CJ Rhodes Show Returns THIS Sunday

CJRS

This Sunday (December 1) I have the privilege of returning to my talk radio show on WRBJ 97.7 FM after a brief hiatus. Back in September I began a new vocation as the Rector of Oakland Memorial Chapel at Alcorn State University. Even though my wife, Allison, and I still live in Jackson, I took a break from the show as we got adjusted to my new life and ministry season in the Home of the Braves.

I missed being on the radio, sitting behind the soundboard and an inch away from the suspended microphone, looking across the way at a thoughtful guest eager to share her or his story or latest event. I missed being able to talk with everyday people who listened to the show from their car radios or their computers or through an app on their iPad or smartphone. I missed contributing the conversations dear to me and to many.

So I return with much gratitude for all my listeners, especially those who asked when I would be back on the air. And I thank the management team at WRBJ for holding down the slot until I was able to recalibrate my hectic schedule. I am looking forward to sharing again through this powerful medium. Look forward to more conversations with everyday people changing their communities, both locally and throughout our country.

So tune in this Sunday at 2:30 pm CST for an all new CJ Rhodes Show on WRBJ 97.7 FM. If you’re not in the Jackson-Metro area, you can listen live to the show with  http://http://tunein.com/radio/WRBJ-977-s22442/.

Much love,

 

CJ

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Pope Francis, Progressive Conservatism, and the Renewal of the Church

Pope Francis

“I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”

Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (27)

On March 13, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the Roman Catholic Church’s 266th Pope and its first from Latin America. Soon after his election to the papacy media pundits and onlookers from the Christian and atheist West began to speculate what his historic ascendency would mean for Catholicism and the world. Latin American Catholicism served as a genesis for liberation theology, with its holy preoccupation on loving the poor through justice, and there was hope that this pope, unlike his predecessor, would be much more liberal on social issues. It wouldn’t be too long before Pope Francis, like his namesake Francis of Assisi, would prove to be concerned with the poor, with justice, and with reform. Pope Francis forsook the “worldliness” of papal materialism and privilege by refusing to live in the apostolic palace, being chauffeured in luxury vehicles, and wearing designer threads (like Pope Benedict’s Prada shoes). This pope has rebelled against religious respectability, praying for and touching lepers of all kinds. In his most recent “apostolic exhortation” Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis calls for an evangelical Catholicism semper reformanda  secundum verbi dei (always reforming according to the word of God).

In many ways this pope is no different from many of his Petrine processors, like the well beloved Pope John Paul II. Yet he seems to be a breath of fresh air with the (extra)ordinariness of his style of evangelization in word and deed.  What I’ve noticed about much of the mainstream media, however, is that they want him to be someone or something he never promised us he will be. To be sure, his compassionate and at time brutally honest comments about the Church’s relationship to LGBT and divorced faithful, the crushing impact of unbridled capitalism, and the demands for ecclesiastical reforms are all his own and incite a kind of hopefulness among liberals, secularists, and even Christians on the Evangelical Left and Right. But often the media engages in confirmation bias, cherry-picking the elements of Pope Francis’ theology and praxis that align with their narrow interests. What is often ignored is that he maintains and speaks authoritatively in common voice with the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, especially its theological and ecclesiological orientations since Vatican II. This pope will still embrace creedal Catholicism and the culture of life that opposes abortion and homosexuality and women’s ordination on theo-historical grounds. Though deeply compassionate and reformative, the Franciscan revolution will be neither liberal nor conservative, but Catholic, a more excellent way, some would say, from the religious and political extremisms that captivate the Western imagination.

As a non-Catholic Christian shaped by streams of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism flowing through the Black Church Traditions, I have much respect for Pope Francis and am encouraged by his moral vision. Since I’m not Catholic I reserve the right to affirm and disagree with various things Pope Francis believes and does. But I do not seek to make him into anything he is not; he can speak for himself. What I do hope is that this papal reformer will inspire us in the black church traditions to take up the righteous task of reforming our local churches and denominations, both of which are in desperate need of reform, renewal, and revolution. And I am inspired by the way he’s going about these things: seeing in his own Tradition a tradition of openness to the work of the Holy Spirit, to a missionary impulse, to a church with and for the poor. May Baptists and Pentecostals, too, see in our traditions both the piety and the protest that will call us to renewal for the sake of our present age.

