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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, April 29, 2008

I have had a generally good impression of Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright since I first looked at some of his writing about six years ago. We have been on the same program at the Shaw University Divinity School Minister's Conference, and he was complimentary concerning my remarks. I have known more than one person who told me of Wright's influence on her or his ministry.

I was impressed to learn of Barack Obama's membership in Wright's church and his conversion to Christian faith in part under Wright's influence. This connection caused me to look more seriously at Obama's candidacy in those early days when a dozen or more people were running for president. Although I understand Obama's continuing statements to distance himself from his former pastor, I regret that he is doing it.

When Wright became the object of infotainment programming and talking heads a while back, I listened to some brief selections from his sermons on YouTube. I have to say that I found nothing troubling in what I heard. I quickly concluded that the sermon in which God's damnation was stated sounded very much like the prophetic writings of the Bible which Wright clearly indicated that he was imitating. In Jesus' teachings, he pronounced "woes" upon various cities for seemingly lesser offenses than Wright was detailing concerning the United States.

Any Bible reader knows that the Hebrew prophets' words are often much more X-rated than anything Wright had to say. If people are taking offense at Jeremiah Wright's sermons, then they would take offense at the Bible and prophetic preaching from any source. If perhaps there is a more obvious use of biblical precedent in shaping black prophetic preaching than white church-going people are currently accustomed to hearing, then what we are observing is more a rejection of their own past by white churches than a shockingly intensive level of conviction on the part of black churches.

As for the observation about "chickens coming home to roost," it is a common saying. Wright's sermon refers to a former ambassador who uses this phrase, once used by Malcolm X (which led to his censure by and eventual departure from the Nation of Islam), to describe the conditions under which attacks were made upon the United States. Nothing about the saying excuses the vicious acts of terror. Yet as an observation about how "what goes around, comes around," it could not be more accurate about the results of U. S. aggression and economic exploitation across the world. According to Voice of America, more than $24 billion of military products were supplied to Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern countries by the U. S. this past year. As Ched Myers has said, the United States is addicted to violence. The litany of U. S. military adventurism and terroristic policies is long and tragic, costing the lives of Native Americans, kidnapped Africans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Nicaraguans, Panamanians, Guatemalans, Granadans, Haitians, Filipinos, protesting college students, and on and on. Relying on violence leads to violence. Martin Luther King, Jr., said it in 1958 this way

force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe.


Although his word was "begets," it still means the same as "chickens coming home to roost." And King was a harsh critic of the U. S. and its foreign policy. He said

Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

And also,

I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.


These words brought great criticism and abuse on Dr. King. Nowadays we like to treat him as a teddy bear, cute and cuddly. But he was a prophetic preacher who castigated the U. S. for its violence, oppression, and war. Having forgotten the way he was hated in his time, a new generation has found another preacher to castigate.

A final matter from his speeches has to do with the comments about the HIV virus. I do not believe that it is a manufactured virus designed to kill blacks or any other group. However, as Wright said, he does not put this sort of strategy of intentional infection beyond the realm of possibility for the United States. Many people now know of the intentional infliction of suffering on blacks during the Tuskeegee syphilis study. Fewer are aware of the persistent tactic of the U. S. government's giving smallpox-infected blankets to Native American villages in order to kill the inhabitants. Wright cites the contradictory and hypocritical policy of the U. S. toward Iraqi use of biological weapons when the U. S. is the supplier of those very weapons to Iraq.

To top this all off, the document "Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century," raises the spectre of a new type of biological weapon that selectively kills people according to their genes. In other words, weapons that can select people according to their ethnicity. Israel and Apartheid South Africa are reputed to have done research on this kind of weapon to use against their enemies in ethnic warfare. Now they find an exploratory endorsement in a document which lists Lewis Libby and Paul Wolfowitz as contributors, for an organization that names Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George Weigel, Elliott Abrams, William Bennett, Jeb Bush, Norman Podhoretz, and others as endorsers. On page 60 it says the following.

And advanced forms of biological warfarethat can “target” specific genotypes may transform biological warfare from the realm of terror to a politically useful tool.


Is the U. S. government capable of such an act? Yes. Do I think the HIV virus is a creation of the government? No, but I can see why someone might be suspicious.

Jeremiah Wright is speaking up in a prophetic voice. I am thankful for his courage to say what he is saying.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

LEARNING TO READ, part 2
Luke 18:1-8

Who we read with makes all the difference. By now I hope you realize why it is important to tell you about my Southern Baptist upbringing. I learned to read the Bible among middle-class whites. They saw some of what the Bible says, but missed many other things. I am focusing on Luke 18 because it played a pivotal role in my experience of reading in community. For instance, I don’t know that I ever saw verse 8 as an integral part of the rhetorical structure of the parable in my early training and even into adulthood, so I probably never gave it much thought until many years later.

