Friday, April 21, 2023

White Too Long: A Review

I will flatly say that the bulk of this country's white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long. James Baldwin, 1969  ( White Too Long, p. 233)

Robert P. Jones' White Too Long (2020) is a cutting analysis of racist attitudes in white Christianity. Although it's not a new book, I wonder if things have changed. It's  a lingering question after reading the book. 

The book's strength lies in the author's statistical explanation of a basic contradiction: why white Christians* have highly warm feelings toward African-Americans while scoring much higher on measurements of racist attitudes.** Also, those who identify as white Christians score higher in racist attitudes than the unaffiliated. A better measurement of white supremacist attitudes is The Racism Index. It measures, argues Jones, attitudes on systemic and institutional racism, using: 1) Confederate symbols 2)Inequality and African-American mobility 3) Racial inequality and the treatment of African Americans in the criminal justice system 4) Perceptions of race, racism, and racial discrimination. 

Jones' more searing analysis comes in Chapter 8 ("Mapping"). A clear path is set forth, from hypothesis to statistics to conclusion. It constitutes a sociological mapping of the "genome" of white Christianity. Have white supremacist attitudes integrated into [White Christianity's] DNA as part of what it means to be a white Christian in America? "If the correlations we see between white supremacist attitudes and white Christianity cannot be explained away by other factors, white Christians have some serious soul-searching to do." (p. 166.) The analysis, Jones argues, will measure "how much holding racist attitudes predicts independently the probability of identifying as a white Christian," as well as the reverse: "measuring how much identifying as a white Christian predicts independently the likelihood of holding racist attitudes." (pp. 171-172)

One of the most devastating conclusions of this book is the deconstruction of church attendance. Church attendance is always very prominent in the measurables of a successful, growing church. Attendance is always one part of the holy trinity of successful Christian churches. (The other two are budget and buildings). My calling as a Christian Educator-teacher and clergyperson in the United Methodist Church was based, in part, on the assumption that regular, better Adult Education in the church enlivened a generous and just love of neighbor. However, Jones concludes that the opposite is true: "White evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants, and white Catholics who attend church regularly are as likely as their less-frequently-attending counterparts to hold racist attitudes." (p. 183- italics added for review)

Another conclusion that challenges the popular wisdom is that the unaffiliated (those who don't identify as a white Christian ) score lower on the RI. White churches do not deconstruct white supremacist attitudes. Instead, they "dress it up in theological garb, giving it a home in a respected institution, and calibrating it to local cultural sensibilities." (p. 182) Why would an unaffiliated person think that church would equip me to be kinder and more just toward our African American neighbors? 

Although signs of hope for white Protestants are offered (Chapter 9),  descriptive sociology is limited to statistical conclusions. The book cannot easily proceed to the normative. So the question, what must white Protestants do in order to be saved, remains.This drawback does not minimize the importance of Jones' work. We are still free to act and respond to his uncomfortable, inconvenient conclusions. 

We are free to ask of our churches and ourselves: what purposes do our ministries serve? Does our preaching and teaching of the whole Bible omit its call for justice? How can we preach the entire Lectionary Cycle- or- the Gospels for that matter- without even one reference to- let alone a sermon on- racial injustice? How are the words of cognitive dissonance in Jesus' teachings minimized or discounted? How can we stop fleeing to Jesus and flying to heaven just because facing the truth ourselves is uncomfortable. How do we best challenge the rise of hate, anger, and resentment in white churches and in America- and build a better future? 

*Those who identify as white Christians are categorized by evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and Catholics. The findings are based on research of the Public Religion Research Institute, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that conducts research on issues at the intersection of religion culture and politics. 
**A finding from the study is that white Christians score much higher on racist attitudes (resentment, bitterness, anger) than those who are unaffiliated, though they are not the focus of the book.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

The Gospel Calls for Faith- Not Certainty

The angel of the Lord said to the women: "Do not be afraid! I know you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for He has been raised just as He said." Matthew 28:5b-6a.

