Thursday, November 27, 2014

Advent One: A Season to Wait in a Restless Time

Through the weeks of Advent, I will be sharing a post on Fridays.  This Advent, I will be connecting this season awaiting Christ while pondering what difference Christianity could make in the name of Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace:

The Advent season this year has two challenges.  One is the way that the US holds its Thanksgiving observances on the last Thursday, and more often than not, the average Advent season dates fall with the first Sunday sort of lost in the haze of family travel, vacation leave from work, and sales galore for Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.

The other is the heartache of many after the grand jury results in Ferguson.  A community long divided around issues of race and racism, economic disparity and a deep distrust of unjust situations being met with mercy, peace or justice.  My FB feed these past few days have been laden with lament, anger and despair, questioning the process of the justice system.  Locally, a Ferguson protest was held in the downtown area as well as in other communities where solidarity was expressed with persons in the greater St. Louis area.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners Magazine wrote of the grand jury decision and the unrest accompanying this long season of legal proceedings and community unease:

It is time to right the unacceptable wrong of black lives being worth less than white lives in our criminal justice system. The broken relationships between law enforcement officials and their communities are deeply felt and very real. How law enforcement interacts with communities of color raises fundamental, legitimate issues that must be addressed by the whole nation if we are to move forward. The changes we need in both policies and practices must now be taken up in detail. Our neglect has led to anger and hopelessness in a new generation, but their activism will also help lead us to new places. It is indeed time to turn Ferguson from a moment to a movement, and Michael Brown’s life and death must not be allowed to be in vain. 


Rev. Roy Medley, the ABCUSA General Secretary and currently President of the governing board of the National Council of Churches, was in St. Louis in the days preceding the grand jury result.  He writes in this "Letter from Missouri" available via: 

Earlier this fall, two American Baptist pastors shared their thoughts on the community ministry needs of Ferguson as the grand jury convened.  You can listen to this 20 minute podcast via the American Baptist Home Mission Societies via:  The ABHMS titles this podcast link:  "Where in the world is the church?"  Indeed, these are pressing questions for churches and church leaders near and well beyond Ferguson to address the lingering, systemic issues raised by this most recent incident of race, violence and the justice system stressing a fragile, if not evaporated trust.

Two years ago, I reviewed a book by black liberation theologian and eminent scholar Dr. James H. Cone.  The review itself was published in the "Sharing the Practice" journal published quarterly by the Academy of Parish Clergy.  In my review of The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books, 2012), I note the longer history of race, belief, Christianity and the brokenness of the American dream surveyed by Cone, whose writings and theological project are confirmed yet again in national discourse.  For a video related to this book, Cone speaks of his theological work while this book being written with PBS commentator (and fellow Baptist) Bill Moyers in 2007:

From my review of The Cross and the Lynching Tree, a few excerpts:

Throughout his career, Union Theological Seminary professor James H. Cone has been a leading voice in black theology, connecting Christian doctrine with the ongoing history of African Americans. Along the way, Cone’s thought has challenged the dominant narrative of American Christianity, particularly historic and contemporary myopias among mainline and evangelical U.S. Christians alike.

In this book, Cone recalls the horrific period when African American women, men and children were beaten, tortured and lynched, so often with passive bystanders watching the spectacle. In one of many chilling examples cited by Cone, a 1915 lynching in Fayette County, Tennessee, is turned into a public event with school children encouraged to come and view the spectacle. Remembering this history of suffering is “a challenge we must face,” Cone writes. “What is at stake is the credibility and promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society” (p. 1-2).

Cone compares the specter of the lynching tree with the cross at the center of Christian belief. For some, the cross is a symbol of great hope, of a redemptive word to those who suffer as a crucified people. To others, the cross is a symbol of religious belief that nonetheless is subconsciously tamed down into pietistic or philosophical frameworks. Such efforts, even among those who would claim to mean well, create theologies and praxis that stay removed from the tragic irony of the world where the sufferings of the crucifixion resound in the marginalized peoples going unnoticed in the pulpits and academic realms of those too ensconced in dominant culture’s privilege.

The book serves as a guide to theological method, demonstrating the various ways the history and experience of the lynching era was understood. He guides the reader through the spirituals, the blues, and black prose and poetry, all potent sources/outlets for the pain of a people under oppression. Cone enters into the groves of academia, reviewing the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the Niebuhr and King chapters, you get the sense of how the mid-20th century reflected “ships passing in the night” as a prominent theological liberal like Niebuhr, without a doubt a leading voice in America at the time, was quite restrained in responding to the racial discrimination. Cone notes a sincere respect for his fellow theologian and ethicist Niebuhr, whom he followed (but did not overlap with) at Union Theological Seminary, nonetheless, Cone persuasively argues that for all Niebuhr’s gifts, insights and legacy in American theological liberalism, the late great master could write about the cross as a theological symbol yet failed to connect such thought to the concrete reality of the lynching tree.

In comparison, Cone reviews the theological development and rise of Martin Luther King, Jr., who wove together the “dream” of a different sort of America, though Cone has written elsewhere of King’s shortcomings, juxtaposing King with Malcolm X, two men caught somewhere between the 1960s era’s turbulent search for a more just society (cf. Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or A Nightmare, Orbis, 1994).


The question of suffering and the appropriate way we speak of the Cross matters greatly. [...] Certainly, Cone gifts the reader with many resources to deal with the oft-hidden history of marginalized peoples often under the heel of those who otherwise cast themselves as part of God’s chosen nation.

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