A Theology of the Other in an Ecumenical Reality Part 3

The Danger of the Incarnation

There is an ever-present danger when living an incarnational life. The vulnerability of this space posses the ability to instill humility through the rigors of life. The closeness that is fashioned in such intimate containers unmasked all pretentiousness and facilitates true authenticity. The pressure of incarnation produces fresh ministry that addresses problems, but will definitely redirect those locked in the process to reshape their preconceived narratives.

The realness of incarnation centers on the fact that you are “actively” present in life.[1] This becomes an ecumenical reality for many as they journey through the process of incarnation. Incarnation invites others to either join or destroy. The easy work of incarnation is mythical at best, but painfully articulated within the body like the ink of tattoos –simply works of art without any purpose for change. It takes a tremendous level of humility to navigate through streams of unfamiliarity sometimes just to encounter a dislike.

One who embodies the methodology of incarnation intuitively or mystically unearths evil aspects of racism (really prejudice) as they work through ecumenical issues. This unveiling of this Christological schism, as Eboni Marshall Turman denotes in her work Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation, becomes counter-intuitive to “the negative and positive poles of a dichotomous racial hierarchy.”[2] Alternatively, the more one is authentically locked in the imago dei (image of God) to a particular culture or denomination, the greater the potential for others to become uncomfortable around that person/individual –especially those who make it their reality to dislike that person/individual based upon cultural or denominational aesthetics. Their adjustment is to use identification as the power play –so no longer is the imago dei the primary identifier but racial and denominational hierarchy now guides the perspective.[3]

Ecumenism places those in the minority at a disadvantage and must be clearly addressed if an ecumenical reality is possible. It is Cornel West, who presses the issues that Europe’s need to be the prototype in its “retrieval of classical aesthetics and culture” set forth a “normative gaze” that produced the “myth of white supremacy.”[4] The invisible construct with visible wounds shackles the very metaphorical hands and feet of those in the margins –black and brown people. The call for ecumenism places them at a crossroads that asks, “How is the question of unity a viable alternative?” The importance of the incarnation becomes and is more about what then where…The importance of a Christ that is willing to come and dwell is important but when identified as the “Other,” actual presence is of most significant. James Cone denotes the need for an actual presence as it affirms the struggle of grappling with a maintenance of humanity to a future realization of humanity.[5]  Cone also shares the response of John Knox who states, “The phrase ‘Jesus is our Lord’ designates, not primarily an historical individual but a present reality actually experienced within a common life.”[6] The need for an eschatological reality is a cultural perspective that ecumenism has to take seriously.[7] The fact that Jesus is a very “present” help in the time of trouble is paramount. Whether he is a physical presence in the Eucharist or symbolic is irrelevant, as long as he can provide bread for the impoverished family. The volume of the everyday experience of those trapped on the underside of poverty becomes an intermingled perspective within the narratives of the gospels. Incarnation becomes an existential struggle to prove humanity rather than the salvific experience of deliverance.

The danger of an incarnation that is not properly articulated leads to further issues and problems –a complex issue of “identity [that] emerges from the paradox of enfleshment.”[8]Simply stated the need to understand that some people will have to endure more than others when it comes to ecumenism –“assertion of enfleshment as a paradoxical phenomenon where the reality of multiple ways of being within the flesh that sometimes complement but more often contradict each other.”[9] This problem is addressed by Zora Neale Hurston in her novel Every Tongue Got to Confess.[10] She tells the story of an African-American who wanted to join a white church because it was the only church in town but was rejected. Her relative further more tells her that they would not have allowed Jesus to join that church either.[11]The role of race enters into this equation and asserts itself as the prime decisional component overshadowing everything else. This paradox of enfleshment again renders the “Other” powerless as an ecumenical reality is introduced.

The WCC is trying to reintroduce, rethink and reinterpret the very essence of what has been called community. They are trying to soften the traditional perspective that will inevitably make living incarnationally more of a viable outlet.[12]  They understood that they had not heard the voices of those who represented the “Other.” [13] The need to approach everyone and every culture with the mindset of a global habitat transformed their platform. The places where incarnation could be dangerous they made attempts to address. James Cone states that the Third World theologians began to insist that a definition of ecumenism move beyond interconfessional issues and address issues of poverty, struggle and social justice –in other words deal with issues that those in poverty deal with in everyday incarnational life.[14]  The goal being to readjust the concept to where all are considered the “Other” rendering all the opportunity to be treated fair.[15]

[1] To be actively present means that there is a tangible presence and not something identified symbolically or spiritually encamped –the realness of the incarnation.

[2] Eboni Marshall Turman, Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, The Black Church and the Council of Chalcedon, New York: Palgrave Mcmillan,59.

[3] James Cone, Speaking the Truth: Ecumenism, Liberation, and Black Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids,1986.,143 highlights the world of H. Richard Niebuhr in the Social Sources of Denominationalism (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1929): “The causes of the racial schism are not difficult to determine. Neither theology nor polity furnished the occasion for it. The sole source of this denominationalism is social.”

