I marvel at the preaching of Grace Imathiu. She weaves a message that moves fluidly from humour to profundity to critique to inspiration. Today she was wearing a tall golden crown of a hat. She joked that they keep inviting her because she has the best clothes.
No, because her preaching is a marvel.
This year’s sermon was an exploration of the story of the Samaritan woman at the well from her perspective and was full of insight. I did not come away with as many quotes and illustrations as I did last year, but I will remember this one.
“Of course Black Lives Matter, but are we that behind, seriously, that we have to say it? We should be saying Trans Lives Matter, but we are stuck on something more basic.”
Luke Powery lectured on “Preaching on the Spiritual Borders.” The spirituals teach us four notes to sound. First, they sound the note of the reality of human suffering. He declared that we must “remember a deadly, bloody, tear-filled past.” And this—“The blood of the martyrs fertilizes the soil of our preaching.”
Second, they sound the note of a theology of divine suffering. He said, “Death keeps Christianity real.”
Third, they sound the note of an ecology of community. “The spirituals are an exorcism of spiritual narcissism.”
Fourth, they sound the note of the viability of singing as a homiletical strategy. “When life is hard and tough, there is always a song.” “You can’t sing and not change your condition.” “The spirituals are a sign of the slave’s refusal to be stopped.”
The afternoon wrapped up with David Lose’s lecture on how to preach in an age of alternative facts. He admitted he did not yet know. He gave an earnest attempt to grapple with the problem, but I found his lecture quite disappointing. He needs to have listened to Amy Butler, Alyce McKenzie, Brian McLaren, and Will Willimon. They all had good approaches to the problem.
Near the end he acknowledged that he was worried that his approach might simply be cowardice.
Will Willimon has clearly reached the point in life at which he doesn’t give a damn. Though I’ve heard him a handful of times before, this time he pulled no punches and cut to the quick.
For instance, he said that sometime in the middle of his career it became fashionable to view pastoral care as the primary aspect of ministry, to let it trump preaching. He said, “If you like holding hands, go into nursing. We are called to be preachers. To tell the truth.”
His lecture was on using preaching to combat racism. He said, “One of God’s weapons for defeating the color line is preaching.”
“If our congregations are nervous about this kind of talk, then they’ve just got to get over it.”
He shared how recently someone came up after he preached and said that he shouldn’t have dealt with some issue in his preaching. Willimon said to the person, “I guess Jesus did make a mistake in calling you to be a disciple, then. I thought maybe you were better than you are.” Damn. I can’t wait to be in my seventies if that’s the sort of thing you get to say to congregants.
“The point of the sermon is to increase stress.” He said he recently went to church and the call to worship was about how people are anxious and are coming to worship to find comfort, centering, and balance. He said he looked around and it was mostly white people who didn’t look anxious at all.
“I’m worried how white supremacism sneaks into our stuff.” “It’s time to talk about our social mores as an offense against God.” “I can’t think of a greater enemy than white people.”
But he believes in grace and that God can save even us biased and racist white people. “That we can be changed is a Christian gift.”
"It’s surprising to think of racial bias as not just a state or habit of mind, nor even a widespread cultural norm, but as a process that’s also part of the ebbs and flows of the body’s physiology." This startling article from Aeon reveals how racial prejudice is connected to biological functions, and thus is more difficult to overcome than our Enlightenment-based rational hopes imagined.
Please read the article. Here is the conclusion:
On the one hand, this is a reason for optimism: if we can better understand the neurological mechanisms behind racial bias, then perhaps we’ll be in a better position to correct it. But there is a grim side to the analysis, too. The structures of oppression that shape who we are also shape our bodies, and perhaps our most fundamental perceptions. Maybe we do not ‘misread’ the phone as a gun; we might we actually see a gun, rather than a phone. Racism might not be something that societies can simply overcome with fresh narratives and progressive political messages. It might require a more radical form of physiological retraining, to bring our embodied realities into line with our stated beliefs.
This raises an important question in political liberalism. Mill believed that society should not be overly involved in the effort to morally shape people, instead allowing them the liberty to develop on their own. His initial radical left-wing idea now sounds closer to libertarianism. It also sounds naiive, as we've learned that issues like racial justice cannot be solved by simple education of the reason.
So I think about a variety of inputs--Michael Sandel's arguments in Justice that society must discuss the purpose of what it means to be human, Jonathan Haidt's research into the psychological impulses behind our political views, or Martha Nussbaum's book on how a democratic society must engage in moral education of its citizens by using the emotions. These ideas run up against the ideas of Mill, which initially sound lovely, but flounder on the rock of reality.
