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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, May 02, 2011

From the Jubilee File--Hon. Rt. Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings

I have a file buried several layers down in my Documents file on the laptop.  I have visited it often in the past two years to save or retrieve documents relating to community organizing work on the economy.  I named it when I was working on a theological reflection on the economic crisis with a group of colleagues.  Since so much of the biblical discussion of usury kept taking us back to the Jubilee practices of the Israelite society.  So I called the file "Jubilee."  A big part of my life and creative work for the past two years gets documented in the Jubilee file.

It's been a Jubilee year, and in the past few days I have been reminded to count my Jubilee blessings.  Willie James Jennings, my younger brother, turned 50 last Friday.  I was in Texas, fittingly grading papers, on the birthday of my brother in the professoriate.  I lift an analytical reading report in your honor, my brother, to toast your Jubilee Day.

Willie has worked as hard as anyone has to be my friend.  I take it that some of my professorial instincts and habits--absorption in private study, narrowly focused thinking, lack of awareness of the passing of time, occasional absent-mindedness (to put it lightly), aversion to being told what to do and when, being enamored by my own words--make it a bit harder to be my friend.  I hope I have other qualities that compensate.  But Willie thought it worth his time to keep a friendship going.

Although we met as students, it was after marching for graduation in 1994 that we stoked the fires of friendship.  Willie and I shared Saturday morning coffee for many weeks while our daughters (my youngest and his oldest) hopped and skipped and leaped with joy in the little kiddie's dance class.  We talked through some hard times and some good times.  He put a black man's mirror up for me to look at my white man's life in a racialized world.  I knew that something bigger than I could handle was happening to me.  I had no idea that he was finding in me some hope for the church's deliverance from its demons of malformed desire and imagination. 

I did not know this because as a scholar-friend, Willie kept his cards close to his chest.  I understand this a little better now that I've seen him in action recently on a panel to discuss his book, The Christian Imagination.  Some people in the gathering raised questions which begged for a polemical response.  They either did not understand his arguments from the book, or they just wanted to see if they could get a rise out of him. 

But Willie did not take the bait in his Jubilee year.  He generously referred to the antagonistic comments as "matters of deep importance," or something to that effect.  I was ready to pounce, but Willie gave his winning smile.   It may be that he was simply being political, having learned such skills as a faculty dean for so many years.  But I think it was also a commitment to listen and remain in a friendly conversation with people who are sure that he has gone off on a fool's errand.

This Jubilee year I was blessed to read The Christian Imagination with a class of Shaw students taking Systematic Theology.  As with J. Kameron Carter's Race, in reading Willie's book with my students I continuously found ways that it could challenge my previous theology lectures and supplement the textbooks with which I have become so familiar.  The Christian Imagination opened doors for me and for my students that made theology more alive. 

So often when we take theology to be the gleaned gems of a long [tired] tradition, we find it hard to get a lever on how Christian faith, its leaders, its institutions, and its social productions could become so corrupted and contrary to the ways of the one from whom they take their name.  Books like Willie's give us hope that theology does not have to be merely the crusty oozings from the cracked plaster walls lining the edifice of Euro-American World Domination.  Can there be life within those walls of ageless stone?  Could the academy have a heart of beating flesh?  Or are we destined to have hearts of stone?

So it is that in this Jubilee year, Willie opened the floodgates which had held back a deep lake of theological reflection, fed by mountain streams and woodland springs, flowing through the dark places of middle passage, bottom lands of enforced toil, and the hopeful self-direction of a Second Great Migration.  Along the way, a few droplets from the deeps had come my way, but the halls of Duke and Shaw, only thirty miles apart, are worlds away from one another.  If there were open conversations in Durham, I was out of that loop. 

Moreover, the fast scholarly pace of read, reduce, destroy that makes up hyperacademia is not on the menu at Shaw.  I don't mean to be "hatin' on" Duke, but they really are caught up in the university-military-industrial complex, on a high-speed train toward producing the next world, and the next, and the one after that.  Surely, Willie wisely let only a few droplets out so that when the flood arrived, it would be a season of reckoning.  Folks on the train would have to stop and get off if they were going to have a word to say about it.  He gave us far more in this Jubilee year than we could chew quickly, unless we want to choke on it.

So the back and forth clicking to the Jubilee folder was more than I realized.  In his year of Jubilee, my friend ripped open a place in my heart through which the Holy Spirit may shine to make me a better man than I was, burn away the malformations of desire, and kindle an imagination of another way of being Christian, of being a community that longs to know one another as God's bountiful creation and election.

Happy Jubilee, Willie.  Love that house full of women with all that you have in you.  And save a minute for me so we can plot the revolution.

1 comment:

Roosevelt Ethridge said...

It is fulfilling to find friends past profession. Many people lack friendships because of the need to produce or fulfill their career goals. Therefore, walking in our Jubliee becomes challenging. For the most part, having someone committ to friendship outside of colleague or commradory is special. It still remains a rarity for different races and cultures to build a friendship inspite of the scrutiny that it stims. Friendship require respect as well as concern for the other.

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