Anthony Carter has provided thoughtful words on the passing of Yolonda King. I am grateful for his thoughts. See http://www.reformingchurches.org/blog/archive/intheshadowofaking.
In our natural tendency to look for historical figures we can claim as our own, we face the twin dangers of domestication and sanitization. That is, when the historical figure’s entire belief system, including early views later discarded or recanted, are so radically different from our own philosophy (or theology), we tone down or clean up what was said in order to make our hero look like one of us and share our views. Equally so, when we have angst with one of the heroes of others, we tend to vilify that personality, as in the case of many who vilify Calvin in order to support their rejection of Calvinism.
As I read of the death of Jerry Falwell, I wonder how history will view him. For many evangelicals and social conservatives, Falwell is a hero who held to conservative family values and challenged our country to do the same, for which I am thankful. But as I read commentary and tributes on the life of Falwell, such as the one by Al Mohler (whom I highly respect), I feel almost sickened by the lack of acknowledgment of Falwell’s early racism and racial-separatist views.
As an evangelical Christian, I firmly believe in the grace of God to conform saints to the image of his Son. This is the process of sanctification. So I believe that a Jerry Falwell, though once overtly racially-separatist, could see the error of his thinking by being confronted by the word of God, repent from that sin, and learn to embrace African Americans in love, as I believe he did. However, does the work of grace mean that we who hail heroes tone down, ignore, or attempt to clean up the early picture of Falwell or anyone else?
If so, I believe evangelicals, by and large, will need to change their rhetoric about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes, King denied the Virgin Birth of Christ (although it would seem that he compartmentalized the Virgin Birth and Christ’s deity, still holding to the latter); King dabbled in communist thought; King was an adulterer; and the list goes on. But does that mean that King should not be thought of as a hero to Americans, to evangelical Americans, and not just to African Americans, especially since King held to a conservative view of justice and challenged our country do the same? Although I enjoy what Dyson has written on King, I would not go as far as to say that it is the flaws of King that make him worth hero or icon status. But as the rhetoric on King tends to be vilification, I think Dyson proposes some things that can help lovers of the Truth make good correctives.
A few years ago, I remember reading Sherard Burns on Jonathan Edwards the slave owner. (It is what it is.) I was struck by these comments toward the end of his paper about the tension of seeking to make sense of our history (particularly as African Americans) in light of the word of God:
“The reality of this tension is captured in a provocative statement by a friend of mine, Ken Jones, pastor of Greater Missionary Union Baptist Church in Compton, California. In a discussion we had regarding this issue some years ago, Pastor Jones commented that ‘the challenge of the African American within the Reformed context is that we are called to embrace the theology of our oppressors and to reject the theology of our liberators.’ This means that the odd and ironic position of the African American who seeks to be shaped by orthodox theology must reject, in many respects, the theology of a Martin Luther King, Jr., and embrace the theology of a Jonathan Edwards or Robert Dabney. While I admire Dr. King for his work and efforts in fighting for the freedom of African Americans in this country (my freedom), I am not hesitant to note that he will not offer much help in theological precision. While, on the other hand, Edwards never held the mantle as a social liberator, his theology will saturate a man in orthodoxy.”
After reading Burns comments, I scribbled these notes in the margin of my book: “Was King’s theology of justice correct? Was Edwards’? We are still exonerating Edwards by selectively emphasizing one aspect of his theology (i.e, theology proper and/or soteriology), over another (ecclesiology (and the ‘diakonology’ of King, cf. James 2, 5)).”
I am grateful for the work of Falwell and the work of King. But I am concerned about sanitizing and domesticating. What do such attempts say about us? Are we domesticating and sanitizing the errors within ourselves as we muzzle and spray-wash our heroes, making ourselves feel good about ourselves and not just our heroes? Are we deceiving ourselves about our own error when push our heroes’ skeletons into the closets of forgetfulness? Are we vilifying those we hate because their opposing views challenge (or allow us to ignore) the criminal-like thoughts in each of us?
I believe we need to be people of grace: The flawed Falwell, King, and Calvin are transformed by the free grace of Christ alone. Yet we also need to be a people of truth: In God’s grace, like all of us, our heroes preached the truth as men with the stains of sin.
Thank you for indulging my musings without feeling the need to sanitize a saint named Burns. For he, like me, is being sanctified by the One who is faithful. That same Faithful One has completely sanctified Falwell, King and Calvin. I can imagine them standing next to one another around the throne of grace shouting “Hallelujah to the Lamb of God, vilified for my sins!” (Ed Gilbreath, Carl Ellis, Anthony Carter, and John Piper have given good props to hold up our fallen hero, King. My condolences to the family of his daughter, Yolanda, about whom I hope to see some good blog comments. My condolences also to the family of Jerry Falwell.)
