Graduation: Black PhDs and the Title that Endures

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I ain’t in the clan, but I brought my hood with me – Kanye West

It’s beautiful to change; it’s beautiful to grow into my name – Taelor Gray

Glory to God, whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine – Book of Common Prayer Benediction (paraphrase of Eph 3:20–21)

There were times when I thought that I would not make it from one end of the PhD process to the other.  The work was too hard. I was far from home, and everything about Scotland was alien to me. There were no black people and very few clergy in the New Testament program.  But there I was a former pastor lost in a sea of folks who seemed to be professional academics. I felt every bit the outsider. It didn’t help that my work got sent to the drawing board so many times that I thought that I might as well transform myself into a stick man and climb into the board.  “This is fine work, but I think it can be better consider revising the following… (rinse and repeat for 3 ½ years).” Even when you are utterly wrong, the British are unfailingly polite.

So how did I survive? I prayed very hard. I fasted a lot. I had the unwavering support of my wife and my children. But that is a story I will tell another time. Today, as I get ready for my defense tomorrow, my mind drifts towards a particular vision that has returned to me consistently.

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The Slave, the Foreigner, and the Compassion of Israel

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In the providence of God, he allowed his people to experience an extended period of slavery. This slavery was no passing trial to be endured and forgotten. It marked them and undergirded their ethical reasoning. God called upon his people to remember:

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exod 23:9)

Thus the instinct of Israel, born of the experience, was compassion. Compassion on those who had nothing to appeal to other than Israel’s good will. The foreigners who resided in Israel would not have shared Israel’s religion or many of their values. Foreigners were in Israel, but not of them, a people apart. Nonetheless, God called upon the Israelites to show them the compassion that Israel had longed for in Egypt.

During Israel’s long period of slavery, I am sure that some Egyptians may have been personally opposed to Israelite slavery. Maybe in polite company, they lamented the excessive abuses meted out on those poor foreigners. But we lack a record of an Egyptian abolitionist society. It was much easier for Egyptians to focus on worshipping their gods and raising their families. After all, those pyramids weren’t going to build themselves. God, however, called his people to a higher standard. He told them to have compassion and to remember the whip and the chain.

Judaism and later Christianity, then, is not the religion of the powerful (like the poor the powerful are welcome at the foot of the cross). It is the religion that tells the broken and the weak that they too are children of God.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1Cor1:26–29)

Therefore, the church is made up of those who have known suffering and our ethics are forever marked by that truth.

But what of the Christian who is not bound by the Law? Should the compassion of the Israelites inform public policy in a country that formally is neither Christian nor Jewish? One response might be let the nihilist vote on the basis of his nihilism and let the Christian contend for her beliefs in the public square. But the answer requires more reflection.

The Christian has always believed that humans, despite our brokenness, bear the image of God. At times (not always) when we contend for Christian convictions in the public square the truth that God has implanted within all people comes to the fore. People, who do not share our worldview, say,“Yes, those Christians have some funny ideas, but on this they are correct.” The Christian, then, who argues for a compassion first attitude towards the foreigner is actually saying that people can be more than their basic instinct for self-preservation. Skeptics, who heed this call, might even begin to ask why this Christian was able to find this compassion within herself so quickly when for me it was a battle? What is this gospel that they believe that calls me to be the person that I somehow know that I was created to be? What is broken in me that my first response was hate or fear? Stated differently, Christian values proclaimed winsomely in the public square can be a preparation for and a partial embodiment of the gospel

But the inverse is also true. If the Christian forever stands on the side of power, if our first instinct is always fear,  then how can we proclaim with integrity the good news of the one who did not save himself, but gave himself for the sins of the world? The words of the angels are still relevant: Do not be afraid.

The question of danger cannot be a part of the Christian calculus because we believe that Jesus has overcome death.  Instead of danger, we see the refugee as God’s gift to us, a new arena opened for evangelism and mercy. What the tyrant of Syria (or anywhere else) meant for evil God can use for good. So for the Christian whose sole unqualified allegiance is to the Messiah, whose heart beats for the evangelization of the nations, how do we do anything but open wide our hearts and say come?

The New Testament and Public Criticism of Politicians

 

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In the wake of the recent election, I have seen many Christians quote the biblical command to respect authority and pray for the leaders that God has placed over us. Two texts have been prominent in this admonition: Romans 13:1–3 and 1 Timothy 2:1–2. They read:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval (Romans 13:1–3)

 

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. (1Timothy 2:1–2)

Quoting these texts is fine, and as the word of God, they are to be commended to the conscience of every Christian. However, to pretend that the bible says that the full extent of the Christian’s duty is prayer and submission would be a robust and dangerous misreading of the entire biblical witness.

