Black-on-Black Violence: Pastor Voddie Baucham’s Assault on Black People

Black-on-Black Violence: Pastor Voddie Baucham’s Assault on Black People

By Austin Channing Brown, Christena Cleveland, Drew Hart and Efrem Smith

Pastor Voddie

 

So God created human beings in his own image. Genesis 1:27

As black evangelical leaders, we believe it is important to respond to The Gospel Coalition’s publishing of Pastor Voddie Baucham’s Thoughts on Ferguson, a perspective we deem to be extremely anti-black. First, we condemn The Gospel Coalition’s editorial leadership for its moral and pastoral failure in publishing such an anti-black viewpoint. No Christian organization should ever participate in dishonoring the image of God in black people, especially at a time when so many black Americans are in pain. Second, we lament the internalized anti-black racism that Pastor Voddie conveyed in his article and the fact that it has been used to further support White-on-Black violence among Christians. Here, we offer a different perspective, one that we believe honors the image of God in black people.

A Brief of History of White-on-Black Violence

Racism is White-on-Black violence.

In 1619, the first twenty Africans were brought over as labor for the new colonies. Within one generation the white majority had defined black people as permanent slaves and non-human property. This created a social order in which black people were only valuable for their ability to support a white dominated society that was economically prospering off of the stolen land of Native Americans and the stolen labor of African Americans. Consequently, a system of White-on-Black violence was born.

This system of White-on-Black violence has defined the last 400 years of American history. For example:

  • Millions of Africans died during the middle passage journey from Africa to the so-called ‘new land’, even before ever stepping foot in America.
  • Slavery lasted for 246 years, beginning in 1619 and ending in 1865.
  • From 1865 until 1945, well over one hundred thousand black people were re-enslaved through the convict-leasing system, in which whites arrested blacks for minor crimes such as changing employers without permission, vagrancy, engaging in sexual activity or loud talk with white women.
  • Simultaneously, white (mostly Christian) Americans sought to retain white control through racial terrorism. About 5,000 African American men, women, and children were lynched by white mobs.
  • Jesus, who was both the Son of God and a poor Galilean Jew living in solidarity withthose under Roman occupation and those vulnerable to crucifixion, has been transformed into a powerful white man. This image is a form of idolatrous systemic white violence against black people and all people of color.[i]

Despite such White-on-Black violence and much more, black people have always resisted. For example, dissident voices like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass rejected ‘the Christianity of this land’ in its complicit endorsement of white domination over black bodies, proclaiming that it had nothing to do with the true peaceable Christ. Protests like these continued until the 1970s, always triggering systemic white backlash.

In the 1960s black consciousness arrived in mainstream public discourse, affirming the value of black people in the face of historical and ongoing White-on-Black violence.  Not surprisingly, the system in which Whites were always on top, responded. Taking a cue from the convict-leasing system, White law enforcement began arresting black men en masse for nonviolent drug crimes. Since the 1970s, the prison population has boomed from about 300,000 inmates to beyond 2 million people caged like animals, a disportionately large number of them black men. Black bodies continue to be controlled by this system of White-on-Black violence.[ii]

Now in the present, black people in Ferguson and around the country are fed up. We are fed up that 1 out of 3 African American males will be arrested and go through the American injustice system at some point in their lives[iii], primarily for nonviolent drug charges, despite studies revealing that black youth and white youth use drugs at comparable rates. Research also tells us that black males are 21 times more likely to be killed during an encounter with the police than their white counterparts.[iv] Just as critical, schools are being defunded all around the country in many black neighborhoods while prisons are being expanded — another example of systemic White-on-Black violence.

Black-on-Black Violence is an Extension of White-on-Black Violence

The historical and current system of White-on-Black violence sends messages that are so powerful that many black people succumb to them, ultimately becoming defined by them.  Internalized racism, a term first coined by black scholar W.E.B. DuBois in 1903,[v] involves accepting a white supremacist social world that places black people at the bottom, and adopting society’s negative stereotypes about African Americans concerning their abilities and intrinsic worth.[vi]

An example of internalized racism: as a result of growing up in an anti-black society in which violence inflicted on African Americans has been historically judged less harshly than violence against Whites, regardless of the perpetrator – black people begin to believe that their own life and the lives of other black people are worth very little. Due to internalized racism, they become more willing to engage in violence against other black men, women, and children – so-called “Black-on-Black violence.”

Indeed, a research study conducted in 2011 found that internalized racism significantly predicted black male teenagers’ propensity for violence. In other words, the more internalized racism a black male teen possessed, the greater his aggressive behavior, the more positive his attitudes toward guns and violence, and the more at-risk he was for engaging in violent behavior.[vii] Based on these findings, the researcher concluded that a lack of self-respect and/or negative views toward their own race (e.g., internalized racism) result in black male teens’ greater propensity to engage in violence. In essence, “Black-on-Black violence” is simply an extension of systemic White-on-Black violence.

