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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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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Scalia's Judicial Activism

Scalia's Judicial Activism

For all of his railing against judges who make law as opposed to his strict constructionist view of exegeting the meaning and intent of the text, Justice Scalia has shown that he is equally capable of making law today. He overthrew the tradition of second amendment jurisprudence by endorsing the National Rifle Association's view of the constitution. His opinion creates an individual right to own a gun.

I suspect that many would disagree with my judgment that Scalia is making law. He has cited a history of laws and opinions that favor an individual right to possess a gun, and he has shown that certain previous opinions do not exclude an individual right to own a gun, even if they did not endorse it. Since it was lacking in the law, Scalia saw fit to make it law by this opinion, rather than leaving it to states and localities to make laws appropriate to their situations. He says it is only logical that the individual right is intended. That is certainly so if you are already convinced that the individual right is entailed in the amendment.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Racialized Ecclesiology, Apostolicity, Catholicity, Oneness

Some thoughts on "Racialized Ecclesiology, Oneness, and Catholicity"

During the couple of weeks that I did not post anything, I was still writing. Here is a piece of another argument I am working on.

Many discussions of ecclesiology find their way to the four traditional marks of the church contained in the Nicene Creed. Although they are far from a comprehensive guide to ecclesiology, these four marks open the conversation toward a range of shortcomings when applied to contemporary churches. The church in the contemporary United States is far from the church that the gospel calls into being. In an age questioning the inherited assumptions of Christendom, one mark has captured much theological attention. There is fruitful conversation from many quarters of the church concerning a renewed call to holiness. The perspectives on holiness are wide-ranging, and the possibilities for common work are plentiful.

On the other hand, the least agreement may persist on the mark of apostolicity, as illustrated in recent remarks promulgated by the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, reiterating one version of the disputed mark of apostolicity. Clarifying Catholic dogma in light of contemporary impulses toward ecumenicity, this statement classifies what sorts of churches are true churches, which ones are deficient, and which ones do not qualify as churches at all. This definition rooted in a certain view of apostolicity assigns a large portion of what many would call the church, which encompasses about a third of people in communities who call themselves Christian, to the category of separated ecclesial communities not deserving the name church. These groups lacking proper apostolic pedigree include those James Wm. McClendon has called baptist with a lower-case “b.”

This division over apostolicity highlights the even more prominent shortcomings of the church with references to the terms “one” and “catholic.” One still hears the occasional excesses of residual Reformation rancor which call the Roman Catholic Church “the whore of Babylon.” Much new interest in the oneness and catholicity of the church has emerged among Protestants and Catholics since Vatican II. Much of its momentum among Protestants is rooted in regrets for the great damage done to the cause of Christ by the divisiveness of the Reformation and by the subsequent accommodation of Protestantism to modernity. Consequently, many have sought a solution to the errors of Protestantism in a reappropriation of an earlier tradition less tainted by the mercenary and mercantile impulses of modernity. There is much to be gained from this effort, and it has borne much fruit.

What sometimes fails to appear in this process is the full scope of the contemporary scandal of catholicity and oneness. A great deal of effort by European American Protestants has been exerted toward rapprochement with Roman Catholicism. For the most part, it remains a conversation among Europeans, their ancestors, and their descendents. Thus, it seems to characterize the wound against the oneness and catholicity of the churches as one between feuding Europeans or between America and Europe. There is no denying that this grave wound’s roots stretch to an argument started five centuries ago between northern and southern Europeans. Yet, the intra-European argument’s subsequent history, and perhaps its deeper roots are intertwined with the rise of European imperialism and the resulting era of European world domination. Consequently, much of the division of the churches also appears in the form of racially and ethnically divided churches. Even the Roman Catholic Church, with its worldwide hierarchy of bishops who symbolize the catholicity and oneness of the church, must admit the imperial and colonial relationship that continues to characterize their center and periphery.

Race cannot be relegated to the margins of theological discourse as if it were unrelated to doctrine. Race oppression and division is not merely a moral failure by people with correct doctrine, but it is an eschatology, an anthropology, a ktisiology, a doctrine of God, an ontology, a soteriology, a Christology, and an ecclesiology. As an ecclesiology, it rejects the catholicity and oneness of the church. Both Protestantism and Catholicism need healing from this wound. Categorically, the baptists need healing.

Some steps along the path to healing come from rigorous analysis and hard thinking about the ways that modern imaginations, indeed the weight of centuries of Christian theology, have been colonized by racial reasoning. Race is often positioned as “the Black problem” or “the Asian problem,” when these are merely the derivatives of the original sin of racism. At its core, race is “the white problem.” Instead of puzzling over how the church (code for “the white church”) can adjust itself to accommodate the difference of blackness, U. S. churches must turn their attention to why and in what ways they have adjusted their theologies to construct the difference of whiteness.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Reception of Black Theologies 4

Inadequate Responses of White Theologians to Black Theology

Here I am discussing possible responses to black theologies from another angle, particularly from the point of view of white theologians who avoid polemic against black theologies and seek to understand themselves as appreciative of the contributions of black theologies. Part 4.

