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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 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.

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