It’s surprising to think of racial bias as not just a state or habit of mind, nor even a widespread cultural norm, but as a process that’s also part of the ebbs and flows of the body’s physiology.
Racism might not be something that societies can simply overcome with fresh narratives and progressive political messages. It might require a more radical form of physiological retraining, to bring our embodied realities into line with our stated beliefs.
Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois did not immediately part ways after the publication of The Souls of Black Folk, in which DuBois was critical of Bookerism. In fact, DuBois taught at Tuskegee that summer. But part ways they did in the year after the book came out. The particular details are complicated, but Gary Dorrien interprets the division broadly as one between DuBois' embrace of "the prophetic ethical religion of Jesus" and Washington's participation in the commercialism of the age. Dorrien writes,
The age proclaimed that the greatness of the nation was its money; thus, religion, politics, and education became devoted to moneymaking.
Yet DuBois "believed in 'Liberty for all men' to live, vote, and associate 'as they will in a kingdom of beauty and love.'" While Washington "became preeminent by promising a cheap and docile labor force to New South capitalists."
And so DuBois organized the Niagara movement.
The Niagara Movement demanded full manhood suffrage, "and we want it now, henceforth and forever." It demanded the abolition of discrimination in public accomodation, the right to social freedom, and the rule of law applied equally to rich and poor, capitalists and laborers, and whites and blacks.
They declared that black people "have the right to know, to think, to aspire."
Their meeting at Harper's Ferry drew on the legacy of John Brown. They declared, "We do not believe in violence, neither in the despised violence of the raid nor the lauded violence of the soldier, nor the barbarous violence of the mob, but we do believe in John Brown, in that incarnate spirit of justice, that hatred of a lie, that willingness to sacrifice money, reputation, and life itself on the altar of right."
That year saw rioting and lynching in Texas and Georgia. DuBois composed "A Litany of Atlanta" in response in which he questioned of God, "Is this Thy justice, O Father?" Here are the searingly powerful lines:
Surely Thou too are not white, O Lord, a pale, bloodless, heartless thing? . . . Forgive the thought! Forgive these wild, blasphemous words. Thou art still the God of our black fathers, and in Thy soul's soul sit some soft darkenings of the evening, some shadowings of the velvet night.
This has been my favorite chapter yet in the book The New Abolition: W. E. B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel. Any student of church history knows that the theology of the early ecumenical councils or of the Protestant Reformation was worked out in a complex mix of discourse and action weighted by politics. This chapter, which details the difficult and complicated organizational work that led to the NAACP, reads similarly, as the process by which a theology is developed in the midst of real world activity.
W. E. B. Du Bois grew up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts (our family visited his birthsite there last year) where he did not experience the racial discrimination common in other places in the country. When he did later in life it was such a shock to him. Gary Dorrien writes of the importance of Congregationalism in Du Bois development:
New England Puritanism pressed deep into his mind, persuading Du Bois that truth is a moral absolute transcending mere data. Though Du Bois shucked off New England theism after he got to college, he never relinquished its belief that liberty is the conformity of one's will to moral duty.
Even as a young man Du Bois experienced a sense of call--"I rejoice as a strong man to run a race, and I am strong--is it egotism--is it assurance--or is it the silent call of the world spirit that makes me feel that I am royal and that beneath my scepter a world of kings shall bow."
Dorrien points out two of Du Bois's early contributions to sociology--he discussed "the moral corruption of the nation in its hallowed constitutional beginning" and he "conceived the color line in international terms."
Du Bois's overriding question was "What does it feel like to be treated as a problem?" Dorrien writes that Du Bois wanted a Hegelian synthesis of what he had gained from black and white experience. He writes, "Du Bois had a vision of black and white joining together to create a nation based on human equality and freedom."
The radical change for Du Bois came when he moved to Atlanta and experienced "naked hostility." Dorrien writes, "Du Bois could not produce calm social science when African Americans were being brutalized and lynched." And then personal tragedy struck. His two-year-old son became ill and no white physician would treat him. There were only three black physicians in Atlanta and Du Bois was unsuccessful in reaching. The boy died before he could be treated.
Du Bois was not initially a critic of Booker T. Washington's. Dorrien writes, "Du Bois recognized that Washington walked a daily tightrope merely to survive in Alabama, and he knew that Washington was not as accommodating as his cagey speeches to white audiences." What ultimately led him to criticize Washington was the latter's influence.