There is an equally strong tradition in the New Testament of vocal and sustained critique of those in power. Consider John’s description of the Roman Empire in Revelation:

And on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.” (Revelation 17:5)

He called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit, a haunt of every foul and hateful bird, a haunt of every foul and hateful beast. For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury (Rev 18:2–3).

John was anything but quiet and submissive. He used vivid language to condemn the way of life he discerned therein. In particular, John found the immorality of the wealthy with its inevitable impact on the weak to be problematic. I fail to see how Revelation’s witness of public protest isn’t as important as 1 Tim 2 and Rom 13.

But John was not the only one who had some harsh words for leadership. So did Jesus:

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. (Luke 13:31–32)

In the time of Jesus, foxes where known to display two qualities: crafty deceitfulness (black folk might call it being shady) and insignificance. Therefore we have Jesus himself publicly calling out the established authority for his immoral behavior. John the Baptist landed himself in prison for the same thing (Matt 14:1–3).

I could go on, but the point should be clear enough. Yes, Christians should pray for and respect those in authority. Nonetheless, when those in authority act in a manner that falls short of God’s will for the world, it is our duty to call that leadership to account. It is biblical. For the Christian, who has had harsh words for our President Elect, we have had them precisely because his words have made some wonder whether he will treat all people with the dignity they deserve. So yes we will pray for him. And If he shows repentance for his former actions, and charts a new path forward, we will commend him for his just deeds. If he does not mark out a path towards unity, we will do our duty as Christians in the public square.

Longer Still (Post Election Reflections of a Black Man amongst the Evangelicals)

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The Scriptures that contain the stories of Israel, the Messiah Jesus, and the early church have long shaped how I viewed the world. It was the bible that affirmed black personhood in the face of an Alabama that did so much to stamp it out. It was Jesus who taught me to love the poor and oppressed. It was Jesus who told me that his coming was good news for people like me, people easier to ignore than to love. The Bible lifted up the vision of a great society consisting of every tribe, tongue, and nation. And I believed every word of it. I have dedicated my life to seeing that vision become a reality.

I thought that my bible loving Evangelical Christians would look into the bible and see the same vision (and be willing to give everything to see it happen in their lifetime). I thought that maybe they just didn’t know how black folks suffered. I thought that if I told them they would listen. I thought maybe that nobody commended Revelation 7:9 to them as the hope for the church and the world. I argued with my black friends who said that white Christians did not care about black people. I said that they were woke Evangelicals who wept and marched alongside us when Tamir Rice was taken from us. I presented the multi-ethnic church as the hope for the world.

Then Donald Trump happened. Let me be clear, I am not saying that everyone who voted for Trump was motivated by racism. That would be silly. I know Christians for whom the pro-life cause was so important that all other issues could be pushed aside in order to secure Supreme Court Justices. I disagree, but I understand. I also understand that some believed that Hillary Clinton was so corrupt that voting for her was unthinkable.

But can we at least admit that the health and well being of people of color did not seem factor into the calculus of the scores of Evangelicals who swept Trump into the White House. For most black folk, there was never a robust embrace of Hillary (I did not support her). Instead we feared Trump because we found his statements about Women, Blacks, Hispanics, and Muslims deeply disturbing. This was not the result of media spin. We heard it and we were afraid. We were afraid because every time he spoke about black people, he displayed at best a deep and abiding misunderstanding of the black experience. We were afraid because we thought that his election would mean that our call for better treatment at the hands of some (not all) police would go unheard. We were afraid that the racial animosity that undergirded some (not all) elements of his campaign would rise. We were worried because we thought that when the chips were down the whole church would support us. Now we are afraid that we are alone. I hope that those fears prove to be unfounded.  We shall see.

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The Gospel, Black Spaceships, and Kanye West

 

 

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I’ve been working this grave shift and I ain’t made it, I wish I could I buy me a spaceship and fly past the sky – Kanye West (slightly edited)

Spaceships don’t come equipped with rearview mirrors; they dip as quick as they can – Andre3000

And the word became flesh and lived amongst us – John 1:14

 

When Kanye West’s The College Dropout debuted in 2004, I was in the middle of seminary; and I was not, myself,  a college dropout. I had graduated with a bachelor’s degree some two years earlier. Nonetheless, as much as the musings of an emerging rap star can speak to the experiences, hopes, and dreams of a future pastor, Kanye tapped into something that I felt very deeply. I listened to this record repeatedly (and no my favorite song was not Jesus Walks).

