Tribal Talk: Exorcism and White Supremacy (Guest Post By Kevin Sweeney)

(I am thankful for the opportunity to have a guest post from Kevin Sweeney. He is a true follower of Jesus, intellect, theologian, and friend of  marginalized people.   I have been personally encouraged by his transparency as he discusses, exposes, and confronts white privilege and systemic racism as a white male himself. His honesty, courage and knowledge on the subject are deeply needed within the Christian Church. Enjoy! – Drew Hart)

What Should We Do?

In the last section of his book, Tribal Talk: Black Theology, Hermeneutics, and African/American Ways of “Telling the Story” Will Coleman describes what some of the main characteristics of Tribal Talk are. The two that are most vital for understanding the nature of tribal talk are tribal talk’s commitment to liberation and exorcism. Coleman states “It is committed to the liberation of persons of African descent from the legacy of white supremacy—and of persons of European descent from the same.” Anticipating the question of why from his readers, Coleman goes on to say, “It (white supremacy) is a stubborn demon, but it can and will be exorcised. Constant exposure (the naming and sending away) of its false powers is the key to its exorcism.”[1] Although white people may have a visceral reaction to Coleman’s referring to white supremacy as a demon that must be exorcised due to its violent nature, it does not require much historical research—especially in our own country, the United States–to end up confronting the unspeakable violence that is the result of white supremacy and racism. Examples of this white supremacy include, but are not limited to the enslavement and dehumanization of Africans, the burning and lynching of black bodies, and the systematic discrimination against blacks in housing, healthcare, and employment. And if “constant exposure” is key to exorcising this demon, then we must develop the vision to see the ways in which this demon still operates, name it as the demon of racism and white supremacy that it is, and enact the courage to confront it and send it away. But the question remains, who is this we that I am referring to as I write?

The “we” that is being referred to in this response is the white church in the United States of America. And for the intent of this post, the white church refers to any individual white person who professes Jesus as Lord, any local, white homogenous church, and any institutions of higher education that are still harboring this demon of white supremacy—my school, Fuller Theological Seminary included. The critical response is not focusing on the white church in the United States because it is the only instantiation of the body of Christ that has racist sensibilities; rather because it constitutes the geographical, religious and socio-political context that I inhabit. Our brothers and sisters in the African Diaspora have invited us to participate in this tribal talk, and in order to be faithful to this legacy we have a responsibility to exorcise this demon of white supremacy wherever we see it, including the depths of ourselves. In the early 20th century, Ida B. Wells said, “American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hell-fire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.” Since another element of tribal talk is listening deeply to our ancestors, we—the white church—must listen deeply to our sister Ida B. Wells and allow her to challenge us so we do not continue to embody the same demon of white supremacy that our predecessors did.


[1] Coleman, Tribal Talk, 194.

Kevin Sweeney studied sociology and world Religion at the University of Hawaii, holds a BA in biblical studies from Life Pacific College, and is currently pursuing masters degrees in both theology and intercultural studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is a mystic, a poet, a student of black theology, and an unmasker of institutional racism, white supremacy, and white privilege. His greatest joy is being married to (and surfing with) his wife Christine.

Follow Kevin Sweeney on Twitter @kevinsweeney1

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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?”

Wright Around The Way!

Jeremiah Wright speaking at the church across the street.

Looking forward to Jeremiah Wright coming to my block next week, when he will be speaking at the Baptist church on my block on Monday and Tuesday. I have really appreciated his perspective. I honestly was not very familiar with him before President Obama and him split ways. From that point forward, specifically after hearing his response, I decisively was on #TeamWright. I am not an Obama hater, however, I did and continue to support the prophetic voice over and above a political positioning. President Obama at the end of the day is a politician, a politician for an empire. At the same point, Wright speaks out of conviction from subversive sub-dominant society, and more importantly on behalf of the Kingdom of God. We should never confuse politics from the center with prophetic subversion from the margins.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Likewise it gives me an excuse to hang out with my baptist brothers and sisters, it’s been so long 😉

Kenya: London Layover

Our trip to Kenya, must really start with our layover in London. We had a 13 hour layover, which gave us the opportunity to get out into the city and see the sights. It was my first and only time in Europe. I probably did not get to take it all in as much as I normally would have, since we were all dreadfully tired by the time we arrived in London, as it was time for bed in U.S. E.T., as we were getting our day started there.

