How Is It That You Are Rich?

Tell me then, how is it that you are rich? From whom did you receive it, and from whom did he transmit it to you? From his father and his grandfather. But can you, ascending through many generations, show the acquisition just? It cannot be. The root and origin of it must have been injustice. Why? Because God in the beginning did not make one person rich and another poor, He left the earth free to all alike. Why then if it is common, have you so many acres of land, while your neighbor has not a portion of it?

 --St. John Chrysostom, Homily 12, on 1 Timothy

Family Politics

Out at the prison bible study we recently worked through this provocative passage in the Gospel of Matthew:
Matthew 10.34-38
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

“a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household."

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 
It's a perplexing text. We have the Prince of Peace saying "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." More, Jesus goes to to say that he has come to turn family members against one other.

Our enemies will be our family members.

Many interpreters have given their opinions about this passage. I don't intend to review those but simply share a point I made out at the prison.

When we think of families as we approach this text we tend to think of American families of, say, a father and a mother and some children living in a home. And when we think of family in this way Jesus's teaching seems strange and harsh. Why would Jesus turn the people in a home against each other?

We can think, of course, of the early Jesus followers, how their decision to confess Jesus as the long awaited Messiah would have set them at odds with their families. That would have been difficult to do. So Matthew, we can surmise, inserts this teaching to help these converts: the conflict you are experiencing in your Jewish homes is to be expected.

I think that's right, but I also think there is something else going on here. Specifically, ancient Israel didn't think of families the way we Americans think of families. I like said, when Americans think of families they think of a mom and a dad with a few kids out in suburbia. But when the Israelites thought of family they thought of something more extended, they thought of clans and tribes.

More, they thought of an entire nation.

That's the thing we tend to miss, how the nation of Israel was one big family. All descended from the same father, each tribe associated with one of his sons. Everyone related. Israel was a political nation, but it was also one big family.

In short, when Jesus is talking about "loving father or mother more than me" he's not just talking about the intimate sphere of the home. When Jesus talks about family there is something bigger at stake. Because of the way family and nation were conflated in the life and history of Israel when Jesus takes on family he's also taking on tribal and national allegiances, the very fabric of ancient Near Eastern society.

Jesus wasn't just talking about how you treat your mom and dad. That's too narrow a view. Don't think of the American family.

Jesus was speaking about how his Kingdom proclamation would shake nations--socially and politically--to their very foundations.

Guilt and Compassion

When you do something wrong, when you fall into a sin, perhaps something you've working on for quite sometime and even have made a little progress on, the feeling is a keen sense of guilt. If you've ever fallen off the proverbial wagon the sense of defeat and going back to square one can be a huge kick in the gut. The guilt and self-censor can be immense.

I've felt it. You've felt it.

More often than not, in my case at least, this feeling of guilt morphs into feelings of shame and self-loathing. I've been lucky in that I have been able to hold these feelings in check and not let them spiral into depression. But others are not so lucky. Guilt triggers a strong rejection and devaluation of the self.

This slide from guilt into shame and self-loathing is natural. But more and more I've been trying to redirect my guilt into another emotion.

Compassion.

When I do something wrong and feel guilty I'm trying to spend less time on how I'm such a screw up than on how, in light of my own failures, I should be more forgiving of the failures of others. If I'm such a screw up I should extend sympathy, empathy and compassion to others when they make mistakes. How can I judge others when I make similar or even worse mistakes?

My guilt is a trigger to extend grace to others.

This movement from guilt to compassion for the failings of others isn't as intuitive as moving into self-censor, but the connection isn't too far-fetched and becomes easier when practiced. But you do have to practice this new train of thought. You have to practice seeing your guilt as a sign of your membership in the "democracy of sinners," to use the description of G.K. Chesterton.

Guilt doesn't instinctively trigger compassion, but it can if you work on it. In light of your own failures you shift away from shame to say, If I'm making mistakes should I not extend grace for your mistakes as well?

And Thus Collide With the World

Christianity is a believing and a very particular kind of existing corresponding to it—imitation.

We can put faith first and imitation second, inasmuch as it is necessary for me to have faith in that which I am to imitate.

But we must also put imitation first and faith second. I must, by some action, be marked in some measure by conformity to Christ, and thus collide with the world. Without some kind of situational tension, there is no real opportunity of becoming a believer.

—Søren Kierkegaard

Unpublished: Love Well Locally

Last fall at the Streaming conference the host Mark Love, who is also a good friend, was interviewing Greg Boyd and I. Mark asked us how we keep our self-esteem in check given that we are asked to speak at various events.

First of all, I said, compared to Greg I don't really travel or speak all that much.

Still, I speak more than many people do and, obviously, being a "featured speaker" can inflate your self-concept and feelings of self-importance.

So what do I do to deal with that? That was Mark's question.

My answer was this: I try to pour myself into my local congregation. I try to love well locally. I try to love the people who are in my life week to week.

For example, as I've written about before, I often drive the van for our church plant Freedom Fellowship. Or I help take friends home after church if they don't have a car. Often with a stop at Dairy Queen so we can spend more time visiting.

And during the week I go over to visit Kristi at her assisted living facility. And not just to visit Kristi but with everyone who I've come to be friends with there.

Over and over, whether it's driving a van, buying ice cream for friends or visiting Kristi, in these places I find I'm the best version of myself. Places where I don't care about who is or is not paying attention to me, reading me, Tweeting me. I'm just with my brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Love well locally. If I have a secret to dealing with ego, that's it.

--an unpublished post

Do We Know What It Means To Be Struck By Grace?

I read this passage a long time ago at JTB's blog rude truth. It's a passage that has haunted me ever since. Perhaps you might find it helpful to read today:
Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth. To believe that something is, is almost contrary to the meaning of grace. Furthermore, grace does not mean simply that we are making progress in our moral self-control, in our fight against special faults, and in our relationships to men and to society. Moral progress may be a fruit of grace; but it is not grace itself, and it can even prevent us from receiving grace. For there is too often a graceless acceptance of Christian doctrines and a graceless battle against the structures of evil in our personalities. Such a graceless relation to God may lead us by necessity either to arrogance or to despair. It would be better to refuse God and the Christ and the Bible than to accept them without grace. For if we accept without grace, we do so in the state of separation, and can only succeed in deepening the separation. We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it. Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!" If that happens to us, we experience grace After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.

In the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in our relation to others and to ourselves. We experience the grace of being able to look frankly into the eyes of another, the miraculous grace of reunion of life with life. We experience the grace of understanding each other's words. We understand not merely the literal meaning of the words, but also that which lies behind them, even when they are harsh or angry. For even then there is a longing to break through the walls of separation. We experience the grace of being able to accept the life of another, even if it be hostile and harmful to us, for, through grace, we know that it belongs to the same Ground to which we belong, and by which we have been accepted. We experience the grace which is able to overcome the tragic separation of the sexes, of the generations, of the nations, of the races, and even the utter strangeness between man and nature. Sometimes grace appears in all these separations to reunite us with those to whom we belong. For life belongs to life.

And in the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in our relation to ourselves. We experience moments in which we accept ourselves, because we feel that we have been accepted by that which is greater than we. If only more such moments were given to us! For it is such moments that make us love our life, that make us accept ourselves, not in our goodness and self- complacency, but in our certainty of the eternal meaning of our life. We cannot force ourselves to accept ourselves. We cannot compel anyone to accept himself. But sometimes it happens that we receive the power to say "yes" to ourselves, that peace enters into us and makes us whole, that self-hate and self-contempt disappear, and that our self is reunited with itself. Then we can say that grace has come upon us.

