Trayvon Martin, Patience, and Self-Reflection

Trayvon Martin, Patience, and Self-Reflection

SEEKING HEALING: On March 31, congregants prayed for slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin and his shooter, George Zimmerman, during a service at the First Church of Seventh Day Adventists in Washington, D.C. The prayer was focused on racial healing and asked that people exercise patience to allow the judiciary to follow its course to bring about justice. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/Newscom)

Many words have been and will be written about the death of Trayvon Martin, and the cocktail of grief, outrage, and confusion will likely linger long after the matter is resolved in one way or another. The circumstances of this unfortunate event have directed our attention to some of the challenges we face as a nation and as human beings, with considerable focus on the persistent difficulties connected to race. Whether or not Martin was racially profiled, this tragedy presents the opportunity to take paths that will lead us to better expressions of our humanity.

As director of Wheaton College’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics I had the privilege of participating in an event entitled “Civil War and Sacred Ground: Moral Reflections on War” (co-sponsored with The Raven Foundation). Two points raised at this thought-provoking conference can be helpful as we consider the long shadow of our history with race, particularly for followers of Christ. First, I continue to hear the echo of the following statement (paraphrased here) from Luke Harlow of Oakland University: “At the time of the Civil War, white supremacy was essentially held as an article of faith.” By this, he meant most citizens in the United States, North and South. Upon hearing this, I thought, No wonder it is so difficult for us to overcome the negative legacy of race.

The fact that racial superiority was so unquestioned suggests that the social, cultural, and political fabric of the Modern West in general and the United States in particular was constructed with a view of human beings that could be generalized as “whites” (or ethnic Europeans, who admittedly had their clashes) and “others.” Though the latter were identified according a range of racial categories, they definitely were not regarded as equal to “whites,” even among Christians. Of course there were those who did regard all humans as equal, but this was truly a minority report.

While many changes have occurred in the 150 years since the Civil War began, race consciousness remains in our social and cultural DNA like a stubborn mutation, rendering it difficult for us to truly and consistently regard “others” as equal before the eyes of God and fully human. This problem of otherness is not new, but it has manifested in a particularly malevolent fashion in the construction of racial identity. Today, this means that though great changes have occurred that would have been unimaginable 150 years ago, much more needs to change if we are to really live together as caring neighbors, at least in the church if not elsewhere. Yet this is an area where Christians continue to struggle, and many find themselves exhausted in reconciliation efforts.

The stubbornness of our race problem could lead us to despair, but taking a long view in light of where we have come from instead reminds us that we must have great patience as we pursue fundamental change. This patience is not the twin of apathy, but the disposition of steadiness and faithfulness in the face of at times imperceptible transformation. Change has occurred and can occur again.

Second, and more briefly, Dr. Tracy McKenzie, chair of Wheaton College’s history department, urged us to consider the difference between moral judgment and moral reflection. Whether it is the views held by most citizens 150 years ago or today in moments of racial conflict, moral judgment is the easy path which leads us to say “I can’t believe they held/hold such views and did such things.” Moral judgment keeps us separate from those we find reprehensible or disappointing. With moral reflection, while we may be surprised, disappointed, or offended by the ideas and actions we see in others, we are also prompted to consider our own moral architecture. In the question of race and otherness, moral reflection helps us to ask: What would I have thought if I were living at that time; how do I think about those that I readily regard as “other” from me; and does someone’s “otherness” make it easier for me to conclude that they are deficient in their humanness in some way and thus make it easier for me to disregard Christ’s command to love my neighbor as myself?

Moral reflection does not refuse to identify moral failings, but it leads us to look for them in places we might not peer otherwise. Moral reflection can prompt us to look at ourselves, our church, and our world in a way that brings us to a place of repentance that leads to transformation of life and even society.

Steady, faithful patience and moral reflection hardly exhaust our strategies for changing how we honor God in addressing the problem of race, but I find them helpful. What helps you?

This essay was adapted from an article at The Christian Post and was used by permission.

An Incomplete Theology

An Incomplete Theology

One of the realities of being a white Protestant in America is the historic freedom from needing a theological framework to confront structural and institutional forms of injustice due to race. Race continues to be a heavy burden for people of color in America. As such, a theological framework primarily oriented toward issues of personal salvation and morality is sufficient to address the questions of the dominant white culture. However, for blacks and Latinos, who not only have to wrestle with personal questions regarding sin and salvation but also evil from the outside because of their race, they need the Cross to provide hope that God intends to relieve the burdens and liabilities of being a subdominant minority. These burdens range from stereotypes and racial discrimination to issues of identity in light of Anglo-normativity and sociopolitical wellbeing. Blacks and Latinos need a comprehensive theology that deals with the cosmic scope of God redeeming every aspect of the creation affected by the Fall through the work and person of Christ.

