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Advancement through Education


"For the majority that established the National Baptist Convention, the church was a refuge from a hostile white society. Black Baptists used the philosophy of self-help to survive Jim Crow, preaching a gospel of advancement through education," writes Gary Dorrien in the opening of the sixth chapter of The New Abolition in which he tells the story of the Baptists (chapter five having covered the Methodists).

He begins with William Simmons, who was president of State University (later Simmons University) in Kentucky beginning in 1880 who was a preacher, academic, activist, and journalist.  He wrote, "If the industrial craze be not watched, our literary institutions will be turned into workshops and our scholars into servants and journeymen.  Keep the literary and industrial apart.  Let the former be stamped deeply so it will not be mistaken.  We need scholars."

And Dorrien writes that he was a "feminist activist" recognizing "that women, if organized, could be a source of creativity and power in the church."  This was obviously controversial in the 1880's.  

He was critical of a religion that did not engage the wider society and believed that "Black Baptists were failing at their Christian social ethical mission precisely because they did not work hard enough at attaining power in American society."

Like many of these theologians, he advocated for racial pride and the contributions of African Americans.  He believed they "must possess more intellectual vigor than any other section of the human family or else who could they be crushed as slaves in all these years since 1620, and yet today stand side by side with the best blood in America."


Dorrien also discusses E. C. Morris, another of the founders of the National Baptist Convention.  Morris was a pastor in Helena, Arkansas.  I have visited his grave there.  Local leaders were trying to restore the gravesite and the historic black cemetery which had fallen into neglect and ruin.  

Morris believed that black Baptists were capable of freeing "the millions bound in heathen darkness" because they had already in a short time risen from slavery to vitality.

One reason African Americans had to form their own denominations was the supremacist attitude of white Christians.  Dorrien quotes the Rev. J. W. Ford, a white Baptist, speaking before the American Baptist Home Mission Society in St. Louis in 1890 in which he denounced an effort by the denominational press to publish black ministers.  He thought black ministers should tell their congregations "how to behave and where they belonged."  If they couldn't be trusted to do that then, "The alternative is to elevate or exterminate, to use the Bible or bullet.  There is either one or the other of these alternatives for the black man of the South.  A great national peril calls for a great national movement."  My skin crawls reading this vile filth.

The Free Spirit


Want to quote in full this paragraph from Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition.

As far as DuBois could see, the only Americans who practiced way-of-Christ humility and nonviolence were black Americans.  White Americans asserted themselves and took possession, Du Bois observed.  This was understandable as a rebound from European oppression; moreover, he appreciated that white Americans built up a vital, bustling, prosperous nation.  On the other hand, white American self-assertion was "in many of its aspects a dangerous and awful thing.  It hardens and hurts our souls, it contradicts our philanthropy and religion."  Black Americans had a gift to offer in this area.  It was the gift that black folk had long offered to the New World: "Thus, in singular and fine sense, the slave became master, the bond servant became free, and the meek not only inherited the earth, but made that heritage a thing of questing for eternal youth, of fruitful labor, of joy and music, of the free spirit, and of the ministering hand of wide and poignant sympathy with men in their struggle to live and love, which is, after all, the end of being."

Christ Our Conqueror


Alexander Walters, a bishop in the AME Zion church and one of the founders of the NAACP who was born into slavery, "saw the churches had untapped ability to change society," according to Gary Dorrien.   His career was spent trying to organize a civil rights movement, and he marshaled his theological views to do so.  Dorrien writes:

For Walters, the love ethic of Jesus was perfect, transforming, and universal.  Christ was 'the inspirer of all the reform movements of the world.' Thus Christianity, rightly understood, was essentially progressive, a river of progress. . . . It would probably take another two thousand years for Christianity to reach its highest development and 'conquer all evils,' he figured: 'Christ our conqueror is riding on gloriously and has the ages before Him.'"

Walters preached that "The whole plan of salvation is the complete restoration of mankind to the image of God.  Purity of life is one of the indispensable requisites for happiness and effectual service."

Preachers should teach how Jesus lived--"His self-denial, His meekness, His purity, His blameless life, His spirit of prayer, His submission to divine will, His patience in suffering, His forgiveness of His enemies, His tenderness to the afflicted, the weak and the tempted, and the manner of His death."

In response to their unjust treatment by white people, black Christians needed to learn to agitate--"By wise agitation I mean an intelligent, reasonable, yet manly presentation of the discrimination and outrages to which we are subjected." Had he lived to see the Civil Rights Movement, he probably would have been proud.