--Paul Tillich

Neurosis is the Avoidance of Legitimate Suffering

A quote I think about a lot in my own life is this one from Carl Jung:

"Neurosis is the avoidance of legitimate suffering."

Life is painful and when I notice something neurotic about my behavior it's often because I'm avoiding something painful.

Borrowing from Jung I often tell my students, "One of the secrets of mental health is learning how to suffer well."

Because what we'd like to do is avoid all suffering and pain. We'd like to avoid the shame of the confession, the entry into rehab or therapy, the request for help. Avoid the grief of loss. Avoid the effects of consequences that are rightly coming our way. Avoid the sting of disappointment in the face of failure. Avoid the hurt in a faltering relationship.

So to avoid the pain we develop neurotic coping mechanisms. We self-medicate. We blame. We distract ourselves. We avoid. We pretend.

We avoid legitimate suffering by burying it under neurotic symptoms. Rather than suffering directly we suffer indirectly through symptoms of neurotic avoidance.

So I tell my students:

"Life is going to hurt at times. And when it begins to hurt don't panic.

Because if you panic and try to avoid the hurt you will often bring more pain into your life than the actual hurt. Don't over-correct in your panic to avoid the pain or you'll drive off the road and crash.

Don't run away from, avoid, deny, repress, mask or medicate your hurt. Just let it hurt.

Let the hurt wash over you like a wave and let it pass.

Because if you fight it, if you try to avoid the hurt, you'll stop living.

You'll stop being fully present in the moment, always insulating and protectively distancing yourself.

That, or you'll become frozen in time by hurt you are unwilling to face or feel.

You'll start becoming a bundle of neurotic symptoms used to protect yourself from the pain and risk of living.

So learn, my dear students, learn to suffer well."

Down By the Riverside / Ain't Gonna Study War No More

Last week I wrote about a "Bus Ride to Justice" experience where twenty Church of Christ preachers--half black and half white--toured and experienced sites from the American civil rights struggle, all with an eye on the racial issues currently facing America.

At the end of that post I shared a native audio recording that captured Brother Jerry Taylor leading our group in a spontaneous rendition of "Down By the Riverside."

A few friends and readers were unfamiliar with "Down By the Riverside," and given the poor quality of the recoding it's hard to make out some of the lyrics. But the lyrics are profound and shouldn't be missed. So here they are:
"Down By the Riverside"

Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Ain't gonna study war no more.

I ain't gonna study war no more,
I ain't gonna study war no more,
Study war no more.
I ain't gonna study war no more,
I ain't gonna study war no more,
Study war no more.

Gonna lay down my burdens
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Gonna lay down my burden
Down by the riverside

I ain't gonna study war no more,
I ain't gonna study war no more,
Study war no more.
I ain't gonna study war no more,
I ain't gonna study war no more,
Study war no more.

Unpublished: The Seventy Weeks Prophecy

In the prison bible study I lead we've been working through the book of Daniel and we finally came to the contentious seventy weeks prophecy found in Daniel 9.24-27.

At the start of chapter nine Daniel is praying, inquiring about the fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy (Jer. 25.11-12; 29.10) that Israel's exile in Babylon would last for 49 years.

As Daniel sees it, those 49 years seem to have passed. Thus Daniel's prayer.

The answer comes from the angel Gabriel in Daniel 9.24-27 who says the exile will last not "seven weeks" of years (7 x 7 = 49 years) but "seventy weeks" of years (70 x 7 = 490 years).

In short, the exile will be much longer than expected.

Gabriel's prophecy goes on to describe how after this time the exile will end with the coming of the Messiah (the "anointed one") along with a bunch of other stuff.

Critical to the timing of this prophecy is determining when the clock is to have started on the 490 years. In Daniel 9.25 the "start date" seems to be the decree that was given to restore and rebuild Jerusalem: "So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem..."

So when did that happen?

Opinions vary. It could have been with the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 1.1-4) which is dated around 538 BC. Or it could be the decree of Artaxeres (Ezra 7.8-26; Neh. 2.1-10) dated around 458 BC.

Many like to go with the 458 BC date because if you count the 490 years from that date you get to around 32 or 33 AD, very close to the crucifixion of Jesus.

This calculation suggests to many Christians that the seventy weeks prophecy is fulfilled by Jesus. However, as I mentioned above, there's a lot of other stuff mentioned in the seventy weeks prophecy that is confusing and/or hard to reconcile with the life and ministry of Jesus. As I've written about before, the eschatology of my faith tradition, the Churches of Christ, has been preterist. That is to say, we like to see all biblical prophecy fulfilled by the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. What follows, then, is a preterist reading of the seventy weeks prophecy.

Here is the seventy weeks prophecy (from the New American Standard):
Daniel 9.24-27
[24] “Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place. [25] So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress. [26] Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined. [27] And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.” 
In this reading we take 9.24 to be a guiding statement, that within the span of seventy weeks (490 years) a variety of things will happen. Specifically, during this span Israel and Jerusalem will "finish the transgression." This finishing of transgression will "make an end of sin." It will also "make an atonement" that will bring about "everlasting righteousness."

In 9.26 we read that the Messiah (literally "the anointed one") will be "cut off." We also read in 9.27 that the Messiah will "make a firm covenant" and will "will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering."

In all of this we can see a thread of interpretation that suggests that the crucifixion of Jesus is what is being referred to here. Israel will "finish the transgression" in "cutting off the Messiah." This will result in "atonement" and the dawn of "everlasting righteousness." In the ministry and death of Jesus we also see the inauguration of the new "covenant" and the end of the sacrificial system.

How does the timing of all this work out given the references to things like "sixty-two weeks" and "the middle of the week"?

Okay, 9.24 says that from "the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah" that "there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks." Seven weeks plus sixty-two weeks is sixty-nine weeks. That's 483 years.

If we go with the start date of 458 BC and add 483 years we get to 25 AD, the end of the sixty-ninth week. The Messiah comes, then, during the seventieth week, which goes from 26 to 33 AD. In short, the seventieth week seems to encompass the public ministry of Jesus as recounted in the gospels. And during the seventieth week the prophecy predicts that the Messiah will be killed or "cut off." And that does happen to Jesus.

We go on to take 9.27 to be a commentary about other events that are to happen during the final, seventieth week: "And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering." What does it mean, then, that Jesus puts "a stop to sacrifice" in "the middle of the week"?

The "middle of the week" could refer to three and half years (given that a full week would be seven years). Thus, the middle of the seventieth week would be between 28 and 29 AD, right around the start of Jesus's ministry. You could argue that the inauguration of Jesus's public ministry with his baptism in the Jordan ended the necessity of Temple sacrifice and the start of the new covenant with Jesus's Kingdom declaration. After his baptism Jesus forgave sins directly--"the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins"--rendering the Temple obsolete. This was, we know, the most controversial aspect of Jesus's ministry, his assault upon the Temple and its sacrificial system. So maybe this is what it means that Jesus put a stop to sacrifice in the middle of the seventieth week.

All this material regarding Jesus can be made to hang together in Daniel 9 along with the historical dates.

However, the problem comes with the fact that, mixed in with these references regarding events in the life of the Messiah during the seventieth week, there are also references to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem which happened later in AD 70:
9.26
...and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined.