At the time, I could not put my finger on what I liked about early Kanye (pre Yeezus). Now I see that I was drawn to how he described his struggle to escape his circumstances through music. This narrative comes out most clearly in the song spaceships where Kanye tells the story of working a dead end job at the mall all the while making beats in the hope that his music will be the spaceship that takes him from where he is to where he feels he ought to be.

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Freedom!

 

My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion – Psalm 88:19

Today,  I woke up and said my prayers. It was a daily office type of morning. I left it to my wife to get the kids ready for school. I granted myself that privilege.

Last night, in the moments before I went to bed, another video made its way onto my timeline. A hashtag followed in quick succession, and our long national nightmare began a cycle that we know quite well. But last evening, I couldn’t afford to research or to detective my way through yet another tragedy. Tuesday would be a full day. I had lectures to prepare and a dissertation to finish. So while a family mourned, and black people in the United States were again left to wonder about their place in this country, I went to sleep. Then I woke up and prayed the morning office as I do on most days. I wish I could say that I prayed for my country.  I didn’t. I read the prescribed prayers and biblical texts as called for in the Book of Common Prayer. I sat in silence hoping to hear from God. Nothing came, and so I began my day.

I am not sure that people realize how difficult it can be for African Americans to go to work on days like this. We are forced to smile and to do our jobs when so much history weighs down upon us. But we press on because life demands it of us.

So I began my work. I revised a lecture on Joshua and Judges. I posted a few Anglican articles to Facebook. I tried to focus. Then the sadness, the inevitable sadness hit. So I stopped working for a while and began to write my way towards hope.

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Black Movers, White Neighborhoods

 

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Yesterday, four movers arrived at our new home to deliver items I had not seen since we placed them in storage some three years ago. Two of these delivery men were African American brothers. When one of them walked in he said, “I remember this house! I moved the people out of here a few weeks ago.”  Then he gave me that subtle nod that black people exchange.  Next he asked me what I did for a living.  I told him that I was starting a new job as a professor of New Testament at one of the schools near here. Soon after this, his brother walked in and he told him that I was a professor and that I moved here to start a new job with my wife and kids. His brother then started to educate me on the glories of my new neighborhood and the local attractions within walking distance. They both said your kids are to love this place.

There were two conversations happening at once. One was the normal small talk that all strangers share, but beneath that I could tell that there was some black pride on display. I did not know exactly how to take that. I have always believed that all honest work was good work. I did not consider myself to be very different from them. I did not come from money and NT professors are not rich. But they seemed to see things differently.

As they began to move my stuff in, the younger brother complained, “these small boxes are heavy!” The other brother responded, “those boxes are full of books.The man is professor, fool! he needs those books!” I think that all older brothers talk recklessly to younger brothers.

Around midmorning, I brought them some coke and chips. They took a break and we sat down to talk. They asked me how old I was. It turns out that we were all about the same age. I was 36, He was 41, and his brother was 38. Then asked me how I had managed to become a professor at such a young age. I responded, that I was not that young. Most folks in my Ph.D. program were younger than me. I wanted to say more. I wanted to say that I grew up just like they did. I wanted to say that I knew about drugs, gangs, and rough high schools.

I wanted to shrink distance that they wanted to create between the three of us. But I sat there sipping Coke and listening to them talk about their kids. One of them told me that he had two good kids who had moved to the suburbs so that they could get away from the city schools. They were on vacation with their mom. This was the longest he had ever gone without seeing them, but he texted his son every day.  It almost felt like he was trying to prove to me that he was a good father. He missed them. I said I missed my kids too. My kids were vacationing with their mom as well. In that moment,  we were two dads talking about our kids and our hopes for their future. Then they went back to work and I went back to checking things off the list as they came out of the truck.

At one point, during a lull in the work, one of them came up and said, “It is good to see a young black man living in a place like this and working as a college professor.”