Do you find it interesting that, even though no one saw the central event of our faith, we, like the women at the empty tomb, are still invited to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ? We read it like seeing an empty tomb would have been a good thing. Jesus' total absence begins the story. It's only with the word of the angel, God's servant, that there is a change in narrative. It's an invitation to trust and rely on God's love, grace and faithfulness.

"The desire for certitude is an obstacle to launching full sail on the ocean of trust," wrote Thomas Keating. For anxious, terror-struck disciples not knowing how Jesus left the tomb, the only way forward is to consent not to know, to trust the words of God's messenger. The voices are many who declare otherwise. Our program for security seeks an end to mystery and unknowing. As the gospel Easter song declares we indeed like the idea of "all fear" being gone. But is that the measure of our spiritual life? I hope not. If all fear being gone is what it's about, then I've missed the bus!

Faith accepts the unknown. From Abraham to Moses, from Mary to Peter, we take the next step in the journey not because all our questions have been answered, but because God gives us enough faith to take the next step. It's God's goodness and mercy that chases after us as long as we live- the real measure of faith.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Can I Frame My Story with Jesus' Story?

When Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die.* 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I retired from doing ministry more than a year ago. It's not been an easy year. I vastly underestimated how difficult it would be to let go of being in active ministry as a clergyperson. Who am I?  Not a label or title, I know. But the question is far from an intellectual exercise. My once and future work and calling is really for others to accomplish. 

The Jesus of the Passion is the one who chooses to share in my diminishments and losses. For much of my life in Protestantism, I missed a central dimension of the good news embodied in the Crucifix, Jesus' loss of control- of God, others, and his physical agency.  In the empty cross of Protestants, Jesus cannot be identified by his wounds or humiliation. Here, in his Passion, and beginning with his being taken into custody of the authorities, Jesus loses control. 

Long ago I had a talk with a campus minister. My personal spiritual disciplines which I practiced so rigorously had lost their meaning and relevance. Everything that was once so certain and formulaic now seemed empty and pointless. I could only tell you what I no longer believed. The campus minister, who represented an evangelical tradition, cautioned me not to leave everything behind. The problem was that I didn't know what to keep or discard. 

All my systems of explaining God will pass away. I build them up, only to see the erosion of their structures rust, weaken and fall. When the real comes, what is unreal will fade away.  But this perspective requires time and a seeking heart.

When Jesus rode the donkey with her foal into Jerusalem, I picture a sunny day. We wave our palms with joy, lay our precious cloaks down for his pathway into the city. Prepare the way for the King! I don't want to see his coronation on a cross. It's a metaphor for the end of having Jesus the way I want, and actually, having everyone the way I want. 

So many expectations of God, church, others, and self are assaulted, then crucified. What does it mean that God does not weave a web of protection and deliverance around Jesus? Why can't God come through for once? What about friends scattering to leave Jesus alone with his accusers?  Did three years of following Jesus really help them when they ran away as fast as they could?

The Dunning- Kruger Effect theory suggests that we have blind spots when it comes to seeing ourselves as others see us. I tend to overestimate myself. This explains, in part, the disciples own assertion of "we are able" to follow you to the death, Jesus. But is this really the measure of faith? The story points us in the direction of returning compassion and love for violence and ridicule. Jesus embodies this transformation. 

The church- and world- is full of dreamers who want others to live up to their ideals. What is a telling measure of faith? What is needed is for followers of Jesus, and those sent out (apostles) to begin to embody Jesus' way of transforming indifference, bitterness and blame into compassion, patience, and gentleness. 