9.27
....and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.
Now, Jesus uses this language of "desolation" and "abomination" (from here and elsewhere in Daniel) to prophecy about destruction of Jerusalem in his Olivet Discourse (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21). The trouble is, the destruction of Jerusalem happened in 70 AD, 37 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. This seems to push the destruction of Jerusalem past the end of the seventy weeks (which by our calculation would have ended in 33 AD).

A possible solution is to see Jesus's Olivet Discourse as an extension or addendum to Daniel's seventy weeks prophecy, in the same sort of way Daniel extended the prophecy of Jeremiah. Jesus reaches back to Daniel in the Olivet Discourse and pushes parts of the prophecy slightly forward in time, with judgment still upon "this generation."

Alternatively, in 9.24 it says that during the seventy weeks Israel will (in the NASB) "finish the transgression, to make an end of sin." An alternative reading of "to make an end of sin" is "to seal up sin." As Jesus says in a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem "all the blood" from Cain to the present would fall upon "this generation." In short, all the sins of Israel were "sealed up" and "finished" at the time of Jesus's Olivet Discourse when judgment was formally pronounced.

Seen that way, judgement upon Jerusalem comes from within the seventy weeks. That prophecy is "sealed" during the seventy weeks (9.24: "Seventy weeks have been decreed...to seal up prophecy"). That seal is then broken in 70 AD per Jesus's Olivet Discourse.

--an unpublished post, obviously, about the Seventy Weeks Prophecy. Why was it unpublished? Because after I wrote it I couldn't tell if any of it was insightful or utter rubbish. So readers be warned.

Bus Ride to Justice: Toward Racial Reconciliation in the Churches of Christ

Recently it was a great honor and privilege of mine to participate in an experience called "Bus Ride to Justice." This bus ride was the dream of Dr. Jerry Taylor, my colleague at ACU, and Jonathan Storment, the pulpit minister the Highland Church of Christ where I attend. Our host for the Ride was David Fleer from Lipscomb University. And on the eve of the trip we were kindly treated to a barbecue dinner at Lipscomb given by the Hazelip School of Theology.

On the "Bus Ride to Justice" were ten black preachers from the Churches of Christ and ten white preachers from Churches of Christ. The two day Ride would take us through pivotal Civil Rights sites in Birmingham, Montgomery, Tuskegee and Selma. The goal of the Ride was to begin friendships and to initiate conversations between us about the racial issues facing America and our congregations.

I'd like to share a couple of personal highlights from the Ride.

In Montgomery David started us off downtown at the train station where slaves were unloaded during the years of the American slave trade. From there we walked to a historical marker just outside Bryan Stevenson's Equal Justice Initiative. (Many readers will be familiar with Bryan's best-selling book Just Mercy and his TED talk which has over two-million views.) The historical marker in front of the EJI gives the history of the slave trade in Montgomery and marks the location where slaves were warehoused after they were taken off the trains.

From there we walked uphill along Dexter Avenue, climbing toward the Alabama State Capital where only few months ago Confederate flags flew proudly on the grounds, just recently removed after the tragic shooting in Charleston. Along with the Capital tall corporate and government buildings cast shadows on a smaller brick building. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Home church to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the headquarters of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the protest that kicked off the American Civil Rights struggle.

One of the most amazing theological sights in all of America is to stand on the steps of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and to stare around at the surrounding buildings, soaring edifices to economic and political power. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church is literally on the front steps of the Capital, birthplace of the Confederacy where Jefferson Davis delivered his inaugural address.

Standing on the steps of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church I looked up at the tall buildings casting their shadows down on the small church.

"Our battle is not against flesh and blood," the words of Ephesians 6 echoed in my mind as I scanned the heights of the Capital and the surrounding buildings, "but against principalities and powers, against spiritual forces of wickedness in high places."

After spending the night on the campus of Tuskegee University, home of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, the next day we were honored and blessed to spend time with Fred Gray, outside of Thurgood Marshall the most significant civil rights lawyer in American history. Brother Gray represented both Rosa Parks and MLK during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He also represented the Freedom Riders and the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights marchers. Brother Gray also represented the men in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

Beyond his influential work with civil rights litigation Brother Gray has also been a preacher in the Churches of Christ. While serving as the preacher for the Tuskegee Institute Church of Christ in 1974 Brother Gray helped integrate his largely black congregation with the largely white East End Church of Christ.

And finally, the most impactful aspect of the Bus Ride for Justice, for me at least, were the two evenings where we shared during deep dinner conversations. After each of the two days experiencing the civil rights sites we broke up into smaller discussion groups at dinner, a mixture of white and black preachers. Our conversations were wide ranging. We discussed everything from the current racial tensions in America--from Ferguson to Charleston--to our increasingly segregated schools and cities to how they, as preachers, might speak into the hearts and minds of their congregations on all these topics.

The problems facing us are huge, complex and daunting. And I will not suggest that our conversations came to any solutions.

But in a very real sense, our time together was the solution. Or at least the beginnings of it. Black and white. All followers of Jesus. We rode together. Walked together. Laughed together. Shared rooms and bread together. We listened to each other. We prayed for each other.

And we sang together.

The morning we were in Tuskegee we found ourselves with a few minutes to kill before our meeting with Fred Gray. We walked over to the TU chapel and found that we had the space to ourselves. We sat in the pews to enjoy the architecture and air conditioning.

And then Brother Jerry started to sing. And soon twenty preachers and one psychologist began to join in. We're Church of Christ people, so singing a capella in a church is something we do naturally.

It was a magical moment. Holy ground. I felt blessed to be there. Thankful, in the midst of America's racial strife, that my small tribe, the Churches of Christ, had brought us all together.

As we sang I pulled out my iPhone, placed it on the pew beside me and pushed the record button.

I wanted to remember that moment. I wanted to remember following Brother Jerry's lead.

I wanted to remember our voices, black and white, singing in harmony.



[Album art picture courtesy of Matt Pinson taken during our Bus Ride to Justice.]

Superfluity of Naughtiness

I've been using the King James Version in my personal devotional reading and carrying the KJV to bible class.

For sheer poetry, especially in the Psalms, the KJV is hard to beat. But the KJV can also be delightfully quirky.

For example, a few months ago at church our bible class was studying the book of James. During one of the classes my friend Kregg, who is also fond of the KJV, read aloud this passage from James 1.21:
Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. 
Goodness, translation-wise it doesn't get any better than superfluity of naughtiness. I keep trying to figure out how to use this phrase...

"Boys, your mother and I are going out. While we are gone I don't want any superfluity of naughtiness." 

"Class, during the test I don't want any cheating or superfluity of naughtiness. Keep your eyes on your own test."

BTW, if you're interested in reading or using the KJV let me recommend to you the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible. It is very difficult to get a KJV in a paragraph format. This edition gives you that. Plus, this edition removes the italics font from the KJV (which I find distracting) and adds quotation marks to set off dialog (unlike the original KJV which uses capital letters to set off dialog). Finally, this edition updates archaic spellings. You can also get it with the Apocrypha. All in all, the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible is the best reader's version of the KJV on the market.

The Gospel According to Ta-Nehisi Coates: Part 6, Struggle, Love and the Kingdom of God

This will be the last post in this series interacting with Ta-Nehisi Coates's new book Between the World and Me. As a reminder, these posts aren't a book review or a summary of the book. These posts are mainly intended to sow some interest in the book with the hope that you'll read it. And to selectively pick locations in the book where some theological intersections might be explored.

