Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Exercise of Power and the Refusal of Power

Nobody says its like Lehmann, eh?

"The royal trappings worn by Jesus, viz., the crown of thorns and the purpose cloak (but not insignificantly perhaps minus the mock-scepter cane), are patently a mockery of Jesus' royal pretensions and a ridicule of his weakness masquerading as strength. How undangerous can any human being get! 'In fact, it is just such a man who claims to be the king of truth! The ho logos sarx egeneto has become visible in its most extreme consequences.' Jesus, on the other hand, at the apex of defenselessness, and all but at the nadir of helplessness, dramatically reverses the field. His silent presence turns that unmasking devised by his accusers and his judge against itself. It is they who stand before the world unmasked. ...

Perhaps the most awesome thing about the imminent crucifixion was - and is - the ambiguity hidden in its inevitability. Jesus, like Pilate, was on his way to his appointed end. But whereas Pilate's exercise of power was caught in the vise of inevitability and the will-to-power, Jesus' refusal of power was caught in the vise of inevitability and the will-to-death of the people of destiny. Pilate's reluctant acceptance of the unavoidable is the final irony of the exercise of power, the strength of which is weakness. The people's passionate pressure to make the unavoidable happen is the ultimate pathos in a refusal of power, the weakness of which is its strength. Like Nietzsche's tightrope walker, Jesus goes down before established power, which he must oppose, and the fury of the people of destiny whose destiny he has come to affirm and whose fury he has come to abate."

- Paul Lehmann, Transfiguration of Politics, 61-63.

Monday, September 2, 2013

On Reading Barth: Another Form of Feminist Resistance (A Response to Janice Rees)

Perhaps this post is really not a response to Janice Rees’ most recent post at WIT, but rather a post that is a long-time coming. I can’t decide [1]. But nonetheless, it was her powerful post that inspired me to break my silence as a woman in theology studying Barth. 
I, too, read Brandy Daniels’ post at WIT regarding the good old Boys Club with much relief, admiration, and thankfulness. Brandy, per usual, has the courageous ability to consistently offer a prophetic voice on many topics that few of us are willing to openly discuss. And if there is anyone who can relate to Brandy’s experience of said club, it is me. I often find myself one of the only women in various theological circles. As much as I’ve gotten used to this scene, it still can be rather taxing in various ways, to say the least. Similarly, I read Janice’s post with a lot of agreement and kept nodding my head with great relief, admiration, and thankfulness as well that someone, hell anyone, had finally written these things publicly. I support and understand her resistance to the academic guild of Barth studies. But I also felt, however unintentionally on the part of Janice, like I have so many countless times in the past, alienated from my women colleagues. Ironically, I often feel the most judgment and objection to studying Barth from other women. And this has repeatedly left me feeling like I don’t truly measure up as a feminist because I’m not refusing to engage or study Barth who lingers as the theological coach for so many white male academics. This can leave me wondering if there’s any place for me in the women’s club, either. 

There is no denying much of what Rees writes. I’ll engage her points accordingly. First, yes, Barth does seem to serve as a boundary line for what counts as “serious scholarship.” This frustrating ideological defense mechanism usually allows many the excuse to not engage with other critical voices and witnesses that might vulnerably and necessarily deconstruct one’s basic theological presuppositions through a hermeneutic of race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. Second, depending on where you stand within that “confessional identity” that Janice mentions, Barth is often touted as the line (or transgression of said line) of orthodoxy. For those who think Barth was not, in fact, the living embodiment of heresy (they really do exist!), the old Swiss gets brought up time and again about how not to do “liberal theology” (cue scary music). In a few sentences peppered with phrases like “turn to the subject,” “subjectivism,” and “reason,” these confessionals will tell you why they genuinely believe Barth is the savior of all theological discourse both then and now and until the second Parousia. It almost becomes a paint by number dialogue in which you know in advance, without even engaging folks like this, exactly what they will say and how they will say it in order to reject those they think warrant the Barth trump card against dangerous liberalism. And then finally, and most interesting to me, Rees explains her resistance to reading Barth by bravely asserting that Barth scholarship is an academic power in itself that must be resisted. American Barth scholarship is the personification of the white male heterosexual who feels sorry for himself that he gets persecuted for not engaging with more critical theologies. 

