History

Unsettling Our Cultural Christianity

Trouble I've Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism
Trouble I've Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism

Since the beginning of the modern era almost 500 years ago, Western culture has been marked by a distinct aversion to history. Thus we have come to narrate our lives primarily through our stories as (seemingly) autonomous individuals, instead of through the social stories of the peoples and places to which we belong. One of the unfortunate consequences of this shift is that we often become blind to the socioeconomic narratives that have set the stage for our present lives.

One of these is white supremacy, which has shaped the geographical, educational, and economic systems of our land over many generations and played a formative role in the life of almost every American. In his excellent new book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, Drew Hart turns our attention to this story and particularly to the ways it misshapes our Christian faithfulness. Hart begins the book with a description of how racialized our lives are. Historically, nonwhites were excluded from many important spaces in U.S. public life: schools, governmental positions, and even churches. Although few, if any, of these spaces today explicitly exclude nonwhites, our socioeconomic systems are rooted in these earlier eras and continue to promote a highly segregated way of life. “When we can be honest about how our entire society is deeply racialized,” Hart says, “we will be ready to move forward.”

Hart reminds us that race is not simply about the color of one’s skin but also about power and the question of who gets to dictate the course that our society will follow. Early in the book, he spends a chapter exploring how our understanding of Jesus is often too white. We are inclined to imagine Jesus as an influencer, one who works in the upper echelons of our hierarchical society and who has the power to control the course of society. Hart emphasizes that this is not the Jesus that we find in the gospels, who aligned himself with the marginalized and who mostly rejected hierarchical society. “Where the old order dominated and violently lorded over others,” Hart observes, “the kingdom of God arose from the bottom, margins, and cracks of society, freely inviting people to share in the peace and justice of God made available in the presence of Jesus.”

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How You Can Honor Both Sides of the Thanksgiving Table

Image via /Shutterstock.com

When we think about the meeting of the first pilgrims and the Native Americans, we usually connect vicariously to one side of that old Plymouth encounter, mysteriously linking our faith journey to the early pilgrims’ faith journey. But what about those long-ago Native Americans? Is there a reason to remember them as more than a foil for the pilgrims?

Year after year we think warmly of that first union of the pilgrims and the Native Americans — and then we continue on in the supposed faith tradition of one of those peoples without another thought to the fate of the others.

So what role do those old Native Americans play in our faith today, and how might we bring them to mind or honor them? Here are a few ways you can faithfully honor both sides of the Thanksgiving table this year.

What the Pope Saw On His Drive Through D.C.

Image via Good Sweeney/Flickr

As Pope Francis’ motorcade made its way from the Joint Base Andrews in Maryland to the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C., late Tuesday afternoon, it made a hard left from scenic Rock Creek Parkway onto Massachusetts Avenue, wending its way northwestward at a fast clip along the manicured thoroughfare known as Embassy Row.

Riding in the passenger-side back seat of his tiny, black Fiat 500L, the 78-year-old pontiff leaned his body toward the open window, stuck his arm out, turned his smiling face toward the street, and waived at the modest clutches of pedestrians law enforcement had allowed to stand along the sidewalk to greet him as he whizzed by.

The pope rode past the South African embassy with its statue of Nelson Mandela, right arm raised in a fist of solidarity, out front — and then, almost directly across the street, the hulking statue of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill raising two fingers in a peace sign (or to hail a cab) at the southernmost end of the British Embassy’s sprawling grounds.

The Mandela and Churchill statues almost high-five each other across Massachusetts Avenue while the pope’s humble hatchback, surrounded by massive Secret Service SUVs and swarms of police motorcycles, passed beneath their outstretched arms.

I wonder if Francis noticed the statues, and thought of the men — so different from one another, but each remembered as a hero — and wondered what his own place in history might be.

The Living and the Unforgotten

TUVIA RUEBNER HAS earned the lament he wrote for King David, Israel’s better-known sorrow bearer. The poet came into the world 91 years ago in Pressburg-Bratislava, Slovakia, under Nazism’s shadow. It is a shadow he managed to separate himself from physically, but which sticks to him philosophically and is at the core of his poetry. The parched sound of random loss is the root sound in many of his poems. The spawn of an unimaginable yesterday, Tuvia Ruebner is more than anything a poet of today.

His parents, his grandparents, and his little sister Litzi all perished at Auschwitz in 1942, a year after he immigrated to British Mandate Palestine. Forty years after their deaths, Ruebner’s first son, Moran, was sent to fight in Israel’s first Lebanese war. Moran left for South America the following year, estranged from his country and its wars, and after a few letters, was never heard from again.