As I said in the very first post, I picked the word "gospel" for this series because I saw some intersections between Between the World and Me and Jesus's gospel proclamation that the kingdom of God "is in your midst." In this last post I'd like to sketch out those connections.

As I've mentioned a couple of times in these posts, Coates's book doesn't sing a song of hope. Nor does it paint of picture of peace, harmony and racial reconciliation.

Some of this pessimism has to do with metaphysics, Coates's atheism. But most of the pessimism (and/or realism) is rooted in Coates's skepticism about white America's ability to wake up from the Dream. This is coupled with Coates's reluctance to waste black bodies and lives, as was done the the American Civil Rights movement, to rouse the compassion or prick the conscience of America. Which leaves us in a pretty dark and pessimistic place. No spoilers, but Between the World and Me ends on a somber note. There's no rainbow at the end.

So where's the good news?

If there is a "positive" message in Between the World and Me it can be found in two lessons Coates tries to communicate to his son, themes he returns to over and over.

These lessons are struggle and love.

In the first post I mentioned the focus on struggle. Without a clear and hopeful vision of the future, and no good options to make it all come out right, over and over in the book the consolation Coates comes back to is the consolation of the struggle itself:
"[T]he struggle, in and of itself, has meaning." (p. 69)

"Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about this world is meant to be." (p. 71)

"You are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life." (p. 97)

"The struggle is all I have for you because it is the only portion of this world under you control." (p. 107)
As I noted in the first post, this focus on the intrinsic meaningfulness of the struggle--"The struggle, in and of itself, has meaning"--gives Between the World and Me an existential texture. It reminded me a great deal of Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus.  

The difference is that with Coates there is more in Between the World and Me than the solitary consolation of the struggle. There is also community, solidarity and love. As Coates writes, "I didn't always have things, but I had people--I always had people." (p. 88, emphasis in original).

Coates describes finding community and love in many places in Between the World and Me. The most obvious place is the love he has for his son. If God shows up anywhere for Coates in Between the World and Me it's with the birth of his son (p. 67): "There was before you, and there was after, and in this after, you were the God I'd never had."

Beyond family and the community he experienced in college, Coates also describes the community and solidarity blacks naturally share. Recall from Part 2 that Coates rejects the belief that race has any biological meaning. There is no such thing as race, only superior versus subordinate power relationships.

And yet, Coates notes that America did, in fact, create a race. America created the race we call "black." But it's not a race rooted in biology. It was a tribe bonded together through a shared experience of suffering. A race of the oppressed. To identify as "black" is to say nothing about biology but to place oneself within a specific history and legacy of shared suffering.

Describing this, Coates writes about bumping into a younger black man at an airport (p. 119-120):
I bumped into a young black man and said, "My bad." Without even looking up he said, "You straight." And in that exchange there was so much private rapport that can only exist between two particular strangers in this tribe that we call black...I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do. In America, the injury is not in being born with darker skin, with fuller lips, with a broader nose, but in everything that happens after. In that single exchange with that young man, I was speaking the personal language of my people. It was the briefest intimacy, but it captured the beauty of my black world.
And there is more here than a feeling of solidarity and kinship. Recall in Part 4 how Coates described the vulnerability of black bodies, how society is so organized to expose black bodies to greater harm, violence and risk of death. In the face of this exposure Coates describes how, at various times in his life, he was cared for by others, how his body was protected by others with acts of care and kindness. If only for a moment.

For example, Coates shares a story when he was college and got very sick. A female friend noticed and took care of him, nursing him through the day.  In describing the lessons his friend taught him that day Coates writes (p. 60-61):
She taught me to love in new ways...that soft or hard, love was an act of heroism.
I love that line. Love is an act of heroism.

With all this in front of us I want to end by making some comparisons with the "good news" that Jesus proclaims in the gospels regarding the kingdom of God.

Recall, Jesus was an oppressed person speaking to an oppressed people, to a people living under the power of Imperial Rome. Jesus comes to his oppressed people and proclaims to them "good news" that "the kingdom of God is in your midst."

What was Jesus talking about?

To start, as we noted in Part 2 Jesus's kingdom was for the most oppressed and marginalized in his society, aimed at the most fragile bodies in the Empire. Where Coates speaks about the struggle liberation theologians would speak of a preferential option for fragile bodies

So, what was Jesus saying would be "good news" for fragile bodies?

Well, Jesus didn't lead everyone out into the desert to wait upon God to swoop down from heaven to save them. Some self-proclaimed Messiahs did that. Jesus didn't.

Nor did Jesus tell his people to waste their precious bodies in fighting against or protesting against the abuses of Rome. That was what some self-proclaimed Messiah and the zealots wanted to do. Jesus didn't.

(To be fair, I don't know how much Ta-Nehisi Coates would agree with Jesus on the whole "turn the other cheek" thing, but I'd like to argue that they both seem interested in the same outcome: protecting precious bodies from the violence of Empire.

Specifically, Jesus's teachings about non-violence weren't aimed at activists leading protests. Sorry Gandhi and MLK. Jesus's teachings were aimed at regular people who, in going about their day, would be suddenly confronted with Imperial power. Akin to, say, a police officer pulling over a black driver. And one could make the argument that Jesus's teachings were less about morality than helping that man or woman survive the encounter, how to protect the body from the violence of Empire.)  

So if the kingdom wasn't looking for a rescue from heaven or throwing the body into the maw of Imperial power by protesting and fighting, what did Jesus's kingdom look like?

It looked a lot like how the Pharisees were trying to live within the Empire, but with a critical difference. The Pharisees created communities centered around the synagogue and the teaching of Torah. Carving out of Empire space for a Torah-observant and Levitically "pure" community.

Jesus, by contrast, created communities centered around giving care to the most vulnerable in his society. Jesus carved out of Empire space that protected and cared for the most fragile bodies. That's what Jesus did as he moved from town to town, he created a community where the most oppressed and marginalized were welcomed and cared for. Communities of care that were open to agents of Empire, tax collectors and Roman soldiers, who were willing to work to buffer fragile bodies.

And this is what the early church did as well. The church carved out of Empire communities of care. Imperial Rome knew Christianity to be religion popular with women and slaves because of how these communities buffered their fragile bodies from the ravages of Empire.

To my eye, these communities of care carved out of Empire are what Jesus meant when he said "the kingdom of God is in your midst."

The kingdom of God is found in communities of care who struggle to carve out space in the midst of Empire to embrace, care for and protect the most fragile bodies.
  
And if there is such a thing as "the gospel according to Ta-Nehisi Coates" to be found in Between the World and Me here is where I think we might find it.

The Gospel According to Ta-Nehisi Coates: Part 5, Guilt, Grace and the Powers

There is very little in Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me about "racial reconciliation" or forgiveness. Given the history of oppression, exploitation and plunder it's not black America's job to extend that olive branch.

And yet, here and there in Between the World and Me Coates talks about issues of guilt and forgiveness in ways that do connect with Christian theology.

In the wake of the deaths that have rocked the nation--from Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown to Eric Garner--America has tended to approach and react to each incident as a moral drama. And the focus in this moral drama, as it plays out on social media and cable TV, is to debate and determine who was right and who was wrong. Who was at fault? Consequently, everyone rushes to pick sides and locks onto the parts of the emerging narrative that confirm how we'd like to assign blame, guilt and responsibility.

