Late last week I read an interesting op-ed by Washington Post journalist E.J. Dionne in my hometown newspaper.
Partly a review of Allen Dwight Callahan's recently published The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible, a carefully researched and (if I may) in places poetically and powerfully written multidisciplinary analysis of how some African Americans have responded to, interpreted, lived out, criticized, and embraced various biblical texts, Dionne argues that via insights drawn from Callahan's book, folks would do well to remember that Jesus' birth signaled a revolutionary moment in history.
Dionne makes some interesting observations. For instance, he opens with: "Great traditions are subversive. They constantly call the imperfections of the present to account in the name of a more exalted standard." From here he suggests to readers that the nativity story annually disrupts "understandings of power and privilege." Dionne also quotes Callahan, such as when Callahan observes that the scripture "privileges those without privilege and honors those without honor," as well as the notion that the Bible "has a penchant for bringing peripheral people to the center of history."
Dionne ends by stating that Jesus spoke to "[t]he poor, the outcastes, [and] the slaves," who have responded to him throughout history. Earlier in the piece Dionne also takes shots at some on the far Left and far Right who each ignore the revolutionary witness Jesus bore.
"The African-American religious tradition is a blessing to all," Dionne's concluding sentence reads, "because it requires us to remember that Jesus of Nazareth really did revolutionize the world."
I applaud Dionne for such an important reminder. Yet, I still feel unsettled. For one, the totalizing statement "The African-American religious tradition" (italics mine) only generalizes and fails to capture the complexity of African American religious experiences across time and space. Perhaps this is just a historian's quibble, but it is important to state nonetheless. In the end, though, Dionne's op-ed reads as a polite liberal nod to what African Americans can teach about the life of Jesus.
Not only do some of the scripture readings Callahan highlights "require us to remember" the radicality of the nativity, but to act, to hope, to long, and to live the Advent revolution. This is where my criticism with Dionne lies. The op-ed's intellectual acuity subverts real solutions to the powers and principalities Jesus' life bore witness against. In other words, to quote bell hooks from her book Killing Rage: Ending Racism (1995, p. 185): "When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do emobdy white supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism as prejudice or domination (especially domination that involves coervice control), they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they profess to wish to see eradicated."
(For more on what the Advent revolution is, read this, this, and this. And for a reading of Jesus' life as revolutionary see Obery Hendricks' new book.)
Readers of this blog know what to expect at this point: a word from James Baldwin.
Today's thoughts come from a short piece that appeared Creative America in 1962 titled "The Creative Process." Baldwin describes the artist as one always "at war" with society, bearing witness to justice, peace, and equity, in fact very similar the the Hebrew prophets one reads about in the Old Testament. So, for Baldwin the artist lives in prophetic spaces. And those about whom Callahan writes in The Talking Book are artists, from James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw in the 1770s to Tupac Shakur in the 1990s for example, who offer a better picture.
Yet the best artists -- those to whom Baldwin refers and those about whom Callahan writes -- are often provacative, bearing witness to (and against) realities in the past that shape present conditions, in this case the white supremacy upon which North Atlantic/American slavery rested and which still structures many things today. The artist paints a picture of the past that, if seen, can prophetically and constructively influence the present and shape the future.
Here's Baldwin: "We know, in the case of the person, that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it, is immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self. This is also true of nations. We know how a person, in such a paralysis, is unable to assess either his weaknesses or his strengths, and how frequently indeed he mistakes one for the other. And this, I think, we do. We are the strongest nation in the western world, but this is not for the reasons that we think. It is because we have an opportunity which no other nation has of moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste, and create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of the New World. But the price for this is a long look backward when we came and an unflinching assessment of the record. For an artist, the record of that journey is most clearly revealed in the personalities of the people the journey produced. Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover's war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself, and with that revelation, make freedom real."
If you listen, the book talks back.