Dr. Vincent Bacote, associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and an UrbanFaith contributor, presents a comprehensive theological framework in his chapter in a new book I edited titled Keep Your Head Up: America’s New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation. Bacote introduces the themes of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Renewal (CFRR). CFRR reminds us of the following: God created the world good, it was corrupted by the Fall introducing sin and brokenness into the world, but God has a unique plan to renew the entire creation through the work and person of Jesus Christ. That is, the entire creation formed and shaped by Christ will also be renewed by Christ and reconciled unto Him (Col. 1:15-23).

CFRR not only tells us who we are, it also gives Christians a vision of the implications of the kingdom of God. Christians are not passive bystanders but are called to be leaders in the business reconciliation until Christ returns to bring finality to the renewal process inaugurated at his death and resurrection in ways never before realized in human history (Rom. 8:12-25).

For those seeking to preach the Good News of what was accomplished in the work and Person of Jesus Christ to blacks and Latinos, the application of biblical texts cannot be limited to personal issues of salvation and sanctification. Subdominant minorities who are immersed in a world of white privilege need to hear hope that God also intends to relieve them of the complex burdens of being a minority — burdens that whites do not encounter in their day-to-day lives in America. This is one reason why minority teachers are vitally important in ethnic church contexts. Otherwise, applying the gospel to the realities of white privilege will likely not be addressed regularly. Now, by white privilege I simply mean the privilege, special freedom, or immunity white persons have from some liability or burden to which non-white persons are subject in America.

A team of authors led by Fordham University psychology professor Celia B. Fisher provides an excellent list of issues that blacks and Latinos need to reconcile with the Truth. In an article titled “Applied Developmental Science, Social Justice, and Socio-Political Wellbeing,” Fisher and her team remind us that when evil entered the world it created a context for the following burdens experienced by Native Americans, blacks, and Latinos in America: (1) societal structures, policies, and so on that limit access to minorities, (2) the persistence of high-effort coping with the reality of marginalization that produces high levels of stress, (3) psycho-political wellbeing and validity concerns which address the ways in which minorities apply human dignity to themselves within a context of Anglo-hegemony, (4) communities that accept dysfunctional behaviors as behavioral norms in the shaping of one’s personhood, (5) institutional racism which examines the “institutional structures and processes passed on from generation to generations that organize and promote racial inequity throughout the culture,” (6) proactive measures intended to dismantle racism, and (7) contexts to provide healing for those who have experience major and minor encounters with racist attitudes, beliefs, or actions.

The revivalist impulse by many evangelicals rightly understands that ultimate social change comes when members of society become followers of Christ. However, American history has clearly proven that personal salvation does not stop people from being racists nor from setting up social institutions and policies that deny others access to the means of liberty and human dignity. If evangelism alone were effective for social change, Christians would never have participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, been slave owners, created apartheid in South Africa, or allowed Jim Crow laws to come into existence.

Theologians like Abraham Kuyper remind us that, because of God’s common grace, evangelism is not necessary to persuade people to treat others with dignity and respect — after all, the law of God is written on the heart (Rom. 2:15) even though it merits them no favor with God. Therefore, work at both. We must morally form individuals and dismantle cultural norms of racism that become structural.

I suspect this is one of the major reasons why many whites are unsuccessful at reaching blacks and Latinos. If the gospel is not being applied to issues of the heart and issues that require outside, structural justice, we will miss areas in need of biblical application. Blacks and Latinos in America do not have the privilege of not talking about the issues addressed in the Fisher article, because all minorities experience aspects of those issues in various ways.

If we believe the Bible speaks to the questions of the day, then we have to do a better job of developing the cultural intelligence that applies the Truth to issues of the heart and to the cultural spaces minorities inhabit as subdominant races.

We Remember ‘Soul Train’

We Remember ‘Soul Train’

SOUL CONDUCTOR: Don Cornelius, dead at 75, transformed American culture with 'Soul Train.'

“Peace, Love, and Soul.”

That’s how he used to bid us adieu at the close of every show, that bespectacled man with the velvety voice and cool disposition. The apparent suicide death of Soul Train creator and host Don Cornelius caught us all off guard, while immediately transporting us back to those more soulful days of yesteryear — pre-MTV days, when the music wasn’t just an afterthought but the main event.