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Moral Leadership in a Machiavellian World

“Politics has no relation to morals.” Niccolo Machiavelli

“Cowardice asks the question – is it safe? Expediency asks the question – is it politic? Vanity asks the question – is it popular? But conscience asks the question – is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.

Martin Luther King Jr. (emphasis added)

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MLK JR NONCONFORMING

Last Friday I was honored to share my thoughts on the state of moral leadership at the Friday Forum, a gathering of engaged community leaders held weekly at Koinonia Coffee House, a West Jackson socially conscious small business. I didn’t pull the ideas about this kind of leadership out of thin air; I have pondered the definition and state of moral leadership with some consistency since I returned to Mississippi. In our state’s capital city I worked for a Christian racial reconciliation nonprofit, served as senior pastor of Jackson’s oldest black congregation, and was an active advocate for a more open and just society. Now as a religious leader and assistant professor at Alcorn, one of our oldest HBCUs, I continue to ponder this urgent subject. In these contexts I observed up close and at a distance the political machinations both in the local churches and in local governments. As a community engaged pastor-theologian, I often felt like a novitiate with regards to how amoral “leaders” in both spheres were in their desires to acquire and maintain power, seemingly for vainglorious reasons. As someone who believes character matters as much, or more, than charisma I was often disappointed by the ways in which church folks, politicians, and civic leaders who described themselves as Christians or believers in some religious and ethical tradition were seduced by the spirit of the age, the prince of the air, the god of this world. People I long respected revealed themselves to have no moral center, no anchor in a time and place adrift with immorality and injustice. But as Marvin Sapp sang, I’m stronger and wiser now. I know the games and I know more clearly the distinction between moral leaders and what I call Machiavellian ones. The following insights are what I shared with that intimate gathering of leaders last Friday.

1. Moral leadership is about more than doing

All leaders are in some way defined by what they do: leaders influence, inspire, initiate, inform, and institutionalize. They cast vision, mobilize followers, and improve the common good of the led. Leaders makes more leaders.

Great leaders do all of these things well. But I have discovered that what separates moral leaders from leaders generally is that moral leaders aren’t defined simply by what they do…they are defined by who they are and how they do what must be done. Moral leadership demands that those who desire to lead discern the “content of their character” and have something for which to stand. Moral leadership is about being virtuous, not perfect or self-righteous, but always considering how your decisions glorify God, affirm human dignity, and do the most good. The bottom line for these leaders isn’t profit margins, winning elections, or climbing the executive ladder (though these things in and of themselves aren’t bad); the moral leader wants to be ethical, have integrity, and do the right things along the way to her or his goals in life. The moral leader asks will God or my mama be proud of me if I do this.

2. Moral leaders are self-reflective

In his book The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership that Matters, Albert Mohler asserts, “Leadership is the greatest intellectual challenge I can imagine.” I agree. Moral leaders think deeply about who they really are, what they are called to do, what challenges they’ll face in seeking to achieve that purpose, how to deal with complex problems and people, and so on. But as Martin Luther King Jr said, one of the hardest things to do is to get people to think…even about ourselves. Since leadership is so action-driven, and what must be done has a kind of urgency, some leaders go to the frontlines not spiritually or mentally dressed for the battle. They don’t know who and whose they are and haven’t done the soul-searching necessary for identifying and clarifying their core convictions, the things for which they are willing stand to die. Moral leaders do the hard work of reflecting on their story and how it fits into a larger narrative of truth and transformation. Without this, they risk losing themselves and others in the journey.   

3. The 3 V’s of moral leadership

I am convinced that every moral leader must identify their values, vision, and voice. All leaders, even Machiavellian ones, have values. They often value duplicity, dishonesty, unbridled power, control, and narcissism. But the moral leader must value things much more excellent, eternal, and virtuous. Things like spirituality, justice, community, family, etc., must be part of the stuff moral leaders are made of. Once these values are identified through self-reflection, they must be clarified through further self-reflection and conversation.

Once these values have been clarified, they need to be shaped into a compelling vision. The moral leader must be honest about the present state of things and hopeful about the making of things to come. The vision must be able to compel people from apathy, corruption, injustice, and complicity toward a bright hope for tomorrow and the flourishing of human community. This vision must be understood as something too big for your singular achievement. It’ll take God to help bring to pass a God-sized vision. It’ll also take everyday people contributing in ordinary ways to co-creating a preferred future. The moral leader thus understands herself or himself as part of something bigger and doesn’t seek to be the fulfillment of everything desired by the led.

