Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Installment 2 -- A BLACK THEOLOGY OF LIBERATION by James H Cone

Free of a very hectic schedule for the past two weeks, it is time to continue interacting with this classic work. In chapter 2, Cone says the "sources" and "the norm" of Black theology find their root in the Black experience. This means that when Whites speak to Blacks about the gospel they present it in light of the social, political and economic perspective of Whites. As such, they speak from the historical position of the oppressor rather than the oppressed.

Jesus, on the other hand, sided with the downtrodden and marginalized. Therefore, we should view him as "Black" and not "White," i. e. one who stands with the oppressed and offers them hope of liberation.

Cone says the purpose of Black theology is to make sense of the Black experience. For Cone, writing in the 1970s, this meant more than release from sin and the promise of heaven, but political, social and economic opportunity as well. While he recognized Martin Luther King's contributions, Cone believed that violence can be a effective tool to bring about liberation. One wonders whether Cones still holds this position 40 years later.

Cone identifies revelation, scripture and tradition as "sources" for Black theology. His then defines "norm" as the hermeneutical principle by which one interprets the sources. As such, we must read Scripture through the lenses of those who gave it and those who received it--namely the oppressed. Any other reading distorts its meaning and relevance. We must not read Scripture from the perspective of the Egyptian taskmasters or Roman imperialists.

The problem of course is that in time the oppressed become the oppressors who distort and use the Scripture to support their own ends, e.g. the "Christian" slave owners in the pre-Civil War era.

This has been a good chapter, and is especially relevant since hermeneutics remains at the center of most theological controversies in the 21st century.



Thursday, July 17, 2014

Immigration Makes Salvation Possible

Jesus was an immigrant. He and his family left their homeland and crossed the border into Egypt in order to escape Herod's hit squad. 


Had Jesus not escaped, He would have been one of the innocents who was murdered.


This means that immigration played an essential role in salvation history.


In fact, others in his ancestral line were immigrants who advanced salvation history. Think of Naomi and her family who moved to Moab, where her son married Ruth. Then the widowed Ruth, in turn, migrated to Bethlehem where she met Boaz and gave birth to Obed, the grandfather of King David, who fathered the royal line leading up to Jesus.


Without immigration there would have been no messiah and no salvation.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A KINGDOM APPROACH TO A CRITICAL PROBLEM

People everywhere are debating about the influx of illegal minors crossing the Texas border. Should they be allowed to stay or should they be sent back to their respective countries?

How should the church address the issue?

First, the churches in America represent the Kingdom of God and not the United States.

Second, the churches must follow the Scriptures, regardless of what the courts, Congress or the President decides. This means churches should open their doors to the strangers and foreigners among us. We should find homes for the migrant children; feed and clothe those who cannot fend for themselves.

The Scriptures are clear that Israel was to care for foreigners and aliens in their midst because they were once in the same boat in Egypt.

Here are a few of the many scriptural references:

“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 22:21 ESV

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV

“If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. Leviticus 25:35 ESV

“He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” Deuteronomy 10:18 ESV

“You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the sojourners who reside among you and have had children among you. They shall be to you as native-born children of Israel. With you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.” Ezekiel 47:22 ESV

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” Zechariah 7:9-10 ESV

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness...against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” Malachi 3:5 ESV

Should the church do any different?

Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Matthew 25:35 ESV

The writer of Hebrews exhorts, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Hebrews 13:2 ESV

The church needs to be proactive. Consider bringing this critical issue to your church board. Suggest that it adopt one of these little strangers in our midst. There are people in our congregations who are willing to open the doors of their homes and hearts. This is an opportunity to do something that is part of God’s kingdom agenda (Luke 4:18‒21).

When the lost in your community see the love of God in action in real time, they will get a glimpse of the Kingdom. 

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

The Gospel of the Kingdom Solves the Problem of Syncretism on the Mission Field

I just had a good email conversation with Mike Boyett, a pastor in Mississippi and former missionary about my book “Heaven on Earth” and its practical implications for missions and church discipleship. He said that while he was on the mission field he became “very concerned with what was being proclaimed and believed as the Gospel. I began to realize that what was being lived out—the dependency, the syncretism, the sacred/secular divide—was the inevitable consequence of what was taught (or not taught) by the missionaries. As I focused my reading to deal with many topics related to issues we were facing there, I developed a deep concern about how we were "packaging" the gospel message and the tragic neglect (or ignorance) of the Kingdom message that permeates all the Scriptures. I simply couldn't square our message with the sermons the Apostles preached in Acts nor the literary agenda of the Gospel writers.”