[4] Ibid.,Turman,60.

[5] James Cone, God of the Oppressed, HarperCollins:San Francisco:1975, 126.

[6] Ibid., 126.

[7] In James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, New York: Seabury Press, 1969, 121. Cone rejects the entire thought of eschatology. He states, “If eschatology means that one believes that God is totally uninvolved in the suffering of man because he is preparing them for another world, then black theology is not eschatological. Black theology has hope for this life.”

[8] Ibid.,Turman.,1.

[9] Ibid.,1.

[10] Zora Neale Hurston, Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folks Talk From the Gulf, New York: Harper Collins, 2001

[11] Ibid., George and Smith.,56

[12] Ibid., The Church.,23.

[13] Ibid., Speaking, 142.

[14] Ibid., 142.

[15] In most of his work James Cone has made extreme efforts to redirect the conversation to show how black and brown people are being marginalized profoundly by the church. His deliberate naming of the “Other” as black  was more of a construct than color designator. He intentionally sees God on the side of the oppressed and thus God is intentional about coming to see about their well being.  See James Cone, God of the Oppressed, San Francisco:1975

 

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Two Brothers Talking: A Running Dialogue on the Incarnation and Being Black, Part 4

The essence of being incarnational, in a system that practices such heinous oppression, would appear to be asinine. The missional ethos of coming to a place that has no perimeters and no appreciation for life registers as blatant stupidity. Suffering in such as place would be and is inevitable – (a)merica is just that type of place. A place where black folks experience high levels of suffering without the benefit of promoting privilege to soften the impact of such suffering. It is within the incarnation, where we can see God’s love for a people that consistently reject God.

I return back to the thought that the incarnation is dangerous. The incarnation pushes the oppressed to love people who will not return that love back to them. It is then, that we can say that the incarnation is a sacrifice predicated upon love, still extremely dangerous but promulgating robust love. Black folks in (a)merica extend this type of love every day, in a world where systemic racism has become the norm. We are incarnated into a system that does not play by a fair set of rules, but expects us to be satisfied that we are just able to be in the game.

The incarnation for the oppressed and those in the margins of society has the potential of being imprisonment. The good news is that Jesus did not work from this perspective. He worked from the perspective that the incarnation would benefit the world regardless if the world wanted it or not. The “word becoming flesh” (John 1:14) should revolutionized how we understand love. The incarnation becomes a radical move of love with major implications that transformed the entire world. Leaving privilege to endure suffering does not constitute intelligence but it sure does highlight love in a special way.    

Two Brothers Talking: A Running Dialog on the Incarnation and being Black Part 2

Life as a black man in (a)merica is a strange predicament wedged between misery and sublime while being rushed by transcendence. The addition of a loving God would appear to deconstruct the misery that ultimately leads to a different life. Unfortunately, that is not always the cause for many black people trekking through this life in the Western world. On a bigger picture it can be assumed that God is not that fond of black people (men or women) due in part by the mass levels of oppression. We have endured years of unfairness, injustice and pure racism just for us to be seen as human. That in itself would make anybody question the intentions of a loving God.

The incarnation, Walter says in his response, means that “God will do something about the suffering.” It appears that what God did about the suffering was allow more suffering. There is not this overwhelming sensation of triumph that has overtaken the black community that signifies everything is alright –we will be alright but there is no overwhelming sensation that alerts us to the phenomenon. James Baldwin articulates, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If he cannot do this, it is time we get rid of him.” Although this reply is harsh there is some level of contemplation that can be rendered upon this statement.

The continual suffering of a group of people does not equate to love in most places. The systemic displacement of black and brown people, not to mention the Indians, has made life difficult to negotiate in america. When you have become numb to ignorance instead of vigilante, then acceptance looms as an apparent answer. This is where many black Christians live. They live on the edge of sheer apathy with comedic hope for change. They will succumb to mistreatment by standing on a faith that change is around the corner. Well, all of that is good but there also needs to be a voice that addresses the wrong and provides a plan for change. But, God must be actively present in the midst of the chaos. Now, I digress and admit that God may very well be actively present in the midst but my understanding is lacking to comprehend what is actual going on. That is my hope and but the appearance of this mayhem in the lives of black folks makes me wonder at times.   

The dialog continues…

Two Brothers Talking: A Running Dialog on the Incarnation and being Black

This written by Walter Strawther in response to Incarnation- Incarnation, Perichoresis and Racism.

So yesterday my friend and brother, Brian Foulks, asked a question: How the Incarnation influences how we interpret the cross as African Americans? After much contemplation here is my first attempt to answer.

First of all, I am hesitant to sound exclusive, limiting my response to being African American while at the same time recognizing that theology is contextual. I offer this response as a way of adding to the dialog, so that as we share our experiences and context we grow more and more in the truth of who God is and what God does.

