Your Image of Dr. Martin Luther King is Likely Wrong

(Here is the first part of a piece I wrote for Biblical Seminary’s Blog. You can click over to read the post in its entirety).

Everybody loves Martin Luther King Jr., or at least they love the idea they have of him. There is nothing provocative about naming him as one of your favorite American heroes, quoting lines from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, or referring to him in one way or another to suggest how we can become that “beloved community” he often spoke about. In fact, our usage of Martin Luther King Jr., more times than not, would be in direct conflict with Dr. King himself, and the actual life and commitments he held to.

“Our” Dr. King that we celebrate each year has been completely co-opted by the right and the left to further the shallow partisan ideological work in American society. Dr. King’s legacy has been thoroughly domesticated, like a house cat after being de-clawed and neutered. He is now safe. Safe to mold into our projections of who we want him to be. Dr. King is no longer a radical prophetic voice of a Christian preacher crying out in the wilderness. Instead, after he died, we built him a monument to adore, after our liking, and gave it a seat at the emperor’s table. However, the prophet never sits and fellowships at the table with an imperial ruler. The prophet is not accepted by the social order it speaks life into because he is always seen as a threat.

Read the rest at Biblical Seminary’s site.

Never Lose Sight: Putting One Foot In Front of the Next

It literally pains me when I hear people take cheap shots at poor black people. Recently, I had a conversation in which someone did just that. The most troubling part is that 9 out 10 times when I have such encounters, the person offering such a diatribe is a white, middle class, person that lives, moves, and breathes purely in dominant culture. They have never lived in poor black neighborhoods and they certainly do not have significant relationships with poor black people.  Yet somehow this doesn’t appear as the slightest barrier for those who want to verbally abuse the most vulnerable citizens of this land. Apparently, actual 1st hand knowledge or experience isn’t a prerequisite for being an expert on black people’s problems. Stereotypes from media are apparently sufficient. Besides, poor black people are easy targets, people can say what they want, often have a laugh at their expense, and there will be no social consequences for such action. Poor black people have no champion to defend them socially or politically.

When I was growing up my family scraped by with the bare necessities but there was never a short supply of love. By High School, my family had clearly crossed over firmly into the black middle class. We moved to the burbs and I attended a middle class suburban high school from grades 10-12. Since college, I have been living in black neighborhoods (1st in Harrisburg, PA, then in Philly) comprised of mostly poor and working class families. However, my own family is most certainly middle class. Everyday I live with the realities that come with being a young black male. The fear, the stereotypes, the clutched purses, and the always present and perpetual threat of being suspected for the crime of being black at the wrong time or place, that is when cops are looking for any black body to fit their description. Being black is draining. Blackness still continues to be described pejoratively in America. To be a black american is to constantly have to tell yourself that you are somebody, that you are made in the image of God, that you are creative, and intelligent. To not do so will result in being drowned in the negative words that dominant culture has to say about your existence and ‘your kind’.

Yet, I don’t even have to deal with where my next meal is coming from, or the stigma of not having a college degree while searching for a job (God forbid you have a conviction, because there are almost no options for you when you are black). I have healthcare, food, housing, transportation, and a reliable and livable income. And in a couple years I will have a PhD, which will make me extremely privileged educationally speaking, within the black community. Blackness by itself is tiring enough, but to be poor and black is a burden I honestly can only sympathize with at this point (rather than empathize with) as  my neighbors share with me their struggles to find work and provide for their family. And yet, it is precisely poor black families that are often the most popular targets of the media and the middle class. Through vitriol and stereotype, they get blasted 24/7 for every aspect of their lives. They are the scapegoats of America, who will champion them?