His mention of syncretism caught my attention. “Of course,” I thought, “a gospel that deals totally with the future has no relevance for the present situation. The natives will simply incorporate Jesus into their pantheism of gods.”

I wrote him back, and Mike elaborated on the issue, which I believe is so important that I thought you would like to read it too. His ideas are well thought out and clearly stated. His comments are packed with meat, so be prepared to put on your thinking caps. Here they are:

“The reality is that if the trajectory of history, contrary to much salvation preaching today, is from heaven to earth (the Word became flesh, the New Jerusalem comes to earth) rather than away from earth to heaven; and if the eschatological vision is the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2) rather than simply innumerable souls being saved and gathered in heaven, then this has huge implications for the mission of the church. It cannot be reduced simply to sermons and sacraments. People have to eat and work and marry and bring up children and govern their communities, etc. But the implications of the soul centered, heaven oriented message that has been taught to the nations in a hurry (often in a race to "reach" an arbitrary percentage of the population so Jesus will have to hurry up and rapture us) leaves the people wondering if God has much to do with the rest of life till we die. The transformation of culture is talked about but has no real place in the systems of theology that are pre-packaged in the West for mass-distribution abroad by short-term missionaries who are ignorant of the cultures they are in the midst of (I'm actually not as cynical as this sounds).

“Your reference to the end-time Jubilee (page 191) has implications for the priorities and concerns of the people of God today. If we do not have a message that is good news to captives of all sorts and hands that serve them in their need, then, for the perplexing issues people face in this life, they will simply resort to the ways their people have always handled them. Syncretism becomes almost inevitable. Christianity secures for them insurance for life after death, but the ways of their people practiced unthinkingly for generations provides the way to make sense of this life and sort out its problems.

“The eschatological vision given to us in Revelation not only celebrates racial diversity (Rev. 7:9-10), but cultural diversity as well. I simply love the picture of the New Jerusalem where the "nations walk and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.... They will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations (Rev. 21:34-26). This seems to imply that the unique cultures and cultural artifacts of the nations are in some measure transformed and brought as tribute to the Great King. In other words, when the Kingdom of God is embraced as good news, the peoples of the nations, at least in some measure, intentionally and uniquely attempt to craft their life, even in this present age, so as to have an offering to bring to their King. This strikes me as something like the fruit, the overflow of the blessing of Abraham. Syncretism, on the other hand, seems to be about survival in a world full of competing gods and rival kingdoms. Therefore, a compelling, holistic vision of the Kingdom of God contextualized, proclaimed and celebrated as good news, and put into practice is the only hope for the healing of the nations.

“This is simply common sense application of what you wrote.”

These comments were Mike’s reflections on reading HEAVEN ON EARTH: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now.” I hope you will get a copy of the book and give it to your favorite pastor or missionary.

Friday, July 04, 2014

WHAT DOES THE FOURTH OF JULY MEAN TO YOU?

Three groups of settlers came to America: 1) a contingent of 1,500 soldiers from Spain, representing the Spanish government and the Roman Catholic Church landed in 1565 on the northeast coast of Florida and founded the city of Saint Augustine. Their goal was exploration and the prorogation of the Catholic faith; 2) Representatives from the London Company and the Church of England settled in Jamestown, Va in 1607. They were the first to import African slaves to the continent; 3) the Pilgrims arrived in the 1620 and settled the Plymouth colony. They came to escape persecution from the Church of England for their non-conformist beliefs and to secure religious freedom. 

These three groups claimed land for themselves, displacing Native American tribes-often by means of force-that previously lived there.

Each group was a part of a different Christian tradition, but one that was not friendly to the other. Over the next 150 years the religious landscape changed in the colonies with the formation of new movements, sects and denominations such as Unitarians, Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, etc. The land in Florida remained predominately Catholic. But in 1763 England gained control of Florida in exchange for Havana, Cuba, which it had captured from Spain in the Seven Years War (1756-1763).

