God’s Agitator

God’s Agitator

LEGEND: A statue of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth stands in front of the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama.

As an evangelical Christian teaching theology in a secular university, over the years I have cleaved to civil rights saints like Fred Shuttlesworth for wisdom and encouragement. I have, of course, never been attacked by racist mobs or police dogs, nor have I been put in jail for speaking the name of Jesus. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to get a whiff of Jim Crow in an academic culture that continues to evade the theological discoveries of Reverend Shuttlesworth and his brother and sister travelers in that great Pentecostal moment called the American civil rights movement.  Rev. Shuttleworth’s death last week once again reminded us of the centrality of faith in the black freedom struggle.

Like the prophet Amos, the tender of sycamore trees who was called in from the sticks to proclaim the justice of the Lord, Rev. Shuttlesworth agitated righteously, with guns pointed on him and lynch mobs forming everywhere, a fully realized African American male, an exemplar of civil courage and costly discipleship. He offered the segregated South a generous helping of hilaritas, a “boldness and defiance of the world and of popular opinion,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “a steadfast certainty that in their own work they are showing the world something good (even if the world doesn’t like it).”

An exchange with the Birmingham, Alabama, police commissioner Bull Connor during the heat of the city sit-ins offered not only high theological drama but ample evidence of theological deftness and imagination:

Connor:  You know what I think? I think you have done more to set your people back and cause more trouble than any Negro ever in this town.

Shuttlesworth: Mr. Commissioner, whether I’ve done more to set them back or you, that’s a matter for history to decide. The problem is what will you do?

Connor:  I aint’ doin’ nothin’ for you!

Shuttlesworth:  I haven’t asked you to do anything for me. I asked you to do for the Negro community, of whom you are the Commissioner.

Connor: Well, I ain’t gon’ do nothing for you.

Shuttlesworth: Well, I was pretty sure you wouldn’t when I came down, but the fact is we asked, and the Bible says ask.

Bull Connor, guardian of the Southern Way of Life, came undone under the glare of the New Kingdom’s brilliant light.

Rev. Shuttlesworth continued: “I just don’t believe I have to cringe before a thing when God’s already promised it. “[For] the question comes down to … ‘Do you believe in God or not?’” 

Shuttlesworth later said the only way he found such strength was in the confidence he had in “the everlasting arms of Jesus.”

What about Bull Connor? When asked by Samuel Hoskins, a reporter from the Baltimore Afro-American visiting Birmingham, whether his brutal strategies were legal, Bull shouted wildly, “Damn the Law. We don’t give a damn about the law.”

Shuttlesworth “conducted his civil rights activities with his hands still tightly grasping the pastoral reins of his local churches,” as my friend Andrew Manis told us in his wonderful 2001 biography, A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. He believed that God was the great deliverer, who showed the Israelites that “all was not Egypt” and set the captives free.

MAKING HISTORY: Rev. Shuttlesworth (far right) marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in March of 1965. (Newscom photo)

Fred Shuttlesworth gave us a glimpse of the New Kingdom: “Against the racist’s hate and scorn we are using the love of Christ, against his oppressive and abusive acts we are using the weapon of Prayer on whose mystic wings we sweep into the presence of God to lay out our troubles.” He decentered the totalizing claims of white southern Christendom, one might also say, but he did it for the sake of the in-breaking reality of the kingdom of God.

Shuttlesworth’s was indeed a soul on fire. During a speech commemorating the second anniversary of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, of which he was the founding president, he framed the ongoing civil rights struggle as “a religious crusade” and a “fight between light and darkness.” He concluded:

“Thus we are never tempted to hate white people or to return them evil for evil. …Always remember that we are healed by the ‘wounds in His side,’ not by wounds we inflict upon others….  Victory waits on those who work for victory. And victory is sure — Thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Andrew Manis explained that the Birmingham minister practiced a “holistic religious philosophy that did not separate physical, social or political needs from the spiritual,” unlike the religion of gnostic southern evangelical Christianity. Shuttlesworth operated instead out of a theological worldview that refused to segregate discipleship to Jesus and righteous action in the social order. And through the courageous faith of men and women like Rev. Shuttlesworth, our nation was changed.

The Inevitable Amy Winehouse

The Inevitable Amy Winehouse

FALLEN STAR: Amy Winehouse, dead at 27.

Amy Winehouse emerged on the pop-music scene not so much like a rising star as like a falling one.

In “Rehab,” the hit song from her 2006 breakthrough album, Back to Black, the singer let us know upfront what we were in for if we decided to become her fans—a maddening, chaotic, troubled ride. But her soulful and honest voice, and the potential we heard there, left us no choice but to listen, appreciate, and hope against hope that she would eventually shake her well-publicized demons and rise to the brilliant promise of her talent.

But it was not to be.

The report of the British singer’s death today at 27 was not unexpected, but it still jarred us, like the earthshaking blast of thunder that trails a violent lightning flash. On Twitter and Facebook, update after update expressed a sort of resigned shock. “I knew it was a matter of time,” wrote one commenter. “I’m surprised she lasted this long,” said another.

Another popular Winehouse song found the singer declaring, “You know that I’m no good.” Like “Rehab,” it was a prophetic moment of self-disclosure that felt like both a defiant proclamation and an eerie plea for help. The lyrics — “I cheated myself, like I knew I would” — resonated with many of us who, like the apostle Paul, struggle with the reality of our sinful natures.

“I do not understand what I do,” said Paul. “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

For Amy Winehouse, the struggle was with drugs, alcohol, and bad relationships. For us, the addictions might be different, but we have felt the strain nonetheless.

There’s so much in Ms. Winehouse’s tragic story to explore. In some ways, her brief career was the most convincing anti-drug campaign to hit pop culture. Or, maybe everything that needs to be said was already said during her descent.

The initial reports said Winehouse’s cause of death was unexplained. But no explanation was really necessary.