The Rev. James Cone, founder of black liberation theology, died Saturday morning, according to Union Theological Seminary.
The cause of death was not immediately known.
Cone, an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was the Bill and Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Seminary in New York City. His groundbreaking 1969 book, Black Theology and Black Power, revolutionized the way the public understood the unique qualities of the black church.
Cone was a native of Fordyce, Ark., and received master’s and doctoral degrees from Northwestern University.
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(RNS) In one of his last official acts, President Obama has designated Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and other civil rights landmarks in Birmingham, Ala., as the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.
The designation protects the historic A.G. Gaston Motel in that city, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders had their 1963 campaign headquarters, as well as Kelly Ingram Park, where police turned hoses and dogs on civil rights protesters.
And it includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls died in 1963 after Ku Klux Klan members detonated more than a dozen sticks of dynamite outside the church basement.
“This national monument will fortify Birmingham’s place in American history and will speak volumes to the place of African-Americans in history,” said the Rev. Arthur Price Jr., pastor of the church, in a statement.
Obama’s proclamation also cites the role of Bethel Baptist Church, headquarters of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and St. Paul United Methodist Church, from which protesters marched before being stopped by police dogs.
In his proclamation Thursday (Jan. 12), Obama said the various sites “all stand as a testament to the heroism of those who worked so hard to advance the cause of freedom.”
In other acts, all timed to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which will be observed on Monday, the president designated the Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Ala., and the Reconstruction Era National Monument in coastal South Carolina.
He cited the role of congregations in all three areas — from sheltering civil rights activists at Bethel Baptist Church to hosting mass meetings at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., to providing a school for former slaves at the Brick Baptist Church in St. Helena Island, S.C.
The designations instruct the National Park Service to manage the sites and consider them for visitor services and historic preservation.
“African-American history is American history and these monuments are testament to the people and places on the front-lines of our entire nation’s march toward a more perfect union,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
DESPERATE PASTORS’ WIVES?: The women of ‘The Sisterhood,’ (from left) Christina Murray, DeLana Rutherford, Tara Lewis, Ivy Couch, and Domonique Scott. (Photo courtesy of TLC)
I’ve got to admit I do watch The Real Housewives of Atlanta just about every Sunday night. And now that True Entertainment, the company that produces the raucous reality show, is producing a new reality show about Atlanta “first ladies,” I will probably be watching that show when it debuts Tuesday, Jan. 1, at 9 p.m. ET on TLC. The Sisterhood features five preachers’ wives: Christina, DeLana, Domonique, Ivy, and Tara. From the trailer many saw of the show, these preachers’ wives are not the circumspect, stand-behind-your man type of women that many would expect preachers’ wives to be. In the trailer, Domonique is a former drug addict and shows the other preachers’ wives a home in Miami where she used to smoke crack; Tara is a fitness buff with a penchant for getting tattoos and convinces Domonique to get one too; Ivy is shown getting handcuffs as a gift from her husband Mark, pastor of Emmanuel Tabernacle Church, and proceeds to share about their relationship. In fact, the trailer is so controversial that a petition to get the show off the air was initiated on change.org.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution offered more in-depth descriptions of each first lady, which proved to be very interesting. For example, while Domonique Scott, 45, is a cast member, she is no longer technically a first lady, as she and her husband Brian had to close down their church after experiencing “hard times.” The website for Good Life International Church, however, is still up.
Christina Murray, 34, is married to Anthony, pastor of Oasis Family Life Church. The couple has two teenaged daughters who apparently will provide some drama for the show, as they are “as sassy as their mother.”
DeLana Rutherford, 37, is married to Myles Rutherford, pastor of Worship with Wonders Church. Apparently, the duo utilizes music as an integral part of their ministry, as they compose their own music and perform it each Sunday.
A former member of the ’90s R&B group Xscape, Ivy Couch, 35, is using her gifts for the Lord as a wife and mother to a 1-year-old son.
Like her fellow castmate Domonique, Tara Lewis, 41, is technically not a first lady either, as her husband, Dr. Brian Lewis, lost his position at a church after only working there for six weeks. As the couple and children recently located to the metro Atlanta area from Los Angeles, the show will demonstrate how the family is adjusting to all of these life-changing events. For future reference, this is the first lady who likes to get “tatted up” and was trying to convince Domonique to follow suit in the trailer.
After watching the trailer, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but after watching a pre-screening of the first episode, I began to believe this show could potentially offer something more valuable than the latest over-the-top drama featured on many if not most reality shows. I was also able to interview Domonique and Ivy, and they admit the trailer for the show even rattled them.