*Or "us" for gender inclusivity

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Black History Matters: Resources for White Churches (3)

Ideas for reflection, discussion, and study

++An excerpt from a letter from the freedman, Jourdan Anderson to his former enslaver, Col. P.H. Anderson, August 7, 1865 A Letter from Jourdan Anderson: A Freedman writes His Former Master, Facing Ourselves and History, May 12, 2020.
I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get $25 a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy (the folks call her Mrs. Anderson), and the children, Milly, Jane, and Grundy, go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve and die, if it come to that, than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
++  The Church as Enslaver
We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the Gospel, and babies sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! [  ] The slave auctioner's bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand-in-hand. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, 1845

++Healing from the Three-Fold Wound 

Our healing is from the three- fold wound of sexism, class-ism, and racism. Julian's own vision tells the story of our original wounding and how God looks on us with pity, not blame. The choice of these three particular wounds is effectively argued, using not only the statistics of sexual abuse (1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men are survivors of childhood sexual abuse), but also in sharing the struggles of saints like Phoebe Palmer and Henri Nouwen, John Woolman and Thomas Kelly. Heath, The Mystic Way of Evangelism, Baker Academic, 2008. As reviewed  in my blog post 
++What is White Privilege? 
When it comes to race, the past is always present...Formal segregation in housing policies may have been struck down, but steering, where real estate brokers direct home buyers toward or away from particular neighborhoods based on race, is as effective as ever. School segregation is no longer the law of the land, but classrooms today are depressingly re-segregated. Yet no one is responsible...We end up with, as social scientist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva cals "racism without racists." 
If white folk refuse to name white privilege for what it is, then it is more likely that you will ignore how black inequality, black suffering, exists all around you. Those of you who know better than that must tell other white people what you know...Beloved, racism and bigotry are ugly, uncomfortable to grapple with, but if you don't address them, you reinforce the privilege of not having to face up to the truth. Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White AmericaSt. Martin's Griffin, 2017, pp. 79-80, 204.

 ++The Black Manifesto and Response of the White Churches

On May 4, 1969, Civil-rights leader James Forman interrupted the worship service at The Riverside Church in New York, to read The Black Manifesto. Forman speech called for $500 million in reparations from the predominately white American churches and Jewish synagogues for their role in perpetuating slavery. "Fifteen dollars for every black brother or sister in the United States is only a beginning of the reparations due us as a people who have been exploited, degraded, brutalized, killed, and persecuted." Quoted in Kwon and Thompson, Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, 2021, pp. 97-98.

While Forman received a fraction of the funds called for from white congregations and judicatories (approximately $300,000), his success lies primarily in initiating a national debate about the responsibility of churches for their long history in perpetuating human enslavement.

++ A Letter from Birmingham Jail 

On the sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings, I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her impressive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is there God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with interposition and nullification?" Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963.

The Governor of Mississippi from 1960-1964, Ross Barnett was a strict segregationist based on the Supremacy of the White Race. Twice Barnett rejected James Meredith's application and admittance into the University of Mississippi. Finally, and with the ruling of the SCOTUS, James Meredith officially became the first African American student at the University of Mississippi on October 2, 1962. He was guarded twenty-four hours a day by reserve U.S. deputy marshals and army troops. Meredith fulfilled his childhood dream to graduate from the University of Mississippi with a degree in political science in the summer of 1963.  

"From September 30 to October 2, marshals and the later-arriving Mississippi National Guardsmen and U.S. army soldiers fought against the swarms of citizens. One hundred and sixty-six marshals and forty-eight American soldiers were injured, while two civilians were killed in the melee. About three hundred citizens were taken prisoner by marshals and federal troops. After the riot was crushed, the military continued to occupy Oxford for almost ten months." Source: Elizabeth Brevard, "September 30, 1962: James Meredith and the University of Mississippi," Face to Face: A Blog of the National Portrait Gallery

Saturday, April 1, 2023

The Crowds of Palm Sunday and Good Friday (3)

When Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples, Jerusalem had swelled to approximately two million people:
Imagine that you are at a boarding gate for a flight to Israel, several days before Passover, as passengers gather to travel to Jerusalem in time for the holiday. Men and women are jammed together; children are crying or laughing or temporarily vanishing. Now imagine that more than 250,000 families have assembled. And that each family unit is accompanied by one living sheep. And that everyone has to camp out for a week in the terminal before finally boarding the plane. Paula Fredriksen, "When Jesus Celebrated Passover," The Wall Street JournalApril 19, 2019.