Dr. Edward Blum, a professor of history at San Diego State University, has written, W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet, just released by the University of Pennsylvania Press. It is a unique work about the most famous intellectual in African American history in that it is the first religious biography of the indefatigable civil rights activist and sociologist. Professor Blum and I became Amazon friends last year. I am excited about his work on Du Bois, one of my intellectual heroes. I am especially eager to know of Prof. Blum’s view of Du Bois’ Calvinistic roots. The professor of history agreed to allow me to interview him for A Man from Issachar.
1. Tell us a little about yourself and your faith background.
I grew up in a small white middle-class suburb of New York City where I attended a Presbyterian Church. I was active in the youth group and went to college intending to become a minister. The Christianity of my youth was inspiring. We were taught to think deeply about the sacred; to care about our community and others; we were taught to share the good news. What I did not realize, though, was that we were also being taught, subtly, that the people of God were all white. With all white people in the church and with visual depictions of white angels and Jesus in mass culture, I think I went to college with a subconscious belief that white people and white souls mattered most to God. I would not have said that at the time, but I think it was there. In college – at the University of Michigan – and then in graduate school – at the University of Kentucky – my entire religious view was changed. I encountered women and men of just about every national background, every hue, every persuasion, and I found that they had so much to teach me about God, about community, about justice and injustice, about how the world really was. At that point, I began a new spiritual pilgrimage: to find the faith that had been shielded from me in white suburbia. And, since I was always interested in history, I did so through historical texts. I began with Frederick Douglass, reading his grand personal narratives of slavery and freedom; I moved on to the liberation theology of James Cone and J. Deotis Roberts; I then read white evangelicals like sociologist Michael Emerson who were searching for ways for true racial integration. Then I found Du Bois and my entire mental landscape was opened. He seemed to unlock the doors separating religion and American society. He showed the connections between what and how people practice their faiths and the implications on society. So, in many ways, I am a white man who practices a black-based Christianity; politically, I am a Democrat; I focus on community over individualism; I see the work of God in the marginalized of the nation and of the world.
2. Prior to your research on Du Bois, you won an award for your dissertation. Tell us about that work, and how your previous research and teaching led you toward the Du Bois project.
My first book, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, was a slight revision of my dissertation, and it is a study of religion’s role in reuniting northern and southern whites after the American Civil War. I found that religious ideas and leaders in particular moments – from Harriet Beecher Stowe and her brother Henry Ward Beecher to Dwight Lyman Moody and Frances Willard, from moments like Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on Good Friday in 1865 to the terrible yellow fever epidemic of 1878 to the Spanish-American War in 1898 – were fundamental in convincing Union men and former Confederates to see themselves as national brethren. Central to this process was the embrace of white supremacy by northern Protestant leaders. Revivalist Moody, reformer Willard, and numerous other Christian leaders endorsed segregation, accepted lynching, and encouraged the retreat from racial justice in Reconstruction.A subtheme of my first book was how African Americans, including Frederick Douglass, Frances Harper, Ida B. Wells, and W. E. B. Du Bois recognized and fought against religion’s role in white reunion and racial discrimination. I saw that Du Bois was the primary leader in a struggle against, what I termed, a ‘”spiritual wage of whiteness,” – that is the belief of whites that their racial category was connected to God in ways that others were not. So my first book led directly into my second.
3. Briefly, how would you describe Du Bois’ journey of faith?
Du Bois always showed a keen interest in religion and faith. He was raised in an interracial Congregational Church in Massachusetts and sometimes attended an African Methodist Episcopal Church. He attended Fisk University in Tennessee and was a regular participant in prayer services and revivals. He also spent considerable time teaching in rural areas and enjoying African American spirituals. As a student at Harvard and then in Germany, Du Bois became quite interested in freethought, a growing philosophical view at the time that privileged scientific observation over spiritual experience. But when he returned, Du Bois went back to Christian denominations, even teaching Sunday school classes. Du Bois always kept his personal faith to himself, but he wrote countless stories about Jesus Christ in the United States and many of his poems invoke the sacred. He saw churches as central to black uplift and pastors as important race leaders. He routinely invoked biblical calls for God’s justice and, even in the 1950s when he was certainly a political leftist, he attended an Episcopalian Church in New York City. At heart, Du Bois showed great attention to a variety of approaches to spirituality and to belief in the divine.
4. Academically, Du Bois, first and foremost, was a sociologist. How did his faith contribute to his sociological research on the church?
