From Every People and Nation, Introduction

Several weeks ago I promised to post excerpts from the provocative, insightful book From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, by Dr. J. Daniel Hays. The book, written by a self-identified conservative, white biblical theologian traces the picture of race issues throughout the Bible. This first installment is from the book’s introduction:

Not long ago, in a conversation with my colleague Dr. Isaac Mwase, a Black professor and pastor of a local Black congregation, I mentioned that the race problem was an important issue for the Church today. Isaac quickly corrected me by stating emphatically that it is the most important issue for the Church today. This conversation illustrates to some degree of phenomenon that I encountered regularly as I read through some of the recent literature dealing with the race problem in the Church today. Black scholars identify the racial division in the Church as one of the most central problems for contemporary Christianity, while many White scholars are saying, “What problem?”

Likewise, even among those who acknowledge the problem, there is a wide difference of opinion concerning just how bad the problem is and whether the situation is improving or deteriorating. On the one hand, in recent years tremendous progress appears to have been achieved. (D.A.) Carson, for example, documents evangelical churches on the east coast and the west coast of North American that are doing a remarkable job of integrating (Love in Hard Places, 2002, 95-96). Particularly among many White Christians, there is the perception that in these regions things have improved; even in the south and the Midwest many feel that although lagging behind the rest of the country, the race problem is not nearly as pronounced as it was a generation ago.

On the other hand, some have observed that the evidence for this perception is often anecdotal, and actual statistical survey data appear to suggest otherwise. Emerson and Smith in Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (2000) study the problem, through statistical data based on actual nationwide surveys and interviews. They point out that there is tremendous disparity between the way Whit evangelicals view the problem and the way Black evangelicals view the problem. They also note that the phenomenon cuts across regional lines. Their studies indicate that two-thirds of White Christians believe that the situation for Blacks is improving, while two-thirds of Black Christians believe that the situation for Blacks is deteriorating. The survey data have led Emerson and Smith to pessimistic conclusions….

Emerson and Smith (p171) also suggest that one of the underlying factors hindering evangelicalism’s ability to address the race issues adequately is that evangelicals have a tendency to define problems in simple terms and to look for simple solutions. The race issue, on the other hand is extremely complex, involving history, tradition, culture, religion, economics, politics, and a host of other factors.…

Although there are some significant exceptions, in general there is silence in White evangelical congregations concerning the biblical teaching on this issue. Within these congregations, the current attitude of many Whites often falls into one of three categories. First, some people are still entrenched in their inherited racism. They are interested in the Bible if it reinforces their prejudiced views; otherwise they do not care what the Bible says about race. Second, many people assume that the Bible simply does not speak to the race issue, and particularly the Black-White issue. Third many others are simply indifferent to the problem, assuming the status quo is acceptable and that the Bible supports their current practices.

These views appear to carry over into academia as well. Indeed evangelical biblical and theological scholarship has continued to remain nearly silent on this issue, even though indications of the scope of the problem are obvious.

So this is the first installment. What do you think?

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Dr. King, Persecution, and the Art of Prayer

The 1960s, the heyday of the civil rights movement, saw a polarized, volatile American public. At the symbolic center of the vitriolic rhetoric stood the figure of Martin Luther King Jr., hailed by some as a messianic hero and demonized by others as an un-American antagonist with evil intent.

Today Dr. King is more symbol than human. And despite the exposed human faults of the actual man, his human virtues are worthy of the symbol. For his endurance in the face of opposition, for his subjection to a campaign of lies, for his refusal to retaliate, for his submission to physical violence, for his suffering unjust incarceration, for his brandishing powerful nonviolent rhetoric, and for his proclamation of clear, if not universally accepted moral truth, Martin Luther King Jr. remains one of our nation’s most revered figures.