My attention was first drawn to this verse during one of the most difficult periods of my life as a follower of Jesus. I was a leader in an integrated, predominately white Baptist congregation, but there were rumblings of racial unrest. An older generation of church members was unhappy with the results of desegregation in their church. It was a time in which I found myself questioning whether most, or even any, congregations or denominations in contemporary society and culture had any right to claim the name church. The pastor, in an effort to get the church to go deeper in our discipleship, had urged us to form study groups and follow a widely used curriculum for church renewal.

In the midst of that study, I came across Luke 18:8, and it struck me as the question of the age. I was reading in community with whites and blacks, but the overwhelming division of U. S. churches by race and ethnicity was challenging my previous understanding of the Bible. The question haunted me. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faithfulness on the earth?” What if Jesus comes looking for me? Will Jesus find faithfulness? Will my church be showing its faith in a way that is recognizable?

Learning to read also requires letting the context in which we read enlighten the text. I knew that following Jesus and living a life shaped by the way of Jesus, being disciples, was what churches are called to do. As I tried to compare that with the scandal of white supremacy, with the wound of racism, I found that my settled and secure beliefs about the church were being shaken. Ultimately, I found myself, along with others, seeking for God in exile from that congregation, wandering in a wilderness of longing. I knew better than to look for a perfect church. I was just hoping to find one where power brokers did not seem hell-bent on denying the gospel.

It was a few months later when I was sitting in Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, as a new member, that I heard this passage in Luke 18 brought up along the way in a sermon. I was eager to reflect on it further, and once again the Holy Spirit shed new light on the scripture. As I sat in a congregation of mostly African Americans, my white body in proximity to their black bodies, my family and cultural heritage laid out alongside theirs, I heard this story in a whole new light.

I perceived that for African American Bible readers, it was no surprise to encounter the character of an unjust judge who has no fear of God and no respect for anyone. I, of course, had watched video footage of the rigged system of injustice that protected white assassins from being convicted of murder during the Civil Rights Movement. I had read Ida Wells’s accounts of lynch law and the precarious existence of blacks who might seek to improve their economic condition when the legal system was not set up for their good. But for the first time, I was learning to read the Bible with that history as my own history, too. It was no longer a separate set of events, unrelated to the Bible.

Moreover, the entire parable began to take clearer shape as addressing the nature of prayer. In light of reading in community, it becomes clear that the parable is not primarily a message for consumers in a consumer society who consume God and want God to help them consume more stuff. While one aspect of the parable’s message may be that we are encouraged to keep on praying, the core emphasis seems more on clarifying what sort of God it is to whom we are praying. God is not like this judge. The judge is at best an antihero—he plays a role in something good happening, despite his obvious flaws. Or perhaps the judge is merely a villain. Jesus tells the disciples who are listening to pay attention to the contrast. God is not anything like that judge. So if a sorry old reprobate judge like that can be persuaded to do something right, what do you think you could expect from a good and loving God? So don’t lose heart. Keep the faith. Pray on. And be faithful to what God has called you to do.

Moreover, it is not just any kind of praying that the parable is concerned with. It is not about whether I can get a bigger house or a fancier car. It is not about whether I get my picture in the paper or my name gets called out for recognition in public meetings. It is about justice.
The other character is not a widow by chance. Jesus was concerned about how women were being treated by the so-called righteous religious folk of his day. Widows might have no protectors, and they had very few ways to make a living that were acceptable and respectable. They deserved better, and the law had some provisions which could help them. But from a position of social isolation and weakness, they might not be treated humanely. Perhaps no one would even bother to listen. The unjust judge was probably a recognizable character to the people gathered around Jesus that day in Philadelphia, Mississippi, or Orange County, California, or Jena, Louisiana, or Durham, North Carolina, on his journey to Jerusalem.

I had learned long before, as a ministerial student, that Luke’s gospel is reputed to be concerned for the equal place of women before God and in the church. Now in this parable, one more example of that is clear. The judge does not respect anyone. God, on the other hand, loves even the lowly and marginalized. The judge just wants the widow to leave him alone. God wants the widow to have life abundant. The judge acts for expediency and personal comfort. God acts for justice.

A Christian education curriculum that neglects the liberating justice of God toward women is a curriculum that has not learned to read the Bible. Don’t be timid about confronting the systems through which structures of gender have been abused in the service of power. God is with us when we seek to discern the Spirit’s leadership. We say, “Yes,” to the work of God in the lives of women in our churches. We say, “Yes,” to the work of God in the lives of men in our churches. We say, “Yes,” to the new ways in which God will work to reshape women and men to be humble co-workers for justice and mercy in proclaiming the Reign of God.