And yet what is amazing, and surely a sign that there is a God in the world, is that many black folk courageously get up each morning  (and have done so for 400 years of oppression) with a renewed determination to keep going. They lift their heads, get up, put one foot in front of the next and continue to struggle and believe for better. Folks create out of nothing, stretch little into much, hustle, grind, and make due with scraps. Can some families do better in this area or that? Sure, which family couldn’t? Cause most folks who blast poor black folk need to look in the mirror at the log in their eye, rather than worrying about the spec in someone else’s. Some people’s dysfunction is just hidden behind middle class suburban-home walls and are not the topic of discussion for American consumption, but I know that the vanilla suburbs is full of drama and strife (remember, I lived in a mostly white middle class suburb for 3 years in high school!). So, maybe it’s time to stop scapegoating the most vulnerable among us, because there is one person that is a champion for the poor and oppressed, and his name is Jesus, and he doesn’t take kindly to those that would trample over the vulnerable.

“As all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the experts in the law. They like walking around in long robes, and they love elaborate greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ property, and as a show make long prayers. They will receive a more severe punishment.”” (NET, Luke 20:45-47)

The Didache: Anabaptism & Black Theology?

Most people know that I have been shaped deeply by two Christian traditions and allow those streams to intersect (harmoniously at times, while other times with a bit of tension) in a dialogically manner. Those traditions are Anabaptism and Black Church theology. The reason for this engagement mostly comes from the reality that those two traditions are serious attempts at recovering a more faithful Christian witness in the world because the Western Christian witness, in a variety of different manifestations, has been implicated in a centuries long violent and oppressive civil religious mechanism, doing the ideological work of its empire. Given that Black theology and Anabaptism emerge from communities that directly and drastically suffered from the unJesus-like mode of being of Western Christendom, they are best suited to disrobe empire from Jesus and return us to ‘the way’.

There is an early Christian document, way before Constantinian Christendom took root, called ‘The Didache’. Upon a closer reading, I noticed that this early Christian writing had theological and ethical elements within it that are characteristic of both Anabaptism and Black Theology. As you will see, the first passage is the actual opening of the document. It basically is a rehearsing of Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’, which has always functioned as a hermeneutical key for Anabaptist scripture reading as well concrete expectations that God’s Church would live and be shaped by. The second passage comes from chapter 5. It poignantly and prophetically warns against those that would participate in oppressive acts against the vulnerable and turn against the poor in favor of the rich. If that isn’t an Anabaptist and Black theology-like challenge, then I don’t know what is. It should be of no surprise though, because ‘The Didache’ is clearly taking Jesus’ life and sayings seriously, which is a significant source for Anabaptism and Black theology. Be sure to give me some feedback, do you see it too?

(1:1-5) There are two ways, one of life and one of death; and between the two ways there is a great difference. Now, this is the way of life: First, you must love God who made you, and second, your neighbor as yourself. And whatever you want people to refrain from doing to you, and must not do to them. What these maxims teach is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies. Moreover, fast for those who persecute you. For what credit is it to you if you love those who love you? Is that not the way the heathen act? But you must love those who hate you, and then you will make no enemies. Abstain from carnal passions. If someone strikes you on the right cheek turn to him the other too, and you will be perfect. If someone forces you to go one mile with him, go along with him for two; if someone robs you of your overcoat, give him your suit as well. If someone deprives you of your property, do not ask for it back. (You could not get it back anyway!) Give to everybody who begs from you, and ask for no return. For the Father wants his own gifts to be universally shared. Happy is the one who gives as the commandments bids him, for he is guiltless! But alas for the one who receives! If he receives because he is in need, he will be guiltless. But if he is not in need he will have to stand trial why he received and for what purpose. He will be thrown into prison and have his action investigated; and he will not get out until he has paid back the last cent. . .[1]

(5:2) Those who persecute good people, who hate truth, who love lies, who are ignorant of the reward of uprightness, who do not abide by goodness or justice, and are on the alert not for goodness but for evil: gentleness and patience are remote from them. They love vanity, look for profit, have no pity for the poor, do not exert themselves for the oppressed, ignore their Maker, murder children, corrupt God’s image, turn their backs on the needy, oppress the afflicted, defend the rich, unjustly condemn the poor, and are thoroughly wicked. My children, may you be saved from all this![2]


[1] After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, n.d.), 385.