Who was to blame in Ferguson a year ago? Darren Wilson or Michael Brown? We enter the moral drama playing out on social media and cable TV to debate and assign the blame.     

According to Coates, framing these incidents as isolated moral dramas taking place between two persons is a profound missing of the point. These aren't moral dramas or theaters of virtue. These deaths are, rather, the predictable outworking of a system that places black bodies at greater risk. To focus on who should have done this or shouldn't have done that in the drama--to debate who was more at fault--misses the heart of the issue, the systemic and structural forces at work in the background.

Coates is willing to admit that black persons make mistakes in these incidents. As we noted in Part 4, Coates tells his son that he will make mistakes (p. 95):
But you are human and you will make mistakes. You will misjudge. You will yell...Not all of us can always be Jackie Robinson--not even Jackie Robinson was always like Jackie Robinson. 
This is the same point I made in my recent post "Black Heroism and White Sympathy." Our empathy in these incidents cannot be contingent upon the innocence and heroic saintliness of the victim. That's an impossible standard. Not even Jackie Robinson was always like Jackie Robinson. 

So Coates is willing to admit error on the black side of the ledger. His outrage doesn't require the innocence of the victim. Because the guilt or innocence of the victim is missing the point. Coates writes (p. 131):
Michael Brown did not die as so many of his defenders supposed. And still the questions behind the questions are never asked. Should assaulting an officer of the state be a capital offense, rendered without trial, with the officer as judge and executioner? It that what we wish civilization to be?
Some readers may want to debate that question, but I'm bringing it to your attention to show how Coates deflects attention away from the moral drama toward the systemic and structural background.

And if Coates marginalizes the guilt of the victim he also does this for the police officer. Blaming the police officer as a rouge actor, like blaming the victim, is missing the point.

Which brings us to the observation I want to make about guilt and forgiveness, a point I made last year in my post "More Than Three Minutes: Resistance and Grace in Ferguson."

Because the guilt of the police officer isn't the critical issue there is no pressing need to forgive the police officer. Why? Because forgiving (or not forgiving) the police officer doesn't change the system. Again, the issue isn't moral, it's systemic.

For Coates, to focus on forgiveness is to keep our attention fixated on the moral drama. Our attention should, rather, move away from the guilt or innocence of the actors in the drama to focus on the social forces that regularly produce these lethal outcomes. Our attention should be upon those social forces and fixing them.

In reflecting upon the death of his friend Prince Jones, who in 2000 was shot by a police officer sixteen times, Coates writes (p. 78):
I know that I have always felt great distance from the grieving rituals of my people, and I must have felt it powerfully then. The need to forgive the officer would not have moved me, because even then, in some inchoate form, I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.
As Coates goes on to describe, the shootings and deaths that have unsettled the nation are not the product of a few bad police officers but the outworking of policies that reflect the democratic will of America:
At this moment the phrase “police reform” has come into vogue, and the actions of our publicly appointed guardians have attracted attention presidential and pedestrian. You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. 
The problem isn't with the guilt or innocence of the police officer. Or the victim. The problem is with the democratic will that creates policies that produce these lethal outcomes, along will a collective unwillingness to confess that connection (the "apparatus of innocence" we discussed in Part 3).

Our job, to bring us to the theological point I want to make, is to reckon with how America focuses on the sins of the actors to persistently overlook our collective sins and how those sins bring into existence and orchestrate these lethal encounters. 

When a police officer and a black teen make contact in a ghetto in America--as two deeply flawed human beings--there is a long, long backstory that tips that encounter--and plays upon their personal flaws--toward fear, suspicion and lethality. And to focus on the moral drama of the officer and the teenager--to focus on their mutual flaws--is to miss how the nation is complicit in tipping that encounter toward death. For over two centuries that encounter has been flowing, inexorably and predictably, toward tragedy.

In Ephesians 6 St. Paul says that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and powers, against forces of wickedness in high places. This shifts our focus away from flesh and blood to place judgment upon the principalities and powers, similar to what Coates does in Between the World and Me. Such a shift looks past the moral failures of individuals to focus on systemic and structural sins. Which creates room for a more gracious response to the actors in the drama, grace for the mistakes made on both sides.

But the price of that grace is a much harsher indictment of our collective sins. And that is a price we're not willing to pay.

We'd much rather blame and scapegoat the actors of the moral drama. Laying upon them the sins of us all.

Part 6

Unpublished: Why Are There Few Progressive Mega-Churches?

It's often been observed that conservatives do church better than liberal/progressive Christians. For example, conservative mega-churches are a dime a dozen. But progressive/liberal mega-churches? How many of those exist?

This isn't to say that mega-churches are a sign of spiritual health, just an observation that conservative Christians express their faith by gathering together in a way that progressive Christians do not. Relatedly, many high profile voices within progressive Christianity do not go to church.

Church it seems, at least in it's traditional expression of gathering on Sunday mornings, is either hard for progressive Christians or is not as valued.

Why is this the case?

I think the some of the answer if found in the work of the psychologist Jonathan Haidt. According to Haidt human societies, large and small, appeal to different "moral grammars" or "moral foundations" in order to make moral and social judgments about what is "right" or "wrong." Haidt's research has identified five general moral foundations: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity.

As observed by Haidt, liberals tend to restrict their moral judgments to the foundations of Care and Fairness. That is to say, liberals tend to judge something as "wrong" if it involves harm (a violation of the Care ethic) or if is unfair/unjust (a violation of the Fairness ethic).

By contrast, conservatives appeal to all five foundations. Beyond issues of harm and injustice conservatives also care about in-group loyalty/solidarity, obeying authority and honoring the holy/sacred.

For our purposes the relevant contrast is how conservatives, by and large, care about group loyalty in a way liberals/progressives do not, or at least not as intensely.  Conservatives tend to be pack animals. Progressives tend to be lone wolves. Conservatives value community and group solidarity. Progressives value autonomy and independence.

Also important here is how conservatives have more respect for authority, giving more deference to traditional cultural institutions like the church.

To be clear, this does not mean that progressives don't value relationality. They most certainly do. What progressives struggle with isn't relationality but with loyalty to a group that is larger than their immediate network of friendships, a group that includes people who might be acquaintances and strangers. And lacking this impulse progressives appear to lack the social dynamic that pulls and holds large numbers of people together. Consequently, church for progressives tends to get no larger than one's immediate network of friendships. More often than not, when progressive Christians describe their "church" they describe shared meals and life with their friends. Which is all to the good, we're just describing the dynamic that seems to be at work.

So is this why we don't find many progressive mega-churches?

--from an unpublished post exploring the psychological dynamics that affect progressive and conservative Christians in relation to church-going

The Gospel According to Ta-Nehisi Coates: Part 4, A Body More Fragile

For me, the most powerful parts of Ta-Nehisi Coates's book Between the World and Me were his reflections upon the vulnerability and fragility of the human body.

Specifically, throughout Between the World and Me oppression, inequity and injustice are consistently described as the degree to which some bodies more than others are exposed to violence and risk. Injustice is this uneven exposure of bodies to harm and death.

For example, reflecting on growing up in West Baltimore Coates writes (p. 17):
To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy...
And later in the book Coates writes to his son (p. 137):
 "[Y]ou are the bearer of a body more fragile than any other in this country."
That's a notion that I think a lot of white people might struggle to get their head around. What does it mean that the body of a healthy black teenager is "more fragile" than any other body in the country?