So you might be asking what could I possibly have to say that would push back on any of this given my agreement with much of it. Well, I often wonder if our legitimate critiques of Barth and Barth scholarship leaves any room for women like myself who are genuinely interested in studying Karl Barth. [2] I can still remember a female friend asking me a couple of years ago how in the world I could be interested in Barth since I was a woman and a feminist. Didn’t I know that the field was dominated by men? And wasn’t I turned off by Barth’s theology that was so masculine partially through the unfailing use of masculine pronouns referencing God? As a proper feminist, this should bother me to the point where I stop reading Barth and start publicly voicing my reasons for such rejection. From that moment on, I realized that studying Barth was going to be a bit of a lonely road. [3] Not only was it a boys club, but now some women were suspicious and somewhat disappointed when they found out that I’m interested in Barth (or apocalyptic theology for that matter!). Now I don’t measure up to what it takes to be in the girls club. And you can’t even begin to imagine the insecurity and isolation that occurs when you feel excluded from the “new feminist orthodoxy” as a woman and Barthian theologian. I often wonder if others, especially these female critics, think I am trying to fit into the boys club instead of assuming that I am seriously and authentically interested in this particular theology precisely because I am, in fact, a feminist theologian.

I wish there was space within the theological academy for women to critically engage and appropriate Barth in ways that brought him into desperately needed conversation with other critical theologies. And I’m not talking about the token engagement that can pass in certain projects. I’m interested in profound and rigorous bilateral dialogue between Barth and other critical theologians in order to create something new. [4] The most ironic part of all of this is when I realize just how “radical” Barth is on certain issues and the lines of continuity that can be drawn between him and other theologians who most within confessional boundaries might typically render “not serious” or “unorthodox.” [5] To my surprise, when I read Barth, I see him as an incredible support and ally for many basic theological concerns within theologies of race, gender, and sexuality. [6] And to my even greater surprise, there are very few individuals actually doing this work to highlight such critical and profound lines of continuity. [7] These voices rarely exist partly because of the points Janice mentions and also due to the fact that few people, especially women or people of color, are encouraged to enter into these spaces to say NO to such powers by creatively appropriating Barth in new and exciting ways. It is almost as if the push to not engage Barth is, ironically, a further solidification of his power within the academy. I am tempted to think that true and effective resistance to the problems of Barth scholarship can come about through using other theologians to deconstruct him and utilize his theology to support critical concerns and efforts. And I’d like to have other women and people of color in these spaces with me witnessing to the Gospel more faithfully through such critical engagement.

With everything said, I want to make one thing abundantly clear. At the end of the day, the issue isn’t truly about getting more people to read and study Karl Barth nor should it be. Women should be encouraged and free to engage anyone they want within theology and other academic disciplines including the male-dominated field of Barth studies. And women should feel free to follow Janice in not reading Barth if they don’t want to as a one form of powerful resistance. Afterall, isn’t that freedom for women to be exactly who they are and study whatever they want the true ethos of feminism? Unless women feel genuinely free of shame for doing so (or not doing so!), I fear that we are doing a disservice to the cause of gender equality. I hope to see more women free to go wherever they want and perhaps some of them will continue to infiltrate those spaces dominated by men including Barth studies.

