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

Monday, March 11, 2013

Complete Insecurity.

"What is said about the content of discipleship? Follow me, walk behind me! That is all. Going after him is something without specific content. It is truly not a program for one's life which would be sensible to implement. It is neither a goal nor an ideal to be sought. It is not even a matter for which, according to human inclination, it would be worth investing anything at all, much less oneself. And what happens? Those called leave everything they have, not in order to do something valuable. Instead, they do it simply for the sake of the call itself, because otherwise they could not walk behind Jesus. Nothing of importance is attached to this action in itself. It remains something completely insignificant, unworthy of notice. The bridges are torn down, and the followers simply move ahead. They are called away and are supposed to "step out" of their previous existence, they are supposed to "exist" in the strict sense of the word. Former things are left behind; they are completely given up. The disciple is thrown out of the relative security of life into complete insecurity (which in truth is absolute security and protection in community with Jesus); our of the foreseeable and calculable realm (which in truth is unreliable) into the completely unforeseeable, coincidental realm (which in truth is the only necessary and reliable one); out of the realm of possibilities (which in truth is that of unlimited possibilities) into the realm of unlimited possibilities (which in truth is the only liberating reality). Yet that is not a general law; it is, rather, the exact opposite of all legalism. Again, it is nothing other than being bound to Jesus Christ alone. This means completely breaking through anything preprogrammed, idealistic, or legalistic. No further content is possible because Jesus is the only content. There is no other content besides Jesus. He himself is it."

- Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 59.

Truth be told, I was a bit nervous and afraid to read Discipleship. I knew that whatever agreements or disagreements I had with the text, it would disrupt my life in unwanted ways. Disruption, I think, is the best word to describe this book. And for whatever Bonhoeffer came to say later in his life about the dangers of this book (and there are many), what he says within its pages are still really important.

The truth of this one line has been really apparent for me as of late. Bonhoeffer writes that the life of discipleship is one of "complete insecurity." And most of us have our own conceptions of what that "complete insecurity" looks like. I have realized through my own life and personal theological struggles just how far down that "complete insecurity" goes. It can be quite unsettling to realize just how "complete" that insecurity is when you follow the call. Because where on earth is there to turn for security when Jesus Christ is the only content for the Gospel and the call to discipleship? Where can this Gospel and call be "plugged in" for the sake of verification or some other form of stability? It exists and is "suspended in mid-air" as Barth would say. You can't plug it into the Church, the tradition, the social program, the Bible, or some other apologetic to confirm its truth. You simply find yourself confessing and following.

To be quite honest, when I'm confronted with that "complete insecurity" that Bonhoeffer talks about, I don't find the same type of absolute security and protection that he mentions, which is found only in Jesus Christ himself. What I'm finding lately is yet another mode or means of security that I must dispossess in order to be faithful to the call of discipleship. I just continue to find my own desire for security in another form. For instance, it is no secret that I have become quite interested in apocalyptic theology over the past few years. But I've discerned that even disruption or the radical unstable nature of the Gospel becomes another mode of possession that ends up being an end in itself. While I believe that the Gospel of grace is disruptive to nature's very core, even disruption, instability, and radicalness for its own sake must be dispossessed. Do you know what that looks like? Because I haven't the faintest idea. Bonhoeffer says it looks like Jesus Christ himself alone. Does the fact that I don't have any idea what that means reveal that I'm radically missing his point?

As I've been asking these questions about the nature of discipleship lately, I'm finding the call (and great struggle) to abandon all forms of control that surface in the most subtle of ways. When I study theology, I'm studying how to be faithful in my words and thoughts and actions to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And yet, I'm learning that all of my words and thoughts and actions are so incredibly bound up with the Sin and Death that reigns in this world that I'm unsure of the truth of my own words and thoughts and actions even as I try to be faithful. And I'm learning that even my attempts to be faithful are usually faithless and that any faithfulness is nothing but a complete miracle. But somehow I'm "called" to forfeit this desire for security in my own words and thoughts and actions and only find security in not even the call itself, but only the person of Jesus Christ alone. And to be honest, once again, I'm finding that I have no idea what that really means or what that really looks like. I'm learning that the hardest thing about this whole call to discipleship that no one tells you about is that we always and continually lose sight of the reality that "there is no other content besides Jesus." Because the content isn't some program, system, principle, or some insecurity, instability or disruption or even the act of being a disciple itself. Somehow Bonhoeffer wants the reader to know that the content is only Jesus Christ. In myself, I have no idea what that means. But I pray for the grace and mercy to confess no other content besides Jesus himself.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Church and Divine Action

