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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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Monday, June 29, 2009

Yoder, Race, and Liberation

In conversation with a friend studying theology in Scotland, Scott Prather (see his recent article, "The Body and Human Identity in Postmodernism and Orthodoxy," in American Theological Inquiry), I was thinking about how late-twentieth century theological movements. We share an interest in Yoder's theology and in the renewal of churches overwhelmed by the culture of race, capital, and empire. I put together a few thoughts that address some of the intellectual and ecclesial agenda I am in the midst of in these days.

One thing that has changed about my theological work since leaving graduate school is that I do not tend to look at flawed approaches as reasons to disavow others' theological writing. So although I can find things to disagree with in much Latin American liberation theology, whether it be elements of modern politics too intermingled with ecclesiology, or aspects of RCC doctrines that I find problematic, or sociological models that repristinate the policing of religion to the margin, I just set those parts aside and mine the stuff that represents what I would classify as faithful theological reflection. It would not sell in a dissertation, but I'm not working on that agenda any more.

So when I read the liberation theologians, I figure that what they set out to do is not so different from what I am setting out to do. Where they help me, I use them. And they are way more useful to me than so many evangelicals who can't see past the end of their statements on inerrancy or satisfaction, or the mainstream protestants who are convinced that the nut of the gospel is the equivalent of the nut of American democracy.

Yoder has the resources for a theology of race which he never adequately developed, nor did he demonstrate a full understanding of the implications of race for his dialogue with black theologies and ecclesiologies. That is, by making his concept of Constantinianism absorb so many diverse failures of the church, Yoder did not name adequately what whiteness is and what it does to the churches. Ultimately theologians like influenced by Yoder must dredge the wells of white theology to see how the construction of whiteness has poisoned generations.

I have been thinking about the commonalities of Yoder and the black theologians and other liberation theologians for some time. Having spent some time reading liberation theologies this year, I still find the commonality compelling in the basic backbone:

  • a living, breathing, human Jesus;
  • the political nature of the messiah;
  • Jesus representing an oppressed, poor, minority;
  • the minority position/option for the poor;
  • the critique of Constantinianism/Capitalism/National Security state;
  • the making of a new, called-out community;
  • the pneumatological driving force of the church linked with a bottom-up ecclesiology;
  • the critique of ecclesial political establishments;
  • the turn to the marginalized;
  • the theological engagement with practices;
  • the value and critique of tradition;
  • perpetual reform/evangelization of the church;
and on and on.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Jena 6 Case Finally Over

When the Jena 6 were charged far out of proportion for their fighting which injured Justin Barker, it touched a tender nerve among those of us who long for an end to white supremacy. I first posted about the story over two years ago, having read the Chicago Tribune news story and the earlier work by Alan Bean, director of Friends of Justice (If you don't know Alan's blog, you should check it out.)

All over the news and talk shows, self-righteous pundits were raging at Duke University and the Durham legal system for daring to believe and act on the charges brought against three young white men by a black woman. Tragically, in the Duke case, the charges turned out to be unsubstantiated. People pretended not to believe that this sort of thing ever happens in the good ol' US of A.

Yet the Jena case had been around almost a year before it got any attention. The DA in Jena said that the violent crime was "aggravated" because when the boy was kicked, it was with a sport shoe which he dared to call a deadly weapon. With no ability to meet bail, these boys were facing attempted murder charges even though the victim had not been hospitalized and attended a party the night of the fight. The story did not make sense.

Thanks to folks like Alan Bean, the news began to get out. In a few months, it became a major national issue. Now, years later, the case is coming to a conclusion. The boys who beat and kicked Justin Barker are paying restitution and fines. They have all served jail time. But they also have finished high school, and five of the six are now in college.

For more information, check out Alan Bean's post today.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Lott Carey Youth

This calm and clear morning on campus I found young people and their leaders gathering in small groups, walking from one location to another. The 55th Annual Lott Carey Youth Seminar is in mid-stride. The theme is "Empowering Youth to Impact the World." Along with mission opportunities, good preaching, recreation and fun, and devotionals, the seminar this year has allied with the ONE Campaign, the Genocide Intervention Network, and the NAACP to help young people understand the relationship between their following Jesus and their care for the people of the world.

Although the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention is one of the smaller Baptist conventions, it's link to Shaw and our common history is very important. Named for Lott Carey, the first African American missionary to Africa, specifically to Liberia, this convention works to engage its member churches in a global vision of the gospel. Lott Carey was a former slave from theWilliamsburg area in Virginia.

Under the leadership of Rev. Dr. David Emmanuel Goatley, this convention has expanded its work and enlarged the opportunities for ministers and laypeople to engage in mission work. Moreover, this highly intelligent and devoted leader has played an important role among Baptists of all regions and ethnicity as the President of the North American Baptist Fellowship.

As I looked at the young people and their leaders on campus today, I was encouraged to hold fast to what I have never stopped believing: there is yet much work for Shaw University to do, and there are many partners and allies who are committed to making that happen. I know that is true of the faculty with whom I have conversations. Along with the Lott Carey and leaders and youth, we can see a better future for the poor in our neighborhoods, for African peoples, for war-torn lands in need of peace, for U. S. communities in need of reconciliation, for people everywhere who have not had access to education, and for Shaw University as a part of pursuing those tasks.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Questions to Ask Congress About Health Reform

I sent the following to the senators from NC about health reform. Something has to change. For now, my family is getting by pretty well, but it keeps getting harder. My wife and I have good jobs (at the moment), but many people who make less or have been laid off must be struggling seriously in this economy. Being poor ought not to mean that a person does not deserve medical care. I encourage you to ask for answers from your Senators and Congressional representatives.