[1] This is an important disclaimer since some of this post extends beyond Janice’s own reasons for not studying Barth because it offers a response to those who object to women studying in male-dominated fields. 
[2] I am extremely indebted to Barth for many of my theological presuppositions and my general methodological orientation. However, my interests and theological concerns extend far beyond Karl Barth to include namely apocalyptic theology, feminist and womanist theologies among liberation theologies, gender theory, and various other figures including Bonhoeffer, Käsemann, Kiekegaard, Delores Williams, Judith Butler, Moltmann, and many more that would be too long to list here. If I continue to use and appropriate Barth, I will not necessarily be interested in doing so in order to “get Barth right” for the sake of Barth scholarship, but rather to offer a greater faithful witness to the Gospel.
[3] I find the same is true for other topics in which I am interested, namely apocalyptic theology. I’ve received criticism for being interested in this discourse not only for the phallic and violent rhetoric, but also because the field is quite dominated by white heterosexual men.
[4] The (almost tragic) irony in all of this is that what I’m advocating here is exactly what Barth would have wanted: “Theological work is distinguished from other kinds of work by the fact that anyone who desires to do this work cannot proceed by building with complete confidence on the foundation of questions that are already settled, results that are already achieved, or conclusions that are already arrived at. [One] cannot continue to build today in any way on foundations that were laid yesterday for [one]self, and [one] cannot live today in any way on the interest from a capital amassed yesterday. [One’s] only possible procedure every day, in fact every hour, is to begin anew at the beginning” (Barth, Evangelical Theology, 165).
[5] I use the word radical here, but I should admit that given the overuse of this word, I’m not entirely sure what it means any longer. 
[6] Just the other day, I stumbled across a fascinating essay by Jaime Ronaldo Balboa entitled “Church Dogmatics, Natural Theology, and the Slippery Slope of Geschlecht: A Constructivist-Gay Liberationist Reading of Barth” (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 66/4, 771-789). Balboa’s essay serves as an exceptional example concerning how Barth’s own theology can be read against other parts of Barth’s theology namely his problematic conceptions of heteronormativity.  
[7] I would like to note that some of my colleagues are doing profound and interesting work in Barth studies that have direct implications for discourses regarding liberation from various forms of oppression including race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. even if their projects are not an overt engagement with these concerns.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Recent Findings.

I don't have much time to engage in leisure reading these days. Most of my time is devoted to my new job and doctoral applications. However, I manage to squeeze in some time to read theology usually while walking across town to a coffee shop (oddly enough, I do some of my best reading while walking) and I've been finding some great stuff. I am fully aware that this blog has been reduced to a quote machine, but you'll have to indulge that tendency for a bit longer (if I still have any readers out there!). Here are four random excerpts from what seems like a stack of books I've been trying slowly to make my way through this summer:

"A major -- if not the major -- significance of The Theological Declaration of Barmen is its documentation of the church on the way from confessional faithfulness to confessional responsibility. On record, it seems that the confessional story -- from Nicea, Chalcedon and the Symbolum Romanum to Trent; and from Trent, via Augsburg and the Formula or Concord, on the one hand, and the Geneva, Scots and Westminster Confessions, on the other, to the Catechisms: Roman, Lutheran and Reformed, and the unexcelled irenic tonalities of Heidelberg -- seems more preoccupied with the responsibility of faithfulness of the church to its calling to be the church than with the faithfulness of the church to the responsibility intrinsic to being the church in the world for the sake of the world. The watchwords of responsibility for faithfulness have been the formative and authoritative bearing of Holy Scripture upon the content and witness of the Confessions, the proclamation of the World and the celebration of the Sacraments, the grace, faith and obedience by which individual believers receive and express their salvation in this world and the next. The world -- for the sake of which the church is called to be the church -- was largely left to its own devices, under the custodial watchfulness of a power settlement which neatly, if not always smoothly, divided responsibility between things spiritual and things temporal. This arrangement, dubiously ascribed to divine appointment, managed, with less than unexceptional operational effectiveness, to keep the world in tow and on course until the unfailingly anticipated Second Advent, which seemed to have fallen into the awkward habit of continual postponement."
- Paul Lehmann, "On Faithfulness, Responsibility and the Confessional State of the Church," 22-23.