“As you can imagine when my husband gives me handcuffs, I have gotten, it has run the gamut from shock to disappointment to ‘I cannot believe this’ to some people saying, ‘Thank God y’all do have a healthy intimate life.’ I have gotten it all,” said Ivy.
However, Ivy noted that what was shown in the trailer does not entirely represent all of what transpired with her throughout the course of the season.
“I think the trailer does its job in terms of stirring up controversy, making people want to watch the show, but God gave me peace about it, and I love Him because He vindicates in due time,” she said. “And when I use the word ‘vindicate,’ I mean He will reveal the truth of who you are over time. I’m not ashamed of that, but the whole scene has not been revealed.”
Dominique has also been challenged by reactions she has received from clergy friends.
“A lot of my so-called friends, clergy members or whatever, they are like, ‘Why are you on there on telling people you used to smoke crack and why did you get a tattoo?’ And I’m like, ‘God still delivers, He still saves, right?’ I’m not ashamed of what God has done for me. If you are ashamed of Him before men, He will be ashamed of you before the Father, so I’m not ashamed of what God has done for me,” she said. “They also said, ‘Well, according to the Bible, you are not supposed to mark yourself.’ I said, ‘That was Old Testament.’…We are under the new covenant, which is grace and mercy.”
In the first episode, I saw some angst as Domonique and her husband Brian visit Christina and Anthony’s church, which seems to be growing and thriving, while their own church had to be shut down due to some admitted financial irresponsibility on their part and decreasing membership. I don’t know how this particular story line will develop, but I like it because Atlanta is likely the mecca for many of the country’s largest megachurches. Still, there are many, many churches in the metro Atlanta area that have not grown as much as others, and I imagine that many pastor’s wives feel what Domonique appeared to have felt in the first episode.
Domonique likened the scene in the first episode to the Bible story about the two women who birthed babies, one of whom died. The mother of the baby that died falsely accused the other woman of stealing her baby.
“What you saw in that scene was a little bit like, ‘God, if we would have just held on a little bit longer, or we would have done this a little bit different, or we would blah blah blah, we could be holding our own living child,’” she said. “But nevertheless I’m going to celebrate and be happy for you and know and trust and believe that God is going to bring this around back to me.”
Viewers will also learn more about what it is like to be first lady of an inner-city church through Ivy’s experiences. As her church is on Dill Avenue, in one of the rougher parts of the city, many of their church members are former prostitutes, drug dealers and gang leaders, according to Ivy. Domonique also shares her experiences as a former drug addict throughout the season.
“You’re going to experience the journey that you would think I had experienced 20 years ago. We are trained as Christians to forgive, and I forgave everybody, but I didn’t take care of me. I’m grateful to TLC because they allowed me to go back and just really deal with some things full frontal,” said Domonique.
While those story lines seemed to be the more redeeming parts of the show, every reality show worth its salt has to have some drama. In this episode, Domonique and Ivy seem to be at odds with fitness buff Tara, whose husband offers a unique perspective as a Jewish man who converted to Christianity before entering the ministry. There are also many discussions among the other wives and husbands about what could have possibly transpired to lead to the dismissal of Dr. Lewis only six weeks after arriving at a church. Tara is often seen quoting Scripture at every opportunity (even while working out), while the other women want to reveal who they truly are outside of their roles as first ladies.
“It’s very challenging to deal with anyone who just don’t keep it 100,” said Domonique about her relationship with Tara on the show. “You have to see yourself—good or bad—for what it is. And when you can’t, then for me it is a challenge to walk with you because of the places that God delivered me from. I don’t know no other way. I need for you to be who you are all the time. Don’t be this way today and this way tomorrow and be this way in front of Bishop Tulalala and be this way in front of Scooby Dooby Doo.”
I spoke with some other metro Atlanta first ladies to get their perspective on the controversial show. Of course, I had to start with my mother, Alice May Holness, who has been the first lady of Central Christian Church for over 30 years. After watching the trailer, my mother said, “I don’t think I will watch the show because I didn’t see anything that drew me to it, maybe because of the age difference between me and the women. Also, I don’t even really like the term ‘first lady,’ because people think that being a first lady is about being into fashion and wearing big hats. There is a lot more than glamour. You have to have genuine love for people to be a pastor’s wife. Your main goal is to be supportive of your husband. It’s an awesome responsibility, and there is a soberness that comes with it.”