This question reminded me of growing up in the Fire Baptized Holiness Church and attending worship services each Sunday that included a testimony service. There are many phrases and words that seemed formulaic, then and now, but were grounded in the experience of those bearing witness to God’s goodness. One phrase that comes to mind, in response to this question, is “the God who makes a way out of no way.” This is the essence of the incarnation. Jesus comes to do for us what we cannot do. Jesus comes in human form to do what would otherwise be impossible, making a way out of no way. Through his life Jesus associated with and legitimized those who were outcasts. The experience of African Americans as outcasts and marginalized throughout a significant portion of this country’s history, and there is still work to do today, resembles that of those who Jesus spent time with during his life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

The incarnation for African Americans is more than just the presence of God but, as Brian Foulks writes in his blog, it is an “active presence.” Jesus does not just encourage the oppressed to see a new reality but participates in making that reality come into being. It is not enough for the oppressed to know that God is there. There isn’t any hope in God only being a witness to the oppression. The meaning of incarnation in light of the cross is that God will do something about the suffering. Yes, Jesus participates in the suffering by dying on the cross but three days later God makes a way out of no way and raises Jesus from the dead giving final victory to those who are suffering. This is a beginning to this difficult question.

Welcome to the Fraternity

The tragicomedy played out in life is one filled with constant shifts and triumphs. The price of the ticket to experience the opportunity to explore what it means to come and dwell with us (John1:14) –the incarnation –is one that is a life changing event. There is a real and present danger that resonates within the incarnation though triumphant for the masses, it is potentially deadly for the one called to incarnate.

To live a life where you are called to live out the incarnation, existentially, is a life where service is greater than salary. This prophetic presence speaks of a revolutionary, radical fellowship that invites all to experience the high call of leadership of dying empty. The capacity to understand with extreme levels of empathy that surpasses the superficial and misguided sympathy exists as strange fruit in the life of one who stands with courage. It is the effort to exude courage within a framework that is systematically engineered to destroy those who take a stand. This vocation where theology places you in the center of an incarnational moment en route to an introduction with a revolutionary paideia –the process of educating man/woman into his true form, the real and genuine human nature. Cornel West simplifies it with these words

“..I would just characterize it as moving from the superficial to the substantial, moving from the frivolous to the serious, and then cultivating a self to wrestle with reality and history and mortality and, most importantly, promoting a maturation of the soul.”

The incarnational, paideia experience re-informs thinking and reshapes the narrative. Meaning becomes more subjective in previous places where it materialized as rhetoric. The cost of experience becomes a soul-wrenching testament that speaks through a closed mouth. This theo-tainment of beholding takes a real presence as others begin to perceive how God through the hardship of life refashions the heart. Dr. Martin Luther King encounters this moment while sitting at his kitchen table,

“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.”

“The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory.” I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

“At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

We all have moments in our lives when the call of God becomes an existential reality. We are part of the sovereign plan that God has orchestrated to produce his will. The method may be extremely chaotic from our vantage point but ultimately it places us in the impetus of what will evidently need.

Over the past year, I have encountered such an experience with God. I have been through some of the lowest times of my life to the point that I contemplated taken my own life. It seemed that everything continued to get worse and worse as the weeks went by. It then culminated with me be arrested for something that I didn’t do and spending some time in jail. That time changed me more than I realized. At the age of 40, I have never been in handcuffs. Yes, I have seen many people go to jail as well as work their way through the judicial system. But until my experience, I could never understand the lingering aftermath of jail until I went. Though I was innocent, I had the experience that reshape my entire narrative.

As I navigated through the murky waters of confusion and pondering the” why me”, I received some good wisdom. My friend, professor and mentor said to me, “Brian, welcome to the fraternity.” He started to unpack a system that has proclivities to place all black men in handcuffs at least once in their lives. His disquieting connections help me make sense out of the senseless. It was doing my incarnational,paideia experience where I had to the chance to see first-hand what injustice looks like from another perspective other than being black. Now, I was black in handcuffs (feet and hands) and was treated as if I was truly the wretched of the earth. As I talk with young brothers –black ,white and Mexican –my heart was troubled at the criminal element that governed their entire mental model. They were comfortable with being incarcerated.

As I laid on the steel bed, I reflected upon Jesus coming and dwelling with us on Earth. I thought that it had to be something special for him to allow himself to be incarnated into a place that was so foreign to him as jail was foreign to me. The ability to display love at such a high order in an unfamiliar place brought a sense of urgency that I have been unable to shake. Being incarnated into that jail made me come to some realization that the church is losing, and losing bad.

This new fraternity is not one that we celebrate but one that we hold with extreme empathy. It is one where the danger of incarnation becomes a burden and our greek letters are…

agape

That is word agape’ which means love…Dr. Martin Luther King articulates agape with these words:

Agape is not weak, passive love. It is love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it. Agape is a willingness to sacrifice in the interest of mutuality. Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community.

So as I crossed over a couple of weeks ago, Brian was destroyed and renamed inmate 251456, and resurfaced as one ready to serve. This new fraternity though forged in the fires of shame and embarrassment has transformed and re-established the essence of Sankofa in my life.

Welcome to the fraternity!!!!