In my book, I suggest that Du Bois considered himself a moral sociologist, that he viewed religious beliefs as central to how people make decisions, that he saw churches as primary organizations of social change, and that he considered faith a powerful social force that could change economic or political structures. In many ways, by the end of his life, Du Bois was a Marxist sociologist who revised Marx by including religion as central.
5. Du Bois spent his entire adult battling racial discrimination and fighting for civil rights in America. How did his faith inform his quest for a different America for African-Americans?
Du Bois always believed that there was a divine force that would judge and punish injustice. He always believed that God had a message for the world through the lives and experiences of African Americans. Du Bois maintained that, because of their oppression and religious institutions, African Americans were the truest Christians in the United States and that whites should learn to follow their lead. Religion was at the core of Du Bois’ hopes for a new United States, one beyond the legacies of slavery and segregation, the destructiveness of big business and the mayhem of imperial wars.
6. Other writers have documented that Du Bois’ early religious background was New England Puritan Calvinism, but later he embraced Communism. What happened to his Calvinism over the course of his struggle with the race issue?
Du Bois became disenchanted with Calvinism because he found that both whites and blacks used God’s power as an excuse not to change or to act. And, if you notice, Du Bois always ended his stories about Jesus with the crucifixion, not the resurrection. That was not to denigrate Christ; it was as a moral to whites and blacks – that they must rely on their own actions, not on the divine, to make social change. And Du Bois’ embrace of Communism has been completely misconstrued by scholars. It was not a rejection of religion, not at all. In fact, in the speeches Du Bois gave in the early 1950s, he was quoting the Bible and looking to God more than ever. Du Bois saw no contradiction between Christianity and the idea of state-controlled and directed economies. He even described Jesus as the first Communist.
7. What could evangelicals learn from Du Bois about faith and race (relations) in America?
Ah, for that answer, you will have to read the book. The entire book is focused on that – everything from why pictures of a white Jesus may be evil to how church segregation warps white Christianity.
8. Although it is only speculation, how might Du Bois look at attempts at reconciliation by evangelicals’ in the last 15 years, such as the work of Promise Keepers or the apologies offered to African Americans by mainline denominations?
I think Du Bois would be pleased with the acknowledgments of wrong by whites and the desires for reconciliation, but in the end he would want to know what were white Christians doing with their financial, social, cultural, and intellectual resources to help African Americans. He would want to see people giving from their depths, not just making hollow verbal claims. I think he would lament what happened to the Promise Keepers – that once they showed a real interest in integration, white men and churches lost interest. Du Bois would have wanted to know, how are these churches using the power they have to truly empower others – to help with infant mortality rates, to help African Americans accumulate homes and jobs equal in some way to whites. But Du Bois also would have been critical of the gospel of prosperity circulating among some African American Christians. To Du Bois, the joy of the life was to be found in ideas, in conversations, in interaction – not in commodities or lavish lifestyles.
9. Which one of Du Bois’ works would you recommend to a young scholar or pastor as a must-read work, and why?
Most people begin with The Souls of Black Folk, but I actually found that for scholars Darkwater would be more informative and for pastors Prayers for Dark People would be fabulous. Darkwater is a series of essays that Du Bois published in 1920. It has an autobiographical account; it has some poetry; it is has some short stories, including one essay called ‘Jesus Christ in Texas,’ which is just amazing. Prayers for Dark People is a collection of prayers that Du Bois wrote for his students while at Atlanta University. I often use these prayers myself, for in them Du Bois looks to God to help with discrimination, global violence and mayhem, and peace. I find them so inspirational.
10. What most excites you about your biography about Du Bois?
To the world today, I think Du Bois has so much to teach about the role of religion in society, culture, personal lives, community development, politics, and international affairs. I think that our nation desperately needs to hear Du Bois words. I really hope that my rendering of him will show that the religion of our country is connected to our blindness about racial problems (the outcomes of Hurricane Katrina); to environmental issues (unwillingness to admit global warming and make changes); to international relations (our use of force rather than friendship); and to why we still have not gotten over the legacies of slavery and segregation. I think people will find not only a new Du Bois here, but also a new approach to religion.
I applaud the general sentiment and intention of the NAACP STOP! Campaign:
The STOP Campaign is an initiative of the NAACP Youth & College Division that seeks to “STOP” the demeaning images of African Americans in the media, particularly with respect to the portrayal of African American women. Images reflected in songs like “I Was Getting Some…” and music videos that show half-dressed women being objectified by men.
