Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Becoming an Anti-Racist Church

Given the tides and times in which we live, and as something of a follow up to the last review, I would submit the book "Becoming an Anti-Racist Church" by Joseph Barndt.

Most churches would say, if not insist, that they were not racist.  Most people say that.  Yet racism is more than an attitude, it is something that can (and has) been ingrained into cultures, institutions, and even churches.  We may not be racist, but we might not be doing anything about racism either.  And that can be a big difference.

"Racism," according to Barndt, "is the result of individual prejudice and bigotry, but more significantly the product of historic institutional power structures." (p. 5).  Racism is also about creating superiority and inferiority. (p. 26).  I would add that it may not be so much about creating these attitudes as both fostering and continuing them.

Barndt argues that we have often used God to justify our own beliefs and public actions.  Sadly, when the churches began to take stances for or against slavery, they used the Bible to back their points of view.  The churches that opposed slavery slowly changed their minds.  What is telling is that while these churches would eventually become advocates against slavery, they didn't believe that point of view to begin with.  As such, Barndt points out, it is easier to find records of resistance to racism than records of being racist.  We work to hide our opinions that were for what we now think of as sin.

There is much work to be done when it comes to the church being the voice of racial inclusiveness and advocates for those whose skin color is different from our own.  There is also much work to be done in expressing collective outrage at social injustice - especially when that outrage is re-defined as being anti-American.

Barndt's book isn't a step-by-step, twelve-week program to becoming an Anti-Racist church.  Would that there might be such a thing.  Instead, it is a recognition that the changing of racist ideas is a protracted struggle that might take years, if not generations.  For some, that might seem too long and make the idea of the book untenable.  That's too bad.

What Barndt is offering is a map to introspection and reflection.  Before a church (or an individual) can change their minds about an issue (and, by the way, the word repent literally means to change one's mind and/or direction), it takes a willingness to "fess up" to one's true feelings on a subject.  For the church to become anti-racists, it has to start by examining its own heart and history.  Only then can it work to grow into an agent of social and public change.

Barndt's book isn't an easy read.  But it is a good read.  Coupled with "Divided By Faith" (our last review), it makes for a sobering and thoughtful approach to a conversation that is being carried on all around us.

Becoming an Anti-Racist Church
by Joseph Barndt
Published by Fortress Press, 2011
ISBN 978-0-8006-6460-2

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Divided By Faith

With racism and race relations being an all to present issue with which we must contend, it helps to understand that how whites and blacks think about racial issues is sometimes so different that we aren't even speaking the same language.

Emerson and Smith have written a short but accessible book that combines analysis of data and information about race and racial understandings with a substantial body of research.  It is a difficult book to read - not because of the text itself, but because of the material.  One only need read a chapter or two before the face of division as well as the attitudes about it are quite real.  And though the book is now 17 years old, the points it makes are still quite poignant.

The major argument revolves around how we think about systems.  We may not consider ourselves racist and, in our minds, we may not be.  Yet for whites, the thought process revolves around the individual.  For blacks, the thought process revolves around the system.  Sometimes that difference can be tremendous.

For example, a white person might be a part of a group that has participated in racism in some way. When challenged on that point, the person would say, "Well, I am not racist."  That may be true, but what about the larger organization to which you belong - a country club, a church, or whatever else.  The racism may not be a part of the individual, but it could be systemic.

And that changes the conversation.  When whites want individual police charged for their specific actions, they may not understand why blacks are asking for the entire department to reevaluate its actions.  Here is the major difference that divides.  Whites think in terms of the individual where blacks think in terms of the institution.

That also has tremendous bearing on our understanding of evangelism.  In the United Methodist Church, we have a collective prayer of confession with our communion service.  Yet for many evangelicals, confession is highly individualistic.  Yet sometimes good people can become a bad group and we might need to evaluate how we think of salvation, sin, and repentance in light of our faith traditions.

When I read this book, I was amazed.  It shone light onto ways of thinking that I simply did not understand nor that would have come naturally to me.  It is a book that has to be read more than once and pondered upon because of the nature of the subject matter.  I would recommend it, but I also know that some of the people who need to read this the most will put it down quickly and not return to it because it is at its heart a very convicting book.

