Friday, September 29, 2017

Black Liberation, Christology, and Echo Chambers

Since starting postulancy and seminary work, I've gone mostly silent here but for the occasional sermon. I am embarking upon a haphazard plan to go back through some of the shorter and more interesting (I say) 'reading response'-type assignments and post them here. This post is the third of a three-part series from a course I took at UVa this summer on The Black Church and American CultureIn it I am responding to a few essays/chapters assigned by the founder of black liberation theology, James Cone.


Although my reaction to James Cone's provocative and stimulating theological work was far from uniformly negative, I do want to use this as an opportunity to work through two particular difficulties that present themselves immediately after reading.

Cone asserts that the person of Jesus Christ and the experience of black Americans must be held in constant dialectical tension with one another, but it is quite clear which holds ultimate and absolute primacy throughout. The experience of black Americans serves as the governing principle for interpreting, for filtering, Cone's reading of Jesus. (This is abundantly clear in the two chapters from A Black Theology of Liberation, somewhat less clear in “Who Is Jesus Christ for us Today?” from God of the Oppressed.) Cone claims that Jesus’ historical and biblical Jewishness fundamentally means that he identifies with the oppressed. That in turn requires, in contemporary context, that Jesus be identified as black. Of course, Jesus does indeed identify with the oppressed, and he must be identified with, for, and to black Americans. But should he be identified as black? Cone is right that the white European Jesus has no more historical and perhaps less theological basis. But this is ultimately so because the Second Person of the Trinity did not cease to be incarnate at the resurrection or ascension. He remains Jesus. He remains Jewish. Cone has determined, however, that the sole relevant factor in Jesus’ Jewish particularity is the oppression Jews experienced. Yet the Jews of the Bible were not only oppressed; they were often oppressors. Cone would perhaps say that this element is irrelevant to the narrative God was weaving in his interaction with the Jewish people—but then that’s precisely the problem. Cone has decided in advance what about Jesus counts and what doesn’t, which means that the Jesus of whom he speaks is inevitably his creation, subject to his whims and inclinations and manipulations. Cone’s Jesus is powerful and provocative—but cannot be authoritative.

Of course, Cone has already anticipated and dismissed my objections as those of a white man with a vested interest in maintaining the oppressive status quo. There’s no question that I will never fully understand the experience of black Americans. As much reading and thinking and listening as I might do, I will always be essentially an outsider speaking from a position of fundamental and insurmountable ignorance. Thus I have nothing to say that is worth Cone’s hearing. That’s fine so far as it goes—he really and truly has absolutely no reason to listen to my voice, even if it could be divorced from my whiteness. But the principle also creates an echo chamber for Cone. Cone’s dismissal insulates his position, at least in theory, from any serious engagement with critical positions. Critiques by whites are meaningless, of course, but Cone has also defined being black as agreeing with his position: “Black thinkers… cannot be black and identified with the powers that be. To be black is to be committed to destroying everything this country loves and adores” (21). Implicitly, then, blacks who would disagree are in fact not black but white. Regardless of the merits of that argument, the most troubling element is that Cone has managed to create a situation in which he need not listen to any dissenting voices, in which the only voice that counts happens to be his.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Jesus's Poverty versus St. Paul's Privilege?

Since starting postulancy and seminary work, I've gone mostly silent here but for the occasional sermon. I am embarking upon a haphazard plan to go back through some of the shorter and more interesting (I say) 'reading response'-type assignments and post them here. This post is the second of a three-part series from a course I took at UVa this summer on The Black Church and American Culture. In it I am responding to Howard Thurman's chapter "Jesus—An Interpretation" in his Jesus and the DisinheritedIn the future, I also hope to take up the more general question of the apparent connection between trinitarian heresy and racial justice.


Howard Thurman rightly points out American Christianity’s tendency to preach to the privileged about their responsibilities to the needy, while not saying much about what is often central in the New Testament—the message of Christianity for “the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed” (13). And his argument about the different social statuses of Jesus and St. Paul was a striking perspective. ("Unless one actually lives day by day without a sense of security, he cannot understand what worlds separated Jesus from Paul,” 33-34.)

Ultimately, though, there was a certain psychological and socioeconomic reductionism to Thurman’s approach to Jesus and especially St. Paul. He did note that what makes Jesus “most significant is not the way in which he resembled his fellow but the way in which he differed from all the rest of them” (19). But Thurman’s Christology seems suspect. Jesus is “a spiritual genius” who “became a perfect instrument for the embodiment of a set of ideals” because he “was so conditioned and organized within himself” (19, 16). None of that precludes a recognition of Jesus’ full divinity—the Incarnate Word is fully human, after all—but, if unqualified, it reduces Jesus to a great spiritual guru. Given American Christianity’s otherworldly fatalism, Thurman is right to reemphasize the this-worldly implications of Jesus’ teaching, but he overcorrects, reducing Jesus’ message to a version of social justice divorced from the fullness of the gospel. (“Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed,” 29.)