Pastor Voddie’s Internalized Racism is Black-on-Black Violence

Black-on-Black violence takes many forms. Propped up by the mighty platform of The Gospel Coalition and the many white people who frequent the organization’s online space, Pastor Voddie was quick to point out the physical Black-on-Black violence that exists in America. However, despite the fact that he is black, Pastor Voddie failed to see the ways in which he engaged in a form of verbal Black-on-Black violence that mirrors White-on-Black violence. By conveniently omitting any discussion of the ways in which the long-standing system of white domination contributes to fatherlessness in the black community, police brutality of black people, negative societal perceptions of black people, the systemic disempowerment of black people, the internalized racism of black people and even Black-on-Black violence, he assaulted the character and worth of black people, suggesting that black people like Michael Brown deserve to be killed. In doing so, he made a statement in support of White-on-Black violence, an argument that many whites have used throughout history.

Just as we are presenting a historic look at the system of White-on-Black violence, the Bible also shows us — from Exodus to the Gospels to the 1st Century Church — the forms of systemic violence perpetrated upon the people of God by those in power. In this light, all Christians today should grieve with a people group that has been and continues to be victimized by such systemic violence. Blaming one Black young man for the sowing of such sin is a great disservice to the very people to oppressed people of the world, to whom Jesus consistently showed mercy.

We encourage you to read Dr. Alan Noble’s point-by-point response to Pastor Voddie’s article. Given the long history of anti-black violence in this country, all followers of Jesus must be committed to engaging in the transformative and liberative work of Jesus, which means affirming the image of God in black people and resisting all White-on-Black violence in word or deed.

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you:

to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

Writing Team

Austin Channing Brown, M.A. is a Resident Director and Multicultural Liason at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.

Christena Cleveland, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN and the author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart.

Drew Hart, M.Div. is a pastor at Montco Bible Fellowship, an Adjunct Professor of Theology at Biblical Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology and Ethics at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

Efrem Smith, M.A.. is President/CEO of World Impact, Inc. and the author of The Post-Black and Post-White Church.

[i] Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

[ii] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, N.Y.; Jackson, Tenn.: New Press ; Distributed by Perseus Distribution, 2012).

[iii] Ibid., 9.

[iv] Ryan Gabrielson et al., “Deadly Force, in Black and White,” ProPublica, accessed November 30, 2014, http://www.propublica.org/article/deadly-force-in-black-and-white.

[v] Du Bois, W.E. B. 1989 [1903]. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin

[vi] Jones, C. P. (2000). Levels of racism: A theoretical framework and a gardener’s tale.

American Journal of Public Health, 90(8), 1212-1215.

[vii] Bryant, W.W.. (2011). Internalized racism’s association with African American male youth’s propensity for

violence. Journal of Black Studies, 42, pp.690-707.

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‘Around the Way’ Ethics: Have you felt the clash of dominant cultural sensibilities?

The Church is filled with divisions. For the most part people have simply accepted this as a given and an inevitable reality. Hardly do people find themselves with enough Christian instincts to be deeply troubled with what’s going on. Even more rare than that, it is almost impossible to find followers of Jesus committed to doing the hard work of having honest and hard conversations in hopes of discerning a more truthful way.

I’ve been glad to find some communities and networks that are trying to do just that. These Christians are not doing the liberal ecumenism which ignores differences for the sake of unity, or conservative ecumenism, which sees its only faithful role as conquering ‘the other’ in debate. Instead, I have witnessed genuine attempts at true dialogue; speaking honestly and listening attentively in a manner that often (though not always) results in clarified disagreement and demonstrable growth in common understanding and renewed solidarity. This only happens through perseverance and ‘stick-with-it-ness’ because our one faith, one Spirit, and one baptism that we belong to under the One Lord, Jesus Christ. Many of these conversations are not for those that desire to avoid conflict (fake peace) at every turn, but instead demands vulnerability and a desire to pursue truth while guided by the Spirit. I can personally say that I have learned and grown much from many of them.

What is particularly interesting is that this group is able to discuss politics, atonement theory, racism, sexuality, gender, and a whole range of social concerns, always with people present coming from different perspectives and experiences on all of these concerns. That conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive, and marginalized perspectives can come together in pursuit of mutuality despite at times having varying theological commitments and diverse experiences is a great testament to the possibilities latent in the Church that are scarcely attempted.

However, things aren’t all roses. Certainly any number of concerns could be brought up, however, I believe that one important factor that often does not get taken into consideration is the “around the way” factor. While race is spoken of often, it does not always expose the power-dynamics of cultural logics at work that often set the rules and norms of engagement. Because of this, there is constantly an unfair burden for folks from “around the way” to utilize their “code-switching” skills while operating in these 2nd cultures that they have been forced to learn, but never seeing reciprocity. The result is that dominant cultural logics (which are predisposed to accept civility only by its own definition and terms) hegemonically shape and limit the nature of the conversation, and hence forth its outcome. This is not because it limits the topics being discussed, but because it dismisses the validity of “around the way” ethics, considering it as inferior to the dominant culture’s sensibilities.