Divided by Faith
Michael Emerson and Christian Smith

New York: Oxford University Press, 2000

Friday, March 24, 2017

A History of the End of the World

One of the more perplexing...who am I kidding?  The most perplexing book in the New Testament (and perhaps the whole Bible) is the book of Revelation.  It is a strange amalgam of numerology, symbolic language, visions, epistles, Jewish and Christian apocalyptic traditions as well as a healthy dose of the desire for revenge.  Not an easy read to say the least.  And the irony of it is that the word "apocalypse" means "to reveal."  Most would agree that there is very little that is clearly revealed in the pages of Revelation.

So how did such a strange book (but, we need to be clear, not the only one of its kind in existence - there are plenty of other apocalyptic books that did not make it into the Bible) gain entrance into the canon of Holy Scripture?

Jonathan Kirsch sets out to explain just that.

In his book A History of the End of the World, Kirsch sets out in seven chapters (numerologists might find some significance in that) to deliver a history of the book itself and then turn his attention towards the fascinating and often frightening way in which the book of Revelation has significantly shaped Christian thinking, actions, and has also shaped political ideology from Roman times all the way to contemporary American politics.

This is not a straight commentary on the book of Revelation.  For that you might want to read Mysterious Apocalypse by Arthur Wainwright (Abingdon Press, 1993) or Breaking the Code by Bruce Metzger (Abingdon Press, 1993).  Instead, what Kirsch is doing is providing commentary upon the contents of the book of Revelation while also providing a history of apocalyptic literature and its usages.  Kirsch also sets out to develop something of a portrait of the author of Revelation - a task that opens up some profound insight into the text itself as well as bringing to light aspects of the book that might well pass unnoticed.

The book does deal with some of the more difficult passages in Revelation such as the number 666 and the fact that Jesus, while mentioned from time to time, is conspicuously absent from the narrative.  Kirsch quotes Luther who said, "My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book.  There is one sufficient reason for the small esteem in which I hold it - that Christ is neither taught in it nor recognized."

This is not to say Kirsch holds Luther's point of view.  Indeed he records that for some this was a book written by Christ (as it is purported to be a transcript of the words of Christ).  Kirsch does a good job of maintaining his role as scholar and brings the material to the reader in an effort to let the reader understand and make up their own mind.

The latter half of the book takes the reader through a history of the interpretation of the book of Revelation as well as the more infamous uses of it (remember David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco?) as well as some of the more modern uses of it by persons who keep trying to predict when the end of the world will take place.

As strange as Revelation might be, so is its history,  Kirsch invites the reader to gain a sense of how different this book is and why.  Again, this is not a verse by verse commentary on the book of Revelation, but it is a solid work that will open one's appreciation and understanding of the book of Revelation.  It is a must read for those for whom the book has always been at best confusing or at worst a book avoided.

A History of the End of the World
Jonathan Kirsch

New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Last Week

Lent has just begun.  As such, I felt that it would be appropriate to review a book that “fits” this Christian season.  That book is The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. 

While the book is now ten years old, The Last Week remains a clearly written, easily accessible work.  Written by two great scholars and writers, The Last Week is not an overwhelmingly scholarly book – at least not in the sense that a book such as Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament might be considered scholarly.  Instead the scholarship is evident in the material, but it is written in such a way that every reader can find plenty of material to absorb.

This book is an interpretive work on the last week of the life of Jesus as found in the Gospel of Mark, chapters 11-16.  It is an insightful commentary on these chapters that brings some understated academic understandings to light.  However, it is best understood as a work that takes seriously the socio-political climate of Roman occupied Jerusalem and places that fact as the background for reading the story of Jesus.

As such, Borg and Crossan describe a Jesus that has a political and theological agenda that was strictly anti-imperial (anti-Roman in particular).  This is the underlying paradigm for the work. The presentation of Jesus as a political revolutionary should come as no surprise for those familiar with Borg and Crossan’s other works, namely Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (Borg) and Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (Crossan).

While a political portrait of Jesus is nothing new (think Richard Horsley, S.G.F. Brandon, or James J. Tabor), what Borg and Crossan attempt to do is present a genuine re-reading of Holy Week and imbue it with often overlooked meanings and possibilities.  The end result is a powerful image of Jesus as the voice of a theology that speaks against the power of Rome and offers an alternative vision for life in the Kingdom of God.

It may not be a paradigm some readers will be comfortable with, but if nothing else, the book provides some great insight into the times and teachings of Jesus.  I would certainly suggest reading it during Holy Week, if not as a Lenten study.  It certainly offers a challenge to consider Jesus in the light of the political and theological tensions that existed in his time and may well continue to crowd our thinking. 

The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem
Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan

New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006