Psychological/socioeconomic readings can be enlightening, but they can also be dismissive, allowing one to bracket off difficult passages as products of the author’s context—which results in a watered-down text that can no longer threaten the reader’s premises. This precludes wrestling with the fullness of a text. It may be that St. Paul’s teachings to slaves expressed blind spots due to privilege, but if we do not try to wrestle with how St. Paul himself would have defended his teachings, we are letting ourselves off the hook too easily. (I suspect St. Paul would have said it has to do with the multifaceted nature of Christian love and its all-encompassing demands upon the Christian; we may not like where that leads, but charity demands we attempt fully to understand, even if we do not hold to the Church's traditional teachings about biblical inspiration.)

The other problem for Thurman’s interpretation is that, taken as a whole, the New Testament's teachings do not break down so easily by class and status. For instance, every aspect of St. Paul’s theology and ethics that Thurman sees as a problematic consequence of privilege is equally evident in the first epistle of St. Peter, who did not share St. Paul’s status and privilege.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Trinitarian Heresy and Racial Justice

In response to my last post, Daniel Silliman has raised the provocative question of the connection between trinitarian heresy and racial justice:
The connection can't just be brushed off, as will become clear in future posts on Christology in Howard Thurman and James Cone. And Martin Luther King, Jr. also exhibits highly questionable trinitarian orthodoxy in his writings.

So it's something that has to be considered, one way or another, and I plan to do just that at some point after my three-part series pulled from my black church class. Stay tuned.


EDIT: Yeah, okay, I was ambitious foolish to think I would have time to write about this anytime soon. It's something I would love to write on more, but that will have to wait. You may now tune out. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Pentecostalism, Race, and Orthodoxy

Since starting postulancy and seminary work, I've gone mostly silent here but for the occasional sermon. I am embarking upon a haphazard plan to go back through some of the shorter and more interesting (I say) 'reading response'-type assignments and post them here. The one below is the first of a three-part series from a course I took at UVa this summer on The Black Church and American Culture. In the future, I hope to take up the more general question of the apparent connection between trinitarian heresy and racial justice.


Christians in general believe that God will eventually (re)unite his Church, and thus most believe that the Holy Spirit’s work results in Christian unity. Vinson Synan’s The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition outlined the ecumenical impulse of Pentecostalism that initially united a diverse group of Baptist and Methodist Christians, but it also showed how the movement eventually broke down along racial and theological lines. Pentecostals could not (would not) overcome segregation and prejudice, Trinitarian debates, and disagreement over the “second work of sanctification.”

Meanwhile, in The Black Roots and White Racism of Early Pentecostalism in the USA, Ian MacRobert suggests that disagreements over the “Oneness” doctrines “were more probably rationalisations for schism than genuine reasons” (70). Without in any way diminishing the animating and perhaps even overwhelming influence of race in Pentecostal history, I also want to point out that Trinitarian theology and Christology functioned as the central and almost sole cause for excommunication and schism across the first thousand years of Christian history and continued to be the sine qua non of defining Christian orthodoxy for the next thousand. Moreover, the division over the “second work of sanctification” reflected the reassertion of prior denominational lines that had been blurred but not eliminated by the Pentecostal explosion. It seems implausible (and uncharitable) to reduce these issues into fig leafs for racism.

Later on, MacRobert suggests that the “attempt to fit the presence and power of the Holy Spirit into existing theological categories” prevented “most of the white Pentecostal sects and also—though to a lesser extent—many of the black ones” from following the true leading of the Spirit. “However,” he says, “Black Pentecostalism—particularly Oneness or Apostolic Pentecostalism—has retained more of the ‘original’ Pentecostal message and power” (86-87). Perhaps this apparent endorsement of Oneness Pentecostalism explains his downplaying of Nicene Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology.

By contrast, I am writing as an Anglican devoted to the orthodox and Catholic faith of the creeds and ecumenical councils—and thus rather inclined to a hermeneutic of suspicion towards contrary (“heretical”) movements. If MacRobert’s operative premise is that Oneness Pentecostalism is a work of the Holy Spirit, mine is quite the opposite.

Synan, meanwhile, asserted that “many periods of Christian history from St. Paul to Charles Parham had been punctuated by occasional outbreaks of glossolalia.” However, he only mentioned three movements from the first sixteen centuries of the Church’s existence—all three of which were denounced as heretical (though not because of speaking in tongues, and only the Albigenses would be broadly rejected by Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians today). The first two post-Reformation groups mentioned—Shakers and Mormons—fall outside of even the broadest definition of Christian orthodoxy.

So, for me, Synan’s attempt to established the historical bona fides of glossolalia in the Church was extraordinarily counterproductive. I am still figuring out what to make of the charismatic movement. I have very little firsthand experience with it, but given the vibrant and growing charismatic branch of Anglicanism, as well as the experiences of some people close to me, I am much inclined to embrace it. But the association Sinan and MacRobert made between the charismatics and historic heresies is giving me serious pause.

Note: my paraphrase of MacRobert's "apparent endorsement of Oneness Pentecostalism" may not have done full justice to his argument. Here's the context, starting with the last paragraph on page 86.