Self-absorbed Christians who are apathetic toward injustice do not emerge from a vacuum. A deeply segregated church does not appear without history. In the United States, grief and pain related to race are often suppressed, and the stories of suffering are often untold. Our history is incomplete. The painful stories of the suffering of the African American community, in particular, remain hidden. Often, American Christians may even deny the narrative of suffering, claiming that things weren’t so bad for the slaves or that at least the African Americans had the chance to convert to Christianity. The story of suffering is often swept under the rug in order not to create discomfort or bad feelings. Lament is denied because the dead body in front of us is being denied. But the funeral dirge genre of Lamentations 1 requires the telling of the full story of death – the cause of that death, the history surrounding that death and the historical effects of that death – because a dead body cannot be ignored.
In this section of his essay-like commentary on Lamentations, Dr Soong-Chan Rah is reflecting on the imagery of the funeral dirge that is found at the beginning of the book. While the tendency to downplay our country’s historic racist underpinnings may be an understandable American practice, it is a distinctly unBiblical one. For Christians to overlook or deny our ugly history requires ignoring entire sections of the Bible that make practices like lament and repentance normal for those who worship the God of Scripture.
The revolution out of which our tradition came has not ended; it is accelerating. The movement of those forty million Europeans to the North American continent was only the beginning. There is not place on the globe today that can stand secure and changeless. It is all changing. It is changing before our eyes. No one can predict what will happen to global culture in even the near future. If you have come out of the pilgrim tradition of the children of Israel, from Egypt to the promised Land, and have used that magnificent opportunity only to become a Philistine, then take heed. Do you live comfortably behind high walls and bronzed gates, and worship regularly at the altar of Baal? Are you pleased with the prospects of Social Security and a special pension plan, or the apparent security of America’s nuclear deterrent and the overwhelming power of its society and technology? If that provides comfort, then live in fear and trembling, because it will all be taken away from you as surely as the security of our forebears. I proclaim it.
-Zenos Hawkinson in a sermon in 1978. Hawkinson was a history professor at my denomination’s college and he was addressing a people with strong immigrant memories.
We can appropriate and in some fashion use godly powers, but we cannot use them safely, and we cannot control the results. That is to say that the human condition remains for us what it was for Homer and the authors of the Bible. Now that we have brought such enormous powers to our aid (we hope), it seems more necessary than ever to observe how inexorably the human condition still contains us. We only do what humans can do, and our machines, however they may appear to enlarge our possibilities, are invariably infected with our limitations. Sometimes, in enlarging our possibilities, they narrow our limits and leave us more powerful but less content, less safe, and less free. The mechanical means by which we propose to escape the human condition only extends it; thinking to transcend our definition as fallen creatures, we have only colonized more and more territory eastward of Eden.
-Wendell Berry, “Two Economies” (1983).
From Slavery to Reconstruction, from Jim Crow to Donald Trump the black church has trained her members to live biblically and hope-fully in a foreign land. Her preaching has been faithfully biblical. The miseducation of the neo-evangelical black student fails to learn names like Charles Adams, James Perkins, E. K. Bailey, A. Louis Patterson, E. V. Hill and C. L. Franklin. Some in the academy make black preachers to be mere entertainers, jesters of the cultural court. This is both dishonest and irresponsible.
There is this implicit abhorrence for social application of the gospel in the critique of the black church. The witness of black preaching is that our submission to the authority of scripture demands that we engage societal injustice. The black church has not historically engaged in social justice in lieu of the gospel. It does so because of the gospel. My generation will have to give an account for our strange silence in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This is the first time that the black pulpit has not been at the forefront of the moral conversation of systemic injustice against black people in America. The witness of Frederick Douglass, Mary McLeod Bethune, M. K. Curry, Jr., Dr. Martin King, Jr. and countless others is that they edified the church through the exposition of biblical propositions. They taught America to live according to our ‘professed’ Christian ideals.
-My friend, Pastor Charlie Dates, wrote this wonderfully direct and, apparently, necessary apologetic for the Black Church on his church’s blog. While I’m deeply committed to the multi-ethnic church, I am also a happy defender of the African American churches in this country for theological and historical reasons. In fact, without the witness and theological articulation of the churches, our multi-ethnic church would very quickly default to the whiteness of our majority culture.
GROSS: Yeah, well, I think it’s – I think it’s just, like, very perceptive of you to put your finger on the limitations of, like, the need for irony but at the same time, the limitations of irony.
WALLACE: Irony, as far as I could see – and, you know, you can take college courses for three years on just what irony is, so there’s something – I guess I’m going to assume that everybody kind of knows – when David Letterman comes out and draws himself up to his full height and says what a fine crows, you know, echoing the Arthur Godfrey of decades past, that’s the kind of thing that I mean. Irony and sarcasm and all that stuff are fantastic for exploding hypocrisy and exposing what’s wrong in extent values. As far as I can see, they’re notably less good at erecting replacement values or coming any closer to the truth. And the thing about it is they’re a terrific tool and they were used really well. We’re just still using it, it seems to me, as a culture, 35, 40 years after it really had some use.nd the thing about it is they’re a terrific tool and they were used really well. We’re just still using it, it seems to me, as a culture, 35, 40 years after it really had some use.
– Fresh Air interview, 1997.
Almost 20 years after this interview, it seems to me that DFW is even more right about irony and its exhausted limitations today.
1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
-The first two paragraphs from Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home by Pope Francis. I waited for the the hard copy to be published, but you can find the entire encyclical letter online.
But now, more than three years after our first kiss and more than a year after our first time, I’m still not over the possibility of him, the possibility of us. And he has no idea.
I’m told my generation will be remembered for our callous commitments and rudimentary romances. We hook up. We sext. We swipe right.
All the while, we avoid labels and try to bury our emotions. We aren’t supposed to want anything serious; not now, anyway. But a void is created when we refrain from telling it like it is, from allowing ourselves to feel how we feel. And in that unoccupied space, we’re dangerously free to create our own realities.
–Jordana Narin. “No Labels, No Drama, Right?” The New York Times, May 2015.