"The last spiritual reserves of humanity"

Reverdy Ransom

"To be serious about abolishing racial caste, the new abolitionists had to reach deep into religious communities through which millions of Americans made moral and spiritual sense of their lives," writes Gary Dorrien in the opening of chapter 5 of The New Abolition. In the last chapter, he discussed the founding of the NAACP, now he backs up a few decades to discuss developments in Black Methodism (chapter six covers key figures and events for Black Baptists).  

He introduces Reverdy Ransom.  At his funeral W. E. B. Du Bois proclaimed "He has erected a monument in the history of African Methodism, America, and the world which shall last throughout time and history."  Yet, as Dorrien writes, "Ransom was almost completely forgotten" in the histories of the early civil rights movement.  Dorrien wants to recover him as one of the primary creators of the Black Social Gospel which gave birth to the religious movement for civil rights in the 20th century.

Ransom was born in 1861 "the only child of a powerful, loving woman who assured him he was 'let down from the skies.'"  And he rose to become a bishop in the AME Church.  His mother encouraged education as the way to solve the problem of poverty.

Ransom was one of the first black ministers to begin speaking out about social issues and supporting the anti-lynching movement.  Dorrien writes, "He warned that America could not be truly civilized and savagely terrorize blacks at the same time."

He believed that African-Americans offered a hope for Christianity and the nation.  African-Americans' "deep emotional nature will be the foe of tyranny and oppression and as a religious vehicle will carry the triumph of the King of Kings into the seats of pride and power, and over the dark and barren regions of the globe."

He was a powerful preacher, growing each parish he served through his eloquence and the relevance of his content.  He also guided his churches during the period of the Great Migration, when rural, Southern blacks were flooding northern, industrial cities.  His churches developed many social programs, and he and his wife "shared the life of the urban poor."  Ransom asked the churches, "Shall we sit smug and comfortable in our large churches, or go forth with Jesus Christ into the highways and seek for the sheep that are lost until we find them?"  

When he preached out against gambling; the racketeers dynamited his church.  So the next Sunday he preached "holding a loaded revolver underneath his Bible, taunting from the pulpit, 'Dynamite and violence are a poor answer to an argument.'"

Speaking to the National Reform Convention on the topic of "How Should the Christian State Deal with the Race Problem?" he proclaimed, "There should be no Race Problem in the Christian State."  For "Jesus broke down barriers, treating all human beings alike as human beings."  He denounced Jim Crow as a crime  against "the very life of human spirit" and also unChristian.  He declared that "Christianity will un-Christ itself" if it continued on this white supremacist path.

He advocated a pride of personality "Grounded in the recognition of the divine light within each soul, 'this pride becomes the highest form of meekness which inherits the earth and the heaven, too.'"  Encouraged by the Harlem Renaissance, Ransom declared that "In the highest and best sense, the black people are the only free people in the United States today" because white people were "chained to their prejudices."  Dorrien writes that "Ransom urged that blacks were called to bring white racists to repentance through Christian love, nonviolent protest, and scholarship."  He thought black people were America's conscience and contributed the "peaceable gifts of black soulfulness."  And "Black Christianity modeled what it looked like to take the teaching of Christ to heart."

In 1930 he preached that the white man "only yields or compromises in the face of aggressive, determined, uncompromising power" and never "out of charity or religious feeling."

In 1933 he declared that the white races had failed, they had lost their soul in the oppression of black people.  Therefore, "The African and his descendants are the last spiritual reserves of humanity."

He died in 1959, having long outlived his period of prime influence, dying just as the movement he helped to birth began to achieve the salvation of the country as he had envisioned.

 Incarnate Spirit of Justice was the last post in this series.

What Are People For?

What are People for?: EssaysWhat are People for?: Essays by Wendell Berry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first encountered Wendell Berry in freshman English at OBU. The essay we read seems to be in this volume, "Word and Flesh" (at least this essay makes the same points I remember from 1992). At the time I disagreed with him, particularly that problems, including environmental problems, cannot be approached globally but can only be addressed locally.

I came back to Berry near the turn of the millennium, when I read his poetry and fell in love. The poetry invited me into the essays, and Berry has been one of the most significant influence on my thought.

But his ideas are rarely easy for me. In fact, they are quite difficult. He is not a writer I read for confirmation of my own ideas, but to convict and challenge me. Whenever I read him, I am reminded of my hypocrisies and moral failures.

Back in 2004 I considered following Berry's advice and abandoning my life and career and moving to a poor small town to become a teacher and grow much of my own food. I didn't do that. I came out, and gay life led in a very different direction. Though I did have friends who did something of the sort.

It is exciting in 2017 to see Berry's influence for good upon our culture--the local food movement, more sustainable agriculture, more awareness about food ethics, the various craft movements, etc.

