Tuesday, 18 August 2020

James Cone on Silence and White Supremacy

The single best resource I’ve read on racism so far is James H. Cone’s article, ‘Theology’s Great Sin: Silence in the Face of White Supremacy’, Black Theology 2:2 (2004), pp. 139–152. ‘Theology’s Great Sin’ is a challenge to White theologians to ensure that racial issues inform their theologies, no matter their research interests. Moreover, the essay also explores reasons for why White theologians—and by extension, I suppose, White people generally—tend to avoid talking about racial issues or minimise them. Cone makes four observations:

Whites do not talk about racism because they do not have to talk about it. (p. 144)

White theologians avoid racial dialogue because talk about White supremacy arouses deep feelings of guilt. (p. 145)

Whites avoid ‘race’ topics with African Americans . . . because they do not want to engage Black rage. (p. 146)

Whites do not say much about racial justice because they are not prepared for a radical redistribution of wealth and power. (p. 149)

These comments in particular stood out to me:

Though racism inflicts massive suffering, few American theologians have even bothered to address White supremacy as a moral evil and as a radical contradiction of our humanity and religious identities. White theologians and philosophers write numerous articles and books on theodicy, asking why God permits massive suffering, but they hardly ever mention the horrendous crimes Whites have committed against people of color in the modern world. Why do White theologians ignore racism? . . . Shouldn’t they be the first to attack this evil? (p. 142)

It is important to make a distinction between personal prejudices and structural racism. Dealing with people’s personal prejudices should not be the major concern. It is emotionally too exhausting and achieves very little in dismantling racism. I am not very concerned what people think about me as long as their personal prejudices are not institutionalized. The issue is always structural. While I may not get people to like me, it is important that the law prevents them from harming me on the basis of their prejudices. (p. 144)

That the oppressed are sinners too is a very important point to make but often hard to hear, especially when it is made by the oppressor. The ever-present violence in poor communities is at least partly due to the sins of the oppressed. We must never assume that God is on the side of the oppressed because they are sinless but rather because of God’s solidarity with weakness and hurt—the inability of poor people to defend themselves against violent oppressors. (p. 145)

I would not recommend ‘race’ as a topic of conversation during a relaxed social evening of Blacks and Whites. Things could get a little heated and spoil a fun evening. (p. 146)

Blacks invoking the ‘race’ card also make Whites uncomfortable. . . . But Whites should remember that Blacks have the ‘race’ card to play because America dealt it to them. It is not a card that we wanted. (p. 148)

Fighting White supremacy means dismantling White privilege in the society, the churches and in theology. Progressive Whites do not mind talking as long as it does not cost much, as long as the structures of power remain intact. (p. 149)

And finally:

To create an antiracist theology, White theologians must engage the histories, cultures and theologies of people of color. It is not enough to condemn racism. The voices of people of color must be found in your theology. You do not have to agree with their perspectives but you do have to understand them and incorporate their meanings in your theological discourse. This is what Whites almost never do. (p. 151)

The whole essay is worth reading if you can access it somehow.

Friday, 14 August 2020

Prayer of the Theologian

I’m going through some of my old computer files and discovered a prayer I wrote back, it seems, in 2007. I lightly revised some lines before posting today.

Gracious God our Father,
who loved the world by giving your Son
so we might believe;
grant that your Holy Spirit illuminate our hearts and minds
so we may know more clearly those things we struggle to believe,
and more deeply those things we do believe.
May our reflections lead us ever more
to become like your Son, Jesus Christ,
in whose name we pray.

Judging by the late-noughties date, I probably wrote this before taking a class of some kind towards the end of my doctoral research. Any good? Heresy of the highest order? Not enough of a dichotomy between heart and mind?

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Anointing the Anointed: A Sermon on Matthew 26:1-16

Our church is coming to the end of its journey in Matthew’s Gospel and for today I was asked to select a passage from Matthew 26:1-56 to preach on—yes, a selection from a measly fifty-six verses! I went with the first sixteen verses and paired it with Psalm 2. To be honest, I struggled with this one: not so much with the sermon prep (which I always love), but with the actual writing and trying to work out what I wanted to say and how to say it. In the end, I’m not sure I really say that much; but as I’ve had a couple of positive comments about the sermon, I suppose it can’t have been as meandering or as ineffective as I thought.