My wife and I have watched our health costs skyrocket. Insurance is eating up more of our income each year. We worry about our kids who are approaching the age that they will not be our dependents. What will they do in an entry level job if health benefits keep being diminished?

Health care ought not to be a luxury. Everyone needs access. People should not have their finances ruined by a standard hospitalization.

A public healthcare option should be available to all citizens. That way, the semi-monopoly that exists as "private insurance" plans will have to compete with a plan that has its primary purpose the public health, not profits.

Do you support a public healthcare option as part of healthcare reform?

If so, do you support a public healthcare option that is available on day one?

Do you support a public healthcare option that is national, available everywhere, and accountable our government?

Do you support a public healthcare option that has the clout to establish rates with providers and big drug companies?

As a constituent, I would really like to know the answers to these questions. Please respond to these questions in writing via email.

Friday, June 12, 2009

I Know This Is Not All Southern Baptists

Wiley Drake, known for his outrageous statements, made another one. He said on Fox radio that the was praying for the President to die. He said he was praying this because it is what God wants. What kind of church has this kind of pastor? Thank you Dwight McKissic for challenging this sinful arrogance.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Repentance and Reconciliation

I read an article this week about a resolution submitted to the Southern Baptist Convention on racial reconciliation. It was billed as a follow-up to the apology for complicity in slavery that the SBC issued in the mid-1990s. The gist was to acknowledge and celebrate the accomplishment represented by the election of Barack Obama as President. Although the resolution goes on to ask the President to support restrictions on abortion, etc., many have speculated that the convention may refuse to consider the resolution because of the political alignments of many convention leaders. That sounds to me like more of the same-old same-old.

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in deed and action (1 John 3:18).
I appreciate the significance of resolutions, especially those which take on critical issues such as this one. On the other hand, I also know (it's a kind of professorial occupational hazard) that making these kinds of statements also has severe limits. Efforts at racial reconciliation will still have far to go, even if such a statement gets approved by a convention. The reorganizing of ecclesial space, habits, practices, and politics is much harder than voting on a resolution.

This has been made real to me this week through a letter I received in my mailbox from the Dean of Duke Divinity School. The letter described the effects of the economic downturn on the work of the Divinity School. A great drop in the value of the endowment will mean a drop in income for the school. The Dean asked me to make a donation to help them sustain their good work.

I greatly appreciate my alma mater for many reasons. I have many close friends who teach, study, and work there. I wish the best for the school and want them to continue paying my friends and doing good work. I like that they have a Center for Reconciliation which is deeply engaged in examinations of race, class, and international peace. I believe in all of that. I appreciate that they have hired me several times to teach as an adjunct professor, which helps pay off my education loans.

I get phone calls from my undergraduate alma mater a couple of times a year. Baylor, like Duke, is well-organized to raise funds from their alumni, and students call to tell me all the good things that are happening at Baylor. I agree that these are good things. I want Baylor to succeed and become better. I want them to continue paying my friends and relatives who work there. I want them to awaken students to the broader world and God's work in it.

However, the issue of race always comes to the front of my mind when I get these contacts. Baylor and Duke grew and prospered on the backs of a slavocracy and apartheid system which they and their constituents only gave up when they could not endure further humiliation for their exclusion and repression of African Americans. All the while, separate institutions offered education to African Americans in the shadow of these powerful majority institutions. Shaw University made due with what they could scrap together. The Duke family empire placed its name on the school by funding Duke University with the largest donation ever to an educational institution, and the Duke Endowment has grown to over $2.9 billion. Shaw received its name from a donor who gave $5,000.

With virtually no endowment, Shaw has made its way, and done good things. Shaw Divinity School became the third graduate theological institution in North Carolina to receive accreditation from the Association of Theological Schools, preceded only by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School. Now many more have joined the ranks of these historic institutions. But the legacy of a history of oppression continues to yield a great disparity of funding for Shaw and Duke. The same can be said for Baylor and the defunct Bishop College, or Paul Quinn College which continues to strive toward its educational mission in Dallas.

And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors (Matthew 23:30-32).
What am I doing besides whining? Maybe not much more than that. I am writing about reparations. Let me tell you what I think ought to happen.

Schools like Duke and Baylor, who have become so proficient and successful at fund-raising, ought to enter into partnership with historically disadvantaged schools. Duke Divinity School and Shaw Divinity School have worked alongside one another in central North Carolina for a long time. One has grown wealthier and wealthier while the other has pressed on with limited resources. What if Duke Divinity School would tithe from its fund-raising to build the financial strength of Shaw Divinity School? What if Duke and Shaw would work together to overcome historic disparities? What if Duke's successful fundraising program would take on a mentoring relationship with Shaw's fundraising program? Wouldn't that be a real step toward reconciliation?

Reconciliation must be about more than wishing good for those from whom we are estranged. It must mean a coming together. It means that one seeks the good of the other. A true effort toward race reconciliation in theological education would not perpetuate the power of some institutions by trying to absorb to themselves the accomplishments of those they previously excluded. This is the usual strategy of the progressive white churches. Realizing finally that they have a shameful history in race relations, they try to figure out how to get the excluded people to join their organizations.

Why not work toward strengthening the one who has previously been starved? A stronger peer institution at Shaw Divinity School would not be a threat to Duke Divinity School. Such a peer institution would be an asset, and it would allow for partnerships that could benefit both schools. Shaw is not the weak school in the shadow of the strong school. It is the underfunded school alongside the well-funded school. It does not have to stay that way.

So I hope they pass the resolution at the SBC. But what I hope for more is that the repentance would go beyond words.

Bear fruit worthy of repentance (Luke 3:8).
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