"Like any systematic interpretation, systematic theology attempts to give an intelligible account of the maximum amount of data with the minimum amount of explanatory principles. The primary data to which the theology of the Christian church is committed comprise a tradition of witness in history, through varying cultural contexts, to the God made known in events concerning Jesus of Nazareth. The purpose of such an account is not, as the name 'systematic' might seem to suggest, to reduce the life of the Spirit to categories of rational abstraction. Nor is it to camouflage, and thereby domesticate, the subversive character of the church's mission amidst the sufferings of this world by painting that mission in colors merely conforming to some prevalent intellection (or anti-intellectual!) terrain. What is at stake in this disciple for the church - and I think for the academy as well - is at once a critical and constructive task: a 'testing of the spirits' (1 John 4:1) and an 'account for the hope' (1 Pet. 3:15)."
- Christopher Morse, The Logic of Promise in Moltmann's Theology, ix.

"The central point in Bonhoeffer's critique of religion is the absolute distinction between Christ-centered reconciliation and 'redemption myths'. He could say that 'redemption is at the heart of the Gospel' but, also, more typically, that the idea of 'redemption' has become more difficult and remote in a 'world come of age', which is no longer interested in 'religious questions'. The fundamental problem with 'religions of redemption' is that they draw people out of the world instead of placing them more fully in the world. They treat God as a stopgap for our incomplete knowledge of nature, death, suffering and guilt. They prey on psychological weakness and intellectual ignorance and encourage the idea that faith is an escape from personal, scientific and political challenges. ...

The way in which Christ encounters human beings is developed positively in Bonhoeffer's Christology by focusing on what it means to be truly human. It is not enough to criticize religiosity in the cause of self-affirmation. Nietzsche's disdain for self-sacrifice and the Christian idea of remission of sins must be met by its life-affirming alternative in the self-giving love of Christ for the world."
- Max Champion, "Bonhoeffer: Redemption after Nietzsche?" 99-100.

"Could we wish anything else that this saving hope should always be declared at the cross, should always set a boundary against everything in our world, and should always manifest itself at that boundary. Were we to know more of God than the groans of creation and our own groaning; were we to know a Jesus Christ otherwise than as crucified; were we to know the Holy Spirit otherwise than as the Spirit of Him that raised Jesus from the dead; ... There would be no salvation. *For hope that is seen is not hope* ... If Christianity be not altogether thoroughgoing eschatology, there remains in it no relationship whatever with Christ. Spirit which does not at every moment point from death to the new life is not the Holy Spirit ... All that is not hope is wooden, hobbledehoy, blunt-edges, and sharp-pointed ... There is no freedom, but only imprisonment; no grace, but only condemnation and corruption; no divine guidance, but only fate; no God, but only a mirror of unredeemed humanity. And this is so, be there never so much progress of social reform and never so much trumpeting of the grandeur of Christian redemption. Redemption is invisible, inaccessible, and impossible, for it meets us only in hope. Do we desire something better than hope? Do we with to be something more than [men and women] who hope? But to wait is the most profound truth of our normal, everyday life and work, quite apart from being Christians. Every agricultural labourer, every mother, every truly active or truly suffering man [or woman] knows the necessity of waiting. And we - we must wait, as though there was something lying beyond good and evil, joy and sorrow, life and death; as though in happiness and disappointment, in growth and decay, in the 'Yes' and in the 'No' of our life in the world, we were expecting something. We must wait, as though there were a God whom, in victory and in defeat, in life and in death, we must serve with love and devotion. 'As though?' Yes, this is the strange element in the situation. In our journey through time, we are still men [and women] who wait, as though we saw what we do not see, as though we were gazing upon the unseen. Hope is the solution of the riddle of our 'As though." We do see. Existentially we see what is invisible, and therefore we wait. Could we see nothing but the visible world, we should not wait: we should accept our present situation with joy or with grumbling. Our refusal to accept it and to regard our present existence as incapable of harmony, our certainty that there abides in us a secret waiting for what is not, is, however, intelligible in the unseen hope which is ours in God, in Christ, in the Spirit, in the hope by which we are existentially confronted by things which are not. We can then, if we understand ourselves aright, be none other than they who wait. We are satisfied to know no more than the sorrow of the creation and our own sorrow. We ask nothing better or higher than the Cross, where God is manifested as God. We must, in fact, be servants who wait for the coming of their Lord."
-Barth, Epistle to the Romans, 314-315.