Psalm 2; Matthew 26:1-16

Let me tell you something shocking: Matthew’s Gospel is about a man called Jesus. According to Matthew, this man Jesus taught about the kingdom of heaven, spoke out against religious hypocrisy, healed people with diseases, fed the hungry thousands, calmed the storm, and walked on the sea. This man Jesus is an impressive and inspirational figure by any measure.

But Matthew hasn’t written his Gospel just to tell others how impressive and inspirational this man Jesus is. Right from the beginning, Matthew has been telling us that this man Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, God’s Anointed One chosen to ‘save his people from their sins’ (Matt 1:21). And how will God’s Anointed One save his people from their sins? By dying. And this man Jesus knows this. Jesus knows he is the Christ, the Messiah; but he knows equally that his status as God’s Anointed One grants him no special privileges. He knows that the path his Father in heaven has set him on leads ultimately to his resurrection and salvation for those who are his disciples. But he must die by crucifixion first. This is his mission. This man Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, God’s Anointed One chosen to save his people.

What does all this mean? What lies behind the idea and practice of ‘anointing’? Basically, anointing means rubbing or pouring oil on something—not engine oil, of course; think olive oil and similar. In the Old Testament, anointing with oil occasionally had very special purposes. Priests and the fixtures and fittings of the tabernacle were anointed to consecrate them: to set them apart as holy for a special role among God’s people. Prophets, too, were anointed for their role in speaking the Lord’s words to people and nations, though perhaps the anointing here is more to do with God’s Spirit than actual oil. And Israel’s kings were also anointed, this time to lead the people as the Lord’s representative. Anointing here is a visual and physical way of setting someone apart to act for and on behalf of the people.

Let me linger a moment or two on the anointing of kings, as this helps us better to understand our Gospel reading—which I will get to in due course! Today’s Old Testament reading, Psalm 2, is what we could call a ‘coronation psalm’; that is, it was quite possibly used when a new king acceded to the throne. Psalm 2 is broken into four sections: verses one to three show the nations in rebellion against the Lord and his anointed one, that is, against the Lord and his king. The next section, verses four to six, tells us that the Lord finds all this rather amusing because there’s nothing anyone can do against the Lord. Verses seven to nine are the third section, and here the king himself speaks: ‘I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father’ (2:7). There is an intimate father–son relationship at the heart of Israel’s monarchy, with the Lord as the father and the king as the Lord’s anointed son. Finally, verses ten to twelve show that the people of Israel and all the nations in the world serve the Lord by respecting the Lord’s son, the king; in turn, the king brings peace to ‘all who take refuge in him’ (2:12). If Psalm 2 really was used in ancient coronations, then we can imagine that an actual anointing, with oil poured on the head, was part of the process of setting apart the new king to rule as the Lord’s representative, the Lord’s son, in the land.

Got this? Good! And now, as promised, let’s look at today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 26. The majority of our reading today tells a story about an unnamed woman anointing Jesus and the disciples’ outrage at such a thing! The passage is actually quite vague, I think, and it raises all sorts of questions: Who was Simon the leper? Who was the woman? Why did she anoint Jesus? Why were the disciples angry? What did Jesus mean when he said ‘you always have the poor with you’? And so on. Some of these questions I’ll leave you to work out for yourself; a single sermon can’t cover everything. And we can fill in some of the details from the parallel passages in Mark and John: in John’s Gospel, for example, the woman is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. And there are traditions where Simon the leper is actually Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’s dad, whom Jesus must have healed from leprosy at some point earlier in his ministry. But why doesn’t Matthew himself include these sorts of details?