As people moved and migrated, the American colonies became a hodgepodge of religious expressions. The whole while the slave population exploded.

When the colonists declared independence from England, successfully fought the Revolution and eventually ratified the United States Constitution, they guaranteed "the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." Unfortunately this freedom did not extended to slaves, who were not viewed as persons but property. In fact, "the blessings of Liberty" gave citizens of American the right to own slaves.

On this Fourth of July those of us who are Anglo must never forget that the ancestors of our African American friends, relatives and neighbors had to struggle for nearly 200 more years before the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were applied to them.

Which of these groups do you consider your forefathers? Colonists? Slaves? Native Americans? How you answer this question will likely influence how you celebrate Independence Day?

Thursday, July 03, 2014

CIVIL RIGHTS ACT IS 50 YEARS OLD

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act (July 2, 1964), which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. This was a day of historic proportions for millions of Black Americans who had never experienced equality under the law. In a real sense, it offered them a new beginning.

In another sense, it was a day of condemnation for many Anglo churches of America, especially in the South whose leaders and members denounced the legislation. Some pastors announced from the pulpits, they would not accept people of color into their membership, despite federal law.

Of course, the church established by Jesus was never intended to be segregated by race, social position, gender, ethnic background (Gal 3:28). By definition and nature it was intended to be a reflection and manifestation of the kingdom of God in society.

Had the church maintained a kingdom focus throughout history, egalitarianism would have been a reality wherever local churches were found. In addition the church would have had the moral and prophetic authority to speak the truth to power and call for their respective governmental leaders to implement equality.

Even if the governments refused to heed the call, citizens of those societies would have had at least one place where they could experience equality for all.

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda! But it didn't happen that way.

A new day is dawning. Many millennials have rejected their parents' brand of Christianity. They are starting to catch a vision of what a kingdom-focused church looks like.

For more information on the egalitarian nature of the church, read my book "Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now" (Harvest House).

EMPOWERING KINGDOM GROWTH (EKG)

I just had an hour-long phone conversation with Carlisle Driggers, the architect of the Empowering Kingdom Growth (EKG) initiative in the Southern Baptist Convention in 2002. EKG offered so much promise and a new direction for the SBC. Unfortunately, it was derailed as others sought to implement their own agendas in the Convention.

Had the SBC taken advantage of this unique opportunity to preach the pure gospel of the kingdom and given its time, energy, and funds to the cause, no one knows what God might have done.

Three cheers for Carlisle Driggers, a man captured by the kingdom, who was nearly successful in getting the world's largest denomination to become kingdom-focused.

One day enough young pastors, evangelists, and theologians will discover the kingdom and things will reach a tipping point. When this happens, step back and watch as the kingdom revolution spreads throughout the world.

A good place to start in exploring the meaning of the kingdom is the book "Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now."

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Review, "A Black Theology of Liberation" by James H. Cone - Part 1

I am reading from the 1990, 20th Anniversary Edition. This volume includes a new section that features critical reflections from several theologians who are specialists in the field of Liberation Theology.

A. Preliminary notes for consideration

First, we must understand that Cone, a distinguished professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary (NY), wrote this work at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and from a “black perspective.” This means his book must be read in its socio-political context and from the viewpoint of the black community which has been oppressed and marginalized in the United States for more than two centuries.

Second, the book’s intended audience is the black community and not the Anglo community, which Cone identifies as the oppressors of blacks, either directly or indirectly. Cone voices his frustrations as a Black theologian, knowing he will be misunderstood as he seeks to explain the redemptive nature of salvation history in the terms of an earthly liberation for the subjugated and exploited masses, starting with the Exodus and extending to the present time.

Third, because it was written in 1970, “A Black Theology of Liberation” contains dated materials, although many principles that underlie the book’s premise remain valid. Cone admits, for example, in the Preface of the 20th anniversary edition that his original work was marred by his lack of knowledge regarding the global dimension of oppression, ranging from sexism to colonialism to crony capitalism. He also faulted his methodological dependence on Karl Barth and other continental theologians.  Likewise, he admits that at the time of the writing he na├»vely believed if racial integration succeeded then racism as a practice would fall by the wayside. Obviously, it did not.