· STOP Defaming Our Women… by respecting all African American Women and not describing them in profane and derogatory terms
· STOP Degrading Our Community… by not supporting hurtful images that portray negative images of the African American community
· STOP Denigrating Our History… by not supporting words and media that diminishes our proud history and insults our ancestors
· STOP Accepting Disrespect… by not patronizing companies and artists that put forth demeaning and disrespectful images in our community
· START Standing Up… by standing up against anyone who diminishes the capacity of young people
· START the Diversity… by supporting balance and diversity of content in the entertainment industry to create positive role models for young people and by demanding more African Americans and other people of color in decision making positions in the entertainment industry
I hope the efforts of one of the nations’ oldest civil rights organizations will have a great impact on the African-American youth culture, as well as the culture at large. Personally, as opposed to the current media images of African-American life like those seen on the CW network’s “Girlfriends,” I would love to see images of a monogamous-marriage, two-parent family, speaking of one another in love, living contently among the diverse cultures of our country, and making sacrifices in lifestyle and status so as to help the needy and oppressed. I would be glad to hear R&B, Hip-Hop, and Rap music promote the majesty of people made in the image of God rather than the “to the left”-solution in their lyrics – even where the lyrics are not vulgar in tone – for such lyrics are still demeaning to African-Americans. Maybe the NAACP’s campaign will yield these sorts of results.
However, I am not sure how the NAACP can both call for citizens to stand up “against anyone who diminishes the capacity of young people” and continue to support the pro-choice position on the abortion of children without standing against themselves. I do applaud the efforts. But if we are calling for a higher morality toward African-American women especially, then we need to raise the bar higher so that we can do more than “stop.”
Lance Lewis of Christ Liberation Fellowship in Philly has joined us in the blogsphere! I encourage you to go get a whiff of the blaque tulip: http://blaquetulip.blogspot.com/.
Can you smell what’s taking place behind the veil?
The Decline of African American Theology
Thabiti M. Anyabwile, ISBN: 0-8308-2827-3
I am eager for the publication of this book. A book on this subject is long overdue. The perspective of the former-Muslim author makes me more curious of its contents. You can now pre-order from the publisher (www.ivpress.com).
Fellow blogger and author Anthony Carter gave me some good advice about blogging: avoid writing dissertations. This may be good advice for others bloggers as well. Such wisdom will help me maintain faithfulness to my other callings. I am making categories of posts so that I do not write dissertations.
A Matter of Meaning. Author-centered interpretation of passages of Scripture, following the theory of E. D. Hirsch.
Notes from Issacharians. General clips from others thinking within culture.
Being Intellectually Virtuous. An “although I find it odd,” or “I never thought about this” section. (Thank you, James Sire.)
Apostle Paul’s Haircut. Comments at the dividing line between the African American Church and African American Culture.
Ex Libris Kai Bibliotheca. Recommendations of books, and an occasional review. (Yes, I know I mixed my Latin and Greek in the title.)
I may need a sixth category to post previous works or links to older articles, as I am still learning blog technology.
My hope is to speak in the marketplace rather than preach to the choir. The choir has plenty of good music. I want to go behind the veil where the invisible man lives in darkness but thinks he is singing under lights at the Meyerson to the applause of man and God.
Motoko Rich writes an interesting article on the decline of (mainly stand alone) book reviews in the NY Times.
tol·er·ance (tŏl‘ər-əns) n.
- The capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others.
“Tolerance” is one of those things that has become twisted by the postmodern world. We are to be tolerant of all things except absolutes. The hypocrisy of this sort of thinking is most obvious. In reading the December issue of First Things, I found this comment from Fr. Richard John Neuhaus:
Peter Kreeft, who teaches philosophy at Boston College, a school “in the Jesuit tradition,” told me an interesting story the other day. In the late sixties, BC took the crucifixes off classroom walls lest the school be perceived as “sectarian” and therefore be deprived of government funding. The Jesuits are a highly principled bunch, but the funding at stake was sizeable. One day, a Muslim student declared himself deeply offended by the implication that he was a bigot. He explained that if a Christian attended a Muslim university and declared himself offended by the Qur’anic inscriptions on the walls, he would surely view that Christian as a bigot. He said, in addition, that Muslims would not be so spineless in submitting to a government mandate that they erase the signs of their allegiance. It is a nice point, and Prof. Kreeft said the Christian, mainly Catholic, students in the class admitted they had not thought of it in quite that way. It is frequently the case that bigots are most vocal in talking about bigotry. Of course, BC is not precisely the public square. It is a Catholic school. Or at least a school “in the Jesuit tradition.”
I wonder if the sentiment on a Jesuit campus would be the same today? I wonder what Christians on a HBCU campus in 2007 would think about that 1960’s comment and the response? (“Why an HBCU campus, specifically,” you ask? From where would Christians on a HBCU campus have come?) I fully affirm the Christian teaching of submission to authority except where submission to authority would mean disobedience to God. Carson has helped me think through “tolerance” in a pluralistic world in a better way than has West.