Crossan and Borg describe a scenario in which a Triumphant Entry by Jesus in one part of city is in sharp contrast with the procession of the Roman legions across town. We will never know if this was on the mind of Gospel writers. Jesus enters the city of Zion unhindered. Indeed, Palm Sunday is the day for Jesus and his disciples.  The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About the Final Days of Jesus' Life. Harper Collins, 2007.

Preaching and Teaching Points Consider

  1. Explore the historical Jerusalem context of the Gospel narratives. 
  2. The crowds have a range of reactions to the Triumphal Entry.
    • Notice the worship and exultation of Jesus as King (palm branches, victory through gentleness and peace).
    • There are surely Roman legions marching  all over Jerusalem (victory through threat and violence). 
    • Rebuke, resistance, backlash (Pharisees).
    • Resignation (Chief Priests and Elders). 
    • Joyful witness of  Lazarus' Resurrection (those who heard and saw)
    • The various reactions are parallels of our corporate and personal journeys.
    • The range of reactions are still present- within the church and within each member.
Palm Sunday presents two options: 1) Choosing to live by threat of violence and harm or 2) The way of Jesus. His way as he taught in the Sermon on the Mount is embodied in his coronation on the Cross. His triumph is one of gentleness, peace, and the love of God, neighbor and self. 

But the way of Christ is a harsh rebuke of my cherished American-Texas myth of peace and safety and harmony through more guns and more violence. The way of Christ and his kingdom is a diatribe against my weak resignation to the way of the mass murder of children, youth, and teachers. Their murders are not a necessary evil. The Christ of Holy Week does not offer American Christians the convenience of flying to Jesus in the midst of hell on earth. 

Will Willimon once described a conversation he had with a Jewish neighbor. Willimon argued that the Sermon on the Mount had to be tempered with the world of realpolitik. His Jewish neighbor, concurred, yet added, in essence, "But my building does not have a cross on the top of it." Willimon, On a Wild and Windy Mountain, Abingdon, 1984.

Did the 'Same Crowd' that Waved Palms Later Condemn Jesus? (2)

According to Luke, the crowd on Palm Sunday is associated with those sympathetic to Jesus: "a whole multitude of the disciples" and John mentions those who had "been with Jesus" at Lazarus' resurrection, who continued to testify to this act. Both Luke and John mention the presence of the Pharisees, either as those in the crowd itself, or as onlookers. Matthew and Mark offer the least help in naming the participants.

Jesus' sentence of death before Pilate is what now concerns us. It's especially important to consult the Gospels themselves to see who was in the crowd before Pilate, the group who pronounces the judgment of death by crucifixion (a Roman capital punishment). There are plenty of inconsistencies in the accounts with actual Roman law as it was supposedly practiced in the time of Jesus, and a great resource in this area is the classic, The Trial of Jesus by Chandler. Who exactly is apart of this crowd and who shouted "crucify."

The twelve disciples are removed from this scene. Judas has already met his end in Matthew 27: 3-10. In Matthew 26:56, Mark 14: 50, the disciples scatter. Although Peter follows at a distance at first (Luke 22:54), he, too, eventually leaves the High Priest's courtyard after his three-fold denial (Matthew 26: 75, Luke 22:62). In John, Peter is accompanied by "another disciple," since "that disciple was known to the High Priest." John 18:15

Gone from the crowd of Palm Sunday is any mention of the Pharisees. Their warnings on Palm Sunday become fulfilled during the arrest and trial. The Pharisees, the teachers, who later become the rabbis of Judaism, are not the power brokers in the story. One might consider their warnings on Palm Sunday to be akin to a "word to the wise."

Luke has Pilate calling together "the chief priests, the leaders, and the people." Luke 23:13 NRSV These are the ones who later shout, "Crucify, crucify him!" in Luke 23: 21. For Matthew, the presence of the chief priests and elders were the reason the people turn: "Now the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and and to have Jesus put to death." (Matthew 27:2, NRSV) Mark 15:11 has the chief priests acting alone to stir up the "crowd." According to Matthew, there is more than one crowd --"many crowds" and pass the word from person to person. If you pass a story from person to person, the story will change as it spreads.

