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Mordecai Johnson

A few years ago when I read Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition, I posted a series of blogs about the book, particularly the various figures he discussed.  At the time this was the third book I'd presented in this way, also having done so with Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy and David Brooks's The Road to Character.  Dorrien's book was his attempt to do something he thought lacking in the history of American religion--discussing the various movements in black religion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that led to the development of a distinct theological tradition of the black social gospel.

Now I've begun reading his second volume in this history, Breaking White Supremacy, which takes us from the 1920's up to Dr. King.  Part of Dorrien's aim is to show how King stood within a rich, well-developed tradition.

Mordecai

The first figure discussed in this new volume is longtime Howard University president Mordecai Johnson.  As with many of the figures Dorrien writes about I have previously known either nothing or very little about them.  Reading about Johnson fascinated me.  

Johnson's mother Carolyn named him after the character in the Book of Esther, believing that her son has a special mission in life.  He used education as a means of advancement.  At the University of Chicago he experienced modern science, liberal theology, and socialism, merging both with his Christian faith and throughout his life advocating that Christians should never fear knowledge.  Otherwise the faith would face a credibility problem.  Dorrien writes, "In Johnson's experience education was liberalizing and empowering, and he wanted as much as he could get." 

At Rochester Seminary he soaked up the social gospel theology of Walter Rauschenbusch.  Johnson wrote in a letter, "Religion is going to be a great factor in the new adjustment.  There never was such a reformation as we are now on the verge of.  This religion reemphasized with new aspects to suit the modern needs will bring forth great moral and spiritual engineers.  God grant that I may be one of these among my own people!"

In his early preaching career in West Virginia, he advocated three themes: "'the brotherhood of man,' the necessity of Christian unity, and the Christian mission to build the kingdom of God."  He preached, "If the church is to live there must be a Christian movement to give reverence to human personality, a movement to use all the forces of modern knowledge and technology to build a social order which will raise and enlarge the life of every human being."

Also, "A selfish human being is a monstrosity, is a monstrosity.  Any human being who lives for himself and himself only is a monstrous creature.  The very foundation of his life is the basest of all human qualities--ingratitude.  For a man to be selfish in such a world as this, he must shut his eyes and his mind and his heart to all the great things that he has received from the human race."  Selfishness was the root of sin, even racism and lynching ("the most diabolical crime in the universe").

In 1922 he spoke at Harvard's commencement and gave a powerful speech on  American racism.  Dorrien summarizes "Johnson still believed that Christianity and American liberal democracy--'our American faith'--offered the best and most light.  But the actually existing United States betrayed both."

When Johnson went to Howard, as the first black president, he wanted to build a major and influential institution that would promote blackness.  His time was filled with controversies, and some viewed him as an overbearing leader.  But he succeeded in building a black intellectual powerhouse that trained leaders of the civil rights movement.  

He was an early supporter of Gandhi, believing that the movement against Jim Crow had much to learn from him.  He viewed Gandhi as "the epitome of true religion."  He spent forty days in India in 1949.

Democracy is "the highest friendship that we have known."  It must be built upon respect for the human dignity of all people.   Moreover, anyone who opposed the sacred worth of the individual was not a Christian. 

Johnson praised King: "You have led your people on a victorious pathway seldom tried in human life.  You have shown them how to mobilize the fullest powers of their souls for effective resistance to evil and who to overcome humiliation and abuse without violence and without hatred in deed or in words."


24th & Glory

24th & Glory: The Intersection of Civil Rights and Omaha's Greatest Generation of Athletes24th & Glory: The Intersection of Civil Rights and Omaha's Greatest Generation of Athletes by Dirk Chatelain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A engaging, moving read. The story of significant American social movements told through the lens of one neighborhood in a Midwestern city and the prominent characters who lived there. A essential read for Omahans that will be enjoyed by many others.

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What's going on with the Right?

An excellent, and I think helpful, column in the Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf on what's going on with the Right.  Even deeper than the racism currently being exhibited is a psychological temperament that seeks order and fears difference and change.  He criticizes the Left for how they respond to the Right and provides insights on the best way to build coalitions to advance the nation.


The Origin of Others

The Origin of OthersThe Origin of Others by Toni Morrison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Good, the week after her death, to read Morrison's words speaking to the crisis of our times. My favorite part was this on the stranger:

"Why should we want to know a stranger when it is easier to estrange another? Why should we want to close the distance when we can close the gate? . . .

"It took some time for me to understand my unreasonable claims on that fisherwoman. To understand that I was longing for and missing some aspect of myself, and that there are no strangers. There are only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we wish to protect ourselves from. For the stranger is not foreign, she is random; not alien but remembered; and it is the randomness of the encounter with our already known--although unacknowledged--selves that summons a ripple of alarm. That makes us reject the figure and the emotions its provokes--especially when these emotions are profound. It is also what makes us want to own, govern, and administrate the Other. To romance her, if we can, back into our own mirrors. In either instance (of alarm or false reverence), we deny her personhood, the specific inviduality we insist upon for ourselves."

