Friday, April 25, 2008

Practicing Pentecost: The Church Across the Color Line 2.0

Here's part 2 (of 3) of my interview with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.


Baldblogger (BB): In conjunction with your peacemaking efforts, you write that you and your wife had to “become black” to start to more fully understand your life at St. Johns’s and to more fully understand who Christ is. I wonder if you could briefly elaborate on this, and perhaps explain how this has influenced your understanding of the Bible and your own devotional habits. And a question for parents: besides embodying justice in terms of where you live and worship, and how you speak, how will you “teach” racial justice to your child(ren)?

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (JWH): In the story that I tell, I try to take seriously James Cone’s claim that white people need to “become black.” Of course we can’t change the color of our skin, and the point isn’t to “act black” or “talk black.” Cone’s point is that just as Jesus was “numbered with the transgressors,” those who want to follow him in America today must be willing to bear the stigma of the oppressed. We aren’t called to “fight for the poor” as much as we’re called to join the struggle of those who are systematically excluded in our world.

All of our deepest convictions about who we are and what we want to be come out in parenting. My friend Amy Laura Hall has written about this in her book Conceiving Parenthood. For me, parenting is about continuing to learn the racial reality we live in. My son is black, so he has to face challenges that I did not have to face growing up. I don’t know enough to teach him all he needs to know. But that means I am dependent on others in the beloved community—black brothers and sisters who can teach him both how the world will hate him and how he can love his enemies. It always takes a village to raise a child, but Leah and I know we need our church and community in very real and practical ways.

BB: Your meditations on the practice of hospitality as it relates to your move into Walltown reminded me of the numerous conversations I’ve had with black friends and colleagues who are also committed to reconciliation. They surmise that race reconciliation is a noble goal, but that without economic justice, it is difficult if not impossible for what we might call collaborating for justice. In light of this, is there hope for those millions of Americans who live in suburban America? Or, perhaps are there other issues to deal with for those who do reconciliation work in the suburbs?

JWH: The suburbs are complex, and I don’t want to simplify them into the enclave of middle class success. That’s how we’ve idealized them in public discourse, but in most of our major U.S. cities, first ring suburbs are where the poorest of the poor now live.

But you’re right: reconciliation is always about economic justice. And economic justice is never just about “those people” fixing the system. It’s about all of us repenting of the ways we use some people so that others can be comfortable. You have to reckon with that whether you live in the suburbs, in the inner city, or on the farm.

Reconciliation is about setting out together with people who are not like you toward a way of life that is good for all of us.

BB: In Michael Eric Dyson’s newest book, April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Death and How it Changed America, he observes that King said that after the death of white privilege black equality would emerge (p.17). It seems that this is one part of what you argue in Free to Be Bound, stating more specifically that white encounters with various forms of “death” may bring new spiritual life. Is this a correct reading of your work—and can you respond to these thoughts?

JWH: King articulated this so clearly: the legacy of a slave economy is a pattern of life that depends on someone else to do the dirty work of the middle class. The Poor People’s Campaign was about saying to America, “We cannot live without our sanitation workers, our cooks and our farm workers. If we refuse to acknowledge the dignity of poor people, America will go to hell just as sure as the rich man, Dives.”

This is the message we as a country rejected when we killed King. But King’s willingness to die for this cause gives me great hope that the gospel does have the power to transform us even now. Beginning on the ground where we are, we can receive the gift of God’s love and make sacrifices for the sake of our neighbors, building the beloved community King dreamed of. We don’t need another King so much as we need an underground movement of little communities who live the subversive gospel under the radar, showing the world that another way is possible.

BB: Your chapter on connecting the history of racism with contemporary immigration concerns is just brilliant, and you offer a hefty criticism of multiculturalism and its discontents. You write: “Another way of saying this is that the language of multiculturalism makes it harder for the church to speak in tongues” (p. 181). I wonder if you could elaborate on this powerful thought—perhaps figuratively or metaphorically what it means for white Christians to speak in tongues?

JWH: Speaking in tongues, for me, is talking with people who aren’t like me. It means listening even when I don’t understand and trusting God for a miracle. It also means speaking when I’m not sure I’ll be understood.

Joe Biden got in trouble for calling Barak Obama “articulate” at the beginning of his presidential campaign. It’s not PC to say it, but Biden was just saying what multiculturalism assumes: black people are safe so long as they talk like white people. I worry about multiculturalism because it seems to reduce everyone to the common language of middle class values.

But that’s not what the Holy Spirit does. God makes it possible for us to understand and be understood by people who are not like us. Cone says white people need to “become black” in the sense that we need to identify with the oppressed. But I also have to admit that I’m always white, just as my black brothers and sisters are always black. By miracle, we can understand one another and live in community.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Reviving the Great Awakening

Today's post features the first of a three-part blog interview with historian Tommy Kidd, associate professor of history at Baylor University. The recipient of numerous grants, teaching awards, and named in 2007 as a History News Network "Top Young Historian," Kidd's latest book is a synthetic treatment of the Great Awakening--a series of religious revivals during the eighteenth century--and is the main subject of this interview. We'll discuss scholarship, spirituality, and teaching.