Having discussed some ways in which black theology can be positionized by assumed normative theology, it will also be worthwhile to reflect on certain inadequate responses taken by white theologians to black theology.

A. A first response would be to nit-pick. Looking for every inadequacy, some theologians seek to discredit black theology on the basis of the flaws in the arguments of various theologians. Of course, all theologians are susceptible to flawed theologizing. In the face of black theology’s harsh critique of white theologies, a defensive reaction is not surprising. Yet answering a cogent critique by a counter-critique is an inadequate response, especially when one ignores the central arguments in order to challenge peripheral arguments. It makes a Bible reader think about the story of the speck in the other's eye versus the beam in one's own eye. Obviously, there could be no justification to claim that black theologies are flawless or beyond criticism; however, their substantive criticisms of modern theology demand a more constructive engagement than mere counterattack. It is too often an evasive measure.

B. Others, including many of my teachers, responded to black theology by acknowledging its importance, then declining to engage its agenda. A common sort of reason for this response was that black theologians spoke for a community of which the white theologian has little or no direct knowledge. Sometimes a noble premise helped to justify the lack of engagement: black theology is a subject matter that I dare not address because of my limitations, so it should be left to black theologians to do that work. They say that they would not presume to describe the theological perspective of blacks having not experienced the oppression blacks have experienced. Invisible in these arguments seems to be the assumption that the critical challenges of black theology do not raise systemic problems for theology as it is being conducted in white institutions. A side affect of declining to engage is the fostering of schismatic theological paths and methodological ghettos.

C. Another response is to hear and believe the critique, but deflect it elsewhere. Too often, convinced of our own intellectual responsibility, theologians receive the critical arguments of black theology as if they are directed toward others. This is not unlike the response of many contemporary persons who resent black anger toward the U. S. and its continuing racialized social structure. It is a common mantra among contemporary whites that they know slavery is wrong and have never owned slaves. “Don’t put that on me” is their response.

Luis Rivera spoke to the NABPR/CTS meeting a number of years ago about an experience he had at a conference at a prominent midwestern U. S. evangelical protestant university. He had been invited to speak on his outstanding work published in English under the title, A Violent Evangelism. As he prepared to speak, many conference attendees had approached him with effusive praise about the critical theological analysis he had done concerning late medieval Catholicism and the conquest of the Americas. The more conversations he had, the more uncomfortable he became. He began to believe he was being applauded not for his critique of European colonial theologies broadly, but specifically for his critique of Roman Catholic colonial theologies. The protestant evangelicals attending the conference were looking forward to a roasting of the catholics that would reinforce their sense of rightness. So he changed his topic when he got to the podium, and announced that he thought the conference would be better served to hear a parallel critique of protestant imperial colonial theology.

D. Others white theologians have been glad to engage in the academic repartee of critical theologies such as black theology. This armchair approach is compatible with the multicultural model, and it tempts academic theologians to one of our most besetting sins. We gain insight into important critical ideas which demand revolutionary practice, we learn to speak eloquently about them, we make pointed statements and knowing gestures, but our professional and ecclesial practice remain unchanged.

Reception of Black Theologies 3

Denying the Dogmatic Significance of Black Theologies: Racism in Churches as Merely Moral Failure

Here I'm offering a view on the dogmatic significance of black theologies. Part 3.

4. A fourth perspective is both appreciative and ultimately puzzled by black theology. From this perspective of normative theology, black theology speaks up about the moral failure of the church, and it does so eloquently by drawing on theological tradition. However, the problem is a moral failure, not a dogmatic issue. Dogmatic or doctrinal theology is not implicated in the critique brought by black theology, from this point of view. Whites are fully capable of continuing to theologize in their traditions without need for reform or revolution.

Let me discuss this last perspective a bit more. It assumes that the normative theology that white theologians and ministers do in white institutions is largely on track. They can continue to do systematic theology dependent on Thomas, Calvin, Edwards, and others without the need to apply a historical, systemic, and structural critique of the traditions that flow through the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries during which churches and theologians helped to construct and validate the globalization of race consciousness and white supremacy. Somehow, Christian dogmatic theology emerged undamaged by its coexistence and collaboration in the Era of European World Domination.

Moreover, this perspective denies a primary methodological claim of Jim McClendon concerning the relationship of ethics and doctrine. Ethics is not the afterthought or the second moment derived from the first moment of dogmatics. The divisions of systematic theology usually called doctrine and ethics are both fully theological, thoroughly interrelated, and mutually dependent on one another. For that reason, he said that he could have put either ethics or doctrine first in a three volume structure for systematic theology, for each makes its proper claim. A theology grounded in practices cannot ultimately separate an intellectual moment from a moment of action in theological reflection.

On a less grand scale, but no less insightful, John Perkins describes his growing awareness of the doctrinal problematic of race. In his interactions with white evangelicals, and perhaps especially white Baptists in the South, he became increasingly aware of the depth of their spiritual devotion to a Jesus and a God who also sanctioned white supremacy as an article of faith. On paper, their theological statements of faith seemed to be orthodox, yet something must have gone terribly wrong for so many in churches to have been formed into a racialized theology. More than failure to do what they knew to be right was at work. The sheriff’s deputies who beat him nearly to death did so out of a deeply rooted, theologically sanctioned vision of sin, salvation, and Jesus Christ.