This is one of the essay collections I had long planned to get to. It seems particularly apt in our Age of Trump, even if the essays are from the 70's and 80's. What Berry was warning us about has come to fruition.

I marked up this volume like my adolescent Bible. I will return to it often.

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Culture & the Death of God

Culture and the Death of GodCulture and the Death of God by Terry Eagleton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Based on a Christian Century review that ended with this description--"This is articulate, winsome, and dashing Christian apologetics dressed up as the history of ideas. It’s a sumptuous feast."--I ordered this book last year.

In an enjoyable survey of Western thought since the Enlightenment and its efforts and failures to find a replacement for God, Eagleton narrates how we have arrived at our current moment of a meaningless postmodernism and violent fundamentalism. He does so with intelligence and wit. Reading while flying the other day, I kept giggling at the humourous lines, such as "The first sentence of Fichte's Science of Knowledge declares that the book is not intended for the general public, a warning that the briefest glance at its pages renders instantly superfluous."

Along the way he makes key points such as this in a critique of Matthew Arnold and Emile Durkheim, “The idea of religion as a source of social cohesion receives scant support from the Christian Gospel. By and large, the teaching of Jesus is presented by that document as disruptive rather than conciliatory. . . . Jesus proclaims that he has come to pitch society into turmoil.”

Much like my own thought, and those Don Wester who influenced me, he reads Nietzsche in a way that opens up the possibility for a truly revolutionary Christianity rather than the socially and politically accommodating kind that has traditionally existed, even if this is not at all what Nietzsche had in mind. Basically, it’s a good thing that God is dead—at least the God Nietzsche proclaimed as dead.

For much of the book I was unsure where he was heading, and enjoyed the turn near the end.

But I throughout I thought the book lacking, though finishing I now realize that the missing elements may have been intentional. There is no discussion of key figures who represent an alternative to the main narrative of the book, folks such as Peirce, James, and Whitehead. In other words, those figures who have most influenced my own thought.

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The Bridge on the Drina

The Bridge on the DrinaThe Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More than three centuries of the complex history and cultural mix of Bosnia presented as the story of one bridge and the town that surrounds it. Filled with rich characters, astute observations about life, compelling stories, and beautiful sentences, this novel will remain within my memory and imagination for some time.

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TV (The Book)

TV (the Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All TimeTV (the Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time by Alan Sepinwall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Of course with any book like this you are going to disagree, sometimes heartily. And I do. But, overall, I enjoyed reading it and engaging the perspective of these critics, who have an amazing breadth of knowledge and experience.

I particularly recommend the essays on Roots and the Cosby Show. The latter is a deep examination of the legacy of the show in light of Cosby's later reputation. They ultimately decide that the series, for all of its importance at the time, has become unwatchable, and not just because of his reputation, but because with retrospect some of the situations and storylines seem to be Cosby making light of his sexual predation (read the essay for the details).

I was further moved by the fact that the Cosby Show essay was followed by one on the Andy Griffith Show, which they laud for holding up over time and recommend continue to be watched for its moral lessons.

My biggest complaint about a ranking was how low they put Six Feet Under, which I think among the very best shows I've ever watched.

Another strange facet is how many of the shows I haven't seen. Back in 1999 when all the list-making was going for the 20th century, I had seen at least some of almost every show that would have appeared on a list like this, precisely because most of them appeared on broadcast with the old ones in reruns (I did make my own list at the time, lost to the pre-blogging era). But for much of the golden age of cable TV shows, I have not had cable, and so many of the highly regarded shows of the last two decades, I have not seen.

But a further point on that. In 2015 I began watching The Wire, which ranks third on their list. I admired the quality of it, but eventually quit watching somewhere in the third season because I decided that I simply didn't want to watch such violence--I didn't want the negativity in my life.

High on their list are the series of cable shows in recent decades which have been about antiheroes or violent situations--The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, etc. But often such shows hold little appeal for me. I really don't feel the need to repeatedly encounter the darker sides of the human experience.

Now, in my twenties, I would have criticized my mother for saying something similar. I guess I've changed as I've aged and become a parent.

But one thing I noticed in their criteria of ranking is that nowhere were they considering whether the story was a good story. And by good I don't mean high quality in the writing or directing, I mean morally good, a story that helps to convey virtue, excellence, well-being. I frankly don't think that all of the shows high on their list will be stories told over the ages, because they aren't those types of stories.

You see, I appreciate highly shows like Little House on the Prairie and the Waltons. I also greatly admire Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is a good story, in the way I mean it. I long believed M*A*S*H to be the greatest show in the history of TV. Six Feet Under is good story, in the way I mean it (something they seem to miss in their review of it, mentioning primarily matters of technique).

The select The Simpsons as the greatest show. I probably agree. The Simpsons is a good story.

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