So the prayers that we must always pray without fainting are prayers for justice. We must pray for justice for the poor. We must pray for justice for the prisoner. We must pray for justice for the worker, justice for the violated, justice for the outcast, justice for the widow and orphan. But they must not be empty prayers or prayers of mere obligation and observance. They must be prayers of opening ourselves to God’s work in our lives. The result of such prayers is to be our faithful ministry to the poor, to the prisoner, to the worker, to the violated, to the outcast, and to the widow and orphan.

We will become the instruments of God to answer those who cry out day and night. We will become the instruments of God to help them without delay. We will be the instruments to quickly grant justice to them.

Learning to read the Bible means learning to pray as God would have us pray. Yes, learning to read the Bible means learning to perform the scriptures. Put them in action. Yes, act them out. Don’t just soak up the teaching—live the teaching. Perform the scriptures. Don’t be mere hearers of the word. Be doers of the word. Love in deed and truth. Love one another. Let love be genuine, so that when the Son of Man comes, it will not be hard to find faithfulness on the earth.

LEARNING TO READ, part 1
Luke 18:1-8

From the earliest age, I was taught to sing, “Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” We sang about God’s love for us, our love for God, and obeying God by loving others. A great deal of the gospel came through those songs. We sang them at home, and we sang them at church. We listened to Bible stories and learned to say short quotations from the Bible, such as “God is Love,” or “Love one another,” or “Honor your father and mother.” We sang songs about Bible characters and stories. “Only a boy named David . . . ,” but he was used by God to save the sheep and the people. “Round the walls of Jericho” the people walked, and when they shouted, “the walls fell down.” “Zaccheaus was a wee, little man,” but Jesus found him and went to his house. “A helper I will be,” “Praise God all ye little children,” and “I like to go to church” were songs that helped to shape our developing moral vision. “Love one another. Love one another. This is the happy way. . . .”

Another thing I learned from Southern Baptists as I grew older was that the main message of faith was for people to have Jesus in our hearts. We called it accepting Jesus as Savior. This core teaching was a partial articulation of the gospel message. Sometimes we got glimpses of the fullness of the gospel. But mostly we were too focused on the afterlife, and not enough focused on what the message of God’s Kingdom might mean for changing the world we live in. It was a mostly individualistic message about making peace with one’s situation and being assured of eternity with God. It put a heavy emphasis on being happy because God is with us. God could work in our lives to help us do what is right, to help us with emotional struggles, and to help us do our best. We were confident that with faith in God and with striving our best, there would be a reasonable expectation of success in life.

It was the age of the Cold War, when the nuclear arms race was at a frenzied pace. Everything that happened in the world was judged by its relation to the worldwide struggle between the Soviet Union and its allies and the United States and its allies. People in this country had to be careful what we thought and said. Any questioning of the goodness and rightness of the American way was automatically judged to be a sign of the influence of godless communism. We were told about, even intimidated into believing that the order of things in the USA was for the good of us all. Of course, you know by looking at me and by the history of the Southern Baptists, that we found this more believable because we were white, and for the most part, the deck was stacked in our favor.

So it is no surprise that when I read or listened to the parable at the beginning of Luke 18, I thought that judge, the one Jesus calls “the unjust judge,” was an anomaly, the rare case. I knew that police officers could give you a ticket for speeding, and for that reason they might be feared, but for the most part, I was satisfied to believe that law enforcement and the judicial system were to be trusted. Therefore, the parable seemed to me to be an odd way of talking about prayer. To my teen-aged and young adult mind, it seemed to be saying to keep on praying for something even if it seems like God is saying, “No,” to the prayer. Just like the sorry old judge in the story finally came through, God might come through, too, after a while.

I’ll admit, it was pretty weak theology, but then again, most of the theology of prayer that I hear in Bible study and preaching is pretty weak, if not completely off base. When we treat prayer as some kind of input-output machine, a time to beg for our wish list, a visit to the great heavenly Wal-Mart, a test of our positive thinking skill, we are about as far from Christian faith as we can be. But since that was and still is the popular view of prayer in many churches, it’s not surprising that I did not stop to think very hard about this story. Keep on praying. Keep on praying. It is an important basic truth. What this interpretation leaves out is reflection on how to pray. Learning to read the Bible in larger segments than one verse or a few isolated verses is the skill that I still needed to acquire.