More clarity is most likely needed here. Many middle class and suburban (in formation, not necessarily current geographical residence) Christians that engage in dialogue on race or class, for example, tend to only engage “bi-cultural” code switchers. That is people that have been formed “around the way” (aka the hood), yet also by necessity have learned how to embody dominant cultural norms in speech and behavior when necessary as a strategy and tool for gaining access. These folks move back and forth into various cultural communities engaging fluently on the terms of both their original communities that formed them culturally as well as the dominant cultural space they had to learn. They are, in a manner, bi-lingual. The middle class and suburban Christian engaged in “reconciliation” work, often in reality, only engages with people on their own suburban and middle class terms. What seems to be lacking is any effort from those brought up in dominant culture to become fluent and formed by “around the way” ethics and norms. When will “Peter and Jane” so to speak, who claim to want “reconciliation”, begin to immerse themselves (not just physically but in cultural logics) in the poor urban centers, which would demand that they also code-switch and embody a different set of norms? It is one thing to converse with someone like me, whom has been conditioned to play by the behavior rules and speech norms of dominant culture when I occupy those spaces, and it is something else for Peter to do “life together” with ‘Jamal, Puddin’ & dem’ on the block. If someone is intimidated dialoging and listening to me (who is committed to doing it in truth and love because of my faith and code-switches culturally), how will you engage my neighbor who doesn’t want to have anything to do with white people because of the way this country has treated him?

The truth is that both the ethics on the corner as well as majority and mainstream sensibilities are culturally and contextually biased norms. Neither are better examples of civility than the other. The only reason so many unconsciously assume otherwise is because they have bought into a dominant cultural framework rooted in American Civil Religion. From there, dominant culture is universalized and moralized as right. No longer recognized as a cultural expression it is deemed sacred and holy culture. (Western European civilization has always been erroneously conflated with being Christian culture, which explains western colonization practices historically).

In relation to the specificity of the Incarnation of God found in the birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, the universal claims of civility in American dominant culture are exposed as false, and instead we are forced to re-situate it beside every other cultural context including all its societal norms and ethical claims. By fixing our eyes on Jesus (of scripture and present among us) we can keep sight of all false claims of universality that our society tries to disciple us into rather than after the particularity of Jesus’ life, which is the only full revelation of God. EVERYTHING that we assume and take for granted, especially our “common sense” values, outside of the revelation of Jesus is speculative. Jesus is the Truth that entered in our finite historical moment so that we could see the Universal God. And yet, this type of discipleship that subversively follows Jesus, is never done in a social and cultural vacuum. Just like Jesus participated in custom and engaged concrete Jewish practices, so too must we embody our ‘followership’ in varying geographical & cultural spaces that are always accompanied with power dynamics that are not being named. One unique practice of Jesus, that I believe helped forge true Kingdom solidarity was his habit of entering into people’s own spaces and then speaking to them on their terms. Whether living water for the woman at the well, a word of liberation to an oppressed people, or utilizing shepherd language to communities that understood about grazing sheep, Jesus’ engagement was ‘fluent’ and adaptable because of his willingness to occupy marginal spaces and their modes of being.

I have briefly named “around the way” ethics and dominant cultural sensibilities in still very broad terms. Hopefully, at the very minimum, I have helped to begin to name and unveil an existing problem that is rarely addressed. True Christian solidarity and ‘togetherness’ in Christ is fragile and cannot be controlled. And yet as followers of Jesus it always remains “at hand” when we yield to the Spirit and reorient our lives through constant immersion into the only honest story, the good news of Jesus as Lord and Messiah, and as we open our eyes to the truth about our societies violent and oppressive history and current state. In response, when we collectively repent and join the Messianic struggle for liberation and shalom, committed to truth and love, Christian solidarity is not only “at hand”, but it can be experienced “among you” as well.

Free Online Conference, Register Now: #MennoNerds on Race, Mutuality & Anabaptist Community

Let's Be The Change

“The myth is that we don’t live in a highly racialized and white-controlled society, and that the Church isn’t complicit. But the truth is that race and racism affect all of us,” says Drew Hart, who blogs at drewgihart.com.

What can Christians do and learn about racism? How do we name, explore, and critique violent systems, and navigate the tensions where we are complicit in racism–to whatever degree? How can the white majority in the North American church live in vulnerable community with persons of color, and how can persons of color be heard in the church? Can we envision change for white majority, white-dominated churches, institutions, schools and seminaries? Where are there examples of Anabaptist communities, bloggers, theologians, and networks modeling a more faithful way?

These questions and others will be explored during a special upcoming livecast panel discussion entitled “Race, Mutuality, and Anabaptist Community” produced by MennoNerds. The diverse range of panelists include Drew Hart, April Yamasaki, Tim Nafziger, Katelin Hansen, and Osheta Moore joined by Tyler Tully in conversation around race, mutuality, and Anabaptist community.