The term great awakening itself has a rather long history--first used in the nineteenth century to describe the eighteenth century religious revivals--and has received recent press via Jim Wallis's latest book by the same title. The Great Awakening was an important moment in American religious history, and remains a salient topic of discussion and fruitful area of research, writing, and teaching.

Baldblogger (BB): For those unfamiliar with your work, or for first time visitors, if I may I’d like to begin with some autobiography. If you don’t mind, briefly trace your academic journey through your undergrad years and grad school. Any formative teachers? Why were they so influential?

Tommy Kidd (TK): I am a native South Carolinian, and received a B.A. in political science from Clemson University. During my undergraduate years, I became more interested in history, and decided to take a M.A. in history at Clemson. From there, I went to the Ph.D. program at Notre Dame, where I studied with George Marsden, who undoubtedly has had the most profound influence on my writing and intellectual development. Readers will note that The Great Awakening is dedicated to Marsden.

Marsden taught me that Christian perspectives in academia are not so “outrageous” (to use his term) as one might think, despite the secular bent of most major research universities. He also taught me that there is no point in writing history from a Christian perspective unless one first writes good history. In 2002 I joined the faculty at Baylor University.

BB: What inspired your interest in the history of Christianity—and evangelicalism in particular?

TK: As a practicing Christian, the Great Awakening--along with American religious history generally--holds obvious interest for me. I hardly think that Christian historians should relegate themselves to religious history, though. My own interests, for example, are shifting somewhat toward political history. But I also believe that the history of religion, and especially religious practice, is fascinating and has exercised deep influence in the forming of American culture.

BB: If it exists, what is a “typical” day for you at Baylor?

TK: On days that I teach, I typically spend most of the day in class, preparing for class, or grading. I try to reserve non-teaching days largely for research, especially in the morning. I typically spend several hours each of those mornings working on my current book project or revisions to a manuscript.

BB: Just for fun—if you were not a historian, what do you be doing?

TK: I’ve always thought I would love to be a color commentator for the Atlanta Braves. But unfortunately, as Jerry told George on Seinfeld, they usually get such announcers from within the baseball business!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Remembering Emmett Till, Again

Since I posted once about Emmett Till before, readers might be interested to read what's posted on one of my class blogs--Till researcher Devery Anderson has responsed to some of my students' questions about the Till case. Fascinating stuff, and it speaks to the continuing relevance, and witness, of Till's life.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Practicing Pentecost: The Church Across the Color Line 1.0

This post begins a blog interview with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove about his fantastic and important book Free to Be Bound: Church Beyond the Color Line (NavPress, 2008). Thanks to Jonathan for his wilingness to particpate in this electronic conversation and dialogue.

I take the short title for this series of posts from Anthony Smith's chapter of the same title in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope and in recognition of teaching and inviting me to be part of the church beyond the color line.

Baldblogger (BB): A previous post introduced you to readers; we read some about your background, upbringing, and recent work and writing. Is there anything about your life and/or work you’d like to add? If you could, if it exists, what is a typical day at Rutba House and at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church?

Jonathn Wilson-Hartgrove (JWH): Most important thing is that I’ve become a dad. Leah and I adopted our son, JaiMichael, who is now 3 and a half. He’s a joy—and a bundle of energy. If we ever had a typical day, we don’t any more.

At Rutba, we try to start and end the day with prayer together. In between, we do our work, answer the door, eat together, listen, and play. Most of these things get interrupted. But sometimes grace is in the interruptions.

BB: Now, a writing question. Your first book was published in 2005, and, impressively, you’ve published two more books within the span of a year and will have some more books published soon. When and where do you write, and from where does your inspiration come to write? In other words, any tips for good and effective writing? For interested readers, any projects in the works?

JWH: I write because I have to. I don’t know what I think until I see what I say, so I sort out my life in words. The incredible gift I receive from readers is that they consider it worth their time and money to think these things through with me. So I’m not alone. And, by grace, the bills get paid.

The challenge, then, isn’t so much to find the time to write as it is to remember all the other things that are important. Words are powerful, for sure. But we live in an information age that is flooded with disembodied words. Unless the word is made flesh, it rings hollow.

As I said, I write my questions. More and more, I’m writing the questions I live with others. For a few years now I’ve been in conversation about a new monastic movement in the contemporary church. My book New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church (Brazos) will be out next month.

Shane Claiborne and I have a book on prayer coming out this fall. We’ve been talking for years about the connection between action and contemplation, while praying and getting in the Way together. Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers (IVP) is a little meditation that invites others into that conversation. We’re just about finished, and it will be out this fall.