What we need to remember is that Matthew, as with the other Gospel writers, wasn’t just making notes about Jesus to write up later. In writing his Gospel, Matthew wants to communicate some very specific things about Jesus to the people he’s writing to. This means he is quite happy to drop some details and include others, so long as the finished story says exactly what he wants it to say. Matthew, it seems, is keen to emphasise that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, God’s Anointed One—that is, he wants to reinforce the belief that Jesus is God’s Son and King, and so selects his material carefully to do just this. This theme about Jesus is found throughout Matthew’s Gospel, including at its beginning when an angel tells Joseph that Jesus will save his people, and when the wise men came to worship the newborn king of the Jews. And here, towards the end, Matthew is still telling the same story about King Jesus—only now, King Jesus is facing death at the hands of his own people.

Let’s dig deeper. Why did the unnamed woman approach Jesus to anoint him? Matthew doesn’t tell us her motivation. It wasn’t unusual at the time to anoint dinner guests, but Matthew frames the incident as though Jesus alone was targeted. If this unnamed woman is, in fact, Mary the brother of Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back to life, perhaps she anointed Jesus as an extravagant gesture of love and gratitude. Who knows? Whatever the woman’s motivation, Jesus interprets his anointing in the context of his imminent death and burial. It seems the woman had understood and accepted that which the disciples hadn’t grasped at all: that Jesus really was going to die, and in a very short while.

I think that Matthew is hinting at even more, though. In John’s telling of this story, the woman anoints Jesus’s feet; but here, and in Mark, she anoints his head. Is this a contradiction? Not really—the woman could have started at Jesus’s head and worked her way down to his feet, or even vice versa. But in the wider context of the way Matthew has been telling Jesus’s story, I’m inclined to think that what we have here is another reference, a subtle one, to Jesus as God’s Son and King. Israel’s kings were anointed by applying oil to their heads, and so it’s quite possible, I think, to say that when we take all the imagery and symbolism that Matthew has so far used into account, that here Jesus is once more presented as God’s Son and King even as he is prepared in advance for the burial following his inevitable death.

Is this a stretch? You’ll have to decide that for yourself! But if I’m on the right lines here, then we need to consider something else. In the Old Testament, kings were very often anointed by prophets. If the unnamed woman here is really anointing Jesus as Son and King, then she is acting as a prophet. Her actions prophetically confirm that Jesus truly is the King who will save his people from their sins, but through his own death. None of the disciples accept this or even get this.

Jehoiada anoints Joash
The Old Testament also shows that sometimes even the high priest would anoint a new king (2 Kgs 11:12). This means that the unnamed woman is acting here as a priest. This might not seem all that interesting or significant until we remember that Israel’s priesthood was a men-only institution. By portraying the unnamed woman as priest, Matthew shows there is radical equality between men and women when they stand together in relation to Jesus. What we see in today’s Gospel reading is nothing less than the beginning of God’s new creation emerging from the old, of the kingdom of heaven flattening the empires of men, and the age to come undoing the patriarchies of what the apostle Paul calls ‘this present evil age’ (Gal 1:3).

So what can we say? First of all, the woman’s prophetic and priestly actions in today’s passage stand in stark contrast both to the disciples, who failed to appreciate what Jesus had been saying to them, and to the actual priests, who wanted Jesus killed. Through her simple act of anointing, the unnamed woman confirmed that Jesus was God’s Son and king of the Jews; prophesied that Jesus would save his people from their sins through his death; and effectively demonstrated true discipleship and faithfulness to Jesus. If you want a simple take-home message, then here it is: Be like the woman, not like the men!

Second, the message of radical equality between men and women in Jesus Christ is not limited to Matthew’s Gospel. We find it throughout the New Testament—yes, even in Paul’s letters. How so? Doesn’t Paul say women should submit to men, can’t speak in church, and so on? All I will say here is that if the logic of the gospel message doesn’t give us clues on how Paul is actually undermining the social attitudes and conventions of his day, then we are probably more shaped by the world around us than by the good news of Jesus Christ.

And finally, here’s something more positive to end on: Matthew’s Gospel includes all sorts of stories about Jesus’s healings and miracles and teaching, but ultimately he is concerned with the man himself. In Matthew’s eyes, this man Jesus—born of a virgin in Bethlehem, baptised in the Jordan, tempted by the devil in the wilderness, crucified, died, and raised—this man Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, God’s Anointed One, and King for the whole world.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Doctrine and Change, by Richard Clutterbuck (Grove Doctrine D3)

Richard Clutterbuck, Doctrine and Change: Making Sense of the Story of Christian Doctrine. Grove Doctrine D3 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2020)

As I’m on the editorial group for Grove Doctrine, I plan to promote (but not review) each of the books released in the series as and when they’re published.