Du Bois believed that Up from Slavery was not the book that African Americans needed to survive the upsurge of lynching and repression, and he shuddered at Washington's growing eminence. The latter factor was decisive. It was terrible enough that blacks were terrorized and oppressed. Even worse was that violent white repression was becoming taken for granted, so normalized that white politicians and clergy did not feel compelled to apologize for it. Du Bois saw it happening in Atlanta. He despaired that colleagues treated Washington as the final word on racial politics. The tyranny of Bookerism was degrading and suffocating; Du Bois later recalled, "Things came to such a pass that when any Negro complained or advocated a course of action, he was silenced with the remark that Mr. Washington did not agree with this." So Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk.
In his lengthy (almost 100 pages) chapter on the conflict between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Dubois, Gary Dorrien takes a detour to discuss Alexander Crummell, whom DuBois met at Wilberforce and was a mentor and influence on his development. Here is Dorrien's opening description of Crummell:
Alexander Crummell was an Episcopal priest, an intellectual, an Anglophile, and a former missionary and Liberian nationalist. Like many black nationalists, he was an authoritarian collectivist and racial separatist, in his case with a social gospel theology, a puritanical/Victorian moral code, an American Federalist political philosophy, a romantic idealistic racialism, and a deep admiration for Plato.
What a complex description!
Crummell is one of the figures Dorrien believes is overlooked and thus part of the reason for this volume on black social gospel theology. Crummell was essential in developing that theology. Here, for instance, is a paragraph in which Dorrien treats of Crummell's christology.
To be sure, Crummell allowed, Christ had not yet abolished war, but "he has been abolishing war through all the centuries through, by the humanization which He has introduced into the policy of nations." Under the influence of Christ, the world grasped that it is a "brutish, heathen" thing to love war. Similarly, Crummell saw the redemptive, humanizing influence of Christ "in the suppression of the slave trade, in the destruction of piracy, in the abolition of slavery, in the reformation of prisons, in the progress of the temperance cause, in the improvement of tenement houses, in the increase of hospitals and infirmaries; in the care of the blind, the deaf, and the dumb; in the godly efforts to prevent the ravages of licentiousness; and in the merciful endeavors to save the victims of prostitution!" Thought Christ took on flesh only briefly, suffering insult and crucifixion for his blessedness, "yet His divine face, the odor of His sanctity, the glories of His nature, and the mystical power of His resurrection come streaming down the centuries."
What a splendid paragraph!
Dorrien writes that DuBois was affected not only by Crummell's theology but viewed Crummell himself as something of a Christ-figure who had to "battle against hate, despair, and doubt" and face sharp opposition and criticism, always "refusing to be shamed." Crummell became the paradigm of a Christian clergy person for DuBois, who criticized other clergy who failed to live up to Crummell's standard.
Crummell's life and thought are complex, but one point I want to address is his skepticism of the masses. As a young man he had witnessed anti-abolitionist riots in New York City, which forever made him distrust the uneducated. Dorrien writes, "For the rest of his life Crummell loathed the masses, urging that the educated elite of any civilized society had to restrain the majority's stupidity and violence."
My last post in my series reading through Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition was February 3 because chapter three of the book is almost 100 pages long. And I decided early on to wait until I had completed the chapter before blogging about it, though I will likely break the chapter up into a series of posts. Why was this chapter so long? Because it sets up the crucial conflict between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois, the conflict which shaped the Black Social Gospel (the subject of this volume) and the future endeavors for African American Civil Rights.
I continue to read not simply to learn more about this vital school of American theology but in the search for a richer understanding of the American tradition so that we might marshal the ideas and virtues of our past in order to confront the current national catastrophe of Trumpism which threatens the Christian gospel, morality, and basic human decency on an almost daily basis.
So the theological developments of people who lived in the midst of a racial dictatorship that daily threatened violence and daily delivered injustice and oppression might be of some use.
Let's begin with Washington and what can be admired about him. Dorrien writes at the outset that Washington's "accomplishments were colossal, and he achieved them in the face of a viciously oppressive society that erupted over any violation of Jim Crow." But then Dorrien follows up that praise with a death-delivering sentence: "But Washington believed that he had no legitimate opposition, which contributed much to his downfall--nearly as much as the fact that his humiliating strategy did not work." But more on the negatives later.
We must remember that Washington was born a slave and at the pinnacle of his power dined with the President. At the age of five he was valued at $400, Dorrien reminds us.