The first production of its kind, “Race, Mutuality, and Anabaptist Community” will include input from its viewing audience using online social media tools of Twitter and Google+. “Race, Mutuality, and Anabaptist Community” is a free event, slated to appear on Thursday, June 12th at 6:30pm CDT at the following link: https://plus.google.com/u/0/events/cijmuktoreof2ipakii3q035j34

Participants


MC/Panel Facilitator:


Tyler TullyTyler M. Tully (@the_Jesus_event) is an Anabaptist writer, activist, and theologue based out of San Antonio, Texas whose work has been featured in local and national news sources. Proud of his indigenous American and European roots, Tyler is studying post-colonial constructive theology at the Chicago Theological Seminary where he is currently pursuing an M.Div. You can follow his blog The Jesus Event at http://thejesusevent.com/


 Panelists:


Katelin HansenKatelin Hansen (@BTSFblog) is the editor of By Their Strange Fruit (BTSF), an online ministry facilitating justice and reconciliation across racial divides for the sake of the Gospel. BTSF explores how Christianity’s often-bungled relationship with race and racism affects modern ministry and justice. Katelin also service as Director of Music at UM Church For All People, a multi-class, multi-racial church in an underprivileged neighborhood of Columbus, OH.


Drew HartDrew Hart (@druhart) is a PhD student at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pa, studying the intersection of Black theology and Anabaptism. His research is shaped by his own formative experiences within both streams, having been raised in a Black Church and then spending 4 years on the pastoral staff of a multi-racial, urban Anabaptist community after college, and prior to jumping back into graduate school. He is currently a part-time pastor and professor speaking regularly to churches, conferences, and colleges, primarily around the themes of discipleship, ecclesiology, and Christian ethics.


Osheta MooreOsheta Moore is a stay-at-home mother of two boys (Tyson and TJ) one girl (Trinity), the wife of T. C. Moore (Theo Graff host), a ‘Naked Anabaptist,’ and writer/blogger at ShalomInTheCity.com. She is passionate about racial reconciliation, peacemaking, and community development in the urban core. She likes to take the “T” in Boston and listen to the amazing street performers at every stop.  At the top of her bucket list is to dance in a flash mob, all the better if it’s to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” or Pharrell’s  “Happy”.


Tim NafzigerTim Nafziger is passionate about gathering people with shared values to work together for change in our communities and our world. One such space isChristian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) where he has been part of the support team since 2008. He also blogs for The Mennonite magazine, administrates Young Anabaptist Radicals, designs web sites and does photography. Tim lives with his wife Charletta in the Ojai Valley in southern California where they connect with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries.


April YamasakiApril Yamasaki (@SacredPauses) is a pastor and writer in Abbotsford, B.C., Canada. She is lead pastor of a congregation that includes people of various backgrounds including Russian-Mennonite, Kenyan, Korean, Vietnamese, and others, still growing into its multi-ethnic and inter-cultural identity. Her latest book is Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal (Herald Press, 2013) and a book of sermons, Ordinary Time with Jesus (CSS Publishing), will be released soon. She blogs at aprilyamasaki.com.


Tech:


Ryan RobinsonRyan Robinson (@Ryan_LR) is the Digital Development Coordinator at the Canadian Bible Society, working primarily with website design, eBook publishing, and the Bible Journeys devotional framework. He blogs at emerginganaptist.com and maintains the website for MennoNerds.


 

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An Anabaptist “In House” Discussion: Forming a Non-Racist Approach to Ethics and Social Responsibility

I am concerned that many Anabaptists have unconsciously and unknowingly adopted a model for social action and ethics that is problematic because it cooperates with our racialized and unjust society. Therefore, I figured I would offer an “in house” discussion on the subject. This all flows out of listening to the language and comments of my brothers and sisters (though mostly brothers) as they talk about engaging society (or not) in relation to various social issues we are confronted with in the U.S..

More specifically, I have observed many talk about desiring to remain “local”, “contextual”, “on the ground”, and “ecclesially” oriented when it comes to dealing with social realities. Let me be clear, I believe it is essential that we are rooted and grounded in local communities. When I hear these terms being used, it is often done so in great contrast to the Christendom logics for social engagement that is so common in American Christianity. Many seem to only imagine their social options for responding to injustice as being limited to the so-called democratic electoral process. More specifically, every four years, Christians pop blood vessels and gain grey hairs stressing over who the next president will be. This is the only active engagement that they will have socially, so I guess their limited options impose on them a certain manner of stress that cannot be released through daily resistance and activism. So, I am in agreement that our Christian imagination should not merely be defined by citizenship and the options given to the ‘good citizen’. However, there are also some serious consequences for swinging the pendulum all the way in the other direction, and again, they have racial implications, as well as others.

The first thing we must remember is that we live in a racialized society. By that I mean that race shapes how our societies movements and organization. Basically, race manages us socially and geographically. Unconsciously, most people are “patterned” by race in various ways. Most people go to a church where the majority of people are of the same race. Most people live in a neighborhood where most people are of the same race. Most people attend a school where the majority of people are of the same race. Most of the people that we call to actually chat with are of the same race. Most people regularly invite only people of the same race over to their homes for dinner. Based on race, we often have a sense that we “belong” in certain spaces and not in other spaces. In a sense, race has a sophisticated way of managing us and segregating us, despite that it is not legal segregation. This is no surprise, given that we are working with 400 years of deeply racialized laws and practices in this land. Those types of responses, if not intentionally resisted, will be unconscious and inevitable practices in our society.