The persecution Dr. King endured was not feigned. It was no perceived attack with roots in legitimate criticism. His life, the lives of his compatriots, and the lives of their families were continually threatened, and the threats were punctuated with a series of actual incidents of horrible physical violence. He had little recourse in local government, who threatened and imposed further violence and incarceration. And the federal intervention was obviously too little too late.

Still when it came time for MLK to mount a rhetorical defense, he always chose to defend the cause of the needy, the oppressed, the poor, and the outcast. He never defended himself. He stood up for justice and truth, not himself.

Where did that moral stance come from? How could he endure what he endured and remain focused on truth and justice rather than on charges of persecution, which were real and not imagined? What kept him from crying “Persecution!” even when the threats became everyday realities of actual violence?

 

Perhaps the difference between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and those who claim persecution today is born of King’s prayer life. Vanderbilt University’s Dr. Lewis Baldwin hints at as much in one of two new Baldwin release on Dr. King, Never to Leave Us Alone, published by Fortress Press (the other release is The Voice of Conscience: The Church in the Mind of Martin Luther King, Jr., published by Oxford University Press).

In Never to Leave Us Alone, Baldwin traces King’s prayer life. He begins by capturing the wellsprings of the African American prayer tradition that fed the young King. He follows with Kings’ experiences and writings as a young man at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary, and Boston University.

In three more chapters Baldwin opens up the period of Dr. King’s civil rights career leading to his violent death. Each of these three chapters captures a different aspect of the same period. First Baldwin looks at prayer and preaching, then at the power of pastoral prayers, and then at prayer as the heart of movement of the civil rights movement. In a final chapter, http://www.smileyandwest.com/transcripts-pdf/101810_smileyandwest-transcripts.pdf reminds us of what we can learn from King and why he remains a respected figure around the world.

Discussing the book, radio and television host Tavis Smiley asked Baldwin, ”What was Martin praying for? It’s one thing to talk about his prayer life, but obviously it’s important to pray for the right things and to pray in the right way. Tell me more about what he was praying for and what his prayer process was. How did he call out to God?

Generalizing from his years of research, Baldwin answered, “He prayed for strength, his own personal strength, for guidance and direction in the movement. He also prayed for world peace. He prayed for guidance in the struggle for economic justice, in the struggle to overcome racial barriers, segregation in the society. He prayed for discipline and courageous leadership in the movement. He prayed for what he called “the least of these,” those who were in poverty, who had no jobs, who were devoid of medical care, who were ill-housed. His prayer, of course, had this social dimension. He majored in intercessory prayer—that is praying for others. His prayers were always relational.”

Baldwin documents Dr. King’s practice of renting a hotel room for a prayer-centered day, a “day of silence.” During those day-long retreats, King “poured his heart out to God,” he developed his own inner spiritual life, and he gained wisdom and the “attitudinal posture” required to keep moving forward in his God-ordained mission.

Central to Dr. King’s prayer life, according to Dr. Baldwin was the belief that prayers are to be lived as well as uttered. “Living prayer daily was, in King’s case, a cardinal principle, and this persists as part of his legacy for a nation and a world in which hypocrisy is perhaps more glaringly evident than ever before.”

Who can doubt that that living prayer sensibility is sorely needed in an age of commercially-driven bombast disguised as political rhetoric, when legitimate criticism is dismissed as illegitimate persecution. Dr. Baldwin reminds us that for Dr. King the method and the message can conspire to communicate truth. Prayer can keep the message and the method true. But even a true message can be dangerous.

A Biblical Theology of Race

Just finished a provocative, insightful book, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, by Dr. J. Daniel Hays.

I am aware that some of my Christian brothers and sisters believe the Bible doesn’t address race, except maybe to say “all men are created equal” (which the Bible DOESN”T explicitly say). Some Bible readers know that somewhere (Galatians 3:28) the Bible says something about “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Studious Christians have learned that the Bible was (and still is) used to defend slavery, racism, apartheid, and all the rights of the racially privileged, just as faithful Christians have employed the Bible in fighting against those atrocities.