Also, for some reason, I became interested in the topic of boredom a couple of months ago. I think this was probably due to the fact that I found myself feeling boredom to whatever extent. Like the true nerd that I am, I solved my problem of boredom by reading about what other thinkers and theologians wrote about the topic. If I get time in the future, I'll post my thoughts on boredom and some interesting passages I discovered, most notably from Kierkegaard. I found a lot of relief and comfort in Kierkegaard's wisdom in his essay "Rotation of Crops."

Thursday, May 2, 2013

"Thy Kingdom Come!"

This was too incredible not to share:

"'Thy Kingdom come' - this is not the prayer of the pious soul of the individual who wants to flee the world, nor is it the prayer of the utopian and fanatic, the stubborn world reformer. Rather, this is the prayer only of the church-community of children of the Earth, who do not set themselves apart, who have no special proposals for reforming the world to offer, who are no better than the world, but who persevere together in the midst of the world, in its depths, in the daily life and subjugation of the world. They persevere because they are, in their own curious way, true to this existence, and they steadfastly fix their gaze on that most unique place in the world where they witness, in amazement, the overcoming of the curse, the most profound yes of God to the world. Here, in the midst of the dying, torn, and thirsting world, something becomes evident to those who can believe, believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here is the absolute miracle has occurred. Here the law of death is shattered; here the kingdom of God itself comes to us, in our world; here is God's declaration to the world, God's blessing, which annuls the curse. This is the event that alone kindles the prayer for the kingdom. It is in this very event that the old Earth is affirmed and God is hailed as lord of the Earth; and it is against this event that overcomes, breaks through, and destroys the cursed Earth and promises the new Earth. God's kingdom is the kingdom of resurrection on Earth."

- Bonhoeffer, "Thy Kingdom Come!," 290-291.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Käsemann on Paul and early Catholicism

In researching for a final paper, I came across this incredible (and lengthy) excerpt, which nicely highlights Käsemann's insistence upon the primacy of christology above all else, which is never eclipsed by or contingent upon ecclesiology or anthropology:

"The theme 'Paul and early catholicism' catches sight of only a segment of that radical transformation which led to the ancient Church. However, this segment has paradigmatic significance. Here it becomes apparent that the nascent catholicism was the historically necessary outcome of an original Christianity whose apocalyptic expectation has not been fulfilled. It may likewise become clear that - expressed or not - the mark of nascent catholicism is the message about the world-pervading Church as the reality of the kingdom of Christ on earth. We have thus arrived at a perspective relative to the total problem and can now go on to test its accuracy once more in detail.

Against my exposition it will probably be objected that Paul himself already understood the Church as the world-pervading domain of Christ; this understanding did not begin with early catholicism. In itself, such an observation is completely accurate, as is shown by the Pauline motif of the Church as the body of Christ. But I do not agree with the reasoning behind it, which is my opinion isolates the phenomenon instead of locating it historically. I would like to reverse the process: That observation shows that the Pauline concept of the Church pave the way for the early catholic view. Just as the apostle prescribed for his successors the horizon of their mission, so he also presented them with the basic theme of their theology. He was not by any means assimilated into their salvation history solely as a prisoner of their illusions. They did not comprehend his distinctiveness, but they found something in his personal and theological legacy which illuminated their own reality. For the conception of the Church as the body of Christ is the adequate expression for a community which carries on a worldwide mission in the name of Christ. In this respect it far surpasses the other conceptions of the people of God and the family of God. It is not accidental that this conception has been carried over into the doctrine of the mystical body of Christ, and in the process was developed and modified, as is characteristic of catholicism generally. Its deepest theological significance, however, lay in the fact that it inseparably linked ecclesiology and christology together and thus made the Church an integral factor in the salvation event.

No where is this more apparent than in the letter to the Ephesians, which for that very reason has become the classical document for all doctrine concerning the Church. Here even the connection between ecclesiology and christology is given a sacramental basis, so that becoming a disciple of Jesus is no longer the basis but the consequence of being a Christian. The Church grows as it were out of baptism, and in the celebration of the Lord's Supper it is constantly reunited out of all the dispersion to which its members are subject in everyday life. The decisive factor here is that men do not act on their own but are passively joined to the salvation event. As the sole actor, Christ mediates himself to those for whom he died and over whom he chooses now to reign. The drama of salvation is not concluded with Easter. Rather, precisely for the sake of the Easter event, it has an earthly continuation, because the exalted one desires to manifest himself as Lord of the world. ...