We tuned into Soul Train each week to see our favorite soul and R&B stars, sometimes for the very first time. (The four sisters of Sister Sledge looked as cute as they sounded, and imagine my shock as a 6-year-old to discover that Elton John was white!) But we mostly showed up for the array of colorful dancers — to check out their moves, to see what they were wearing, and to imagine ourselves right there with them. We knew that if we didn’t see any other black images on TV all week, we could at least see ourselves on Soul Train every weekend. Don Cornelius, the radio-deejay-turned-television-impresario, gave that to us — a refuge for African American pride and empowerment disguised as a TV dance show.

In honor of Mr. Cornelius, we asked our UrbanFaith columnists and regular contributors to share their favorite memories of Soul Train. Check out their reflections below the video, and then share yours in the comments section. — Edward Gilbreath, editor

MEMORIES OF ‘SOUL TRAIN’

It was soon proven otherwise, but Don Cornelius through Soul Train, told me I was a good dancer. Every Saturday morning after cartoons went off, feeling like a grownup, I’d tune in to move to the music any kind of way just like the Soul Train dancers. Going down the Soul Train line, some of them looked so crazy. But at home, bounding through an imaginary line of people, so did I. Don Cornelius made it cool to love music enough to dance no matter what. By the time I came along, his ’fro wasn’t as big, but the cool he carried was bigger than life. And I felt just as hip rhythmlessly dancing with my own portion of soul. — DeVona Alleyne, staff editor and contributing writer

I am very saddened by the death of Don Cornelius, a black legend! Back in the ’70s and ’80s before the dominance MTV or BET, there were very few outlets to see my favorite R&B acts like Michael Jackson, New Edition, or DeBarge perform on television. Since my parents were pretty conservative at the time, I wasn’t allowed to watch Soul Train but as a lifelong R&B and pop culture aficionado, I found ways to watch this great show without “technically” breaking the rules. I wasn’t allowed to go inside of childhood friends’ homes either unless my parents knew their parents. I remember I had one friend who allowed me to literally sit on the pavement outside of her apartment. We would speak to each other through the open window, and if she happened to have Soul Train on the television behind her, who was I to say what she could watch inside her home? I remember that one light-skinned woman with extra long black hair that whipped around her body (pre-Willow Smith) as she danced on what seemed like nearly every episode for years! I couldn’t wait until I got a perm so I could whip my hair around like that! A towel wrapped around my head sufficed until I finally got a perm. I remember all of the fresh dance moves that would not be duplicated on American Bandstand, even though I was a fan of that show too. Simply put, there was nothing else like that show at that time, an oasis of black grooves and moves in a desert of white programming. RIP Don Cornelius …  Jacqueline J. Holness, contributing writer

I’ll never forget Soul Train, from the chugging train at the intro to the various incarnations of the Soul Train dancers.  Don Cornelius made this show an institution that definitely shaped the culture and gave us memorable performances on the stage and dance floor.
— Dr. Vincent Bacote, contributing editor

Being in a military family, every so often we’d get stuck in the boonies with no television we could relate to. When my dad got orders to a big urban city, we kids were ecstatic. It was my job to watch my younger siblings on Saturdays while my parents worked, and at the time when I announced SOUUULLL TRAINNNN is on, my brothers and sisters would run from outside like they’d lost their minds. Oh, and then the party was on. We bumped, spanked, wormed, or whatever the latest dance craze was, along with the hippest kids in America. If there had been just two or three more of us, we could have formed a Soul Train line right there in the living room. It grieves me to know that Don Cornelius couldn’t find another way; which serves to remind us that we must get the word out about the only One who can bring us out of our troubles, the only One Who can bring us out of the lies that Satan tells us when we see no way out. There is a world of hurting people who don’t really know Him. Someone needs to tell them. We need to tell them.
— Wanda Thomas Littles, contributing writer

Despite being a child of the late 70s and 80s, I didn’t have many actual experiences of watching Soul Train. Most of my memories regarding Soul Train were at various school dances and wedding receptions growing up, when folks would start up “the soul train line” and line up to cut a step. Most of the influence of Soul Train I witnessed were in derivative television shows (like Solid Gold), subtle homages (like when Theo and Cockroach fought over who was getting into Dance Mania) or actual parodies (like In Living Color‘s “Old Train” sketch). Still, I got a little misty when I got the news of Don Cornelius’ passing. No one will ever really replace him and what he meant to the black community. — Jelani Greenidge, columnist