To be continued . . .

Reception of Black Theologies 2

Responses to Black Theology from the Perspective of White Theology as the Assumed Norm

Here I am doing more analysis on how black theologies have been received. Part 2.

Responses to Black theology have been varied, and the external (and sometimes internal) responses are to a great extent framed within the naturalized position of white theology as the assumed norm.

1. From that vantage point, it would be no surprise that many white theologians responded to what Cone and others were doing by declaring it simply not Christian theology. On any given day at your institution or mine, if the topic of Black theology enters the conversation, someone is very likely to say, “I just think theology should be for everyone. I don’t think of theology or Jesus as for just some people. It should be universal. That’s why I can’t go along with black theology.” In so doing, the mask of neutrality and the invisibility of whiteness are reinforced in the name of universals which have been defined by European imperial ambition and racial hierarchies.

2. However, many theologians have come in the past forty years to recognize some level of value in the black theology movement.

2.1 The least appreciative of such positions can be characterized by an experience of one of my Shaw colleagues who was studying theological ethics at a prominent northeastern U. S. university about three decades ago. During advisement concerning his research with a prominent white professor, he was told something like the following, “I hope you are not thinking of doing that black theology. That is over with, and there is no need to keep saying the same thing.” From this point of view, Black theology brought a noteworthy critique to normative theology. It’s critique has been made, and acknowledged by those who are intelligent, and it need not be repeated. It was a necessary critique, and it is complete. This position can be combined with some of the ones which follow.

2.2 Similar to the necessary and complete position, but slightly more appreciative, is a view that sees black theology as a dialectical moment. Shaped by a quasi-hegelian imagination, this view would say that black theology identified an inherent contradiction in theologies shaped by European culture and thought. Much of what black theology offered--its insistence on theology as contextual, its recognition of a flesh and blood Jewish Jesus who took sides with the poor and suffered at the hands of the political elite, its enlarging of the community in which theological hermeneutics must take place, and so on—have been accepted by much of the mainstream of normative theologies. Therefore, if not already, at least in the foreseeable future, black theology will have played out its moment and significance, and there will be no more need for it.

3. A third perspective could be associated with terms like diversity or multiculturalism. In this perspective, the more universal theology, the normative theology, extends its tent to include many different perspectives so that we can learn from them all. Christian theology can take many forms, and it is good for each form to have expression. Black theology, in this sense, is a kind of boutique theology. It is an interesting diversion for those who do normative theology. It is a case to be examined for how theology can be reinterpreted by giving free reign to integrate a different culture with normative theology.

3.1 From an appreciative direction, this perspective might see black theology as one more square in a patchwork quilt of theologies. Perhaps black theology is by now a familiar quilt square, so it gets a little less attention than more recent creative and provocative squares added to the theological quilt.

3.1.1 Some who are appreciative and concerned with orthodoxy would seek to engage black theology in dialogue for the sake of mutual edification, but with little permanent significance for the traditional forms of theological reflection.

3.1.2 Others who are appreciative but consider orthodoxy passé would see black theology as another element in the post-modern play of ideas which can help humanity forge a creative adventure into the future, although it may largely be irrelevant to the kind of theologizing whites are doing.

3.2 Less appreciative, yet accommodating, would be the view that black theology, in its limitations as a seemingly tribal theology, exhibits deficiencies which make it inappropriate as the core of a program of theological study. It can be paraded and observed as a distinctive and critical voice with some lasting value, but its deficiency is especially in its focus on a minority tradition rather than on universals. This position combines elements of multiculturalism with the view that black theology's critique is necessary and complete.

To be continued . . .

Reception of Black Theologies 1

Black Theology: A New Word, a Critical Project, and a Consolidation of Tradition

As I continue to work on the issue of whiteness in relation to theology, I am putting a few pieces of analysis on this site for response. Part 1.

In one sense, Black theology broke onto the scene as something new, an innovation in the late 1960s. Black theology offered a new word in the academy. Certainly, there were echoes and resonances of this new theology in other settings and with other names, such as the Latin American liberation theologies identified with Gustavo Gutierrez, the self-identified liberation theology of John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus, and somewhat later, womanist theologies which sought to advance the insights of black theology and feminist theology with a more thoroughgoing liberationist method.

In a second sense, Black theology represented a critical project in theology. Having recognized the intransigence of so-called Christian institutions in confronting hierarchies of privilege and disadvantage grounded in race, Black theologians like James Cone began to put forth a Barthian “No” to the status quo of theological production.

Third, and perhaps most important, Black theologies consolidated in academic terms the preached, lived theological perspective of a community of people whose faith offered a vision of the world that bore witness to the divine denial of human systems of domination and divine faithfulness and love toward the oppressed and marginalized. These three impulses help to identify the black theology movement according to its purpose and emergence.

To be continued . . .
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