If we take seriously the depth of our racialized society, and how it impacts our lives (which I have only unveiled a tiny fraction of), then we must consider the racial outcomes that flow from limiting and only concerning ourselves with “local” & “contextual” realms. For example, lots of research has been done exposing national racial issues that demand massive response. A perfect example is Michelle Alexander’s acclaimed book, The New Jim Crow. She exposed the national crises and confirmed with data what African American communities have been experiencing and prophetically speaking out against since post-civil rights era. Her simple point is that at every stage of “law and order” from policing, stops, arrests, trials, sentencing, and even after release back into society, the process is racially biased against Black people. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to order it and read it carefully. Anyway, if you live in a primarily white, suburban, middle class neighborhood, that is not vulnerable to these practices, and instead actually look to the police and judicial system expecting it to provide protection and law and order, then what are the implications of deciding to limit your social engagement to your local situation.

You see, by looking down and limiting your social engagement, you create for yourself an artificial social vacuum. It is as though your community and social life has nothing to do with what goes on regionally, nationally, or globally. That isn’t so. The reality is that our way of life always has direct implications beyond our local contexts, because we are interconnected much more than we realize. Only from a vantage point of privilege and comfort, blinded by the logics of dominant culture, can someone think that an ecclesial ethic is sufficient on its own, when it has not taken seriously its own social location and complicity in social systems. This is precisely why historic Anabaptists streams have a complicated history as it relates to slavery and racism in America. On one hand, most Anabaptists did not participate in slavery, unlike almost every other Christian tradition and denomination. On the other hand, unlike the Quakers whom many eventually became great abolitionists, Mennonites did very little to actively confront and challenge slavery and later racist manifestations like Jim Crow, Lynching, the convict leasing system, etc. So, it definitely is important to have a formational community that produces people that can resist participating in things like slavery. But it is also important to produce people that are willing to head towards Jerusalem and accept the consequences that come from confronting a social order that does not align with God’s Kingdom.

In 1963, Martin Luther King decided to protest in Birmingham, which was not his actual residency or home. In the process, he was arrested and thrown into solitary confinement over Easter weekend (which is probably the most faithful observance of that weekend that I have ever seen). However, some moderate yet influential white ministers, who were supposed to be “for” integration, critiqued King and the movement while he was sitting in jail. One of the big critiques was that the civil rights movement was moving to fast and was being provoked by “outside agitators”. They argued that it needed to be dealt with by local Birmingham citizens, not outsiders. Dr. King in contrast, understood the danger of limiting one’s social responsibility merely to one’s own local context. Here is just a small portion of his response, in his now famous, Letter from Birmingham Jail:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.[1]

So, in wrapping up, I hope to stretch the focus from merely being ecclesial ethics and local concerns. We do not want to fall back into Christendom logics, where the only options are from the top down, but nor can we disconnect between what goes on in Nazareth with what goes on in Jerusalem and Rome. I encourage us all to continue to practice an ecclesial ethics that is simultaneously a socially located and marginalized ethics. I’m not sure the Church collectively can truly follow Jesus faithfully in the world if it isn’t exploring the world from the vantage point of being in solidarity with the crucified among us. And if one suffers, we all suffer, therefore, as King argues we are no longer outsiders because everyone’s suffering pertains to us.

 

[1] King, A Testament of Hope, 289–303.

2 Necessary Moves To Break Free from White Supremacy in the Church: Constantine, “the White Male Figure”, and the Centrality of Jesus

I am supposed to be reading about Constantine and his relationship to the bishops in the 4th century. H. A. Drake turns the discussion away from merely looking at Constantine and his actions, and whether or not he was genuine or not, you know the old Constantine scholarly debates. Instead, he looks at the Bishops and their role in the emerging form of Christianity, and their complicity in shaping a coercive Christianity. This is so important. For me, the issue of Constantinian Christianity (as Anabaptists often describe it) has less to do with Constantine, because heck, he is an emperor. Christian or not, he has imperial interests. Nothing surprising about any move or decision he makes.

What I am much more interested in is moving the discussion away from Constantine, to towards the way that the Church apostasized itself by displacing Christ as central and allowing Constantine to take that place. One must go no further than looking at Eusebius’ Church History to see that many Christian leaders were seeing Constantine rather than Jesus, as the new David. That Constantine presided over councils rather than the presence of Jesus, and the imperial edicts mandating and coercively enforcing orthodoxy following that council is not surprising when the way of Jesus is no longer normative. In fact, as people have noticed, even images of Jesus began to change after that point. Jesus himself begins to no longer be portrayed as a humble man, but as an imperial figure in art post-Constantine. The imperial figure, then is centralized, has the right to make calls on orthodoxy, and enforces those boundaries, reigning supreme over the Church.  It is the Bishops and the Church, and their gazing on “Christian” emperors that give them this power. It is a choice to fix one’s eyes on Jesus or the imperial figure.

