Saturday, April 16, 2011
This past week in our class "Restoration Theology," my friend, and mentor, John Mark Hicks and I introduced the students to the history and theology of black Churches of Christ and race relations. This is always a challenging section because the history of race relations can be dismal. I do not apologize for making students wrestle with this material ... indeed we could easily spend the entire semester on it and still not come close to covering the material that really needs to be covered. It is difficult to be a doctor when you do not know "where it hurts" the same is true for we who claim to be disciples of the Prince of Peace. I shared what follows with our class, and I share it with my blog readers, as nothing but "compass points" to help us with points to begin Gospel reconciliation. If I understand Paul that would mean every single person that has been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Here is what I shared ...
In light of our readings this week the question must be asked: how can we move forward? How can we become part of the solution? How can we join the mission of God? These are questions I have wrestled with since the mid-1990s at least and nothing I have to offer is revolutionary or magical. In fact some requires a great deal of intentionality, hard work and cross bearing. Yet here are a few things that I have become convinced are necessary in allowing God's Spirit to use us as instruments of his new creation. We may find that it is we, ourselves, who are being challenged to the core of our being and the work of God's Spirit begins with us.
1) We must become intentional in our prayers about reconciliation. Through prayer we must become people who repent and confess our participation in systemic evil. This is a must. We too easily excuse the status quo. Yes the problem is huge, bigger than any one of us. But the buck stops here.
2) We must experience a hermeneutical shift. Churches of Christ have long had a "canon within a canon" and preachers probably have an even smaller one. I know a church in which I surveyed the sermons done in a five year period. In that five year period there were a grand total of four sermons from the "Old Testament." One was on Hannah on Mother's Day, a sermon on Joseph, a sermon on David and a psalm. This, in my opinion, is simply unacceptable. Our traditional dispensational hermeneutic has gutted vast resources for equipping the saints with kingdom eyes. Consistent engagement with not only the Hebrew Bible but also the Gospels confronts us repeatedly with the narrative of God's siding with the oppressed, the redemption of the slaves, the caring for the widows, orphans and aliens. Confronts our lack of vision for the cosmic mission of God. Recovering the biblical narrative as a whole is of absolute necessity and must begin today. Solid, theological, expository preaching through Exodus, Deuteronomy, Amos, and Jonah to name but a few.
3) Along with a hermeneutical shift, we need to look at the narrative through multiple lenses. All of us are captive to our own cultural biases and presuppositions that reside deep within our ethnic background. We need to discover just how richly textured the biblical text is. I will use an embarrassing personal example: in 1995 a very good friend of mine (Robert Birt and about the same time Alisha Pierre) talked about the "black" people in the Bible. One of them was the "Ethiopian" Eunuch!! It had not occurred to me that this flesh and blood man was not "like me." So get a book like Walter Arthur McCray's The Black Presence in the Bible. In fact here are some resources that can shape our reading of Scripture and the history of the early church: Africa, Scripture and Christian History. Two years ago I did a class in February (black history month) called "Forgotten Roots." In that series I told the stories of the Ethiopian, Ebed-Melech, Fred Gray and others.
Note also that in Scripture unity is often racial rather than doctrinal. Throughout the wonderful book of Ephesians the ethnic divisions established and maintained by the fall are destroyed through the work of the cross. Paul's emphasis in Ephesians has nothing to do with Baptists or instruments and everything to do with Jews & Gentiles (ethnic/racial division) both living as one new race. Baptism destroys the ethnicities of the old fallen order! We preach baptism the question is do we live it?
4) Become a student of black history and integrate it into your story. Until the mid-1990s it never occurred to me that black history in America was significantly different than white. Again my impetus for this was Robert Birt. If we do not know who Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King Jr then our vision is skewed at best. These people are not just part of Black history but they are people who shaped American history. They rank along with Washington, Jefferson and Franklin. Engage writers who are African-Americans. Birt challenged me to read Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America by Lerone Bennett Jr. which is something of a classic. I did, and I have never been the same. So I recommend reading Bennett for a broad survey but is only a good beginning point. Read Deirdre Mullane's Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African-American Writing for an intro into the vast diversity of black culture (that is anything but monolithic). A good book with a much narrower focus is Richard Hughes Myths America Lives By. We must be intentional in learning to "see" and "hear."
5) Become an intentional ambassador for the ministry of reconciliation. Paul says that the Gospel is the gospel of reconciliation. Attend an NAACP meeting. Make sure you participate in the Martin Luther King Jr prayer breakfasts. Integrate, intentionally, multicultural sermon illustrations. For example when talking about the inevitable theme of freedom for July 4th integrate the story of the Amistad. Or if you are preaching from Mark 8 on following the Messiah's Footprints the story of William Wilberforce fits powerfully. I told the story of George Wallace as an example of the "Ethics of Baptism" from Col 3.1-12 which focused on the power of God to transform our fallen defaced image into the renewed brilliant image of God. The fallen Wallace screamed with a baseball bat in hand "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." But he underwent a "baptism" - shot, paralyzed and converted. When he died Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King attended his funeral. A great example of one who put off "anger, rage, malice" and clothed himself with "compassion, kindness, and humility" which led him to confess there was "no Greek or Jew." Being intentional about our illustrations does not mean they must all be 'black."
6) Become intentional about personal relationships. Cross the race and culture barrier on a personal and interpersonal level. When was the last time you had a person of another race sitting at your table for dinner? Make Gospel reconciliation a priority one on one.
These are a few things all of us can do as we seek to become instruments of shalomin God's fallen world. These are not exhaustive but they are places to begin and the one who is likely to do as much changing as anyone is ourselves.