In Ruebner’s poem “[My father was murdered],” one by one he enumerates his losses:

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What Do I Do With My Confederate Flag?

confederateflagblock
Image via /shutterstock.com

I own a Confederate flag. Growing up, the flag meant little more to me than school spirit, pep rallies, and Southern pride … until I left East Tennessee. I’ll never forget the moment things began to change. I moved into my college dorm room and established my new home at Eastern University in Philadelphia. I carefully set up my desk, put my posters on the wall, and displayed my high school yearbook — with a Confederate flag on the cover — proudly on my bookshelf.

April Fools' Day's Religious Roots

Via Wikipedia Commons
Pope Gregory XIII, portrait by Lavinia Fontana. Via Wikipedia Commons

Let’s be clear: April Fools’ Day is not a religious holiday.

It does, however, trace its origins to a pope.

The day began, most believe, in 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII decreed the adoption of the “Gregorian calendar” — named after himself — which moved New Year’s Day from the end of March to Jan. 1.

The change was published widely, explains Ginger Smoak, an expert in medieval history at the University of Utah, but those who didn’t get the message and continued to celebrate on April 1 “were ridiculed and, because they were seen as foolish, called April Fools.”

New and Improved Christmas Hymns

Anne Kitzman/Shutterstock
Christmas carolers. Anne Kitzman/Shutterstock

One of the downsides of a theological education (and/or an overactive theological imagination) is an inability to sing some favorite old hymns with naive gusto. During this Christmas season in particular, we simply know too much about the biblical story (and the reality of childbirth and babies in general) to fully believe all of the touching words in some of the most popular Christmas carols.

So as a public service, I have written historically accurate versions of three of the most beloved holiday hymns. Without personally endorsing any of the theology below, I also offer some alternatives to those who don't theologically jive with the current version of "Joy to the World."

Mapping Gandhi's Faith Journey

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. once said that the greatest Christian of the 20th century was not a member of the church. He was referring to Mohandas Gandhi. A remarkable number of King’s fundamental beliefs—the use of active nonviolence as a tool of social reform, the commitment to loving one’s enemies—can be traced back to the influence of Gandhi, which means that one of the defining figures of 20th century American Christianity was profoundly shaped by the example of an Indian Hindu. As King said in 1958 of the civil rights movement, “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.”

But what of Gandhi’s influences? How did a skinny, middle-class, mid-caste Indian, so scared of public speaking as a student that a classmate had to read his speeches aloud for him, come to lead one of the great liberation struggles of the past century? A new book by Arvind Sharma, professor of comparative religions at McGill University, makes the case that the source of Gandhi’s strength was his spirituality. And while the heart of Gandhi’s faith was Hindu, as King’s was Baptist, the influences were remarkably diverse.

Pointing out that most of the biographies of Gandhi really tell the story of Mohandas Karamchand (the name he was given by his family), not Mahatma (a title that means “great soul” and is given to saints in India), Sharma’s book Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography sets out to give an account of the Mahatma. Sharma quotes Gandhi directly on the importance of highlighting the dimension of spirituality in any attempt to understand him: “What I want to achieve—what I have been striving and pining to achieve these 30 years—is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain moksha [the Hindu term for liberation]. I live and move and have my being in pursuit of this goal.”

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'Why Are White People So Mean?'

THE METRO IS crowded today, and the 20-something, well-dressed white man has to stand, one hand holding the bar and the other his smartphone. It’s the end of the day. All the commuters—but one—are turned toward home. The young man’s face, like most of the others, is dulled with exhaustion. No one makes eye contact.

In a seat near the door, one woman sits facing everyone, looking backward. She studies the young man’s face intently, uncomfortably. He shifts. She rearranges the bags at her feet. Her reflection in the window shows an ashy neck above her oversized T-shirt collar. The train hums and clicks through a tunnel. As if in preparation, she takes another sip from the beat-up plastic cup she’s holding.

At last, she raises her voice and asks: “Why are white people so mean?” Boom! The electricity of America’s third rail crackles through the train. Faces fold in like origami or turn blank like a screensaver.

But this was no rhetorical question. When no one answers, she asks again, this time aiming her question at the young man with his phone. A flush creeps up his neck. “You look like you could be a sheriff,” she says to him. “Good and mean. I can see it in your eyes. You got mean eyes.” When he realizes her attention is stuck on him, he replies, “I hope I’m not mean. I try to be good.”

An older man leans in to shhhsh her. “Sister, don’t talk like that here,” as if this was a topic only for the back porches in certain neighborhoods. Everyone was watching—and not watching—America’s racial history play out wildly and uncontrolled, like there was a snake loose on the train.

In the manner of the psalmists, Jeremiah, and Job, this prophetic woman had put forward her lament and accusation into the public square. Laments pierce social and religious facades to expose a fundamental injustice. They engage, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “the most unbearable questions of faith.”

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