Yet, can we really make huge distinctions between the past and the present, like we are above such problems? While no Roman Imperial Image reigns over us today, hasn’t the center still been occupied by something other than the Jewish anointed, crucified, and resurrected One? Certainly in America, that dominating figure since the 1600s has been “the White Male Figure”. The supremacy of the White Male Citizen as the standard to be measured against runs at the heart of the American experiment. When it was “self-evident” that all men were created equal, didn’t it really mean all “white men”?  Were not black people subjugated to the status of property? And finally, wasn’t Jesus himself recast and refashioned into a “white male figure” which remains on the walls of churches and homes even today?

When people want to learn about theology, there stands “the White Male Figure”. The White Male Figure has occupied the center, playing the role of the theological police for everyone else. Though western and American forms of Christianity have participated in some of the most atrocious and violent acts within Church History, the White Male Figure claims clarity and objectivity, accusing other ecclesial traditions without that violent baggage of actually being the violent ones or of transgressing faithful witness. Speaking from a position of power, those labels stick and stigmatize marginalized Christian groups. The White Male Figure, sees himself as apolitical, but in actuality, every statement, every accusation, involves strategic power moves and claims, that re-affirm hegemony and shut out dissenting voices.

Given the longevity of western Christianities tradition of exalting the White Male Figure as the standard of perfection and the model for citizenship and discipleship, it becomes the norm to see the White Male Figure at the center. Once people are accustomed to that norm, it is no longer seen as a violent practice, but instead, the one that points out this form of domination is the one accused of participating in violence. It is the irony of people becoming mal-adjusted to injustice and white supremacy. In fact, to even call out white supremacy in relation to mythic “White Male Figure” is in itself seen as heretical and anti-Christian.

However, what must be understood is that as long as the “White Male Figure,” in its mythic and legendary glory, stands at the center, then that inevitably means that the Jewish Messiah and Lord over all creation, Jesus the Victorious One, does not stand in the center. The Jesus that has been manipulated to look like, think like, and bolster the agenda of “the White Male Figure” is not the Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but is an imposter and enemy of Jesus. The Living and Resurrected One does not take the mode or disposition of the oppresser, but rather his disposition is found in his being crucified by earthly authorities that found him to be a threat to the status quo. Two moves are necessary for the Church to get back on track:

  1. The Church must decentralize “the White Male Figure”: Unlike popular opinion, this is not an attack on “the White Man” but instead it is a humanizing project. The “White Male Figure” standard demands people to be apathetic to the racialized other, to gaze on them with contempt and see something other than someone who God found to be worth dying for in the person of Jesus Christ. When one succumbs to playing this role, it is unfortunately them that become monstrous, being enslaved to the elemental forces of this world and the dominion Satan. Only through being transferred from that dominion to the Kingdom of the Son in which humanity can do “life together” through the Spirit in solidarity and mutual sharing of love, can the humanizing project be accomplished. This means that those that have stood in the center must step off the table as referee and are now free to sit around the table sharing and embracing God’s beloved as equals, no longer enslaved by the logics of race and white superiority.
  2. The Church must centralize the Jesus of scripture and encounter the Resurrected One. This is a human and fleshly Jewish Jesus. Jesus of Scripture (who is synonymous with the Real Living Jesus that we can encounter and follow) moves on the margins, making those spaces the Main Stage of God’s mission. This Jesus must be followed. What is interesting when we encounter this Jesus, is that he opposes the option of both the Imperial Figure & the Dominating Figure for his followers. Check Luke 13:31-35, Jesus is on the move among the broken and oppressed but Herod wants to kill him. Jesus prophetically unveils Herod’s mythic foundation as a ruling figure to be respected, by naming his problematic praxis. He calls him a “Fox”! Let’s be clear, in Jewish tradition and Jesus’ usage there, it is clear that Jesus is not complimenting him for being smart, but rather that he is in actuality small, deceptive, and a predator. Likewise, when Jesus’ own disciples aspire for greatness, like that of Roman rulers, Jesus cuts that mimetic desire off as an option and says “not so” for you. He explains that the Gentiles dominate and “lord over them”, but his followers instead are called to be servants in the way he himself has served the least and the last of society. In following Jesus and centralizing him in the Church, God’s people will find an alternative response to racialization and white supremacy in our society. Right under the nose of our racist society a space is created for “Beloved Community” and “Life Together”. And from that solidarity, a prophetic movement that is a light to the dark corners of our world can begin.

But do we have the courage to follow Jesus faithfully in this way, or will “the White Male Figure” remain centralized in our Christian communities and movements. The challenge before us, given our long history of faltering, is great, but our God is able!

Seminary Dropout 030: Drew Hart on Race, the Church, Anabaptism & Black Theology

I had the privilege of being interviewed by Shane Blackshear on his excellent ‘Seminary Dropout’ podcast. It posted this week and I wanted to share it with my readership. In the podcast I discuss my own theological journey, the significance of Anabaptism and Black theology, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and offer a challenge for how the white Church can begin to respond to racism in our society among other things. Head over to Seminary Dropout and check it out.