[2] Ibid., 387.

Baby Jesus Presented in the Temple: Luke 2:21-39

At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name given by the angels before he was conceived in the womb. Now when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be set apart to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is specified in the law of the Lord, a pair of doves or two young pigeons. Now there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon who was righteous and devout, looking for the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So Simeon, directed by the Spirit, came into the temple courts and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary according to the law, Simeon took him in his arms and blessed God, saying, “Now, according to your word, Sovereign Lord, permit your servant to depart in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: a light, for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” So the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “Listen carefully: This child is destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected. Indeed, as a result of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul as well!” There was also a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old, having been married to her husband for seven years until his death. She had lived as a widow since then for eighty-four years. She never left the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment, she came up to them and began to give thanks to God and to speak about the child to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. So when Joseph and Mary had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. (Luke 2:21-39, NET).

At the start of beginning of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited[i], the argument is made that there are certain elements that are often neglected in western Christianity. Particularly Jesus’ Jewishness, poverty, and oppressed and dominated state are highlighted as being often neglected. Here in the passage in Luke chapter 2, we see all three of those elements of Jesus’ humanity witnessed to in the text.

Jesus is not only ethnically Jewish, but he is obviously raised Jewish as well. He is circumcised, and even presented in the Temple to God, all according to the Law of Moses. Despite many people’s desperate attempts to cast Jesus as a western figure throughout history[ii], Jesus is very much a Jew. Sorry for those who continue to perpetuate the devastating lie that Jesus is a western hero, representing and endorsing all things European, but that house is falling fast. We must continue to argue for Jesus’ Jewishness, because in that particularity of ethnicity we are revealed to the universality of Jesus’ Lordship. It is because Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, that we gentiles can be engrafted into that story and salvation.

Ethnicity is not the only concern in the text or for Thurman. We also see that Jesus comes from poor and humble beginnings. This could be easily missed, but Jesus’ parents are noted for offering two birds. The preferred sacrifice would have been a lamb, the two birds as a replacement was a specific prescription for those who could not afford the costlier animal[iii]. The fact that Luke notes that they opted for the pigeons is not by mistake, but to remind the hearers of the gospel that Jesus was a common poor man, like the masses of humanity that struggled to make it day by day. Sorry folks that push that Jesus was wealthy, it’s not true, he was homeless and had no place to lay his head.

Lastly, we must take notice of the messianic expectation that is leaping of the text. The devout are anticipating the consolation and redemption of Israel. There is a common feeling of continued spiritual exile and political and social oppression because of the continued hostile occupation and taxing from the Roman Empire. Jesus is born under these conditions himself, and must be seen as a colonized person. The desire for independence and God’s full presence and reign for the Jews was real, and thoroughly shapes Jesus’ own experience, life, and teaching. Sorry for the folks that imagine Jesus as a part of the dominant streams of society, but Jesus has more in common with postcolonial thinkers and freedom fighters than he does with those safely situated in comfort and security without any fear of political incarceration or execution because of one’s ethnicity and social position.

Therefore, when we talk about the incarnation, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we must allow these aspects of Jesus concrete existence to shape how we begin to perceive, imagine, and come to know Jesus. And it this Jesus that we are also called to follow, imitate, and risk life for. May we all find the courage to follow Jesus radically as we also link arms with the underdogs of the world in our own contexts and communities.


[i] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1949).

[ii] J Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford ;;New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[iii] Biblical Studies Press., NET Bible : New English Translation., 1st Beta ed. ([Spokane  Wash.]: Biblical Studies Press, 2001), bk. Leviticus 12:8.

