestals. Nor is practicing forgiveness easy.

"The Amish people struggle with this as well," says David L. Weaver-Zercher, another Amish Grace coauthor and a professor of American religious history at Messiah College in Grantham. "It's too simple to say the Amish forgive and other people don't, but in these kinds of awful situations, they have a habit they fall back on, and that's the habit of seeking to move beyond grief, pain and anger by offering forgiveness."

While researching the book, Kraybill never heard any expression of vengeance toward the killer, he says. "None of the Amish said, 'I hope he rots in hell. I hope God punishes him.' When I asked about that, they said, 'God is the judge. The killer's eternal destiny is in God's hands.' One Amish man said to me: 'I wish for the killer in his eternal destiny the same as I wish for myself,' meaning that he hoped God would be merciful."

Some moved beyond forgiveness to what Kraybill calls "remarkable empathy." A father whose daughter was among the slain said to him, "Can you imagine how painful it must be to be the father of a killer like this? That would be 10 times more painful than what I went through."
I can spend endless pages and hours trying to describe virtues to students, but unless they can see it in me, in someone else, or hear or read of it in stories like this, the descriptions fall dead to the ground. Here is a story of forgiveness, of grace, of love, of caring. It challenges all of our everyday pettiness in relationships. It shames our pecking orders and our struggles against every imagined slight and insult. It offers us hope that people can love one another through the worst of times. Tell it over and over again so that we can imagine how to love one another.
A racialized society (using a term from Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith) has become skilled in living a double life. Having demonized overt racism, this sort of society has expunged explicit racist speech. Only the most careless and the most bigoted persons ever speak in overtly racist terms in our day.

People express racial prejudice now in code. These codes of speech substitute acceptable language as a way to avoid saying explicitly unacceptable ways of thinking. The encoding of the language allows a great deal of self-deception, so that people can state with full sincerity, "I'm not prejudiced." Coded speech also allows for the reproduction of racist social structures through indirection. Indirect arguments which never address race reinforce and reproduce barriers to overcoming deeply entrenched inequalities.

For instance, the "Southern strategy" of the Republican party has been to use racialized rhetoric in code by associating blacks with crime (Willie Horton) and "welfare queens." Even a reborn David Duke did not use overtly racist arguments in public events when he ran for office. But Republicans have no corner on the market in a racialized society--coded language is pervasive. "Living in the past" is code to argue for ignoring the long-term effects of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial inequality. Being "angry all the time" is code for unwanted resistance to racial injustices when people don't want to hear about it.

So it was not a big surprise that the discussions about the Jena 6 are full of claims that "this is not about race." By trying to keep the focus on only one fight that took place in Jena, District Attorney Reed Walters was hoping to convince people that his approach to enforcing the law had no variation when it comes to race. Observers who saw the differential treatment of white kids who beat up a black boy and black kids who beat up a white boy saw something different. This sort of racialized law enforcement gets renamed in public rhetoric.

Walters was unable to hide another thinly veiled example of racialized thinking at the press conference (see the article and a video of the press conference at MSNBC.com) when he announced he would not appeal the ruling that threw out his prosecution of Mychal Bell as an adult. His problem was not merely that he had surrounded himself with white people to support his statement to the public. His problem was that black people were even in the room to hear his remarks.

During the statement to the public he began to wax theological. He said, "The only way — let me stress that — the only way that I believe that me or this community has been able to endure the trauma that has been thrust upon us is through the prayers of the Christian people who have sent them up in this community." In his context, that remark seemed to be broadly appreciated, regardless of what people think of the justice or injustice of his decision.

However, the comments he made during the press conference revealed a racialized theology at work. He did not say directly that large groups of black people inevitably produce riots, violence, and crime. That would have been unacceptable. He said it in code: "I firmly believe and am confident of the fact that had it not been for the direct intervention of the Lord Jesus Christ last Thursday, a disaster would have happened. You can quote me on that."

A local black pastor in the crowd did not let that coded message stand. Reverend Donald Sibley's reaction led to the end of the press conference. He stood and replied that he thought it a shame that Walters could not give credit to thousands of black people acting respectfully and responsibly. Walters responded in his own defense, interpreting his previous statement clumsily, then ended the question period and abruptly left the room.

Rev. Sibley noted that Walters seemed to have two Jesuses at work in his theology, "his Christ and our Christ." Sibley went on to say, "I can't diminish Christ at all. But for him to use it in the sense that because his Christ, his Jesus, because he prayed, because of his police, that everything was peaceful and was decent and in order -- that's not the truth."

Rev. Sibley deserves a strong commendation for his insight, his wit, his courage, and his clarity in dealing with a racialized justice system and the racialized theology which supports it.
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