White Fear Is Irrational (And Deadly) – Guest post by Nekeisha Alexis-Baker

“My client did not wait to become that victim,” he said. “My client did not wait to either get assaulted by a weapon or have someone potentially pull a trigger,” he said.

“Now, does it sound irrational? Of course it sounds irrational. But have you ever been in that situation?” Strolla asked.

— Quoted from “Michael Dunn convicted of attempted murder; jury can’t decide on murder” by Tom Watkins and Greg Botelho, CNN Justice

So let me get this straight: Michael Dunn was not a victim of assault. He was not a victim of a shooting. He acted irrationally — aka insanely, stupidly and crazily — by shooting into a vehicle filled with Black teenagers and killing Jordan Davis, all because he didn’t like the volume of the music in their car. And yet, somehow, his lawyer manages to construe this incident as one in which Dunn was so afraid that he had no other option but to defend himself with deadly force? Really?

The offensive and oppressive nature of this case is evident to anyone willing to see it. But it doesn’t stop with the act of senseless brutality Dunn committed against a car full of Black youth. Nor does it stop with this lawyer’s assumption that “everybody” — read: every white body — would have been justified in acting the same way when presented with Black presence. It doesn’t even stop with the social narrative lying at the root of the altercation: that young Black men and Black people in general are inherent and irrevocable menaces that must be controlled by any means necessary.

No. The offense and oppression is multiplied even further by the ways mass media chooses to talk about the case.

Instead of calling this trial what it really is about — racism, classism and white supremacy culture intersecting with a culture of violence and white-male vigilanteism — the “news” outlets continue to call this the “loud music” case. So intense is the desire not to acknowledge the devastating impact of racism in our society that popular discourse about a case that is obviously laden with racist assumptions and presumed privilege will avoid naming the issue at every turn. Even when these are Dunn’s own words on the matter. Even when sanctioned avoidance trivializes the injustice.

I don’t know what it is going to take to dial-down the rationalization and legalization of white fear that is rearing its ugly head in the United States right now, but it needs to happen — and fast. The lynch mob mentality is riding high and the consequences are too steep for those of us who share the “wrong” shade in the racial hierarchy.

Author Bio:

Nekeisha Alexis-Baker is an occasional writer and speaker with interests innonhuman animal ethics and Christian theology; vegan practice as nonviolent Christian witness; undoing racism and resisting oppression; and intersections between radical Christian faith and anarchist politics. She received her Bachelor of  Arts degree from New York University with a concentration in Africana Studies and Masters of Arts: Theological Studies degree from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, specializing in theology and ethics. She currently serves as chair of the Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism team at AMBS. Nekeisha is also affiliated with the Jesus Radicals network and with the Roots of Justice anti-oppresson training collective. A native Trinidadian and former New Yorker, she now resides in Elkhart, Ind. where she stays positive by growing spiritually in her local AME fellowship, building community in the city, and singing karaoke with boisterous friends. She blogs at criticalanimal.tumblr.com and everydayoppression.tumblr.com

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.

Book Review: Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking

I had the pleasure of reading Bonhoeffer The Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking, by Mark Nation, Anthony Siegrist, and Daniel Umbel. In this work, the authors have one primary and focused goal, that is to challenge the language used and assumptions held by many surrounding Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s legacy, specifically as it relates to his participation in the Abwehr and the resistance plots to kill Hitler. These assumptions we have about Bonhoeffer provide hermeneutical lenses through which we read his later work, particularly Ethics. This book does not argue that Bonhoeffer wasn’t in the Abwehr, nor does it suggest that he did not know about the assassination plots or was distant from those engaged in those realities and plots. However, while recognizing and affirming those historical facts, the authors challenge what this actually means in terms of the nature of Bonhoeffer’s actual involvement and his ongoing theological positions.

One of the strongest historical arguments that challenge our assumptions about Bonheoffer’s legacy in the book is how the book explores Helmuth James Count von Moltke’s own legacy and participation in the Abwehr, in his own words. Considering Moltke’s actual participation, and all that it involved has considerable import for expanding current imagination around role participation possibilities. On paper, “His job description said that he was to gather military intelligence for the Wehrmacht, the Armed Forces, using his expertise to assist Germany in its war efforts. This entailed reading reports regarding German military efforts as well as those of other nations; it also involved extensive travel.” (3) However, Moltke was involved in the resistance, and therefore that was only a cover. In reality, “Making allies where he could, he attempted to work against the escalation of the war as well as to mitigate atrocities masquerading as legitimate war tactics” and this “involved gathering specific data and communicating with relevant German officials, attempting to convince them of the need to obey international laws, sometimes utilizing arguments of self-interest—such as mutual, respectful treatment of political prisoners—in order to be convincing.” (3) Along with this, he “improved local conditions for people where he could through invoking legal principles. After he knew that Jews were being deported, he attempted to get them rerouted to countries that would be a safe haven for them. When possible, he personally helped Jews escape to safe territories.” (3) Finally, he also used connections in England to communicate that there were Germans that were opposed and actively resisting Hitler. (5) What becomes pretty clear, is that Moltke was an important figure in the resistance, had military background and expertise, saw his participation as a way to avoid conscription in the war, and sought to resist German through nonviolent means (and actually participated in the Kreisau Circle which mostly rejected violence as a viable option). The authors make a compelling case from here, to at least reconsider what Bonhoeffer’s actual activity and reasoning for joining the Abwehr might have been.