Rev. Elaine Gattis, first lady and executive minister of the historic Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Stockbridge, had a similar reaction to the show after watching the trailer.
“At first glance, I can say that I did not like that the show seems to play into a culture of superficiality and materialism that many other shows such as The Real Housewives of Atlanta breeds,” said Gattis, who admitted she watches The Real Housewives of Atlanta as a guilty pleasure. “As Christian women, I was somewhat disappointed that there did not seem to be any display of class and modesty that first ladies should display, not just in front of the congregation but behind the scenes in ‘real life’ as well.”
However, Madelyn Battle, who is the first lady of the Upper Room Church in Riverdale, said she is somewhat intrigued by the show.
“The way it seems that first ladies are portrayed on this show is not realistic,” said Battle. “But I would like to see the show for myself in order to have a clearer understanding and perspective of the show. I think that to be a successful first lady, we need to look at 2 John for the biblical guidelines of what a first or elect lady should look like. She should first be a success as a good homemaker and support to her husband. She should also have healthy self-esteem, being aware of her own purpose and her own calling.”
Ivy said that people should tune in before making a snap judgment after seeing the trailer.
“From the trailer, you really don’t get a full picture of who we are as women or who we are as wives, but you do get some very, very controversial pieces of who we are,” said Ivy. “Watch and see because it’s going to be a ride. It’s wild. It’s funny. It’s tear-jerking. It’s very emotional. It’s cathartic. It’s all of these things rolled into one.”
Michael Eric Dyson: America is not a Christian-only nation.
During a recent interview on my radio show, Michael Eric Dyson, the social critic and author who is also an ordained Baptist minister, urged Christians to “get over” their opposition to President Obama’s decision to support same-sex marriage. Dyson, who is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, said that particularly black Christians should be the last people to stand on the side of another group of Americans being denied their constitutional rights.
“Some black people are mad at Obama over the same-sex marriage thing. Get over it. Get beyond your bigotry. Black people are the last people on earth trying to tell somebody who to marry, when we need to get our numbers up, No. 1,” said Dyson, who supported President Obama’s reelection.
Marriage rates among all groups have been declining over the past decades but remain the lowest among blacks. According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies only 52 percent of black women will marry by age 33, compared to 81 percent of white women and 77 percent of Hispanic women. Meanwhile, an estimated 70 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers.
Dyson continued: “And No. 2, if we’ve been victims of oppression, why extend that? Forget your personal religious viewpoint, there are some people who don’t have your religion and guess what, there are some people who don’t even have religion at all. The nation should protect everybody – the religious believers and the non-believers alike.”
Click to hear the entire interview.
Dyson repeated a position that I’ve written previously here on UrbanFaith concerning the same-sex issue. It’s true that the Bible does not affirm homosexuality and therefore doesn’t bless same-sex marriage. No effort to reinterpret biblical relationships such as, Jonathan and David’s or Naomi and Ruth’s can change that. Claiming that Jesus never discussed the issue doesn’t cut it either. If John1:1-14 is true “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” then Jesus in fact did discuss the issue such as where homosexuality is mentioned in Leviticus 18:22. (This page offers a comparison of contemporary thinking on the Bible and homosexuality.)
If John 1 is false, then we’ve got an even bigger problem. All that Christianity is predicated upon — the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins — falls apart; the world that God so loved that he gave his only begotten son for, is equally doomed (John 3:16).
We Christians ought to remember that our calling as disciples is not to be agents of doom, but of hope. We are to be on the side of freedom, justice, and equality. That freedom includes the free will to make good and bad decisions. If God allows humans this free will to choose his way or the other, who are we to advocate denying this right to fellow citizens?
As Dyson correctly points out, Americans are blessed to live not under sharia law but in a nation that recognizes the freedom of religion and insists on the separation of church and state. The “state’s” (federal, state, and local governments) responsibility is to protect all of its citizens’ rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, regardless to their religious or non-religious views. The government sets laws to regulate how we interact among each other, so that our rights might be secured. You can’t run a red light in your car without punishment because to do so puts other fellow citizens at danger. You can’t just pull out a gun and shoot someone because you’re obviously taking away their right to life, while potentially putting other citizens at grave risk. Do two taxpaying adults deciding they want to legally commit to each other by marrying under the laws of a state meet the test of putting the rights of other fellow citizens at risk? Besides, people can marry and divorce in America without the church ever being involved.