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Alton Sterling, a Son’s Tears, and Psalm 137: A Lament

 

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept –Psalm 137:1

What does it look like to reach the breaking point of orthodoxy?  What does it look like to arrive at the place where the desire for reconciliation gives way to anger and resentment?  It looks like a fifteen-year-old boy weeping uncontrollably over the death of his father. His tears and our anger are not new. The Psalms knew of such breaking and lament:

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!” O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!  (Psalm 137:7–9)

What could motivate God’s people to utter such a despairing and uncomfortable prayer?  Quite simply, they had experienced a great trauma.  When the Babylonians rushed into Jerusalem and burned it to the ground, Israel stood helpless while their children were killed, their wives were assaulted, and husbands were murdered.  Now they longed for revenge.  They had reached the breaking point of orthodoxy.  With no other recourse, they  turned their anger and pain upward to God. They told God what they felt.  God’s people were tired, angry, and devoid of hope.  All that remained was the cry for justice or vengeance or some combination of the two.

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Lecrae, Patriotism, and the Fourth of July

Lecrae created a bit of a firestorm on twitter when he posted this picture with the caption:

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This post caused a bit of an uproar because Lecrae is supposed to be the one rapper all evangelicals can love. Many were hurt, but for me this was not at all surprising. This picture is just another form of a post that comes up quite often  on my social media feed on the 4th of July.

In the past, Frederick Douglas has been the patron saint of “woke fourth of July.” People love to recall that powerful speech he gave on July 5, 1852. It is popularly known as, “What to a slave is the fourth of July.”  In it Douglas wrote:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.—The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

 

Douglas’s point was straightforward. To the descendants of the slaves, the fourth of July reminded them of the freedom they did not have in 1776.

But many wonder why people feel the need to mention this now when slavery is over and America seems to have made so much progress? Lecrae’s post (and others) appear to be motivated by two realities. First, they want to challenge simple narratives in which our founding fathers were saints who built America upon principles of freedom and equality. This is a false, or at least incomplete, telling of our story. Our founding fathers, for all the good they did, were flawed. It should not be controversial to find it somewhat problematic that they declared that all men were created equal while at the same time owning their fellow brothers and sisters. On a day dedicated to memory is it really improper to remember the whole story? The second reason people post pictures like the one above is to remind Americans that despite the fact that we have made progress there is still work to do. Put differently, folks speak about slavery on the fourth of July to bring to mind the fact that America will only be truly American when there is real liberty and justice for all.

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In God’s Good Time: On My first class at Northeastern Seminary

 

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The people’s champ must be everything the people can’t be…You must have missed the come up, I must be all I can be. Call me Mr. Mufasa, I had to master stampedes– Chance the Rapper

Until what he had said came to pass, the word of the LORD tested him –Psalms 105:19

This week I found myself standing before the eight students who would participate in the Doctor of Ministry course at Northeastern Seminary. Someone more humble than I am might have been nervous. I wasn’t. I was excited, probably too much so. Excitement causes me to speak much too quickly; the ideas come tumbling forth rapidly.  Grant me that flaw. I have an excuse: Jesus excites me.

This particular class gave me cause to be emotional. I experienced something that had not occurred since I graduated from high school some eighteen years ago. I was in a classroom where the majority of students were African-American. Although Northeastern is quite diverse, this was out of the ordinary. We have around 150 students, 50 of whom are black. This class had eight students­–six African-Americans and two Caucasians. And it was taught by a black man (me). I couldn’t help but notice that my entire educational experience had been an inversion of the present reality. In my studies, having another black student in class was the exception rather than the rule. Through my 12 plus years of higher education, I can recall having one black professor (shout out to Dr. Roberson at Sewanee).

But this extends beyond the classroom. Pursuing a doctorate in biblical studies means that just about every conference you attend, every gathering of professionals, every trip to the pub for drinks, every casual conversation, and just about every church experience will be largely white. Why does this matter? Why focus race instead of being excited about teaching all of God’s church?

For the past 18 years, I have done I lot of teaching, and I have enjoyed every moment of it. But the section of the church with whom I share similar experiences, stories, and culture had been largely absent from that experience. My concern is not about my own comfort; it is about access. When I went to Seminary, I learned so much about God’s word that I never knew. Then I realized that most of my classmates had no interest in returning to communities like the one I grew up in to teach people like my friends and family. More than that, I realized that there were very few of us black folk at the Seminary. This meant that even if every one us returned to urban communities we would be a minor blip on the radar.

Of course, I recognize that one does not have to go to seminary to be faithful to God’s calling, but it doesn’t hurt. Furthermore, it was a matter of equality. Did God only want suburban churches to access to this material? Is Greek and Hebrew only for the rich?

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