In John, after Pilate questions Jesus the first time; he presents Jesus to the Jewish authorities, and it's the "chief priests and the police" who first shout 'Crucify him!' Crucify him!' (John 19:6) In John 19:14-15, when Pilate, after his second and final questioning of Jesus, says to the Jews, with dark irony, "Here is your King," the narrative continues, " They cried out, 'Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!'" (Note "The Jews" in the NRSV is translated as "the crowd" in the Contemporary English Version)

From the above account(s), the temple authorities really take the leading role, all the way to the last words of the "crowd" in John 19:16. The accounts firmly place a primary role to the chief priests, the elders, and their security force made up of Temple police, and Roman soldiers. The rest of the crowd's make-up doesn't appear to be a concern of the Gospel writers. And nowhere do any of the Gospels state that the crowd before Pilate is the same group as that of the Triumphal Entry.

In comparing these two accounts in the Gospels, about the only thing I can conclude is that on Palm Sunday, it seemed to be the disciples day, whereas; on Good Friday, the voices "Crucify him!" prevailed. Luke 23:22 But these voices were led by the Jewish Temple elite, not disciples, and not even the Pharisees. 

It's all too familiar to say that the same crowd that welcomed Jesus as their king a few days later shouted "Nail him to a cross!" But to do that, the preacher-teacher must go beyond the text. Further, there is no conspiracy that the writers would intend us to see the two crowds as one, not with the crowds of disciples and any sympathetic Pharisees running away from Jesus- and anyone connected to him.

Did the 'Same Crowd' that Waved Palms Later Condemn Jesus? (1)

As Lent begins, the chant heard from Christian pulpits and chancels will grow until it becomes one of the overriding themes of Holy Week, the week before Easter. But what in text of the Gospels suggests that this is really the case? What in the text contradicts this refrain? Instead of consulting commentaries old and new, the actual biblical text should supply the answer, shouldn't it?

First, the story of Palm Sunday is told, also known as Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. (Luke 19: 28-40, Mark 11:1-10, and Matthew 21:1-9, and John 12:12-19) Mark writes, "And many spread their garments on the road, and others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed cried out, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!" Matthew describes the group and its actions thusly: "Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road..." Matthew's account also has those in the city asking, apparently in ignorance, "Who is this?" Luke defines the group that is present as "the whole multitude of the disciples" Luke also places some of the Pharisees in the "multitude" telling Jesus, "rebuke your disciples."

Importantly, the narrative is included in the Fourth Gospel. John identifies the group as "the great crowd that had come to the festival," that is, those in Jerusalem. It is this crowd that "went out to meet him." NRSV John adds into the mix those people who had "been with" Jesus when he had raised Lazarus from the dead. They continued to testify to the raising of Lazarus. The Pharisees in John say with resignation to one another: "You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him." 12:19

So far, it doesn't even look like the "same crowd" for first event of Holy Week, the Triumphal Entry. The group declaring their praise and waving palms is an admixture of:
  • many who were present with no Pharisees (Mark)
  • most of the crowd with no Pharisees, but those in the city asking, "Who is this?" (Matthew)
  • a whole multitude disciples (of Jesus), with perturbed Pharisees in the multitude (Luke)
  • people running out from Jerusalem to meet Jesus because they heard of Lazarus' raising, and people who had been with Jesus at Lazarus' resurrection, and resigned Pharisees (John)
Again, the idea of one crowd so far is just that, a notion. But it is a thought not justified by reading the only sources we have for the event, the Four Gospels. As you can see, generalizations that this crowd was monolithic are not warranted, even when we limit ourselves to Palm Sunday. Next we'll take a look at the composition of the group gathered before Pilate. We'll look at consistencies in each account and among all the witnesses to see if the Palm Sunday group could be the same people Pilate addresses, "Here is the man!" John 19:5

Oldies but Goodies