In the book Coates shares a powerful story that illustrates a part of what he's talking about. In the story Coates had taken his son, who was about five years old, to a movie at a theater on the Upper West Side, a rich part of New York City. After the movie father and son were descending a crowded escalator. Coates's son was moving slower than the rest, a child struggling to keep pace with the adults. And a white women, impatient with his pace, pushed the boy and said, "Come on!'

Coates's temper flared, as every parent can can identify with if a stranger pushed your kid right in front of you. Coates turned and confronted the woman. A crowd gathered and a white man began to yell at Coates, "I could have you arrested!"

As Coates reflects on this event what he's most ashamed of is the error he made. And what error would that be? The error of a black man confronting a white woman in public on the Upper West Side. Coates's reflection, speaking to his son (p. 95):
[M]y greatest regret was that in seeking to defend you I was, in fact, endangering you.

"I could have you arrested," he said...I had forgotten the rules, an error as dangerous on the Upper Wide Side of Manhattan as on the Westside of Baltimore. One must be without error out here. Walk in a single file. Work quietly. Pick an extra number 2 pencil. Make no mistakes.

But you are human and you will make mistakes. You will misjudge. You will yell. You will drink too much. You will hang out with people you shouldn't. Not all of us can always be Jackie Robinson--not even Jackie Robinson was always like Jackie Robinson. But the price of error is higher for you that it is for your countrymen...

...I am ashamed of how I acted that day, ashamed of endangering your body. But I am not ashamed because I'm a bad father, a bad individual or ill mannered. I am ashamed that I made an error, knowing our errors always cost us more.
I don't know if this story will help people in white America gain some empathy for the outrage expressed within the black community over that many incidents that took place over the last year, to say nothing of all the years before. But I found the story very helpful. The issue isn't if in any given situation the black person did or did not "make a mistake." They very well might have made a mistake. As Coates notes, we are all human and we will all make mistakes.

So the issue isn't the mistake, the issue is the uneven cost of the mistakes. And the fact that the cost can be death. A black person making a small mistake--running away, refusing to get out of a car, yelling, stepping away, non-aggressively refusing to obey an order--with white people at the wrong time and place can be lethal. This is a part of what Coates means when he says that black bodies are "more fragile than any other in this country."

Compounding the cost of the mistake, as mentioned in the first post in this series, is that Coates doesn't share the Christian eschatological imagination, doesn't believe in the immortality of the soul or the resurrection of the dead. Our body is the only lifeboat we have. The loss of our body is final and irreversible. Once dead the body gets no second chances. And for Coates this is what makes each body so valuable (p. 103):
The spirit and the soul are the body and brain, which are destructible--that is precisely why they are so precious.
Elsewhere Coates describes the body as a sacred vessel filled with "holy contents," the love, time, care and affection parents, friends and community pour into a body. The body is intrinsically precious, given its biological precariousness, but so are the "holy contents" each body carries. A body carries all the love and care that has been poured into it. Thus the deep and tragic loss when a body is broken and its sacred and irreplaceable contents--the blood along with the freight of love--are spilled onto the ground.

Thus the moral scandal that our society is so organized that some bodies are exposed to harm, injury and death more than other bodies. The scandal that some bodies are more fragile that other bodies. That some bodies--precious and breakable--are placed by society closer to the edge of the table where they are at greater risk to fall, shatter and be lost forever.

Incidentally, how Coates's atheism affects his view of the body is a part of the reason he struggles with the non-violent witness of the American Civil Rights movement. A view which is related to the pessimistic tone the book. Specifically, if there is no guarantee that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice and no hope for resurrection, why would you allow your precious, irreplaceable body to be beaten and placed at risk of death? Why would you give your one and only body to save America, especially given how America has treated you? Why take a beating to save a bully? This is why Coates encourages his son to keep his body clear of the fight. It's too precious to be lost, even in the struggle for justice.

This isn't the place to adjudicate these questions, but I did want to raise the issue. As many Christian thinkers have noted, non-violence flows out of an eschatological imagination. So if you lack or reject that imagination Coates makes a powerful point: Why waste your one and only body to save or convert your oppressor?

On that question Coates and Christianity may part ways. But it should also be noted that there are places in Between the World and Me where Coates expresses admiration, while still perplexed, for the capacities faith creates.

And while there may be important points of contrast here, I do believe Christians will resonate with Coates's claim that being close to our frailty and vulnerability is the route to claiming and recovering our humanity. If anything can convert white America it will be in confronting and embracing our shared vulnerability. In what I think is one of the most theologically profound passages of the book Coates writes to his son (p. 107):
Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their dreams, their lives are also not inviolable. When their own vulnerabilities become real--when the police decide that tactics for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities--they are shocked in a way those of us who were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast in a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.
If you've read any of my three books you know I've written a great deal about this connection, about how a "denial of death"--living as if we are immortal--is associated with a "denial of the body," a lack of empathy for human frailty, weakness and vulnerability. This is why some bodies are pushed out of public view. Black bodies. Aged bodies. Handicapped bodies. Malformed bodies. We lack empathy for these bodies, we blame them for their failures as bodies, because they remind us that we also have a body, that we are not angels, that we are not gods.

In short, there is a connection between love and vulnerability. This is why the kingdom of God is always found among "the least of these." The kingdom is found among those whose bodies are more fragile not because these bodies are more virtuous, holy or saintly. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't.

No, the kingdom of God is found among those whose bodies are more fragile because, as Coates writes, vulnerability brings us closer to the meaning of life which, for Christians, means closer to the meaning of love.

Part 5

The Gospel According to Ta-Nehisi Coates: Part 3, The Dream

Throughout Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about "the Dream" and "Dreamers."

What is the Dream?

Obviously, Coates is saying something about what we call "the American Dream." The idyllic, iconic, suburban Norman Rockwell dream of green lawns, cookouts and white picket fences. But in Coates's hands the emphasis is on the word dream, as in illusory and unreal.

Specifically, the Dream--as in the American Dream--is an illusion, a lie, a deception. The Dream is hiding something. And the Dreamers are those who are committed to this lie.

What is the deception of the Dream?

The Dream, as we noted in the last post, is an apparatus of innocence.

Early in Between the World and Me Coates describes growing up in West Baltimore and being exposed to the visions of the Dream (p. 20):
Somewhere out there beyond the firmament, past the asteroid belt, there were other worlds where children did not regularly fear for their bodies. I knew this because there was a large television resting in my living room. In the evenings I would sit before this television bearing witness to the dispatches from this other world...That other world was suburban and endless, organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and glens.
The young Ta-Nehisi Coates noticed the gap between that other world--the Dream--and his own, and as he grew he began to reckon with an invisible force that kept the worlds stubbornly separate and resistant to any attempts to bring them closer together (p. 21):
I knew that some inscrutable energy preserved the breach. I felt, but did not yet understand, the relation between that world and me. I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape.
What force created these two worlds? And what "inscrutable energy" kept them separated?

The answer to the first question is a history of plunder. And the answer to the second question is the Dream, the apparatus of innocence.

If you've read Coates's essay "The Case for Reparations" you know that he uses the word plunder to describe, as we noted in the previous post, the exploitation of black bodies as America used slavery to secure and expand her empire. Plunder is an apt word as it highlights economic enrichment.

In the early years of the colonies slavery secured the existence of America through tobacco farming. And during the Industrial Revolution slavery made the US an international power through cotton farming. Prior to the Civil War the US produced 60%-70% of the world's cotton, the commodity at the heart of the textile industry, the engine of the Industrial Revolution. Almost all of this cotton picked and processed by slaves.