We saw the sights…

We watched the changing of the guards.

If you look carefully, you will notice that the London bridge is not falling down (sorry, bad joke). Anyhow, we blended as much as a primarily black american group possibly can in London, which is not very well.

We eventually got back to the airport and onto the plane, heading for Kenya. Our final destination was the Mombasa Airport. I can still remember vividly as we drove off of the airport property, and immediately adjacent to the airport were shacks, and by shacks I mean people’s homes. During our hour long drive back to our campus, we saw neverending poverty. Don’t get me wrong, I have seen poverty like that before, but not that much. I can remember in Jamaica seeing the shack towns, but then you would also see some middle class areas as well. Here there seemed to be no middle class at all, and it wouldn’t be until more than half way through the week that we would see actual upper class neigbhorhoods.

As I stared out the window watching black people live in terrible conditions, my mind just kept taking me back to London, where we saw palaces, grandiose churches, and generational wealth. The reason my mind kept going there, is because as a psuedo historian, I know that Kenya was a colony of the British. I would be reminded by my friend John a Kenyan, that they were a British colony up into the 1960’s.  And so it became pretty evident that there was a direct line between the wealth enjoyed in London, and the poverty that was being endured by the Kenyan people.

Little did I know that our London layover would serve as a historical reminder for me, in an in your face way. This theme seemed to come back a few times as we experienced Kenya. We also got to be in Kenya during Madaraka Day, which is the celebration of Independence from the British. The imprints and residue of British colonization were permeated throughout Kenyan culture. While that was obvious for me to see, I am sure that forms of colonization are imprinted on my life as well, to which I am oblivious to. And yet Jesus promises an alternative to the imperial imprint that tries to determine our values and practices, and that is the Kingdom of God. And so all I can say is let us resist some more.

Denigrating the Oppressed: A Fresh Look At Barabbas

It seems that holy week would be an appropriate time to reconsider Barabbas, despite colonized depictions that disparage and belie the legacy of this man. I suggest that Barabbas is not the man often depicted in many Western Churches, rather through faithful study of the gospel records a clear alternative image is painted of this New Testament biblical character.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. Barabbas is a psycho criminal that went through the towns ravaging and murdering. In fact, he probably had one cocked eye and foamed at the mouth right? Wrong. Western Christian tradition has stripped Barabbas of his Jewishness and from the larger socio-political context that offers meaning to his presence in the story. To understand Barabbas one must remember his Jewish body (and all others) under the control, rule, and domination of the Roman Empire. Without the proper historical realities, Barabbas’ role in the story is missed (which also means we miss something about Jesus as well).

I have always contended that the Gospels portray Barabbas as a desperate freedom fighter, who much like Nat Turner (or American Revolutionaries) wanted to free himself from imperial and oppressive forces. It becomes clear that he was arrested for participating in a revolutionary movement. Consider the Biblical record…

  • Mark 15:7 “A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising.”
  • Luke 23:19 & 25 “Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city and for murder” vs.25 “He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will”
  • John 18:40 “They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in an uprising.”

Clearly Barabbas was arrested for his leadership in an insurrection against the Roman Empire and not because he was a foaming at the mouth serial killer. It is convenient for Western Imperial Christianity to denigrate Barabbas in that way, completely dismissing the conditions that led to such behavior. Not only that, but it strips Jesus from his context as well, for he too is Jewish under the rule of the Roman Empire.  I will explore this more in a follow up post because there is a significant relationship between Barabbas and Jesus that ought not be overlooked. However, for the moment consider taking a fresh look at Barabbas and how his socio-political as well as Jewish significance plays out in the gospel narrative.  Barabbas was in the tradition of the radical Zealots (of which Jesus had such companions in his own entourage).

How have you been taught about Barabbas? Is your understanding of him in sync with the Gospel records? Freestyle with me…

Evangelical Split, Piper Imperialism, & a Search for Postcolonial Christian Expression

Many evangelical bloggers have just finished chiming in on Rob Bell’s new book.  While there have been a couple nuanced positions, overall most have fallen into two camps; conservative modernist evangelicals (especially reformed conservatives) and postmodern missional  evangelicals (especially emerging church leaders).  What I and others realized was that this internet and blogosphere battle that was unfolding really was not about theological and doctrinal difference (even while those tensions do exist), but rather the real underlying issue was a matter of control, influence, and power.

