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.
James Baldwin’s report on the “occupied territory” of Harlem in 1966 came to mind tonight as I read the reports from Baltimore.
The children, having seen the spectacular defeat of their fathers—having seen what happens to any bad nigger and, still more, what happens to the good ones—cannot listen to their fathers and certainly will not listen to the society which is responsible for their orphaned condition. What to do in the face of this deep and dangerous estrangement? It seemed to me—I would say, sipping coffee and trying to be calm—that the principle of what had to be done was extremely simple; but before anything could be done, the principle had to be grasped. The principle on which one had to operate was that the government which can force me to pay my taxes and force me to fight in its defense anywhere in the world does not have the authority to say that it cannot protect my right to vote or my right to earn a living or my right to live anywhere I choose. Furthermore, no nation, wishing to call itself free, can possibly survive so massive a defection. What to do? Well, there is a real estate lobby in Albany, for example, and this lobby, which was able to rebuild all of New York, downtown, and for money, in less than twenty years, is also responsible for Harlem and the condition of the people there, and the condition of the schools there, and the future of the children there. What to do? Why is it not possible to attack the power of this lobby? Are their profits more important than the health of our children? What to do? Are textbooks printed in order to teach children, or are the contents of these textbooks to be controlled by the Southern oligarchy and the commercial health of publishing houses? What to do? Why are Negroes and Puerto Ricans virtually the only people pushing trucks in the garment center, and what union has the right to trap and victimize Negroes and Puerto Ricans in this way? None of these things (I would say) could possibly be done without the consent, in fact, of the government, and we in Harlem know this even if some of you profess not to know how such a hideous state of affairs came about. If some of these things are not begun—I would say—then, of course, we will be sitting on a powder keg all summer. Of course, the powder keg may blow up; it will be a miracle if it doesn’t.