I’m starting to write about money. Jesus said you can’t serve God and Mammon, which sets up an interesting either/or. Sometimes we talk about “stewarding” money well. But on the whole, I think we have a hard time seeing money as a power here in the richest nation to ever exist. Prosperity gospel gets good air time in this country, but we don’t have much of an alternative. So I’m working on that right now.

BB: Specifically, what inspired you to write Free to Be Bound? The subtitle of your book of course brings to mind the famous phrase from Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk (1903). Was it W.E.B. Du Bois specifically? Can you briefly explain the title of your book? It is catchy, punchy, yet deeply profound all at the same time.

JWH: I wrote Free to Be Bound because I needed to go deeper into the question I’d first asked at 16, when I met some black Christians—namely, why have I never met these brothers and sisters before? Following that question led me to join a black church, move into a predominantly African-American neighborhood, and, among other things, read Du Bois. He said the problem of the 20th century was the problem of the color line. My experience showed me that the color line was a dividing line in the body of Christ.

Forty years ago, the civil rights movement taught America that we’re bound to be free. This resulted in news laws liberating black people from second class citizenship. Forty years later, though, the question we have to ask is, “Free for what?” Christians have for the most part used our freedom to stay in race-based churches and pursue middle class success.

The good news of Jesus is that we’re free to be bound together in a beloved community where the rich are no longer rich and the poor are no longer poor because we all share our resources so that no one is in need. This book is about what it might mean to be that kind of community.

[Photo credit here.]

Friday, April 11, 2008

Something Funny for Friday

I guess these were the days before

Monday, April 07, 2008

Du Bois in the Lone Star State 2.0

Last Thursday SDSU's Edward J. Blum gave a lecture/book talk at the University of Houston's Central Campus. The History and African American Studies departments co-sponsored the event. Thanks to Dr. Bob Buzzanco and Dr. James Conyers for making this event happen.

Ed's talk was titled "The Noose and the Cross: Race, Religion, and the Redemption of Violence in the Works of W. E. B. Du Bois," and discussed lynching and the way W.E.B. Du Bois worked to find redemptive value in this violent expression of white supremacy. Ed discusses this in great detail ch. 4 of his book W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet. (On a side note, the University of Pennsylvania Press has a unique deal for adopting Ed's book for your course--open access to the author who could conduct an email exchange about the book, conference call dialogue, or face-to-face interaction with your students.) The lecture also covered Du Bois's short stories, religious art from the Harlem Renaissance, Jeremiah Wright, and even religiously-themed artwork relating to the life of Tupac Shakur and Barack Obama (and here), among other topics.

Listen to the lecture here (53.5 MB). Ed used the image below--"Christmas in Georgia, A.D., 1916," by Lorenzo Harris, and taken from the December 1916 issue of The Crisis (pp. 78-79)--to begin the discussion. The caption reads: "Inasmuch as ye did unto the least of these, My brethren, ye did it unto Me."

As I remember it, these were the Q&A question topics (question are hard to hear on audio):

1) religion/hip-hop/"G" not gangsta but reference to "God/deity"

2) LeBron James/messianic images

3) Du Bois's use of religion for strategic, pragmatic purposes only

4) religious imagery/Nation of Islam/civil religion

5) Du Bois's "lost voice" prior to/during the Civil Rights Movement

6) Is Du Bois spiritual and/or religious? Neither? Religious not spiritual; spiritual, but not religious?

7) religiously-sanctioned violence (Christianity)

8) secularization and narratives of American religious history

Ed Blum, Baldblogger, and The Proletarian.

[Photographs courtesy of Caleb Alexander, African American Studies Department, U. of Houston.]

Friday, April 04, 2008

A Meditation on the "Ebony Disciple": Martin, Memphis, and Memory

Today is the 40th anniversary of MLK's assassination in Memphis, Tennessee.

I haven't really spent time canvassing the Internet in search of stories, but Ed Gilbreath offers his usual insightful commentary about contemporary affairs--in this case MLK--here.

A few weeks back I began to make my way through Michael Eric Dyson's latest book: April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, Death and How it Changed America. Dyson will discuss this book on C-SPAN2's Book TV live on Sunday, April 6.

Dyson examines the end of King's life, offers a literary analysis of his sermons, and discusses black America 40 years after King's death. Dyson also address black leadership in the wake of King's death, with chapters on Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Barack Obama--and most interesting of all takes creative license to write an Afterword titled "Interview with Dr. King on His 80th Birthday." It is the most intriguing part of the book. [UPDATE: Ed Gilbreath informs me that this interview is available over at The Root.]

Here’s a memorable King quote, whom Dyson calls Jesus’s “ebony disciple,” full of prophetic insight and admonishing encouragement: “I wish today, that Christians would stop talking so much about religion, and start doing something about it, and we would have a much better world. But the problem is that the church has sanctioned every evil in the world. Whether it’s racism, or whether it’s the evils of monopoly-capitalism, or whether it’s the evils of militarism. And this is why these things continue to exist in the world today” (pp. 126-27).

[Photo credit here.]

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Du Bois in the Lone Star State

And find out more about the lecture here.