Lecrae, Patriotism, and the Fourth of July

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

“My ancestors on the fourth of July 1776”CmiUo5CUEAAqryi.jpg-large

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.

Continue reading

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

 

13450874_10153758559617426_967672167291451983_n

 

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?

Continue reading

Seminary and the Curse of Ham: On the need for Diverse Faculty

 

Ksenophontov_noah

Noah damning Ham, 19th-century painting by Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov.

 

Part I: Seminary, the Sons of God, and the Curse of Ham (if all you care about is the interpretation of the curse of Ham feel free to skip to Part II below)

I went seminary to learn the Bible. I think all of us who become clergy or professors are drawn in part by our curiosity about the Scriptures. We are driven by a desire to know. At our best, we want to take that information and use it to preach God’s word faithfully to those he has entrusted to us. For me, this desire to know took me far from the south of my childhood. But I was willing to brave the snowstorms and New England culture that was so alien to me if it meant understanding the Scriptures better by the end.

So I did as I was told. I learned my Greek and Hebrew. I studied paradigms and learned (at least partially) how to diagram sentences. But the more time I spent in exegesis and theology courses, the more I realized that my interests and those of my caucasian colleagues diverged at a variety of points, none more so than in the issues that received extended discussion in class.

I remember being told that everybody had to be able to answer questions about the following text, as it was sure to come up during the course of our pastoral ministry:

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years (Gen 6:1–3).”

Who were these sons of God? Fallen Angels? The descendants of Seth? If memory serves, we were all required to write a paper on the topic. I honestly cannot recall what I said. Before seminary, I had never given much thought to who these sons of God might be and since seminary, no one has asked me about them.

From childhood, I had known about the curse of Ham. I knew that it meant I was supposed to be inferior. Thus, black slavery in the past and our present second-class status was a manifestation of the will of God. I remember looking forward to dealing with this text in detail at some point in seminary.

Continue reading

He is Everything or He is Nothing: The Resurrection and the Claims of Jesus

resurrection-of-christ-icon

To be quite honest, the Easter Sunday Mass has never been my favorite. I have always been drawn to the evening services of Holy Week. Each year I am struck by the stripping of the altars on Maundy Thursday when the altar, divested of it’s glorify, mimics the stripped and beaten body of our savior. Then there is subsequent departure in silence. Have you been there? Have you seen it? Have you felt deep within in your soul that we share in failure of the disciples who abandoned Jesus at his hour of great need? That was the hour of darkness when the Son of Man was handed over to sinners.

On Good Friday I am stirred by the entry in silence. No hymns, no incense, no altar hangings, just the bare wooden altar that symbolizes the cross that awaits our king. Then we venerate the cross. The church, the whole of it, gathers one by one to glory in an instrument of death that has become our life. In the American church, we conclude the Good Friday liturgy with a prayer that says

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set
your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and
our souls, now and in the hour of our death.

That’s it isn’t? The Son, who has authority to cast us away into darkness, the judge of the living and the dead, is the one who intercedes on our behalf. Good Friday says it plainly: set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls.

The last of the evening services is the Great Vigil of Easter. If any celebration can lay claim to being the summit of the Christian year, it is this one. Have you been to one of these services? Have you begun outside the church in the dark of the night and heard the cantor proclaim the light of Christ? Have you heard the exultet: Rejoice now heavenly host and choirs of Angels! Have you heard the repeated refrain this is the night each time more urgent:

This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children                                                  of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt.

This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered                                            from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness
of life.

This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell,                                       and rose victorious from the grave.

But when we turn to the morning – Easter Sunday – the church has no special liturgy for this day! I find that shocking. There is a collect celebrating the resurrection, but otherwise the liturgy of Easter is almost indistinguishable from any other Sunday. It is almost as if the church has said, we have given you our testimony. He has died, he is risen, and we are filled with joy. It seems that the church recognizes that we cannot fit the entire story of the Christian faith into a Sunday morning and so it does not try. In fact, the liturgical experts will tell you the services of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are not three services, but one. We take three full days to reflect on the death and resurrection of our savior and even then we only skirt the edges of the mystery. There is a lesson in this.

Continue reading

Give me your feet and I will give you mine: Footwashing amongst the Baptists and Episcopalians

 

feet washing

Image by © Homer Sykes/CORBIS

 

I can say with confidence that I have washed more feet than any Episcopal priest that I know. This is not because my previous parishes enthusiastically embraced Maundy Thursday. No, I make this claim this because I was raised as a member of the Primitive Baptist Church. In that tradition, once per month as a part of our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we washed each other’s feet. I am not speaking about the pastors washing the feet of the elect. The whole church joined in this work. Well, at least the faithful who stayed after the main service concluded to share in “the Supper and Footwashing” as we used to call it.

I recall looking at my mom  with pleading in my eyes when that faithful Sunday rolled around. “Can we please go home? The football game is about to start.” Before you judge me for my lack of piety, keep in mind that by this time I would have already been at church since 10:30 (9:30 if we made it to Sunday school). By the time the main service ended, we would be knocking on the door of 1:00 pm. The Lord’s Supper and footwashing, when added to the small talk that inevitably followed, would move our departure to something north of 2:00 pm. As often as not, we stayed and I endured.