Prophetic Priorities for the Poor and Democratic Duty Dichotomies: A Spin Off

One area for me that makes the discussion concerning Christian responsibility for the poor more of a complex one, is the reality that we do not live under Caesar and the Roman Empire, but rather in imperial America we have a democracy, which means we (everyone not just politicians) in some form take the place of Caesar (as the government). This means that we are accountable for the policies and laws of the land as individuals, in as much as our small voice, vote, and communal activity has influence. And it is clear that laws and policies can systemically have favorable or adverse consequences on the lives of poor people (and everyone else).  How does this play into the discussion of Christian responsibility for the poor? As Christians, as has already been stated, we are responsible to sacrifice, serve, and find solidarity with the poor as a part of our faithful witness. This responsibility is not to be a dichotomy in our lives where aspects of us are concerned for the poor and other aspects are not, rather it is a holistic totality of our being. By this I mean that we must consider our spending habits, our social circles, our speech/deed enactments, our exposure, and the various means that we have accessible to us as Christians to impact the lives of those who are socio-economically disenfranchised. One of the means available to us, as I began to discuss, is that of democratic influence. Certainly none of us are Caesar, and therefore we cannot snap and get whatever we want to be manifested. However, that does not remove the responsibility for us to do what we can faithfully. That is where the prophetic tradition and the Anabaptist tradition have been extremely helpful for me, given the reality that most Christians traditions have not been holistic in their response to those most marginalized, and likewise most Christian individuals politically are puppets for our imperial political parties, having nothing else to add other than their particular political parties ideology (of course with their Christianity-ism slant).

The prophetic tradition, evident in the likes of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Martin Luther King understood (even without democratic opportunity) that as Christians they have a responsibility to impact the fallen broken social order that they are a part of through a violent clash of ethics, values, and theological vision. It was their faith that shaped and motivated them to seek political change inspired by God’s revolutionary Kingdom.

On the other hand, the Anabaptist community is one of the few Christian communities in America that have continually been holistic in its understanding of our responsibility to the poor. They give generously, serve continually, and they even teach to sacrifice luxuries and comforts so they are able to give as a basic tenet of Christian faith and identity. Sacrifice and service (for the poor rather than one’s own church’s institution) is rarely one of the ABC’s of most church’s teachings.

In America, the closest thing to modeling the life and teachings of Jesus, as it relates to ministry to, for, and with the poor is seen clearest in my opinion when we do not get excited about which tradition has the best doctrine and systemic theology, but rather when we are ecstatic about traditions that have faithful theological vision and are obedient in embodying this divine narrative concretely in their communities and contexts.

The thing that is great about the gospel is that it is comprehensive. It is about Newness; New life, New Humanity, New Jerusalem, and New Creation.   The gospel is that Jesus came and ushered in a new social order in the midst of our old, decaying, and fallen social order. And in Christ, we can be a part of and experience this divine renewal of all things right now. So yes, as the Church it is our responsibility to be salt and light and our responsibility to care for the poor, which means we must be faithfully bearing witness and making a difference in all spheres of our influence, including our democratic system through prophetic  stance.  So sacrifice, give, share, vote, speak out, and stand alongside the poor as the active implementation of God’s gospel is rehearsed in your lives.

Politics of Poor Plight and Prophetic Priorities: A Brief Response to Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney recently made an interesting comment about his lack of concern for poor people. According to him, we need not care about poor people because America has a safety net. Rather, he is concerned with America’s middle class because they are the ones who are struggling. Yes, that’s right, the people with more resources than poor people are the ones who are hurting most in this economy, according to Mitt’s logic.

While I am thankful that we do have a safety net in America, considering the thousands who have died from the famine in the Horn of Africa in the past year, I can not fathom how one could argue that poor people are doing well in America and the middle class is the group suffering most. This is so ridiculous that I won’t spend any more on that point.

