Monday, February 13, 2006

A Bit More Dreamin' to Do

There are two events that occurred last week that I wish to comment upon. One was on the national stage, the other, more localized to the Memphis media. Each, though, gives rise to the point that, in the manner of MLK, we've got some dreamin' to do yet.

First, some theological back drop.

I was introduced to the work of James Cone when I was at Vandy.

Cone is an African-American theologian.

He's a pioneer in articulating a liberation theology for African-American Christians that parts company with patronizing tendencies of the "white" church (of which, The United Methodist Church has been been a part during her history - and if not patronizing, even oppressive at some points).

In short, white folks don't need to be the architects of black folks' theology. Black folks can do that for themselves. And if white folks do get involved, they will only to a point, because they will never concede their power, position or privilege they enjoy for the betterment of the "other," or, even be honest that they have these advantages in the first place.

If the white Christian community is to participate in an inclusive theology, he suggests, it must first come at the question in silence and listen well to the black Christian community (or the one being oppressed at any point in history), and be willing to enact whatever remedy the oppressed group believes will make an injustice right. (If my Christian ethics professor, Walter Fluker, reads this, how'd I do, Doc?)

Well, let me tell you, I was good at Cone, but I didn't like it.

See, I'm an open-minded, progressive (oh, the hell with it, I'm liberal and proud of it) man of faith, a clergy person - I'm "out there" and surely I can contribute to the conversation to make this a better place, a more inclusive world.

Cone says, "no."

Because if push comes to shove, I will use my liberality to insulate myself not from the realities of racism in the world, but racism in me.

Like I said, I don't like it.

And one of the reasons I don't like it is because deep down, I know he's right.

So, I offer comment on these two events as one who understand his own capacity to be racist, and that the people of color who are more directly affected by any and all of this are the ultimate teachers and I am to be their student.

The Funeral of Coretta Scott King
If the white "Christian" community thought that her service was going to be nothing more than singing "In the Garden," weeping and wailing, some of that good "black" preachin' and then go on with the status quo, it shows how oblivious we white folks really are.

See, what made Coretta's husband such a threat was that he spoke the truth in the moment. And what many white folks are content with is the truth that is trapped in the late 50's - early 60's.

It is the truth of another time. Rosa Parks, Selma, "I Have a Dream," - an historical commentary on history buffers us from the discomfort felt by white, religious folks back then.

But for God's sake, please don't talk about issues of now.

WMD, wire-taps, ('sup NSA), the plight of the poor, Iraq, homophobia, homelessness.

It's just not "appropriate."

Especially with W. in the audience.

In the great tradition of the prophets, Truth was spoken, at Coretta's "great gittin' up mornin'," and even emperors and kings must bow to the Truth of the Kingdom of God.

So, that blowhard Rush, O'Reilly, and the local Rushwannabe, Mike, talk how you're not supposed to be like that at a funeral.

Their outrage is so superficial and predictable.

It's so, "white." By that I mean, it is the position taken by anyone who cannot claim their own capacity to use their status to keep people in their place.

Of course, these guys have been to many "black" funerals, and I'm sure they know exactly what their talking about.

Truth is, the folks who mounted the pulpit would have dis-graced Coretta's legacy had they done anything less than what they did. Anything else would have been to sanitize a prophetic word, and the folks in power are always wanting to do that.

As we were reminded by our recent trip down Civil Rights Memory Lane, after Martin was killed, and when, by all accounts, no one would have blamed Coretta if she sought to raise her children and move on with her life, she, instead, came to Memphis to carry on.

Those who spoke, and the congregation who gathered, honored that tradition by carrying on, and so should we all here on.

The Birth of D-Wash III
Another mention of Geoff Calkins in my blog, that ain't right.

Last week Geoff wrote, with admitted trepidation, the story of the birth of Darius Washington, III. He's the son of Bianca Brunetti and Darius Washington, Jr., starting point guard for the Tigers.

