Theology

'Now is a Time for Theology to Thrive'

AUG. 9, 2014, is a day I’ll never forget. It was the day that Michael Brown was killed by Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson.

For many young people in the United States, especially those of us involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, this was our Sept. 11. We all remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when the news broke of another police-involved killing of an unarmed black citizen.

I was in the final days of a yearlong internship with Sojourners. My fellow interns and I were on our closing retreat in West Virginia. I was on my phone checking my Twitter timeline when I began to see retweets of images: Michael Brown laid out on Canfield Drive with blood still leaking from his bullet wounds. I remember the anger that instantly came over me. “Not another one!” was all I could think.

As the day wore on, I felt frustrated that I was stuck in a retreat house, forced to sit idly by while the grieving community in Ferguson was antagonized by officers in riot gear with police dogs. I knew then that I had to do whatever it would take to join the people in this fight for justice. I never imagined how this movement would change the way I—and many others—actually do theology.

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All My Favorite Theologians Are Dying

David Bowie (left) JStone / Shutterstock.com; Alan Rickman JStone / Shutterstock.com

All of my favorite theologians are dying. David Bowie. Alan Rickman. A couple of years ago it was Pete Seeger. It is as if all my favorite theologians are moving on.

Please take me seriously as I say this. It has been a grief-striking week. Just like when Robin Williams passed, there is this void in my life, in my way of knowing God.

'What Kind of God Are You?' Black Theodicy in Times of Tribulation

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One of the most common criticisms of faith I have heard is this: if there is an all-powerful and loving God somewhere out there, why does this God allow horrible things to happen? In a world where there has always been war, sexual violence, starvation and murder, where is this omnipotent God? Why does he allow these things to happen? Where is she when people suffer injustice?

The Bible gives us plenty of examples of the abuses of the faithful, sometimes even at God's own hand (like in the book of Job). We read of the systemic oppression of the Jewish people and the early Christian church. Through this, God's people were always able to remain steadfast in their faith. Forming a defense of faith in God in the face of realized evil is known as theodicy.

So: In a nation where Blacks have been enslaved, lynched, and raped because of their race, and in time where people must declare that “black lives matter,” how do black Americans form their own theodicy to justify this violence, abuse, and systemic oppression?

And is it necessary to do so?

Theologies of Fear

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Two years ago I sat in a room crowded with 300 angry people and 700 more outside shouting, as I nervously whispered, “I’ve never been in a room where I’ve felt so much white Christian rage.” My colleague, a pastor from Pulaski, Tenn., nodded as I straightened up in my chair.

The crowd had come from surrounding states to this small community forum in Manchester, Tenn. They came to protest the forum’s concern for hate crimes against Muslims. National Islamophobic groups had bussed protestors in from hundreds of miles away, carrying messages and signs based on an ideology — some might say, theology — of bigotry. And they were truly angry, flashing their handguns and shouting down panelists. This was in the summer of 2013, but the memory still reminds me, why I moved to Tennessee to work on an interfaith public education effort to end anti-Muslim sentiment.

To be clear, these weren’t people who wanted to discuss the complexities of interfaith engagement while holding true to our particular faith claims. There are many people in this country who want to talk, for instance, about what interfaith relations mean for evangelism, or why a small number of Muslims today are turning to terrorism, without generalizing the Muslim community or wanting to see harm done to them. These were not the people at the forum, however. One thing alone had brought them to Manchester: fear.

#UnitedWeFight — Clergy in Ferguson March for Justice

Image via Heather Wilson/Dust and Light Photography

PHOTO ESSAY: On Monday, fifty-seven people were arrested as part of the #UnitedWeFight march and peaceful civil disobedience at the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse. The march was in commemoration of the year-long resistance sparked in #Ferguson by the murder of #MikeBrown.

Together, hundreds of community leaders, activists, organizers, and clergy from the St. Louis, Mo., area and nationwide demanded US Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri Richard Callahan take immediate action on the findings of the Department of Justice reports. When clergy and activists breached the barricades and sat in front of the building, they were slowly arrested as the St. Louis police arrived in the dozens.

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Faith in Ferguson

Leah Gunning Francis

Leah Gunning Francis

Young people ignited by injustice, refusing to back down. A nation waking up to the reality of racial disparities. And a church that can no longer remain silent. This, says Eden Theological Seminary professor Leah Francis Gunning, is the real “Ferguson Effect.” As she protested in Ferguson over the past year, Gunning collected interviews from clergy and young organizers. The result is Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership & Awakening Community (Chalice Press, 2015), a behind-the-scenes look at the role of the church in the Black Lives Matter movement. Sojourners interviewed Francis to learn more about the religious community’s role in supporting and sustaining a racial justice movement started by young activists.

Requiem for Mike Brown

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Over the past year, #blacklivesmatter has taught me that the work of theology is not limited to the hallowed halls of academic institutions or sermonic reflections from prestigious pulpits on Sunday mornings. At community meetings and rallies, I learned new hymns in the form of movement chants. I learned that protest can be a form of prayer. #Blacklivesmatter is more than a hashtag. It is a call for repentance. It is an invitation into a state of prophetic grief and collective lament that does not anesthetize us from our pain but allows us to reconnect to the depths of our humanity by feeling, together, the torment our silence on issues of racial injustice has sown. It is only together that we will be able to actualize the transformation God is calling us to effect in this world.

We Cannot Be Silent

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In honor of the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., Sojourners asked a variety of faith leaders — Catholics, Baptists, Muslims, agnostics, evangelicals, and humanists — to reflect: How has your faith been challenged, affirmed, or deepened by the Black Lives Matter movement? Has your theology changed? And, most importantly, what are we being called to do? 

Here’s what they said.

'Arriving at Amen' Arrives, For Some

Book cover, 'Arriving at Amen.' Image via arrivingatamen.com

Book cover, 'Arriving at Amen.' Image via arrivingatamen.com

Arriving at Amen, the forthcoming memoir-infused guide to spiritual practices by Leah Libresco, reads like a fantastic series of blog posts combined into a less-spectacular guide for small groups getting their hands dirty with spiritual practices. Oddly, Leah seems to respect her audience a bit too much by assuming that they are as geeky and morally driven as her. This limits Arriving at Amen’s usefulness in the pastoral context, which it seems marketed and designed for — but makes it more interesting for me. 

Leah has a great internet presence — from her blog Unequally Yoked to a new radio show Fights in Good Faith and now reporting and doing analysis for FiveThirtyEight. Leah is, basically, a very liberally well-educated math nerd who turns to religion in the same way that she turns to everything – full-voiced and with the intention to win.

Arriving at Amen riffs on some historic spiritual practices, all billed as Roman Catholic (though I, as a cranky reformed Presbyterian, can still get some mileage out of them) such as the Divine Office, examen, lectio divina, and several others.

Leah has lots of helpful tips here. The Divine Office (a set structure of prayers that I’ve found healthy in my own life) can become a means to organize your time and a way to transition to and from work on your commute. She suggests using the Jesuit daily self-reflection of the examen as way to proactively think about virtues that you can cultivate rather than as another opportunity to spiral into guilt. She even rethinks lectio divina, the practice of meditation on scripture, by suggesting that the reader translate scripture into another language as she does with American Sign Language.

All of this is helpful advice — but it also demonstrates the scattershot nature of Arriving at Amen.

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