But Dr. Hays aims for something more ambitious than these tidbits of Bible and race. First, I must say (and this, too will offend some of my white brothers and sisters) that Dr. Hays is a white, conservative (ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary; PhD, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), evangelical professor (Pruet School of Christian Studies dean, and professor of Old Testament) at a southern Christian university (Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia Arkansas). I mention his credentials in hopes that his arguments won’t be dismissed as biased, which is too easily done when the speaker is African American or some bleeding heart liberal atheist/agnostic.

This Dr. Hays makes the case that race issues permeate the Bible. While the Bible may be less than direct on these issues, it provides as much to draw from as it does for the proclamation of Four Spiritual Laws or Five propositional Points. Hays traces the biblical record from Genesis to Revelation and uncovers what just might be the heart of God on race. As a starting point he reveals the hidden racial nuances in those passages that we tend to graze over in the “begats,” the names of peoples, and the tables of nations. But his primary point is that race is not a peripheral issue in the Bible. For Hays, race issues are at the heart of the biblical story, at the heart of the mission of God, at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Over the course of the next few days I hope to share Hays work by way of excerpt. I’ll begin with parts of his introduction and proceed with his chapter summaries (altered by adding in Scripture references from the meat of the chapters). I would love to hear responses to his words.

Even White Guys!

So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27

sotomayor-with-pres-and-veep Just to set the record straight, the Creator did not begin with a generic white male and then decide to get really creative and diversify. Even if you conclude that God created a male first (and not simply a human), that male was not a generic white American man.

But the architects of the American experience WERE a bunch of white males (even though the nation was built on the backs of an extremely diverse populace), and, until 1967, ALL of our Supreme Court justices were white males (you knew that, right?).

In 2001, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina, and now a Supreme Court justice, gave a speech to a Hispanic law group in which she explicated and defended the obvious: judges bring their experiences and backgrounds into the courtroom. One line out of the 8 pages (12-pt type, Times Roman) has made the rounds in the blogosphere.

“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Once again a single line is taken out of context. One need only read or hear the whole speech to get the truth of it. But to be fair to her critics, this one line is ill-crafted. I don’t believe the judge meant precisely what she said (this was a speech, not a law brief).

Still, the real problem with the statement is that it begins the same place her critics begin: with the presumption that white males have no relevant backgrounds and experiences that they bring into the courtroom. Sotomayor thinks that’s a bad thing; her critics think it’s a good thing.

The issue her critics present is that the judge admits to bringing her background and experiences into the courtroom. I can almost imagine the bathroom meetings “What’s worse is she seems downright proud about bringing her experiences into the courtroom! This is what’s wrong with having a woman or a non-white on the court: they insist on bringing that non-white non-male stuff with them. Why can’t they be generic like all of the tried and true white male judges of yore? Damn the Sixties! Now we have black people, women, and brown people all wanting a piece of the pie.”

Don’t worry, George Will, Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, Richard Land, WSJ and all you other complainers; white men are still allowed to bring their background and experience to the bench too, as they have done virtually exclusively for over 200 years. But somehow we’ve pretended that the white males are devoid of background and experience. And they pretend that they argue purely the law. They delude themselves.

BTW, Justice Sotomayor doesn’t bring only her Latina experience and background. She brings the Sonia Sotomayor experience and background. Still with her confirmation, the court reflects a bit more of the actual diversity of the American people than it ever has. And despite her ascent to the bench, white males with their background and experiences still maintain a massive dominance on the Supreme Court.

We must begin to acknowledge: there is no such thing as a generic justice, a generic American, or a generic person. And whether we acknowledge it or not, our backgrounds and experiences go with us wherever we go, for good or ill.

Time to Grow Up, America!

A fiery preacher’s most provocative turns of phrase are stitched together and aired on YouTube video, as “proof” of anti-American sentiment.