In his Preface Cone also explains that he has refused to define the gospel in a non-offensive way, e.g. “Believe in Jesus if you want to go to heaven.” Even a white racist can say “Amen” to that. Rather, the gospel, according to Cone, includes a message of liberation for the oppressed in the here and now, which is very much offensive to the oppressors.

B. Chapter 1 – Summary and Reflections

According to Cone, Christian theology is liberation theology, which sets people free both spiritually and politically. As such, God is the God of the oppressed. This means God is for the oppressed. In an American context, God is for Blacks; hence, the term “Black Theology.” Blackness, however, does not mean Blacks are the only people who suffer from racism. Rather, blackness is an ontological symbol or visible reality of what oppression looks like in America. It stands for all victims of domination and promotes their liberation.

Jesus was and is the great liberator who sets the captives free. Therefore, the gospel of Christ takes on a prophetic role and challenges the social structures that bind people. Since “White Theology” as a whole (whether of liberal or conservative) has supported the political structures of oppression, it is anti-Christ in nature.

Cone rejects the non-violent only approach to obtaining peace and justice for all, believing that the strategy actually undergirds the social and political interests of the White majority. Cone is open to an “all acts” strategy, which includes protest and revolution. One might say he more in line with a “Black Muslim” version of Malcolm X than Martin Luther King.

Thus far, I see two weaknesses in Cone’s orthopraxy, but not his orthodoxy. First, any protestation that includes violence is ultimately doomed to fail. Moses’s use of violence to free his people utterly failed, and set back their liberation by 40 years. Jesus, the definitive example of a liberator, refused to wield the tools of FORCE in order to conquer the oppressors, but instead operated by FAITH. When Rome executed him as a political subversive, it thought it had put an end to the Jesus movement. Three days later, God honored Jesus’ faith and raised him from the dead. Who won the victory—Jesus or Rome? Jesus could not be killed again nor his movement conquered.

Violence may succeed in the short run, but only until the opposition can raise up a new army of followers to fight another battle. This is an undisputed truth of human history. God’s supreme plan for equality, peace and justice (the universal kingdom of God on earth) is based solely on Jesus’ non-violent act of resistance, leading to his death and resurrection. Since God used non-violence to institute his ultimate kingdom, why do we think our violent actions will bring about a permanent end to oppression?

Second, I believe Cone is weak thus far (i.e. chapter 1) in his ecclesiology. The local church is the sphere of the “already/not yet” aspect of the kingdom, where liberation is found and experienced. Regardless of the oppressor—Roman Imperialism, Nazism, Communism, White racism—all in Christ find freedom in the church. This means that although we may be victimized and marginalized in society by inequitable structures, when we come together to eat and worship we are one in Christ. While differences remain— we do not cease to be male or female, bond or free, Jew or Gentile, Black or White—there should be no distinctions among us. In the church we are not only equal “in Christ,” but “in reality.” When this dynamic is present, the church becomes a snapshot of what the future kingdom will be like.

Having said this, I realize this is not normally the case. Unfortunately, most churches reflect the values and structures of the world rather than the kingdom of God.  In my book “Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now” I present a workable model for functioning as a kingdom-oriented church. 

In closing, let me say I personally believe there is a place for public protests or confrontation with the powers who dominate the masses. But these should be non-violent in nature. John the Baptist, Jesus, Gandhi, MLK participated in non-violent demonstrations. The prophet stands up and speaks truth to power and calls for all to repent and submit to the reign of Christ. However, there is a price to pay. The prophet may end up imprisoned or put to death. 

In Democratic nations, rallies, marches, sit-ins, etc. can have a positive effect, drawing press coverage and publicity. They have the potential of raising public awareness and pricking the collective conscience of a society. In democracies Christians have certain rights of free speech, exercise of religion, protests, etc. But what about lands dominated by tyrants, whether ancient Rome or modern-day Yemen or China? Any Christian attempt to protest the government’s policies will be squelched in a moment. Since James Cone has directed his comments toward Christianity in America alone, it may not be fair to call into question the efficacy of his “all acts” Christian strategy in other parts of the world.

This has been a good chapter and has caused me to think through some important issues. James H. Cone pulls no punches. He speaks his mind. He takes the principles of Liberation Theology and applies them to an American context. The result is “A Black Theology of Liberation.”

I will now move on to Chapter 2 and in due time offer my comments as a Facebook post.