Even this view can claim a precedent in Paul. He did in fact make the sacramental incorporation into the worldwide body of Christ the criterion of being a Christian, and thus rejected a mere historical or ethical connection with Jesus of Nazareth as this criterion. For him also the lordship of Christ on earth rests on the fact that the exalted Lord, present in the Church, binds his own to himself and to one another. By endowing them with the Spirit, he makes them capable of permeating the old world as the inbreaking of the new, following his own precedent, and thus of demonstrating his omnipotence in every place and time. ...

For [Paul], the sacrament grants no guarantee of salvation, but makes it possible the overcoming of the world effected by the Spirit through a faith under threat by the world. It therefore opens up the dialectic of Christian existence, which is both under temptation and determined by the Lord at the same time. The reality of the new life stands and falls with the promise that God remains faithful and does not abandon his handiwork. Therefore statements about the sacrament are paralleled, and in a certain way even paralysed, by others about the gospel or faith. The Church is the world under the promise and commandment of the heavenly Lord, the host of those placed under the word and thus summoned ever anew to the exodus of the people of God. This means that Christian existence is no manageable phenomenon within the bounds of a clearly defined cultic society, and the effect of the sacraments can not be described as formulas ex opere operato. For the Giver cannot be separated from his gift and, on the other hand, he is not identical with his means of salvation, but he remains Lord and Judge over and in his gifts.

There is for Paul no extension of the earthly Jesus in the Church as the earthly deputy of the exalted one. It is just where he speaks of the body of Christ that christology and ecclesiology are not interchangeable. The Lord's domain manifests the Lord, but it does not stand in his stead and take possession of him. The body is the field and instrument of the Spirit, not its substitute or its fetters. Paul is utterly misunderstood if one regards the primacy of Christ over his Church as meaning anything other than the exclusive lordship of Christ. If the Pauline motif is used in another sense, the apostle necessarily, though against his will, becomes the pioneer of early catholic Christianity."

- Ernst Käsemann, "Paul and Early Catholicism," in New Testament Questions of Today, 242-245, emphasis added.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Racism and Sexism.