All of that is covered in the introduction, but the first three of the seven chapters is primarily a biography of Bonhoeffer’s life. These chapters, as expected, detail Bonhoeffer’s geographic movements, significant friendships, and theological shifts (like his “grand liberation” and “conversion” to the Sermon on the Mount). For the books argument, chapter three holds significant weight in its importance in setting out to accomplish its objective. This part of the book engages Sabine Dramm’s work that has already significantly challenged many assumptions made about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conspiracy activity, and more controversially it questions Eberhard’ Bethge’s accounting of events, upon which most of the vague but implicit assumptions about Bonhoeffer’s activity emerges. However, from both of their writings, the authors highlight the following point:

What is striking about both the accounts of Bethge and Dramm is that Bonhoeffer’s life as an agent of the Abwehr was truly a cover: a way to avoid military induction while continuing his theological reflection and ministry. Not only did he receive no income from his work for the military intelligence agency, but he continued as much as he was able in his work as a pastor and theologian. (76-77)

However, leaning especially on Dramm’s work, he clarifies Bonhoeffer’s activity as being more of a cover so that he could avoid conscription and uphold his convictions rather than because he desired to participate in assassinating Hitler. Similarly, his actual everyday responsibilities and actions had nothing to do with assassination plots. However, it is from Bethge’s important biography of his friend, which leads most to interpret his participation as implying more active involvement in assassination plots. So, the challenge turns towards challenging Bethge’s depiction of Bonhoeffer at that time. Readers will have to wrestle with these points being brought up for themselves, because they are both compelling and yet controversial in their questioning of Bethge.

The last few chapters engage Bonhoeffer’s theological work, exploring its continuity and discontinuity. It is less controversial, though no less important in its place in the book. The authors easily demonstrate the theological continuity of Discipleship with the positions being presented in Ethics as well as Bonhoeffer’s Prison Letters. Their careful theological work will either win over their reader, or at least will leave a reality that there is some tension between what Bonhoeffer wrote in his theological work and what he said informally to Bethge.

This book, despite some responses from the Old Guard of Bonhoeffer studies, is not reaching that far beyond what is already known in Bonhoeffer scholarship. In fact, it relies heavily on the work of others to make its point. However, it does question Bethge (in a manner that I found actually very respectful and transparent in relation to its challenge). This book at the least will make a great reading conversation partner with Schlingensiepen’s biography which is certainly following the lead of Bethge in this regard. I would expect that most, regardless of whether one agrees with the approach of questioning Bethge’s account or not, will be challenged in this book in a manner that will change the way they describe Bonhoeffer’s role in the Abwehr, and his overall reasoning for being there to begin with. Finally, the book will help draw out much more continuity in Bonhoeffer’s theological work from Discipleship to his death. I gladly recommend this book as a stimulus for further consideration to those who already have some familiarity with Bonhoeffer’s life and thought.

You can order the book here.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer On Our Imaginary God and the Challenge of Immersing Ourselves in Jesus

For many people, the Incarnation of Christ means very little. That is because the American Christian doesn’t look to Jesus as the Revelation of God, but rather people come with prior pseudo-knowledge of who they think God is, which is then imported onto God. The Imported God is ultimately an Imaginary God, rather than the Incarnated God. As Christian, we should have none of this. For Christians, if we are to know anything about God, it must come through immersing ourselves in the narrative of Christ, through which God is revealed to us by the Holy Spirit. What seems to be clearly missed about God in Christ Jesus in the gospel accounts, is that he looks nothing like the way people conceive of God generally. Most Americans gain there understanding of who God is through their human systematic theologies, by way of greek philosophical concepts that have been passed down through the West, and of course from protestant hymns. In all of this, the American/Western God seems more like a Conquering Caesar than a Christ Crucified. It might be time, like the early Christians did for the first few centuries, to live into the Jesus story and to understand God as the one revealed in bodily flesh. In that way, the Incarnation can find its meaning in our lives again in a meaningful way.

Consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on this confusion, as he sat in prison at the end of his life and reflected on the solution while he wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge:

Everything we may with some good reason expect or beg of God is to be found in Jesus Christ. What we imagine a God could and should do—the God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with all that. We must immerse ourselves again and again, for a long time and quite calmly, in Jesus’s life, his sayings, actions, suffering, and dying in order to recognize what God promises and fulfills. What is certain is that we may always live aware that God is near and present with us and that this life is an utterly new life for us; that there is nothing that is impossible for us anymore because there is nothing that is impossible for God; that no earthly power can touch us without God’s will, and that danger and urgent need can only drive us closer to God.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich; Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2010-06-01). Letters and Papers from Prison DBW Vol 8 (Kindle Locations 15896-15901). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.