Voters in Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee, vote on a measure to make English the only language permissible for official business (except in emergency situations).

A Supreme Court nominee admits that she brings her complete life experiences into the courtroom.

A Harvard professor is arrested in his own home after committing no crime

The President of the US prepares a speech to encourage children to work hard in school, and school boards around the country refuse to allow the airing of the speech.

A hip-hop artist interrupts the acceptance speech of a young country artist, claiming that a particular R&B artist should have gotten the award.

Thousands of protesters spew venom and vitriol at town halls around the nation.

At a televised Presidential address to a joint session of Congress, a US Congressman breaches decorum, shouting, “You lie!” at the President.

Along with general controversy, these incidents share another commonality. In each case someone—whether a local citizen or a prominent national figure—has pointed to a racial element.

That we have come a long way in racial America is patently indisputable. That racism and other racial problems persist is equally indisputable.

For some, this is not only where we stand, but where we intend to remain. Surely there are those, especially in the age of Obama who discount any political criticism by crying racism. It’s a handy weapon or shield for supporters of this President.

But President Obama’s detractors are at least as adept in use of the same weapon and shield. Too often any mention of a racial element in a situation is met with the accusation “They just see race around every corner!” It’s an easy way to delegitimize any valid racial elements.

But now is the time to listen.

Now is the time for Obama supporters to grow up and accept legitimate criticism as adults do. Now is the time to listen, argue, agree and move on, without race-deflection. I am confident that this can be done.

The greater challenge rests on those who refuse to see the dangerous racial element in a situation unless it slaps them in the face. But now is the time for them too. With more than 1000 days left when the President of the US will present his face daily as a black man, now is the time for us all to confront the deep racial thoughts and feelings. Now is the time to ask some questions:

What violence has this phenomenon done to my 10, 20, 50, or 70 years of experiencing US Presidents? If it makes no difference on the surface, is it possible that it makes a difference deep down. And does it then affect my racial perception and reactions in my everyday interactions?

Often, for “colorblind” people, race begins to matter if “those other people” are gonna marry one of us, or be given a position that I think I deserved, or are put in a place of power over me, or if their presence does damage to my long-held beliefs.

Now is the time to call those beliefs out of ourselves, if we are to go forward on race and grow up as a nation.

A Way Forward on Race

Reasons that discussions of race often go nowhere:

1. Some people are afraid the conversation will end with somebody being called a racist.

2. Some people believe that the conversations SHOULD end with someone being called a racist.

3. Some people believe that every mention of the racial element in a particular situation MEANS that you’re calling someone a racist.

4. Some people believe that racism should never be called out.

5. Some people believe “Racism only matters if I can see it.”

6. Some people (even those who think racism is real and really ugly) believe that racism only matters if you can prove it.

7. Some people believe that any mention of unprovable racism adds more to the problem than does staying silent about it.

8. Some people believe that race problems will only be solved if “those other people” would

  • a. stop their racist ways
  • b. stop calling racism out
  • c. stop mentioning race
  • d. grow thicker skin
  • e. pretend they are not in the skin they are in

9. Some people believe that other people will turn any possible controversial incident into a racial incident.

10. Some people believe that because of 9 above, they can dismiss any charges of a racial factor in an incident.

The Truth:

We can talk about race without only talking about racism.

We need to talk about racism. That racism talk can be productive at the beginning of the conversation (rarely, when sparked by an incident) or in the middle of the conversation (preferable), but should NEVER be the end of the conversation.

While race issues come with a host of possibilities of misunderstanding and over-reaction, the ability to perceive race problems rests with those who HAVE to deal with race on a daily basis, more than with those who do not.

In order for us to grow beyond our race problems in conversation, we have to be able to talk through stories and feelings even more than through logic, observation, objectivism and proposition.

We will never achieve total healing of race relations in this life, but if we are willing to bravely and humbly enter the conversation we can get substantial healing and we will all be the better for it.