Younger, fresher expressions of church are “emerging” and are winning over many from white America. Simultaneously, the old guard is losing relevance, and feels threatened. Rather than working together as as the Church, imperial and colonial instincts have kicked in as folks gaze upon all the religious authority that could be attained. Domination over American Christian theological direction has quietly been the real story & narrative when you stop and read between the lines.

A war is unfolding and the victor of the war will take over (or continue) as the theological overlords of American mainstream Christian thought. They will be the de facto referees, deciding whether any given theology is in or out of bounds. Therefore these two streams of American evangelical Christian tradition fight over which white male dominated group will inherit the reigns of 21st century Christendom.  At the heart of all this hype is a thirst to reign over the Church, it is not primarily about Rob Bell and his views on heaven and hell.

John Piper jump started everything.  He personally took on the role of theological referee, wanting everyone to know Rob Bell stepped out of bounds. That’s where his “farewell Rob Bell” comes in. To be able to pull off such a ballsy move like that, John Piper must convince American Christendom that he knows the fine line between theological curiosity and theological heresy.  Repeatedly he and many of his conservative reformed entourage have basically claimed that their understanding of God, scripture, and overall theology is indeed truth. They have grasped the universal, neutral, objective, biblical, and fully truthful realities of God and the Bible. In essence, the conservative Christian tradition has arrived and know all there is to be known about truth and God (my assertion and words not theirs). 

via Google Images

Piper does not only use his comprehensive understanding of (his) god to deem people as heretics, but he also uses his knowledge of his apparently small god (one that can be fully explained by finite humanity), to assert divine will over the horrific earthquake in Japan that killed thousands. He offers 5 reasons why God kills thousands of people. Yes in the midst of tragic human suffering, confusion, and pain, Piper decides to boldly assert that God caused the earthquake killing tens of thousands as a warning to repent and to show off his magnificence.  This is a disturbing, ugly, and untimely depiction of God that vandalizes his Image in this world. Whatever happened to “good news” for those struggling?

via Google Images

I can understand why younger white evangelicals would want to break away from this brand of American Evangelicalism. While I can appreciate many of the theological nuances expressed by this zealous group of white 20 and 30 somethings, they have their own set of problems. Before we get too excited about this coming shift in influence over American religious life, we must acknowledge that the practice of hegemony and domination will still continue through these “emerging leaders”. Overall, I have been pleased with the theological shifts being expressed, because they express desire for racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in the Church… wanting the Church to be ONE church, which we were called to be.  However, it did not take very long for me to realize that the proclamations and the practices of this group were not lining up. Everything that is done is done to cater to white middle class suburbia. They cater to the priviliged despite affirming Jesus’ call to serve the least of these. As far as hegemony goes, Black and Latino pastors and theologians still continue to be uninvited to the infamous “table” Even these newly formed tables under banners of emergent or missional are starting off on the wrong foot, being almost completely homogeneous. Of course these Evangelical 3.0’s have learned from their predecessors that you must at least grab a token black for your entourage or program (however the 2.0’s actually did a better job at pulling in tokens), often this GED effort of token representation is not even being done at many of their gatherings and events. Unfortunately the white control and supremacy over religious life in America is not going anywhere if left on track.

This leaves many black leaders who are open to partnership feeling skeptic about the actual intentions of these young leaders who have all good stuff to say, but no follow through.  Many black christian leaders (fully missional minded) have told me that they have quit trying to join the white dominated table, and instead have determined to create their own table where all people groups are truly welcome.  A table that finds solidarity with the oppressed before it does with Starbucks. A table made up of people that are tired of the colonial and imperial practices of Western European Christian Empire. Such anti-racist, post-colonial Christian communities will not be endorsed by Zondervan or the billion dollar Christian industry. Nope, this movement is taking place on the corners, porches, courts, homes, and church basements of America.
In the end, neither Piper and his peeps, nor Bell and the boys represent me, and billions of other Christians globally.  We have absolutely no stake in this growing feud (that is just heating up in my opinion). No stake, because for many it still leaves us in the same place (except with fewer tokens) of not being heard or taken seriously, and not being treated with dignity as though we lacked the Imago Dei in us.  It is now more than ever that we need to take our attention off of superstars like Rob Bell and John Piper… and begin learning from those who have been crying out from the margins with a very different gospel.  A gospel that is good news to the poor and oppressed.