In short, America's star didn't rise among the nations because of capitalism. American became great because of slavery. America was no Garden of Eden for capitalism. Our "free markets" were erected upon a foundation of slavery.

The history and legacy of this plunder is what created the two worlds described by Coates, the ghettos of his childhood and the suburban heavens he glimpsed on TV.

And the Dream steps in here as the "apparatus of innocence" that forgets the history of this plunder and denies the ongoing legacy of this plunder.

The Dream is the lie that the legacy of enrichment is "behind us," that it's "in the past." The Civil War was won and the slaves set free, right? Slavery is matter of sadness and regret, to be sure, but a matter of history.

The Dream is a denial of an economic legacy.

Coates writes (p. 98):
This is the foundation of the Dream--its adherents must not just believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works. There is some passing acknowledgement of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one's eyes and forgetting the work of one's hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered vision of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. 
There are many techniques used to support the Dream, but the most common one is the simplest, forgetting. Coates again (p. 143):
The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world...To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.
This connection between forgetting and fallibility allows us to conclude with some theological connections.

Specifically, with our robust doctrine of sin and the Fall no Christian should ever defend a mythology of personal or national innocence.

Regarding a mythology pf personal innocence Coates obseves that (p. 97) "There are no racists in America" because the Dreams makes us "obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration."

Regarding national innocence, America is not God's handiwork. As Coates writes (p. 12), "America is the work of men." America is "an empire of humans."

Which means that America is saturated with sin. Saturated.

America is the work of men. America is an empire built and sustained by men. Which means we are, everywhere, then and now, dripping and soaked with sin.

This is Christian Doctrine 101.

Sin created the two worlds--the ghetto and the suburb. And sin keeps the worlds separated.

But the Dream--the apparatus of innocence--keeps us from seeing it.

Part 4

The Gospel According to Ta-Nehisi Coates: Part 2, Race, Empire and Domination

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a theory about race.

It doesn't exist.

Throughout Between the World and Me Coates describes how "race" is merely a social construction that justifies oppression, a tool of Empire that makes oppression seem natural, biological, logical and inevitable. Race is used to vanish oppression.

In discussing the phrase "the people" used by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, Coats observes (p. 7):
But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming "the people" has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.
"Black" and "White" is a power relationship. Later in the book Coates describes making this discovery in college (p. 55):
[P]erhaps being named "black" was was just someone's name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah.
And the use of race by Empire, as a tool of exploitation and oppression, is observed throughout history (p. 115):
[T]he history of civilization is littered with dead "races" (Frankish, Italian, German, Irish) later abandoned because they no longer serve their purpose--the organization of people beneath, and beyond, the umbrella of rights.
Of course, race isn't the only way human societies sort themselves into hierarchies. The important part is the sorting.

This dynamic, as social psychologists point out, is an outworking of human nature, our tribal need to denigrate out-group members. If it's not race, it's some other boundary marker. Coates describes his first encounter with gay persons in college and uses that experience to elaborate upon the theme (p. 58-60):
"Faggot" was a word I had employed all my life. And now here they were, The Cabal, The Coven, The Others, The Monsters, The Outsiders, The Faggots. The Dykes, dressed in all their human clothes. I am black, and have been plundered and have lost my body. But perhaps I too had the capacity for plunder, maybe I would take another human's body to confirm myself in a community. Perhaps I already had. Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.
But this social psychological observation does not replace history, how race/hierarchy has been used to create and expand empire. And America is no exception here. Coates writes (p. 8):
Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization...I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. 
But such an honest moral accounting is very, very difficult to do. Why? Coates concludes:
This is difficult [this exceptional moral accounting] because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names.
We'll turn to consider "the fruits of our history" and the "apparatus of innocence" in the coming posts. To conclude this post, the theological connections here should be obvious. The gospel proclaimed by Jesus in his ministry was "good news" for those at the bottom of society along with associated "bad news" for those at the top:
Luke 6.17-26
Looking at his disciples, Jesus said:

“Blessed are you who are poor...
Blessed are you who hunger now...
Blessed are you who weep now...
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil...

But woe to you who are rich...
Woe to you who are well fed now...
Woe to you who laugh now...
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you... 
This flipping of the power relationship is the hallmark of Jesus's gospel and it's what liberation theologians mean when they say that Jesus is "black."

As Coates points out, to say that Jesus is "black" isn't a claim about race.

To say that Jesus is "black" is to make a claim about hierarchy.

Part 3

The Gospel According to Ta-Nehisi Coates: Part 1, Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic, is one of the most prophetic, insightful and unsettling voices on the subject of race in American society. We are still talking about Coates's award-winning essay "The Case for Reparations," which has become required reading in many college classrooms. Consequently, I was looking forward to reading Coates's new book Between the World and Me.

Written as a letter to his son about how to live with a black body in American society--"[Y]ou are the bearer of a body more fragile than any other in this country" (p. 137)--Between the World and Me is powerful, moving, difficult and convicting. The book is required reading for anyone, and this should include every Christian, interested in coming to terms with race in America. 

I'd like to devote a series of posts to Between the World and Me under the title "The Gospel According to Ta-Nehisi Coates." I have three goals for these posts.

The first is personal. I need to process Between the World and Me, intellectually and emotionally. As regular readers know, I blog through books and ideas when I want to work through something.

Second, I'd like Christians, especially white Christians, to read and discuss Between the World and Me and I hope this series of posts makes them curious and interested in picking up the book.

Finally, I'd like to explore theological connections with Between the World and Me. And this bit might need some explaining.

Most of my reading about race in America, though not all, has been from within the Christian tradition and, thus, governed by the Christian imagination. From Martin Luther King, Jr. to Cornel West to James Cone.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is different. Coates is an atheist and he finds himself, as he discusses in Between the World and Me, unmoved by and often disconnected from the consolations of black Christianity, and faith generally. This gives Between the World and Me a grim, existential texture which, I fear, many Christians might struggle with.

To give three examples.

First, Coates doesn't share the Christian eschatological imagination, the hope that "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." According to Coates, that hope might not be realized. There are no guarantees. History might just as likely end up converging on injustice as opposed to justice (p. 28): "My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box."

Consequently, with no assurance of victory or triumph or Happy Ending all that is left is the struggle itself. Thus, over and over in Between the World and Me Coates encourages his son to find meaning in the struggle itself (p. 107): "The struggle is really all I have for you because it is the only portion of this world under your control."

Second, there are no odes to peace, love and reconciliation in Between the World and Me. Some of this is due to the familial frame of the book, a black father writing to his son, but that in and of itself is a part of the message. As a Black person Coates can't change white America, but he's obligated to protect his son.

America is broken, Coates tells his son, but it's not his job, or black America's job, to fix it. Because black America didn't break it. In addition, even if black America felt some responsibility to repair things they lack the power to do so. Consequently, in the final paragraphs of the book Coates writes (p. 151):
I do not believe we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves...[D]o no struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves...
And finally, given his atheism--"But some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms." (p.12)--Coates rejects any appeals to the spirit or soul that minimize the preciousness of the human body. Without eschatological consolation all we have is this one body and this one life. Thus any metaphysical speculation (e.g., going to heaven) that minimizes the inviolable nature of the body is vigorously rejected by Coates (p. 103):
There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthem, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and the soul are the body and brain, which are destructible--that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings.
Because of passages like these I fear many Christians might struggle with Between the World and Me, causing them to put the book down or miss its many important messages. So I'd like to use these posts to explore theological connections with Between the World and Me to facilitate Christian conversation and interaction with the book.