This vision must be clearly and convincingly communicated in your authentic voice. In self-reflection the moral leader has listened for what Howard Thurman calls the “sound of the genuine.” Every moral leader must identify his or her authentic voice and communicate the vision in ways that compliment that leader’s purpose and personality. A voiceless vision is a vision never actualized. Whether through sermon, song, or social media, the moral leader must cast the vision, make it plain, and make it so welcoming that others want to run with it.

4. The means are as important as the ends

Machiavellian leaders have a goal in mind and don’t care who they mislead, hurt, or defame to get there. They operate in the spirit of the “enemy” who comes to steal, kill, and destroy. (John 10:10) Even if the ends are good, just, and beautiful, the means to those ends are evil, unjust, and ugly. For the Machiavellian, there are no morals save one: win by any means necessary!

The moral leader, on the other hand, believes that how you get to your goal is as important as the goal itself. The moral leader cherishes humanity too much to see people as tools, things, and objects. They are concerned about something greater than themselves. Certainly, the moral leader wants to win in order to implement his or her vision but would rather lose gracefully on principles than to win deceitfully, because the moral leader is convinced that truth crushed to the earth will rise again.

5. Moral leaders are in short supply

The state of our moral leadership is in question. Particularly in the black community, many of our religious, civic, and political leaders have chosen the Dark Side, believing there is great gain in corruption, debauchery, and misinformation. Many of our own leaders have taken from the oppressor’s playbook and have become oppressors of a different kind. As Zora Neale Hurston powerfully said, “All our skinfolks ain’t our kinfolks!” And sadly it seems many of the led are satisfied with this state of things.

But I am convinced that God will never leave Himself without a witness and God always has a remnant who seek “to do justice, and to love kindness,and to walk humbly with [our] God.” (Micah 6:8)

My prayer is that more leaders lead morally and that the led will demand that their leaders be moral and hold us accountable to a more excellent way.

 

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God’s Trombones: The Black Church’s Certain Sound in Uncertain Times (BTLI Reflection Part IV)

Preachers

Me with Revs. Neichelle Guidry-Jones and Akeem Walker

Is there a word from the Lord?

Indeed there is a word from the Lord and as God’s trombones we must play a certain and sure sound. In a time of extreme fatherlessness, abject poverty, epidemic teen births and sexually transmitted diseases, inadequate healthcare, failing public schools, thriving private prisons, crumbling urban infrastructures, astronomical debt, moral decay and decadence, etc., the church has the unique mission of being salt and light in a dying and dark world. But how are we to do this? How are we to remain faithful to Jesus and to his commission? How do we turn to the Holy Spirit for power that goes beyond black or white power, or political power? How do we remain the Church, not just another organization or institution doing good? How do we offer something uniquely theological in a world that slowly drifts from any notions of the supernatural and the spiritual?

These were some of the questions we entertained, wrestling with them through the topics of Christology (the doctrine of Jesus Christ), Pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit), Theodicy (the doctrine of suffering and evil), and Christian Leadership (applied theological ethics). How does the revelation of Jesus Christ, to whom we bear witness in the power of the Holy Spirit, speak to the collective suffering of the black experience, and how do we in the 21st century lead the Church in leading America toward liberation?

To gesture toward answering this question, let me speak no longer in the plural but in the singular. Though Cone was a necessary critique of dominating whiteness in the American academy and church, we must note that he was not the first “black liberation theologian.” In a certain sense the black church’s genesis is that of black liberation theology. Indeed the black church isn’t monolithic and generalized definitions are harder to pin down. But it must be noted that all the independent, predominantly black churches and denominations that emerged during slavery and de jure Jim Crow were protest movements that defied the political theo-logic of American racism. What is stunning is how enslaved Africans could discern the difference between orthodoxy and heresy in the preaching and teaching of their slavers. Jesus as the hermeneutical key to understanding the faith led them to see the Christ as a co-sufferer; that by his incarnation and crucifixion the King of Glory elected to live like a slave and to in all ways suffer like us. In this way a profoundly Christocentric theology emerged, one in which Jesus was best friend, bright hope, a way out of no way, the Righteous Judge, a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless. In Jesus our ancestors saw the freedom of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage as somehow their story too. They read themselves into the biblical text with sanctified imaginations that helped them through this barren land on their way to Canaan’s edge. The God that delivered Israel was their God, a God for them. Didn’t our God deliver Daniel? Then why not every one?