I've been reading some essays by Delores S. Williams this week in response to James Cone's black liberation theology. Williams responds to Cone from a black womanist perspective, and I wish I could express how challenging her writings have been to read over the last couple of days. There is so much to say about Williams and her questions, concerns, critiques, and objections to black liberation theology despite her support of it. One can not read Williams and emerge unchanged in relation to her particular critiques of black liberation theology (or a general biblical hermeneutic of liberation). What I find particularly remarkable about Williams' critiques of Cone is that she makes him aware of how critical sexism is to the fight for liberation and the inherent interconnectedness of racism and sexism. The patriarchal subjugation of black women is not simply a secondary or minor issue that must be addressed within the black community, but rather an essential part of the black struggle against racism. These are some of the powerful questions she asks of Cone:
"It sounded good, indeed, to hear Cone say, 'If we black male theologians do not take seriously the need to incorporate into our theology a critique of our sexist practices in the black community, then we have no right to complain when white theologians snub black theology.' 
Yet when I paraphrased some of the quotations from Malcolm X and others that Cone used in the 1986 preface [of A Black Theology of Liberation], I was stunned by the kind of action intimated for black women struggling to be free of sexist oppression in the black community. I found myself asking: Could Cone affirm the action for black women that logically follows what he and Malcolm X say in the book? For instance, take this quote from Malcolm X that appeared in Cone's new preface: 'I believe in a religion that believes in freedom. Any time I have to accept a religion that won't let me fight a battle for my people, I say to hell with that religion.' As a black womanist-feminist theologian, I paraphrase that quotation to say, 'Any time I have to accept a religion that won't let me fight a battle for oppressed black women, I say to hell with that religion.' Inasmuch as black Christian religion - manifested in the practice and theology of the black church - is often antagonistic to women's struggle for liberation, black Christian women could say, 'To hell with the black church and the black expression of Christian religion in it.' This could mean that the black church in America might cease to exist, since black women are its blood, bone, and sinew. If black women said 'to hell with the sexist black churches' and left them, thereby allow them to crumble, could Cone validate this action? Part of me wants to say he could; another part of me is uneasy, given the absence of black women's words of wisdom and advice from Cone's preface. All the inspiration, wisdom, and advice contained in the material Cone quotes comes from men like Malcolm X, and on occasion, W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King. Not a single woman is named, quoted, or given credit for contributing to the transformations Cone says he had made in his thought and style in the last twenty years. 
My attention focused upon another quotation from Malcolm X cited by Cone in his new preface: 'Don't let anybody who is oppressing us ever lay the ground rules. Don't go by their games, don't play by their rules. Let them know now that this is a new game, and we've got some new rules...' Paraphrased within my womanist-feminist framework this quote reads: 'Don't let anybody who is oppressing black women ever lay the ground rules. Don't go by their games, don't play the game by their rules. Let them know now that this is a new game, and black women have got some new rules...' In the African American community the rules for 'the church game,' 'the political game,' 'the mating game,' and a host of other games have been determined by males. Should black women, 'by whatever means necessary,' destroy the male rules and inaugurate new games determined by black women's rules? Can the new consciousness about black sexism which Cone claims in the 1986 preface support such a power shift in the black church, in the seminaries where black men and women teach, and in the black community? And I wonder if Cone, who says 'I knew racism was a heresy,' would also agree that sexism is heresy? Part of me says he would." 
- Delores S. Williams, "James Cone's Liberation: Twenty Years Later," 190-191.
Cone responds to Williams' questions with an incredible amount of openness and sincerity. I was genuinely impressed with the type of receptivity that Cone displayed in his response in light of Williams' quite pointed and critical essay. While Cone admits that he has a long way to go and didn't quite "get it" before given his particular male perspective and experiences, he expresses a sincere desire to appropriate womanist concerns as an essential part of his theological trajectory instead of making or viewing sexism as some sort auxiliary concern. There is so much for all theologians to learn from this exchange between Williams and Cone. I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to read it.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Question of Violence

I've been seriously wrestling with the question of violence (read: abstractly) since last fall when I first came to seminary. When I was a college student, I read Gandhi and King and told myself that I was a pacifist. Truth be told, there was nothing at stake to prevent me from embracing this conviction and it seemed at the time like the only option for one seriously seeking to follow in the way of Jesus. Somewhere along the line, I didn't explicitly reject pacifism, but it became more complicated than simply affirming the principles of non-violence embraced in my youthful idealism. The question of pacifism came up afresh in an ethics class I took here at Princeton Seminary last fall and I found myself resistant to embracing pacifism like I had in the past. I was surprised by my resistance to pacifism given my history and also because I'm not exactly a proponent of just-war as I can't imagine many situations where war can ever be labeled "justified." And call me unreasonable, but I prefer to live in peace and don't exactly revel in the violence of American society that devours the most vulnerable among us. However, my rejection of pacifism last fall was more indebted to my ever progressing understanding of the nature of ethics from a Barthian view rather than any sort of excitement for "justified violence" (again, as if there is such a thing). In short, it seems like pacifism is simply another ethical principle that one can embrace and therefore the human agent can know in advance what to do in any given situation. This necessarily means that the human agent does not need to remain open to the command of God ever anew in the present to discern what action should be taken. Pacifism at its core means that I have my principle of peace and, therefore, I already know exactly what God is calling me to do in the present moment of decision; act non-violently. This creates a sort of creaturely autonomy in relation to human action that functionally negates the need for the command of God in the present when it comes to the question of force/violence. As such, my Barthian sympathies in this respect kept me from embracing pacifism full-stop and led me to say that while the burden of proof is always and forever upon the use of any type of force, I must remain open to the command of God in the present to act in a type of way that might defy certain principles of pacifism.