Sins violate divine laws that separate humans from God. All sins should not be violations of local, state, or federal laws because not all citizens believe in God. If all sins were illegal, divorce, which God hates (Malachi 2:16; Matthew 19:6; Matthew 31, 32), should also be against state and federal laws. Catholics annul (invalidate from the beginning) marriages, but typically divorce proceedings are not conducted in churches. However, in America, Christians divorce in state courts and often for good personal reasons. How would we feel if the state denied us the option to divorce?
We Christians tend to cherry pick the sins to get riled about when it suits our own personal interests, agendas, or traditions. However, life in a pluralistic democratic society is too complex for that. It’s full of a lot of gray, blurry areas. Perhaps this is why God reserves grace and mercy for everyone, but our judgment for him alone.
Dyson urged that Christians should not aim to make America a Christian-only nation, but use Christian principles to help make America a just nation for everyone, regardless of their faith.
As the apostle Paul said, the greatest of these principles to apply is love.
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own…. Therefore honor God with your body.” 1 Cor. 6:19-20
It is well known that blacks live sicker and die younger than any other racial group. Look no farther than the church with the pastor battling hypertension and diabetes or the congregation with several obese members sitting in the pews. It would seem that the black church in America would be the leading ally supporting the nation’s first black president in the debate over access to affordable healthcare. It would seem that the black church would lead the way toward healthier eating and living.
Could it be that black church culture is leading us astray?
I thought about this during a recent conference in Baltimore on black global health. The International Conference on Health in the African Diaspora, hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions, brought together healthcare professionals and researchers, from across the Western Hemisphere to discuss common health problems among the descendants of African slaves. Black Arts Movement icon Sonia Sanchez set the tone as the keynote speaker July 4, inspiring the crowd with a special poem for the occasion. The award-winning author participated throughout the weeklong conference.
Listening to a sister from Brazil and a brother from Peru discuss high rates of obesity, diabetes, infant deaths and the spread of HIV/AIDS among blacks in their countries sounded like the health crisis of black New York, Chicago, or the Mississippi Delta. Modern racism and the legacy of slavery haunt all of us. Participants also shared solutions and pledged to work together. In fact, according to Dr. Thomas LaVeist, a book and curriculum addressing these health themes are being created for the public and for high school and college educators. Thomas, who happens to be my brother, directs the Hopkins center and is the mastermind behind the conference, which is scheduled to take place every two years.
Solutions are basically what government and institutions can do to end racism and ensure all people have access to quality affordable healthcare and what blacks can do themselves to care for their “temples of the Holy Spirit.”
The black church should be more outspoken in support of increased access to quality affordable care. Our cousins from Canada and Central and South America, who for the most part receive varying degrees well-executed and poorly-executed universal healthcare, are puzzled as to why we richer Americans are debating what the rest of the industrialized world has long settled — that healthcare access is a God-given human right, not a privilege to be determined by profit-seeking private insurance companies.
After the conference, Thomas told me that the Catholic Church (obviously many Catholics are also black) has been the most vocal Christians on healthcare, mainly around the debate on whether Catholic organizations should be mandated to support abortions for employees (some evangelical Protestant organizations have recently joined that fight, too). Thomas suggested the traditional black church denominations could find their unified voice by calling for all Americans to be insured (Obama’s Affordable Care Act would still leave 20 million people uninsured). However, regardless of what the government does, black churches should lead by example with healthier eating and living, he said.
BAD FOR THE SOUL? Black churches are routinely feeding their people unhealthy soul food staples such as fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. Is that biblical?
“Black church culture is out of alignment with some biblical teachings, particularly when it comes to how we eat,” my brother said. “Church culture has got us drinking Kool-Aid, eating white bread, fried chicken, large servings of macaroni and cheese and collard greens drenched with salty hog maws (foods that are high in sugar, salt, calories, and carbohydrates that trigger health problems). We’re eating this in the church basement at dinner and at church conventions! Meanwhile, the Bible teaches against gluttony.”
Don’t judge or condemn those who are obese, but encourage and show everyone how to eat healthy, Thomas added. He cited Pastor Michael Minor of Oak Hill Baptist Church in the Mississippi Delta as pushing the healthy eating message that all black churches should adopt. The Delta is one of America’s poorest areas and leads the nation in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates. In 2011, Pastor Minor, known as “the Southern pastor who banned fried chicken in his church,” banished all unhealthy foods and insisted soul food meals be prepared in healthier ways; many of his members are losing weight and improving their overall health. Other churches across the country such as, First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, are on similar missions.
Ask yourself, when it comes to health, what is the black church best known for?
What might the state of black health in America (and the African diaspora) be if your answer was healthy eating and living?