The reason I am telling a story about my upbringing is to demonstrate that, for better or for worse, we learn to read scripture in community. Before I even knew how to read at all, I had already learned what the Bible says. “Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” How did the Bible tell me? It was not by my looking at a page and reading John 3:16. It was not because I had studied the sentence structures and narrative structures of biblical texts. The Bible was telling me through the people who had taught me about it. The Bible was telling me through the people who had known Jesus’ love for a long time, through hard times and good times. By the time I learned to decipher letters and words on a page, I had already learned to read the Bible as a love letter from God to humanity. This basic message of the love of God, manifest for us in the life, work, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and poured out in our lives by the Holy Spirit, stands at the heart of what almost all churches teach about the Christian faith. When churches are doing what they are called to do, children learn that they live in a world created, sustained, and loved by God. And many of us learned to read the Bible that way when we were very young.

Of course, reading abilities and reading subject matter change as we grow. Much of what we need to know can be learned in kindergarten, but those basic truths have to be enlarged, expanded, and enriched as our mental and emotional capacities grow. New experiences, whether joyful or hurtful, may prepare us to read with greater maturity. Yet as we keep reading, we cannot lean only on our own understanding. We must acknowledge God. Acknowledging God means recognizing that God is at work in the world. God is before us and behind us, above us and below us, within and without. Jonathan Edwards said that the Christian stance toward God and God’s creation is “consent.” As the gospel song puts it, it is to “say, ‘Yes,” to God. “I’ll say, ‘Yes, Lord. Yes,’ to your will and to your way.” I consent to your presence in all that I encounter.

Don’t go running ahead of me there. I did not say that everything I encounter is the will of God. Everything may happen for a reason, but not every reason is from God. When a bullet penetrates the head of a nineteen-year-old, it happened for a reason. It happened because someone else’s passions were out of control, or because someone had become so hardened to life and love that it just seemed like the thing to do. It happened for a reason. It happened because all the hope had been squeezed out of a family or community and life had become hell on earth. It happened because of selfishness, greed, revenge, or ambition. It happened for a reason, but not God’s reason. A bullet taking a life is not God’s time. Recognizing and proclaiming that God hates murder is saying “Yes” to God. Saying “Yes” to God is to recognize that in any situation, God is present. Even in the tragedy of a life cut short, God has not deserted us. Saying, “yes” to God is recognizing the handiwork of God, the image of God, in the killed and the killer. But I’ve gone astray from the topic at hand. Let’s get back to learning to read.

Saying “Yes” to God is learning to listen to God speak through others. Saying “Yes” to God is listening to the Spirit speak through each person as we gather for Bible study and worship. Learning to read the Bible requires us to read in community. God’s great mission of love to the world is far too vast for any one of us to grasp alone. That is why Paul told the Corinthian church to take their time in trying to discern what God would say to them. Let one speak, and all others listen attentively. Then let another speak. Listen to one another, and seek the Spirit’s leading. Reading the Bible well means letting go of our private interpretations so that they can be tested in community. Sometimes the process breaks down, but that only makes it all the more important to keep working on it.

One way to keep working on reading in community is to keep opening our doors to hear what others might have to say. I have spent a good deal of time reflecting on the way that the Open Door Community in Atlanta reads the scriptures. I contacted them about having the opportunity to interview one or more of their leaders about their approach to ministry. They invited me to join them in feeding breakfast to the homeless as a first step. I showed up very early and found quite a few people at work getting breakfast ready. I was given an orientation, then we gathered in a circle to study the Bible. We spent about fifteen minutes looking at a passage, going over the background and a few key points, then we prayed and started serving the meal. After an hour and a half, we had served well over a hundred people. We did the basic cleaning up, then sat down to eat our own breakfast. Over the meal, members of the community, along with some of the homeless persons, and various volunteers, returned to discussing the scripture passage.

Reading the Bible with homeless people shed a new light on it. People who had not lived their lives in the comfort and privilege of the middle class saw details of the scripture that some of us were blind to. The Latin American liberation theologians had also come to recognize this truth as they sought to understand the Bible as they observed the impending demise of the era of European world domination. They saw that reading the Bible with the poor and marginalized masses, created by colonial domination, gave a whole new meaning to the life and work of Jesus. They came to see that this one often depicted as a remote, cosmic monarch had lived as a homeless Jewish man who had no place to lay his head, who hung out with the folks on the margin and at the bottom, and who had good news to give to them.
(Continued.)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

I've been doing research on whiteness in relation to theology, and it has led me to a great deal of work being done in educational theory and practice, and of course in sociology. A few theologians have started to tackle the subject, and I'm trying to digest what they are saying. At the heart of Tracy West's discussion in Disruptive Christian Ethics, are three characteristics of white domination and white privilege in U. S. society: a sense of entitlement to social goods, a practice of denial of privilege or domination, and systemic social investment in white privilege. The latter comes in the form of distribution of various goods such as transportation, education, health care, etc., in ways that facilitate their use by whites in contrast to more difficult access to non-whites.