However, as a Black Anabaptist Christian shaped by the Israelite scriptures and it’s fulfillment in the person of Jesus, I have particular priorities that shape my own ethics/politics. My Jubilee-Shalom-Kingdom of God politics must always prioritize “the least of these” among us, to not do so would be to disregard God’s  intervention and revelation in the world, particularly the Bible. The Bible clearly keeps watch of, defends, and centralizes the concerns of poor people throughout the entire narrative. To be in continuity with the God of scripture, and specifically Jesus the Crucified One, we must embrace the same ethics concerning poverty that is consistently woven throughout scripture. It compels us to embody Jesus’ story now in our own contexts. A faithful reading of scripture demands from us particular prophetic priorities to enact if we are to claim to be Christian (Christ-like), and they are not really optional. One of those ethical priorities is our care, sacrifice, and provision for the poor. To state that you do not care for poor people is to reject the Israelite narrative and ultimately to reject Jesus, that is assuming we can not slice him up and then choose which parts we like and which we do not like as if Jesus were a buffet line.

Sorry Mitt, but you have absolutely no credibility with me. (Neither do any of the other candidates, so please don’t take this as an endorsement for anyone). Finally, let me make myself clear by stating that as far as I am concerned, both major political parties in America are off the mark when it comes to the issue of poverty. One party (in my eyes) is aggressively against poor people, and the other (again from my perspective) pays lip service and offers a few minimal government programs, however each fall drastically short of the Jubilee paradigm from the Old Testament that Jesus continues to echo in his own ministry. As Christians, our ethics and political priorities ought not be confined to the arguments of the day between two imperial political parties, but ought to begin and end with theological vision rooted deeply in scripture and particularly in Jesus the Christ, as they are manifested in love for God and others.

Here is a tiny fraction of the biblical passages that remind us that we ought to prioritize the poor as a part of our Christian ethics and witness.

Psalms 82:3 “Defend the cause of the poor and the fatherless! Vindicate the oppressed and suffering!”

James 2:5-8 “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor! Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to? But if you fulfill the royal law as expressed in this scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.”

Dueteronomy 15:11 “There will never cease to be some poor people in the land; therefore, I am commanding you to make sure you open your hand to your fellow Israelites who are needy and poor in your land.”

Proverbs 14:31 “The one who oppresses the poor insults his Creator, but whoever shows favor to the needy honors him.”

Luke 6:20 “Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs to you.”

Ezekiel 16:49  “‘See here – this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had majesty, abundance of food, and enjoyed carefree ease, but they did not help the poor and needy.”

Galatians 2:10 “They requested only that we remember the poor, the very thing I also was eager to do.”

1 John 3:17 “But whoever has the world’s possessions and sees his fellow brother in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person?”

Kenya: Four Kids and $25

One particular day while in Kenya, a few of us had the privilege of sneaking off the campus with Peter Odanga, the Word of Life Director, and driving up into the village in the hills. He would simply yell “candy” in Swahili as we passed by people’s huts and the kids would come running. We didn’t preach to them, all we did was give them candy, for which they were unbelievably grateful. From what I gathered, Peter does these runs about once a month, and I think it is his way of being a familiar face to those in that village.

We drove further along and then eventually parked, got out and begin walking through a field of high grass. On the other end of the field we came right into the middle of a families dwelling. Everyone was barefoot, a man was working hard on a piece of furniture I believe, and we were greeted very graciously by the women and children. They brought chairs out for us to sit down and by the time we were sitting the men had come over as well. Peter translated Swahili and English both ways as we spoke back and forth with this family.

During our discussion we eventually found out that four of the kids there were no longer able to attend school because they could not afford the school fees.  We asked how much it would cost to put them all back in school for the rest of the year. The answer was devastating. $25! The cost to put all four of them back in school again for the year was only $25. I don’t think my heart sank any lower my whole time there as it did at that point. We obviously offered to pay the fee and Peter said that it would be fine to do so. The family was so grateful, but I knew that we were only giving out of our excess, and we did not deserve the appreciation they gave. The head of the family actually climbed up a coconut tree and cut down several coconuts for us, chopped the tops off and served us. This was a humbling experience. It was one of those humbling and formational moments that a person can never forget.