Washington had overcome resentment, which is a key for any person hoping to achieve moral progress. One thing I've blogged about is how much resentment, which is a moral weakness, seems to have played a role in the election. According to Dorrien, Washington realized "that bad systems made people do bad things and that people of noble spirit did not bear grudges." On the first point he seems to have anticipated Niebuhr.
He was educated by New England Congregationalists who came south after the war to educate the freed slaves. His education emphasized self-reliance and hard work, which became hallmarks of his own pedagogy. He believed education was the greatest need of his people, and he devoted his life to it, doing so in one of the most difficult of places--rural Alabama.
Dorrien reminds us that Tuskegee was "a Klan stronghold before the Klan existed," which means that in the midst of the worst of circumstances Washington achieved much, always walking a precarious line. Dorrien writes that Washington knew "that he had no margin for error." He became skilled at repressing his feelings in order to get along with white opponents of black education.
Washington's idea "rested on the promise that black economic progress would eventually dissolve the social friction between whites and blacks." As Dorrien has already pointed out, this simply did not work. Jim Crow grew worse in the years that white people were lauding Washington and his work.
He rose to national prominence by a speech called the Atlanta Compromise. Dorrien summarizes it, "The deal on the table was that if white America allowed blacks to succeed economically, black would we willing to wait for their rights." The story of Washington and the advance of Jim Crow is a reminder that sometimes incremental change becomes accommodation to evil. But one does not always know these things at the time. See my post on Frances Perkins, for example, on someone who chose to compromise her ideological purity and was later able to achieve much.
Interestingly, Dorrien points out that DuBois was not critical of the Atlanta speech. "For the rest of his life he said that the Atlanta speech, in its context, was a 'statesmanlike effort to reach understanding with the white South.' Had the white South responded with 'equal generosity,' the cause of racial justice would have moved forward."
But some African American leaders began to see Washington's compromise as an obstacle to progress, particularly because he was embraced as THE black leader by whites. Some, like Ida B. Wells, criticized him for not directly attacking lynching, though Dorrien argues that Washington did his best to address it indirectly by publishing his story Up from Slavery. Dorrien writes that the book "was published amid this mania of disenfranchisement, lynching, ramped-up segregation, and popular screeds justifying all of it."
One thing Dorrien does not shy away from his quoting the racist language of white politicians and clergy. Parts of this chapter were quite difficult to read. Important to read, but difficult. As important as it is to be reminded of the way the culture once spoke of African Americans, I don't want to print any of those obnoxious statements here. I refer you to the book.
The most difficult section was reading how the white press reacted to Booker T. Washington's dinner with Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. Here is one example, milder than many. This from a Memphis paper, "The most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States was committed yesterday by the President . . ." and from there the language becomes obscene.
This one event lost Washington any support he had from whites in the South. Dorrien writes that he "keenly understood that white nationalist rage had surged out of control. He had to calculate the chance of a violent episode every time that he spoke in the Deep South away from Tuskegee, and for months after the White House dinner he stayed in the North."
As a paradigm of dignity, David Brooks selected A. Philip Randolph. Brooks writes, "Confronted by humiliating racism, [his family] hewed to a code of moral refinement and gentlemanly conduct that jarred with their material circumstances." About Randolph's father a biographer wrote that he was "guided by the values of civility, humility, and decency, inspired by religious and social service, and utterly devoted to the idea of dignity."
About Randolph, Brooks writes, "These qualities--his incorruptibility, his reticent formality, and above all his dignity--meant it was impossible to humiliate him. His reactions and internal state were determined by himself, not by the racism or even by the adulation that later surrounded him."
What a stirring tribute. I hope I sometimes embody that kind of dignity.
Randolph was a civil rights and labor leader and Brooks writes that "the chief challenges of Randolph's life were: how do you take imperfect people and organize them into a force for change? How do you amass power while not being corrupted by power?" These are excellent questions.
Yesterday I was reviewing an essay by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas on faith and politics in which we wrote, "The difficulty is that following a crucified Lord entails embodying a politics that cannot resort to coercion and violence; it is a politics of persuasion all the day down. It is a tiring business that is slow and time-consuming, but then we, that is, Christians, believe that by redeeming time Christ has given us all the time we need to pursue peace."
Brooks draws on David L. Chappell's book A Stone of Hope, which I highly recommend, to discuss the two different civil rights movements. He writes, "The first was northern and highly educated. People in this group tended to have an optimistic view of history and human nature." The other group was the "biblical prophetic tradition" and they thought the optimists practiced a form of idolatry. Brooks again:
One consequence of this attitude was that the prophetic realists were much more aggressive. They took it as a matter of course that given the sinful nature of man, people could not be altered merely by education, consciousness raising, and expanded opportunity. It was wrong to put one's faith in historical processes, human institutions, or human goodness. . . Change comes through relentless pressure and coercion.