Continue reading

Two Boats, One Gospel: Black History Month and the Church’s Witness

MysticalChurch

(Orthodox icon of the Church as boat)

 

And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, “For we are also His offspring.” from the Acts of the Apostles

I have learned three histories in my lifetime. In school, they focused on the exploits of the descendants of the Mayflower. Theirs is a story of triumph over every obstacle that hindered an inevitable rise to greatness. It glories in America’s interventions at turning points in world history. The heroes in this tale do not look like me. My ancestors are relegated to the background, only invited forward to speak on the equality that should exist on the other side of our suffering. But that suffering itself must be forgotten. This is a past that gets omitted from the retelling. If some want to hold to their most cherished narratives, it stands as a sign to be contradicted.

I learned the full story of the survivors of the Middle Passage on my own. The twenty-eight days of Black History Month were insufficient to cover it. That tale had its own esteem, but it initially produced anger. Resentment is understandable when you discover that the neighborhoods and schools that still press hard against the dreams of the children who reside there — places that you too had to survive — did not arise by happenstance or the laziness of your ancestors. They were legislated. I can’t unread W.E.B. Dubois. The poets and novels of the Harlem Renaissance reshaped my imagination, and I live in the aftermath. But what shall I do now? Do I use my history as a weapon of mass destruction and locate evil in the flesh of those caused us pain?

That is not the path I choose to take. A third and deeper story has intervened. Before there was an “America,” before the slave ships arrived on the shores of West Africa, we were — all of us — profoundly loved by the one who gave his life in order to welcome us to his father’s home. In the midst of my anger, Jesus has come and spoken words of peace. I now see that our destinies (black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Native-American) are united, caught up in the one story of the one people of God. America’s story is only important as a witness to the gospel’s power to bring beauty out of pain and estrangement. We are penultimate.

Continue reading

Blaming the Africans: Cultural Imperialism and the Meeting of the Primates

Eliud Wabukala_5

Sally Struthers was the first to introduce me to Africa. She told me that while 70 cents would garner me a coke, that same two quarters and four nickels could feed an African. My next memory of Africa comes from watching the rise and fall of that famed warrior Shaka Zulu. In the movie,  his story ended in a doomed war against colonialist invaders. These two images, Africa as starving and in need of American salvation and Africa as primitive and violent, shaped my initial view of “the dark continent.” I wished that I could say that time has changed the way that Africa is presented in the West, but recently my seven-year-old son came home from school and asked me whether Africa had cities.

Memories of this paternalistic and monochrome view of Africa returned as I observed the response of some members of the Episcopal Church to the recent meeting of the Primates. I have listened as we lambasted “the Africans” as if they form one country that spoke one language and shared one view of the world: apparently uninformed bigotry.[1] We have pretended that they are not a multi-cultural continent with the same mix of good and bad that is indicative of all societies. I must say this as plainly as possible: If Korea, Japan, India, and China shared a similar view on human sexuality would we blame –implicitly and explicitly – Asian culture? Would we speak about them as a monolith? Would we assume that they are unthinking and “behind” America and the West? This smacks of cultural imperialism. It is cultural imperialism.

Continue reading

Finn and the imagination of little black boys

Star-Wars-countdown--Boyega-Clone-Trooper

I do my best to raise my children in the Christian faith. As a good Anglican, I dutifully instructed my kids about Advent and the coming of the child who would be king. I even managed to sneak in a discussion of the Second Advent when Jesus shall come again to swallow up death forever.

But if I want my son’s eyes to glimmer with expectation, I need only mention Star Wars. He has as much faith as a seven-year-old can muster, but he longs to see Hans Solo. Martin Luther King Jr. is wonderful, but sometimes little boys want to fly.

We were in the midst of yet another discussion of Star Wars when I asked him which character he liked best. I assumed he would choose Luke Skywalker. Although I named him after the gospel writer, the bearer of the light saber has often gained the upper hand. He exclaimed that he wanted to be Finn because, “he looks like me.” This declaration led to a victory dance that climaxed with a “Yeah, yeah, yeah!”

Then, once again, my son thrust me back in time to my childhood. I went through my catalog of heroes searching for another ‘Finn.’ There was Storm from the X-men, but she was rarely the lead. The X-men belonged to Wolverine and Cyclops. Every now and then our sports heroes were transformed into cartoons. I recall Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan showing up to save the day, but the real world saving belonged to the professionals. None of them led me to engage in a celebratory dance of identification.

Continue reading

The Status of Minority Scholars in Evangelical Institutions: A Relatively Unscientific Analysis

new-testament-book

As a minority in Biblical Studies, one encounters the common refrain that the worst thing that you can be in the academy is a white male. I have been told in many not so subtle ways that the main reason that I can expect employment is that I am an African-American male. Now leaving aside the question of whether or not it is possible for an African-American to get a job because they are qualified, I wanted to look into a simple question. What is the status of minority scholars in openly evangelical institutions?  Later, if I have time, I may look at the broader academy for the sake of comparison.

Rather than being exhaustive, I decided to choose, somewhat at random, nine major Evangelical seminaries. I then counted their minority New Testament and Old Testament faculty. One thing needs to be stated up front.  I assume no motive as it relates to the hiring processes at these institutions. If they lack minority scholars, there may be a variety of explanations. What will become clear below is that the rumor of a minority take-over in biblical studies is a myth that should be put away at once.

Continue reading