The story did not glorify having children out of wedlock. But neither did it run from its reality in our culture. And if anything, Geoff highlighted the role of the father in the African-American family in a way that was encouraging and hopeful.

But man, he caught all kinds of hell in the letters to the editor. Which, being in the "Bible" belt, is to be expected. Nothing quite like white, self-righteous religious folks making moral judgments about everybody else.

It's more than predictable.

It's tacky.

And yes, I'm talking about you too, Bill Bougknight.

Of course I believe in the institution of marriage (and I've got some thoughts on that one, too, but that's another post), that's not the issue.

But when folks who don't know these people talk about this child as illegitimate, I can't stand that.

There is no such thing as illegitimacy in the eyes of God. And anyone who calls Jesus "Lord" not only should know that, but be in solidarity with those women, men and children who need not to be judged, but loved.

And if predominantly "white" church folks can't get that, then it's pretty obvious that James Cone is right, again.

And I still don't like it.

Guess I've got a bit more dreaming to do.


Anonymous said...

It was important for Bush to hear that because when he talks it is always in front of "pre-screened" audiences. The result is people who feel cut off from democracy. Amazing that we are worried about disrespect now but not when we start wars of convenience and send young people off to is about time Bush got the uncensored truth...he is very bad at listening to alternative is too bad he can't be more like other Presidents who realized they must govern all the people in the US, not just conservative white Christians, oil executives and land developers....
As FDR once said, "I never forget that I live in a house built by ALL the American people," something that Bush has never understood...or just doesn't care.....
I like your blog but I have to say...2008...are we there yet???!!!
Interesting insights..keep it up...

Chris said...

Man, this seems to really get me down!

So, is Cone telling me that, through no choice or fault of my own, I am racist because I was raised by white parents and taught by white church leaders? If that is the case, it seems that the cycle of racism will never be broken. Is Cone telling me that because I am white, the children I raise will be racist, no matter what I teach them?

How does Cone suggest we deal with racism?

Chris said...

Or have I gone off the deep end...

Johnny Jeffords said...


This is a conversation best suited with a couple of good ales and Miles Davis in the background (preferably with Coltrane).

Your response was just like mine the first time I encountered Cone.

Cone has several interpreters that range from a theology of liberation that reverses the role of white and black folks in culture – to a transcendent view of the world in which parties in power acknowledge the propensity to advantage by nothing more arbitrary than their birth (what color they are, where they live, etc.), and then choose not to exploit that advantage for self – rather, make it an instrument through which mutuality in the church, society, the world can emerge.

But Cone is right, I think, to say that as one of the advantaged, by definition, I can’t be the one to offer the “fix” to the problem. Otherwise I’m still in power. Rather, by hearing from the “other,” and he would say, “oppressed,” I voluntarily suspend my power position for the sake of the greater good that is beyond me.

I can live with that – in fact, I find distinct Biblical parallels and directives.

One of my favorite non Gospel New Testament readings is Philippians 2. It’s known as “the Hymn to Christ.”

"If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross."

One of the key elements of what I was writing about, though, is to acknowledge with honesty that the self-protective tendency in me would use my status and place to maintain an advantage if pushed into a corner. I believe that understanding that about those of us who are advantaged is the first step to not doing it.

Folks who declare they aren’t racist, but can’t admit their capacity to be, are on thin ice, I fear.

Let’s keep the dialogue open.

Chris said...

Okay, riddle me this…

If one group gives up being “advantaged,” wouldn’t the other group also have to give up being “disadvantaged” for an equality to be reached? (I remember I took social psychology, which is all I can say for certain about that subject…)

John Wesley wrote:
Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.

Cone seems to fly in the face of this, and what I believe about being a Methodist. I am SUPPOSED to help people. Not only supposed to help people, it is my duty, even my obligation to make sure the doors to His house are open to everyone. So it confuses and scares me that I might be doing things in the Lord's name and it is hurting someone.

Maybe the question that you are trying to get out of me is this: How do I give up my position of being “advantaged” while helping others and not creating theology for them?