When I read George Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine last term, one of my many concerns was that he did not (and could not?) account for divine action. It was not simply Lindbeck's lack of mentioning or discussing divine action that troubled me when he talked about "the church" and "ecclesial practices," but rather his insistence upon the immanent nature of the Christian "religion." I wondered if it was not merely, like Healy says about Hauerwas in the article referenced below, that divine action, the Word, and pneumatology are presupposed. Rather, it becomes a question of Lindbeck's work whether or not certain conceptions of ecclesiology functionally negates the need for divine action entirely. And ecclesial notions that eliminate divine action involve a host of concerns for me namely the failure to attend to the ever-present need for the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God into our present age that is enslaved to the powers. In his essay entitled, "Karl Barth's Ecclesiology Reconsidered," Nicholas M. Healy discusses the same sort of ecclesial trend I just mentioned that is taken up by Hauerwas as well to whatever extent. While I have not personally engaged with the works of Hauerwas as much as other "postliberal" theologians, I thought that this excerpt nicely highlights the concerns Barth would hold in relation to the current ecclesiologies that I have also found problematic specifically for its "lack of attention to God's action in our midst." 
"One gets the impression from With the Grain of the Universe as well as from his other writings that for Hauerwas, Christianity is fundamentally about living within a particular narrative, about being trained and formed so that one acquires Christian dispositions and thus a character that conforms to that narrative, all with a view to embodying the politics of Jesus, a politics that counters the liberal democratic politics of the USA. Hauerwas focuses his attention on the concrete church because it is there that the gospel is displayed in the lives of Christians. The church is discussed in terms of its practices and doctrines, in terms, that is, of human action and thought. And the church is at the center of Hauerwas’s theology. He spends far less time on the doctrines of the Word and the Spirit that make our witness and politics possible, though, to be sure, it is always clear that the person and work of Jesus Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit are presupposed.  
This (relative) lack of attention to God’s action in our midst might well have been something that Barth would have brought up in his response to Hauerwas. For as Barth understood the matter, a Christian theological description of anything requires at some point a well-rounded account of the difference the activity of God makes, in both Word and Spirit. Hauerwas’s appropriation of social philosophies like those of Wittgenstein and MacIntyre over against Kant and his theological followers has been extraordinarily fruitful, making his work a truly prophetic force within the contemporary church. I suspect, though, that while Barth might have approved, he would say that the difference God makes to the church needs to be made clearer. It remains unclear what difference the Word and the Spirit’s active presence might make to descriptions of the church’s being and life that are couched in social-philosophical categories like ‘virtue’ and ‘narrative’.  
To be sure, Barth himself notes an example or two of special ethics done very successfully without the initial general ethics (CD 3/4, p. 4), and the same point surely applies to ecclesiology. But accounts of the concrete church and the activities of its members developed in varying degrees of independence from well-rounded accounts of more central doctrines seem in recent years have come to be more the rule than the exception. Barth might ask of Hauerwas and of those who follow his lead whether in their laudable – and quite reasonable – effort to recover an ecclesial politics, they have not veered a bit too far towards presenting – and, in some cases, maybe even thinking of? – the church, the Christian life and its forms and institutions, as an ‘end in itself’? And is this question, however it be answered,not made possible by what amount to largely theologically neutral accounts of the church and of human action within it? And when one writes of the church and human action with little or no reference to divine action, is it not all too easy to end up supporting a view of the church that will be reductive and thereby in some aspects in effect anti-Christian, in spite of good intentions to the contrary? For to omit or de-emphasize the primary constitutive element of the church – God’s action in Word and Spirit – is, Barth would say, to construct an abstract ecclesiology. It is to talk about the Scheinkirche, the church in its non-theological appearance, rather than what is truly the church (KD 4/2, p. 698; CD 4/2, p. 617)." 
- Nicholas M. Healy, "Karl Barth's Ecclesiology Revisited," 295-296.