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Jesus and the Disinherited

Jesus and the DisinheritedJesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was one of those books I knew I needed to get around to at some point, but I'm now upset that I didn't read it twenty years ago. I feel let down; that no one explained to me that this was one of the essential books. And not just essential theologically. Essential for anyone to read.

Essential for its sophisticated understanding of how marginalized people respond to their situations. Essential for the way it clearly influenced King and others. Essential for helping to understand America.

There are so many other books I've read which are clearly derivative of this one. I had been missing the essential, core text.

But no more. Now it will become an essential part of my personal canon, to be used often.

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Sisters in the Wilderness

Sisters in the Wilderness: The challenge of Womanist God-TalkSisters in the Wilderness: The challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores S. Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finally read this classic theological text after years of reading other books that discussed it (there are still many classic theology books I haven't read, as I spent graduate school reading the philosophical canon).

I was interested in the places where she argues for something (such as her criticisms of traditional atonement theory) that have since become standard. In this way you see the influence of her work on the wider discipline.

I'm drawn to the concluding remarks on the survival strategies of black women: an art of cunning, an art of encounter, an art of care, and an art of connecting. I would like further constructive theology on these, which I think would be helpful for pastoral care and preaching. A key point is that simply enduring is itself "an act of defiance, a revolutionary act."

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Tears We Cannot Stop

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White AmericaTears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

More hopeful than Ta-Nahesi Coates. But I was left wondering if the only people who will read this book are those already mostly sympathetic to it? The people that need to read it are probably less likely to actually read it.

The best chapter is the one on police violence.

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Pastoral Prayer upon the death of James Cone

This morning's pastoral prayer at First Central Congregational UCC of Omaha:

Yesterday our brother James Cone died. Cone was one of the greatest American theologians. He was born and raised in Arkansas during segregation, and became the founder of Black Liberation Theology, a longtime professor at Union Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Cone formulated a theology of liberation from within the context of the Black experience of oppression, interpreting the central kernel of the Gospels as Jesus' identification with the poor and oppressed, and the resurrection as the ultimate act of liberation. He has deeply influenced my theology.

In his masterwork, God of the Oppressed, he wrote, "Jesus Christ is not a proposition, not a theological concept which exists merely in our heads. He is an event of liberation, a happening in the lives of oppressed people struggling for political freedom." That understanding helped to empower my own work on equal rights for LGBT people.

And in his late great book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, which our Theology Brunch discussed in March, he wrote,

The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the "cost of discipleship," it has become a form of "cheap grace," an easy way to salvation that doesn't force us to confront the power of Christ's message and mission. Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with the "recrucified" black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.

And his work convicts me of my sin, opening new paths for redemption and reconciliation.

Let us begin our time of pastoral prayer with a moment of silent reflection.

Silence

Gracious God. Thank you for sending us James Cone to be our teacher.

He taught us who Jesus was and is.

He taught us what the cross means. And the resurrection means.

He taught us how to be saved and liberated.

And how worship can empower us for the struggle of life.

He taught us who you are, God. That you are the God of the oppressed.

Without his teaching we might still be mired in misunderstanding and sin because of our racism and sexism and homophobia.

We might still be worshipping an idol.

As he is welcomed into your peace,

May his spirit ever live,

In power and glory.

And now we pray, as Jesus has taught us,

Our Father who art in Heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,

Thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our debts
as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom and the power

and the glory, forever. Amen.


Philosophical reflection on Whiteness

An interview with philosopher George Yancy about white American refusal to face racism and white privilege.

An excerpt:

When you talk about “whiteness” in the letter and book, what do you mean?

Whiteness is a structural, ideological, embodied, epistemological and phenomenological mode of being – and it is predicated upon its distance from and negation of blackness. This is what so many white people forget or refuse to see: their being racialized as white and socially and psychologically marked as privileged has problematic implications for my being black.

Whiteness is what I call the “transcendental norm”, which means that whiteness goes unmarked. As unmarked, white people are able to live their identities as unraced, as simply human, as persons. And this obfuscates the ways in which their lives depend upon various affordances that black people and people of color don’t possess.

White racism is thus a continuum, one that includes the KKK, the loving white Christian and the antiracist white. Even good, moral white people, those who have black friends, friends of color, married to people of color, fight for racial justice and so on, don’t escape white racist injustice against black people and people of color; they all continue to be implicated within structures of white privilege and to embody, whether they realize it or not, society’s racist sensibilities. White people possess white privilege or white immunity from racial disease. And because of this, others of us, black people and people of color, reap the social, political and existential pains of that racialized social skin.