As a girl growing up in small-town New Jersey in the 1970s, my primary exposure to black culture was Soul Train, and oh how I loved Soul Train! It was sandwiched between Saturday-morning cartoons and Saturday-afternoon roller derby on our television station. It never occurred to me that by introducing me to some of that era’s best music and most accomplished musicians, Don Cornelius was drawing me into a richly textured world that was not available to me then. I just knew I loved hearing his smoky voice and dancing to the sounds of soul. It saddens me deeply to learn that, like my son, this gifted man apparently died by suicide. I’m reminded that depression and despair don’t only visit the downtrodden, but even the most accomplished among us. My thoughts and prayers are with his family. — Christine A. Scheller, news & religion editor

I remember the Jackson 5 barely had enough room to dance on that stage. Fans could literally touch Marvin Gaye as he sang (and they did). You could feel the sweat dripping off of Barry White’s collar. This was Soul Train, Black America’s debutante ball. As a child it always felt RAW, like a grown-folks party that I could only watch from the stairs. It seemed fun enough, but in reality Soul Train was about rebellion: finding a way to create in the midst of the chaos of injustice. Black people were thrown into America’s basement, and Don Cornelius found a way to host a house party there every Saturday. It remains our challenge to find hope in the midst of great darkness; to dance when the forces of life threaten to steal all rhythm. And when I look at black music today — videos that portray the worst potentialities for our young men and women, dancing that has turned into “Sex Lite,” and artists that lack intimacy and authenticity — we need not ever forget Soul Train. The truth is, we need it back. Thank you Don Cornelius, from the little boy who watched your party from the stairs. — Julian DeShazier, contributing writer

Sitting in my parents’ living room, the back of my legs sticking to the plastic covering mom’s gold velvet couch, the funky music from the Jacksons, the Sylvers, and Joe Tex would blare from the black-and-white screen. I would fix my eyes on the Afro puffs, braids, wide brim hats and bellbottoms, imagining their psychedelic colors (mom and pops did eventually get a color TV) as they danced the funky chicken or the  robot. As Jermaine sang, they would be “movin, she’s groovin. Dancin’ until the music stops now, yeah” down the Soul Train line. My older sister and brothers would bust all the moves, blocking my view of the TV along the way. But back then, when you were the baby brother, you just kept quiet and thankful that they let you hang out with them on Saturday morning. We were raised in a 12th floor apartment in The Tilden Houses (The Projects) in Brownsville, Brooklyn (NY). Watching Soul Train was more than a temporary escape from what was immediately outside the door, down an elevator that often stuck, or the stairwell that was owned by depressed brothers and sisters high on dope. Soul Train was a weekly, encouraging dose of positive black life, of people who were happy, talented, and free. And they looked like me. Mr. Cornelius, you did a great thing, sir. I pray that your soul has found the peace that you wished for us all. Wil LaVeist, columnist

Rob Bell’s Burning Questions

Rob Bell’s Burning Questions

Without a doubt, one of the top religion stories of the past month has been the release of Rob Bell’s controversial book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The big question that most inquiring minds have wanted to know is: Has Bell officially departed the ranks of solid Christian orthodoxy and gone all universalist on us? Prior to the book’s release, many were convinced he had — and they let him hear about it.

In my previous post regarding Bell, I stated that it is important to think about both the intended audience for the book as well as the opportunity this presents for us to act Christianly in the context where disagreements and passion merge around very important issues of Christian belief. Now that the book is out, we can identify the primary audience and I can try to make the most of this opportunity to live out the second greatest commandment (“Love your neighbor as yourself” — Matt. 22:39) while writing a review with affirmations and critiques.

Bell (left) describes his audience in the preface: “I’ve written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, ‘I would never be a part of that.’ ” Both the beginning and end of the book make it clear that Bell wants people to come to Christ and to the church, especially those who are turned off by a version of the gospel that states that “a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.” Later he similarly states regarding the way that some present the gospel as a rescue project:

God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God.

Bell correctly identifies the truth that many people within the church and without have questions about how to understand the gospel as good news, and how to understand the character of God in relationship to salvation and judgment if Scripture tells us that God is truly loving. While Bell is primarily concerned about those “turned off” by traditional presentations of the gospel (or, in my view, bad presentations of the traditional gospel that seem so focused on the specter of God’s judgment that it puts it in tension with His love), all of the questions he asks in the book are raised by many Christians, including a number here where I teach.