How did nonviolence work? "Nonviolence allowed the biblical realists to aggressively expose the villainy of their foes, to make their enemies' sins work against them as they were exposed in ever more brutal forms." We must not be fooled into thinking that nonviolence didn't mean exposing the sins of the opponents.
In this chapter Brooks also draws attention to Bayard Rustin, the gay man who contributed essential elements of the philosophy of nonviolence and organized the March on Washington. He writes that Rustin viewed nonviolence as a form of discipline which would weed out our own moral corruptions.
Brooks also details the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr, though I believe the civil rights leaders moved beyond Niebuhrian realism to a more liberationist theology. Nevertheless, this section on Niebuhr is informative for current religio-political movements of protest and resistance:
Niebuhr argued that, beset by his own sinful nature, man is a problem to himself. Human actions take place in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension. We simply can't understand the long chain of consequences arising from what we do, or even the origins of our own impulses. Niebuhr argued against the easy conscience of modern man, against moral complacency on every front. He reminded readers that we are never as virtuous as we think we are, and that our motives are never as pure as in our own accounting.
I admire the concluding paragraphs of this chapter:
The story of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin is the story of how flawed people wield power in a fallen world. They shared a worldview based on an awareness of both social and personal sin, the idea that human life is shot through with veins of darkness. They learned, Randolph instantly and Rustin over a lifetime, to build an inner structure to contain the chaotic impulses within. They learned that sinfulness is battled obliquely through self-giving, by directing life away from the worst tendencies. They were extremely dignified in their bearing. But this same sense made them aggressive in their outward strategy. They knew that dramatic change, when it is necessary, rarely comes through sweet suasion. Social sin requires a hammering down of the door by people who are simultaneously aware that they are unworthy to be so daring.
This is a philosophy of power, a philosophy of power for people who combine extreme conviction with extreme self-skepticism.
You can find the previous post in this series, on the magnanimity of George Marshall, here.
Ida B. Wells, in her late 19th century anti-lynching campaign, laid the groundwork for newly organized civil rights activities. Which is why she is the second "Apostle of the New Abolition" in Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition about the black social gospel movement (Henry McNeal Turner was the first, and here is my blog post about him).
Wells' family was devastated by an epidemic, leaving her as a young woman to care for her siblings. She became the first African-American woman to own and run a newspaper, in Memphis. She eventually had to flee the South for safe haven because of her focus on lynching.
Lynching was "justified" by white citizens as a defense of white women from rape. Wells called attention to why that was not true, but directly addressed the sexual thesis, which most people ignored. Writes Dorrien,
On her sexual thesis, Wells was simultaneously emphatic, ambivalent, and repulsed. The leading citizens that burned Coy and show Fowler were "notorious" for preferring black women as sexual partners, Wells contended. They mythologized southern belles as pure-minded Christian ladies lacking sexual desire, and they vengefully punished the black men who dared to treat white women as sexual beings. They prated about defending the honor of white women while betraying them as partners, preferring black women for sex, as they had during slavery. White men were the barbarians in this picture; white women were more sexual than their husbands dared to imagine; black women were victimized by the predatory sexuality of white men; and black men caught hell for all of it, especially if they were not careful.
Dorrien concludes that "Everything about her argument was incendiary, or revelatory, depending on the reader." Her opponents chose to attack her character and compelled her to flee Memphis.
She went on the national and international lecture circuit and became a key organizer, though she often clashed with others in the black and progressive communities. She in particular called out the latter for their hypocrisies. "So many Christian leaders of her time were admired for their social virtue despite demonstrating little or none in the area of racial justice." He write at length about her feud with Frances Willard. Willard and, to my surprise Elizabeth Cady Stanton even, used racist tropes in their arguments for white women's rights (Anthony did not; she was a friend of Wells). "Wells was starting to become famous for saying harsh things about people who were renowned for their liberality and goodwill."
The end of her organizing career got caught up in what became the feud between Booker T. Washington and his allies and W. E. B. DuBois and his as to whether to accommodate or agitate (to put it too simply). Wells lived till 1931, but was long forgotten before her death, being left out of memoirs and histories of the era. In the 1960's she was rediscovered and her autobiography finally published in 1970, lifting her into the canon of civil rights history.