But more than any commitment to Barth or anyone else's specific conception of Christian ethics, I also questioned whether or not my specific situation of privilege would make pacifism all too easy to embrace. It seems a bit too convenient to declare pacifism as a white person of privilege. And there seems to be something a bit problematic about telling those who are being devoured by systematic structures of racial, ethnic, and class oppression that I directly and indirectly benefit from and support that they should be peaceful and not use force to fight against such structures. Where would I ever stand to justify such prescriptive norms? And just when you get comfortable, you find a wrench in it all when you encounter someone like Bonhoeffer who declares himself to be a pacifist in order to remain faithful to the radical call to discipleship within Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and then he proceeded to use force in an act of faith against the enslaving and crushing powers of his time. But he neither justified this action nor said he knew with absolute certainty that this was the right or the good. Instead, he simply says that he did this in faith in the hopes that this is what it meant for him to be a faithful disciple in the present. You can sense Bonhoeffer's deep insecurity in his decision even in the midst of his resoluteness to act forcefully.

These questions of violence, ethics, the command of God, white privilege, and discipleship came up again this semester as I read James Cone. While some may argue that Cone doesn't have true pacifists in mind, his condemnation of whites who refuse to use violence and their judgment of blacks who use it is incredibly powerful. I still haven't been able to come to any sort of conclusion regarding what to say by way of response to Cone's charges as I stand somewhere in between denying pacifism as a principle (for the reasons I list above), always hoping to seek the way of non-violence and wanting to remain open to God's command in the present at all times. In the midst of my confusion and wrestling, I read an article by Paul Lehmann sent to me by a friend a few weeks ago. Lehmann is attempting to respond to Cone's recent work back in 1975 on black theology in an article entitled "Black Theology and 'Christian' Theology" (note: the title makes it seem as though Lehmann is using the conjunction to make a stark dichotomy between the two but he is not) and at the end, he responds to Cone's questions concerning the use of violence. I'm particularly interested in the last line referencing the shift from ethical justifications to "the apocalyptic sphere" and what Cone might say by way of response to the claim that the gospel moves the question of violence to the apocalyptic arena. It might be interesting to ask whether or not Bonhoeffer makes this shift himself to "the apocalyptic sphere" when he remains committed to the way of non-violence while simultaneously rejecting any justification for his forceful actions against the Third Reich carried out in the ever uncertainty of faith.

"In pressing the questions: 'Whose violence?' and 'Whose reconciliation?', Professor Cone has brought that question to a point from which it is possible to make a theological move which regrettably he does not make. The theological move is that the questions: 'Whose violence?' and 'Whose reconciliation?' lead directly to the recognition of the fundamental human reality of violence as man's radical inhumanity to man which only God's reconciliation can prevent and heal. The gospel is that people can be reconciled with one another only as they are reconciled to God; and when people are thus reconciled to God they give themselves in thought and word and deed to the empowerment of the poor, to the liberation of the oppressed, to the struggle against every dehumanizing dimension of human existence. Cone rightly declares that 'reconciliation means that people cannot be human ... unless the creatures of God are liberated from that which enslaves and is dehumanizing. In this same sentence, Cone writes that 'God cannot be God' unless the creature is liberated. But putting it this way involves Cone in am imprecision as regards the gospel which is analogous to the imprecision which Professor Moltmann expresses as regards violence and nonviolence. The gospel is that God refuses to be God without being reconciled to man and in this empowerment man is to be reconciled to his fellowman. Similarly, Moltmann, whom Cone quotes, rightly declares that 'the problem of violence and non-violence is an illusionary problem.' But one cannot say, as Moltmann then does, that 'there is only the question of the justified and unjustified use of force and the question of whether the means are proportionate to the ends.' It is because the gospel transposes the question of violence from the ethical to the apocalyptic sphere that it also deprives force of every justification, not least the one which illusorily seeks a proportionate relation of means to ends."

- Paul Lehmann, "Black Theology and 'Christian' Theology," 36-37