A while ago on this very blog, I asked an important question: Can creeds change? And whenever I stand in front of a slightly bemused class, whatever I’m teaching, I try to convey a sense that Christian doctrine develops in and through time and isn’t something that is dumped on the Church from on high or imposed on ordinary Christians by a bunch of men out of touch with everyday life. In this respect, I think it’s important to encourage Christian congregations to think of doctrine as developing organically in relationship with the triune God—but how best to do this? Should we just assert or insist or assure that doctrine is not entirely inflexible, or are there apposite analogies or metaphors that can help to explain doctrinal change and the reasons for it?

If you’ve made it this far, then I’m sure you’ll have anticipated that in Doctrine and Change, Richard Clutterbuck indeed offers some models for understanding doctrine—six of them, in fact, all arboreal and botanical in design:

Model One: The Artificial Christmas Tree
Doctrine as consistent and reliable but dead

Model Two: The Rampant Cypress Leylandii
Doctrine as unchecked and harmful growth

Model Three: From Tiny Acorn to Mighty Oak
Doctrine as natural development

Model Four: The New Graft on an Old Rootstock
Doctrine as response to a new situation

Model Five: The Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show
Doctrine as freely chosen and creative

Model Six: The Field Hedge
Doctrine as a diverse and hospitable environment

Clutterbuck outlines the strengths and weaknesses of each model but favours the sixth model, ‘The Field Hedge’, arguing that Christian doctrine has ‘deep historical roots and intertwining branches’ (p. 19) and is therefore an ecosystem of sorts where each particular doctrine cannot adequately be understood without reference to others.

Doctrine and Change is available for £3.95 from the Grove Books website (in both print and electronic formats), as well as through Christian bookshops.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Three Questions about Providence, by Terry J. Wright (Grove Doctrine D2)

Terry J. Wright, Three Questions about Providence: How, When and Why Does God Act? Grove Doctrine D2 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2020)

As I’m on the editorial group for Grove Doctrine, I plan to promote (but not review) each of the books released in the series as and when they’re published. The second Grove Doctrine book happens to be my contribution to the series, a study of God’s providence. Here’s an extensive quotation from pp. 4–5, which explains what I’m trying to do in the book:

This book is neither an introduction to the doctrine of providence, nor an exhaustive account of it. . . .

Instead, my aim in what follows is to explore certain aspects of providence while taking into account some of the latest ideas and developments in the doctrine. To do this, I shall organize most of my thoughts and material around three broad questions: how does God act, when does God act, and why does God act? These questions are placed between a chapter on providence and the Bible and a conclusion that offers some final reflections on the ongoing importance of the doctrine of providence. As each chapter addresses matters that invite deeper reflection, I shall conclude each one with an annotated ‘Further Reading’ section to guide readers to appropriate recent resources. Much has been published recently on providence and divine action, and so I have chosen to limit these sections to books, or chapters or essays within books, published since 2001. . . .

My intention, then, is not for this booklet to function as a fully formed statement of my views on providence, though these latter will, of course, emerge here and there. Rather, I hope that this book amounts to a thought-provoking discussion of some of the live issues raised by providence, and one informed by the latest scholarship on the doctrine.

I include many conventional topics within my discussions, including divine action, secondary causation, prayer, history, politics, and lament. In the course of writing, I came to see that providence is ‘fundamentally an eschatological and not (solely) a theological concept’ (p. 20), meaning that

God’s actions now are God’s eschatological actions; God’s actions now are of and from the age to come; God’s actions now are those which take place in and/or through Jesus Christ and by the Spirit. . . . In practice, this means that everything God is doing now is to bring in the fullness of the kingdom through anticipating the age to come. (pp. 20, 21)

Three Questions about Providence is intended to function as a snapshot of some of the latest thought on providence, including my own. It is available for £3.95 from the Grove Books website (in both print and electronic formats), as well as through Christian bookshops.