And yet, given Coates's atheism my entitling this series "The Gospel According to Ta-Nehisi Coates" might cause some heartburn. It doesn't seem like there is a lot of "good news" in Between the World and Me. And it might also be a worry that my reading "gospel" into the book is an attempt to tame, tone down or co-opt its message. So let me conclude this first post to explain my use of the word "gospel," especially for readers unfamiliar with Christian theology, and liberation theology in particular.

In the New Testament gospel accounts Jesus of Nazareth comes as an oppressed person to an oppressed people, to Jews living under the oppressions of Imperial Rome. A parallel between Rome and America is made in Between the World and Me (p. 144).

And stepping into this oppressed context Jesus comes proclaiming "the gospel" that "the kingdom of God is at hand." And importantly for our purposes, Jesus's "good news" of the kingdom wasn't an other-worldly realm the Jews would fly off to. The Kingdom, Jesus said, was here, in this world, "in our midst."

And while there will not be complete agreement between Coates and Jesus on the nature of the kingdom there are, in the midst of many differences that shouldn't be ignored on either side, points of connection. And I'd like to use these posts to sketch out some of those connections.

Part 2

Unpublished: Is the Father's Love Stronger Than Death?

A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, "I want my share of your estate now before you die." So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.

A few days later the younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land and there he began to waste all his money in wild living.

Some thieves in the city heard about the money the young man was spending. So one night they attacked the young man when he was alone, killing him and taking all he had. Having told no one where he was from news of the young man's death never reached his hometown.

Years passed.

Each evening the father would scan the horizon, hoping to see his son.

But because he died the son never came home.

--an unpublished parable about salvation and the problem of moral luck, how we need to have an eschatological vision of the Father's love and the prodigal's repentance

That She May Be With Me

God of my ancestors, Lord of mercy,
you who have made all things by your word
and in your wisdom have established humankind
to rule the creatures produced by you,
and to govern the world in holiness and righteousness,
and to render judgment in integrity of heart:

Give me Wisdom, the consort at your throne,
and do not reject me from among your children;
for I am your servant, the child of your maidservant,
a man weak and short-lived
and lacking in comprehension of judgment and of laws.

Indeed, though one be perfect among mortals,
if Wisdom, who comes from you, be lacking,
that one will count for nothing.

Now with you is Wisdom, who knows your works
and was present when you made the world;
who understands what is pleasing in your eyes
and what is conformable with your commands.

Send her forth from your holy heavens
and from your glorious throne dispatch her
that she may be with me and work with me,
that I may know what is pleasing to you.

For she knows and understands all things,
and will guide me prudently in my affairs
and safeguard me by her glory.

--Wisdom 9.1-6, 9-11

Not Like the Gods You Already Know

[The early Christians] believed that it was only when you looked hard at Jesus that you understand what the true God is like.

That's why the stories about Jesus--the four Gospels or good-news books--are quite complicated. They show Jesus not parachuting down from a great height to dispense solutions to all problems or zapping everything into shape like some kind of Superman, but living in the mess and muddle of a very difficult part of the world at an especially difficult moment in its history and absorbing the pain and the shame of it all within his own life, within his own body. The Gospels are challenging. The don't wear their theology on their sleeves. They ask us to come into the world of the story and find out what it's like to live there. Answer: Not very comfortable. But massively transforming if you let the story wash over you.

So let's go back to the first century. The first followers of Jesus (Paul and many others) went out into the wider world with what they insisted was good news: There is a God, but he's not like the gods you know already. He's like--well, he's like Jesus.

--N.T. Wright, from Simply Good News

The Theology of Faërie: Part 6, The Fairy-Story That Entered History

Tolkien gave his lecture "On Fairy-Stories" in 1939. When the lecture was later published Tolkien added an Epilogue. Having already talked about the nature of Faërie and the role of Recovery, Escape and Consolation in fairy-stories, we'll turn in this final post to the Epilogue.

Recall, the author of a fairy-story is engaged in the task of what Tolkien calls sub-creation, the creation of a Secondary World. For that Secondary World to be the world of Faërie it must be enchanted. And by enchantment we mean a world that displays the characteristics of Recovery, Escape and Consolation.

We experience Faërie when the enchantment allows us to be "startled anew" by the world around us (Recovery). We experience Faërie when the enchantment allows us to commit glorious treachery against "the real world," the revolt of the prophetic imagination in seeing the world not as it is but as it could or should be (Escape). And, finally, we experience Faërie when our imaginations are eschatologically committed to the eucatastrophe, faithfully vigilant in anticipating the "turn" in the story, the experience of sudden, unexpected and miraculous grace (Consolation).

When crafted well the Secondary World of Faërie gives rise to Secondary Belief, beliefs in the enchantments of Faërie, the beliefs we've just described.

But all that raises the question, how do these Secondary Beliefs relate to the Primary World, the world we live in? It's all very well and good to have tea with Mr. Tumnus in Narnia. Or go on a quest with Gandalf in Middle-Earth. But what do the enchantments of those worlds have to do with our own?

Put bluntly, is any of it true?

Those are the questions Tolkien tries to address in his Epilogue.

Tolkien begins by arguing that while the author of a fairy-story is creating a Secondary World that world attracts us and moves us because it is, in some form or fashion, participating in the truths of the Primary World. We've experienced the enchantments of Faërie in this world. We experience the enchantment of Faërie whenever we experience the world with awe, wonder and holy surprise. We experience the enchantment of Faërie whenever we look past the violence, brokenness and ugliness of the world to envision a New Creation. We experience the enchantment of Faërie whenever an experience of fleeting Joy renews our stubborn commitment to hope in the eucatastrophe of grace.  

Tolkien writes:
Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: “inner consistency of reality,” it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.” That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.
But beyond this, that we find Secondary Worlds believable insofar as they are tapping into a truth about the Primary World, Tolkien goes on to say that something happened in the Christian story that has affected the relationship between Faërie and Reality.

Specifically, Tolkien argues that in the Christian story Faërie became History. The gospel story is the ultimate fairy-story, the ultimate eucatastrophe, but one that happened not in a Secondary World but in this world. Tolkien writes:
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
No doubt, non-Christians and non-believers will have a difficult time swallowing this. And I, personally, don't think it works well as a piece of Christian apologetics.

But what I think is true is Tolkien's claim that Christians do read Faërie into History. As Tolkien writes, Christians believe that in the gospel story "Legend and History have met and fused." Christians read the gospel story as a fairy-story that entered into the primary world. A story of the greatest eucatastrophe, a story that begins and ends in Joy.

For the Christian, the gospel is Faërie. The gospel is the Christian enchantment of the world, the fairy-story we read into History. For the Christian, the enchantment of the gospel is what allows us recover the world anew in wonder, revolt against the violence and ugliness of the world and hope for, in Tolkien's words, "the Great Eucatastrophe."

For the Christian, the gospel throbs as the Heart of History. There one hears glad tidings of great joy. The fairy-story that enchants our world. 
Here the Beaver's voice sank into silence and it gave one or two very mysterious nods. Then signalling to the children to stand as close around it as they possibly could, so that their faces were actually tickled by its whiskers, it added in a low whisper -

"They say Aslan is on the move - perhaps has already landed."