Were I a betting man, I would wager that even a strong Calvinist who bows before God’s sovereignty wonders about how they will finally understand the economy of God’s justice when we get to the other side. If we surveyed the people in the pews regarding what they know about our eternal destiny and what they wonder about or hope for, chances are we would find that people at least wonder about those who seemed to live like Christians but either never confessed Christ or never heard of him. Even if they believe that after the final judgment there will be a final separation between believers and unbelievers, they wonder about who will be the surprises in the population of God’s consummated kingdom.

What of heaven, hell, and final judgment? Love Wins presents a challenge for this reviewer: on the one hand, Bell is pastor and not an academic theologian, and the book is not written like a scholarly treatise, though it does wade into that realm briefly at times. On the other, Bell pastors a church of 10,000 and has influence on many thousands more, so he has a tremendous burden of responsibility because of his platform. He cannot say, “I am a pastor, and not a theologian” because his preaching and writing frames the Bible reading and theological reflection for many; this is part of his job as a teaching pastor. Now, some affirmation and critique.

Getting What We Want

Bell states correctly that throughout the history of the church there has been a range of belief regarding the final destiny of unbelievers, from the traditional view to positions such as a limited duration of judgment that either ends with annihilation of those outside the kingdom or a second chance to be reconciled to God, to the view that ultimately all humans will be reconciled to God in the end. While there is much discussion today and more adherents to the latter views, Bell is quite wrong to suggest that anything other than the belief in eternal conscious punishment was the dominant view for at least the first 19 centuries of the church. The consensus was that there is a final judgment followed by some unending experience of separation. There were notable exceptions (Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Clement of Alexandria), but they are in the great minority, and Origen’s views are condemned at the 5th ecumenical council in A.D. 553.

Regarding heaven and hell, Bell rightly states that there is a present experience of eternal life (John 3:16 and 5:24 tells us eternal life begins at conversion), but the future reference of life beyond (whether we used the word “heaven” or “eternal life”) is prominent in the New Testament. I think Bell wants to get past the idea that salvation is only about our future experience, to which I heartily say “Amen,” but we need not swap one overemphasis for another. The same is true regarding hell. Yes, life apart from God’s design can be “hellish” in the present, but the warnings about hell and judgment have in view a future experience of existence (or “non-life”) apart from God.

What about Bell and the universalism question? He has stated that he is not a universalist, and while there are passages that suggest he leans in that direction, his emphasis on human freedom does not allow him to clearly conclude that all people will be reconciled to God. As many have already stated about the book, Bell’s view on hell is like that of C.S. Lewis (not a surprise: he directs readers to Lewis’ Great Divorce in the back of the book): people get what they want.

Explaining Heaven and Hell

One more important critique: When talking about the cross, Bell refers to the range of metaphors used to discuss how salvation works for us: ransom, sacrifice, redemption, etc. He seems to be suggesting that blood sacrifice is only a metaphor borrowed from the ancient context. I think this is an error, because Christ is the culmination of the entire history of Israel with its priestly system that includes sacrifice, and it is hard to make full sense of Christ’s work if we only regard sacrifice as a symbol. Christ cannot be our priest and lamb who reconciles us to God without sacrifice as a reality that also has symbolic import. We need to talk about more than sacrifice, but not less. If it doesn’t resonate with modern ears, then the pastor’s task is to explain how it all works.

Books & Culture editor John Wilson’s Wall Street Journal article on the book reminds us that in the last few decades, there hasn’t been much of an emphasis on sin and hell in evangelical circles. In that light, Bell’s book is a catalyst for addressing what is likely a problem even in churches most conservative on this issue: the ability of those other than the leadership to not only confess beliefs about sin and hell, God’s love and justice, but also to actually be able to understand and explain it. I wonder how many in the pews can help their skeptical friends understand how God is truly loving yet also just in the final judgment as well as what exactly the Bible means when it talks about hell as a place of eternal punishment. Even the most ardent critic should see this as an opportunity to bring to light biblical teaching about the seriousness, darkness, and malevolence of sin with its consequences and God’s nature as truly loving, holy, and just.

Is Bell off the reservation? No. Is C.S. Lewis or Richard John Neuhaus? (On the latter, see this article from First Things.) Bell is right to tell us that love wins, but we need to be clear that so do God’s holiness and justice. God’s nature isn’t only love.

Does this debate matter? Yes it does. While it is not the most pressing issue for those in urban contexts (issues of immediate justice have as much or greater import to many in our cities or underserved areas), it is important because we need to constantly think about how we can better seek to understand the God we worship and the gospel we proclaim. We all tell some gospel story in the church, and we can always refine and deepen how we speak and live out a faithful witness.