I Still think James Cone is better than N.T. Wright!

A few months back I stirred up a lively discussion on facebook on why I prioritized James Cone over N.T. Wright as a theologian.  I STILL feel the same and this is why…

N.T. Wright is a first class biblical scholar, he is brilliant, and I have learned much from his works. However, N.T. Wright lacks the emotional response necessary to bring the full weight of many New Testament texts.  Wright dissects and analyzes with historical insight and cultural awareness but he seems to be limited in what he can offer as an exegete. While he probably could be considered semi-postmodern, his approach is one in which he attempts to bring objective reasoning (as much as is humanly possible) to the text through lively and courageous study of the ancient culture and context from which the book he exegetes arrives out of. But this is too removed and distant from the text. I believe the best reading of the text arrives out of the emotional response of the text from those at the bottom.  First and foremost, the biblical text is “good news to the poor” and to “the least of these” in society. Education is good and definitely enhances the reading (I am pro education and am finishing up my MDiv this semester.) However, it is a modernist bias to think that a scholarly interpretation trumps the emotional and intuitive response of uneducated and marginalized people.

This is where James Cone can teach western scholars much about doing theology. Some fault Cone for his anger and passion that drips of his pages. It is these apparent vices according to dominant society that actually allow Cone to stay true to Jesus’ gospel and message, which is directed first to those at the bottom rungs of this world.  He gets it, and unfortunately too often academia does not. Cone is not perfect, and I have some differences in opinions on some theological points, but I believe he is passionate about the things God is passionate about. That is where I believe we all should be moving.

I will continue to read and learn from both Cone and Wright, and will be the better for it.  However, I hope that I my own ministry has the intellectual and emotional spirit that Cone offers us. Cone is the most important theologian of the 1900’s in my opinion.  Do you agree? Why or why not?

Why Centrism Is Off the Path!

Whether it’s politics, theology, or one’s official stance on Justin Bieber, it seems the growing sentiment is that being a centrist is always the right way to go. Given that option, or the other which is being labeled a radical or extremist, it seems like a pretty obvious answer, right?

Wrong!

Since when did being in the middle of the pack all of a sudden mean you were closest to being right.  A boring, vanilla, mainstream, dominant, popular, status quo perspective has never, and further more, will never mean you got it right on a particular subject. For example, when my ancestors were being brought from Africa as slaves, and the majority of Western Europe baptized it as morally fine, did that centrist view make it right?  In fact, it seems that during many of the most horrific events of history, the most centrist thing to do has been to apathetically turn a blind eye to the inhumane treatment and silently go about one’s personal business with minimal resistance against the wrongdoers.  No I am sorry, the centrist middle path hardly gets you anywhere.

You know what the Apostle Paul, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, Deitrick Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr, and Cornel West have in common? None of them were centrists, in fact each one of them would be best understood as radicals or extremists for their times. I know what your thinking “now wait a minute, I wouldn’t use extremist or radical to describe them, I save that category for nutjubs, terrorists, and bigots”. Immoral and crazy people very well might be radicals or extremists, I am not arguing that. The question that matters is not if they are radical, but rather to what are they radical? Are you radical about love, justice, mercy, equality, and human dignity? Those things ought not have a limit which caps them by the norm expressions of the larger society. Radicalism and extremism are not only acceptable but are made perfect when they have found their appropriate home.

As a Christian I ultimately look to Jesus as the model for life.  He surely was no centrist. His way was so different from every contemporary tradition that existed (Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes) that the only honest way to describe him would be as an extremist or radical. Calling others to laydown and sacrifice their life for others is radical. Telling people to take up their cross to die as they follow him is radical. Expecting people to be willing to leave home and family for his sake is radical.  Shoot, loving your neighbor as yourself and turning the other cheek when someone hits you just seems plain crazy because Jesus was a radical.

Being centrist, mainstream, and working out your morality by popular consensus will always take you down the wide path of comfort, if that is what you are looking for. But I reject centrism in search of that narrow, unbeaten path where great radicals are shaped and formed

Matthew 7:13-14 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

 

 

J. Kameron Carter

I recently started inching through J. Kameron Carter’s book Race: A Theological Account. I’ve found him to be an extremely insightful scholar and theologian as he discusses the origins of racial classification through a theological framing.  He’s a heavy weight, but I promise his insights are worth it. Here is a video of him giving a lecture a Columbia, let me know what ya think.