It is a fascinating discussion, and I am not completely sure where it will lead in my theological reflections. In the meantime, I am learning quite a bit.

One of my students, Marcus Croom, pointed me to another blog related to this topic. It is called "Stuff White People Like." Apparently it started in January and has taken off dramatically in popularity, to the point that the blogger already has a book deal.

I read it with some sheepishness and some relief. Certainly I found some of my likes in the list of things white people like. I also found I only matched a portion of the stereotype, closer to 50% than 90%. Take a look. "Whifolks" like me will have some hearty laughs and some uncomfortable ones, too.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Occasionally I get email with a link to a really good short video. This one is about the financial and human costs of the Iraq invasion and occupation. I encourage you to take a look at it. It's called "The Three Trillion Dollar Shopping Spree."

I shopped for the following on my $3 trillion budget.

Heifers for 600,000,000 families through Heifer International
PRICE: $300,000,000,000.00

Two-week peacemaking trip to Israel/Palestine for 3,800,000 US Citizens with Christian Peacemaker Teams
PRICE: $7,980,000,000.00

Intensive Spanish lessons in a Guatemalan language school for 70 million US Citizens, for eight weeks including food, lodging, airfare, and spending money
PRICE: $322,000,000,000.00

10 Years' Salary and Benefits for 2 million school teachers at an annual rate of $70,000
PRICE: $1,400,000,000,000.00

Birkenstock Sandals for 6 billion people, to keep everyone's feet healthy in warm weather
PRICE: $720,000,000,000.00

Front Doors for 1 billion family dwellings through Habitat for Humanity
PRICE: $150,000,000,000.00

Kitchen sinks for 1 billion family dwellings through Habitat for Humanity
PRICE: $100,000,000,000.00

MerleFest 4-day pass with best reserved seating for 3,600 people
PRICE: $810,000.00

2008 Toyota Prius Hybrid car, which I can't afford on my usual budget
PRICE: $22,300.00

Russian-made high-tech Space Toilet, which could come in handy someday
PRICE: $19,000,000.00

Speech Therapy/Coaching for the President, VP, Cabinet and Members of Cabinet Rank, National Security Advisor, and members of Congress (four hours each) so that none of these national leaders will mispronounce the word "nuclear"
PRICE: $167,700.00

TOTAL: $3,000,000,000,000.00

Friday, April 04, 2008

Bruce Gourley pointed me toward comments made recently by Frank (formerly Franky) Schaeffer about the current presidential race. I had a vague awareness that Schaeffer had turned away from his earlier rabid fundamentalism, but did not really know the extent of his conversion. At times like this, I am reminded that my move away from the SBC, which eventually included being institutionally disconnected from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Alliance of Baptists, and the American Baptist Churches as well, is more complete than it seems in my consciousness. I don’t get a whole lot of the grapevine news about the SBC and its kinfolk among fundamentalist movements. My students bring me awareness of some sorts of popular Christian trends, but not much about those folks.

A couple of Schaeffer’s statements seem especially notable. One emphasizes his revised evaluation of fundamentalism in a way that supports much of what Bruce Prescott finds himself battling in Oklahoma and beyond—a pseudo-Christian theocratic movement to reconstitute the U. S. A.

I finally got out of the evangelical movement in 1985 when I belatedly outgrew my fundamentalist background. I wanted to be a writer, not of religious propaganda but of actual books. I also quit because I had slowly woken up to the fact that the religious right I was in bed with -- because my late father Francis Schaeffer was one of their leaders, and in the nepotistic evangelical tradition I followed in his footsteps -- were not conservatives. They were anti-American agitators for a thinly disguised theocracy.

The other remark shows the pathos and crisis of the McCain candidacy in the current atmosphere of Republican Party chaos.

The irony is that the people McCain is appeasing these days in order to "unite" his party, are the same people who in 2000, spread (and believed) the racist nonsense about his black adopted child being illegitimate etc. The people he must suck up to now undid his candidacy then.



The sad truth is that the 2000 election was McCain's moment. The right wing evangelicals (and the Republican establishment) handed the presidency to Bush and the rest is history. Now McCain's moment has past, swept away by a river of needlessly shed blood and by the politics of fear.

Thanks to Bruce Gourley for his attention to these discussions.
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