This ethic of liberation preached in coded tongues in the hush arbors was passed on to later generations who would break free both physically and institutionally from an apostate church that refused to break its idols. Who the Son set free was free indeed! And since Jesus lifted them, why should they be bound, even at the altar? This protest movement was iconoclastic; it broke the very racial imagination that sought to dominate black flesh. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and many others had charted the way toward a Christianity that was liberating. Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, Daniel Payne, William Colley, Charles Price Jones, William Seymour, Charles Harrison Mason, and countless others took the Gospel torch and continued to run the race set before them.

Some scholars have erroneously thought that the prophetic element of the black church died following abolition and resurged under the charismatic leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and then died again in the so-called post-civil rights era. Nothing is furthest from the truth. The black church in diverse and divergent ways, with a complicated history, has persevered in greater and lesser degrees as a prophetic conscience for the nation. It has shown up in different ways. For many black Baptists, the prophetic content of the preaching and living was in its missions to Africa and in the commitment to education of the masses. For the Pentecostals, it was retained in Mason’s insistence that black worship affirmed its embodied nature in the face of phobia toward all things African and in his pacifism that led him to be imprisoned for conscientious objection. Black Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals were preeminent in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. And many black churches from the 1970s forward have invested time, talent, and treasure in missions, charity, justice advocacy, and comprehensive community development efforts.

Understanding this will help move beyond the stereotypes made of the black church by scholars who rarely if ever attend and are committed to black churches. When Eddie Glaude, a religion professor at Princeton University, wrote a scathing eulogy for the black church published online by the Huffington Post, it raised appropriate questions about the state of black churches while also igniting ire from those in the black church community who have dedicated themselves to the transformative and tedious work of redemption in the forgotten areas of the American Empire.
To be sure, the black church isn’t beyond criticism. So much has been left undone and so much must yet be done. Too many have succumbed to newer heresies of the Prosperity doctrine, secular humanism, etc. But the black church, as a sociological phenomenon born of theological necessity and urgency, is still a gift of prophetic sight for our country. What must be done in deeper ways, especially for Baptists and Pentecostals, is to think more critically, more theologically, about the relationships between Christian doctrine and Christian duty, between our worship and our witness, in this present age. Too many of our churches are maintaining and not thriving, therefore not able to contribute distinctively and daringly to the context of liberation. In order to have a clear and audible voice, we have to do the hard work of constructive theology. In other words, we must highlight or create a theology of liberation that speaks to our context. I am convinced that one needn’t turn first to Cone and others for such insights. Even though they are helpful, I believe that our traditions already have within them wonderful theological and ethical resources for impacting our communities. After we have done this we can come to the advocacy and academic tables as equals, learning from them but also contributing worthy reflections and strategies that must be included if we are to change our society holistically.

Moreover, we must move beyond narrow sectarianism and denominationalism. We of course have our differences but we will never know how much we have in common if we continue to fight those played out turf and tribal battles. We are moving toward a post-denominational age when myriad Americans aren’t concerned about our brand religion but about how Jesus can really transform their lives for the better. There is much different churches can learn from each other and ultimately work together collaboratively.

Now that I’m back from Princeton, I have renewed zeal for the unique contributions of theologians and churches to human flourishing. We are seemingly recapitulating the story of the 1950s and 60s. May the Church be present as it was then.

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Christ, Cone, and Culture: Reflections on the Black Theology and Leadership Institute (Part III)

BTLI Class

 

Making theological sense of our vocation in this racialized world was what we were called to do for the week. Fifty persons, demographically diverse, were cloistered together for seven days to work through what that means. And different we were. Generationally, culturally, regionally, philosophically, denominationally different. We were Anglican and Apostolic, Baptist and Evangelical, AME and UCC, Presbyterian and Pentecostal. Male and female. Straight and LGBT. Liberal and conservative. Reserved and libertine. By the end of the week many of us were friends, in spite (and even because) of our differences. And through that difference we discerned how we would move forward together even though there was much about which we vehemently disagreed.

One thing was certain though: we were all confident that we don’t live in a post-racial world. And we were convinced that theology—that wonderful discourse about God and our relationship to God and God’s redemptive acts—still has a purpose in our pursuit to make the world a better place. Oh, and above all, in surprising unity, we overwhelmingly believe that Jesus is our hope and stay. This made us odd in a time when theology and religion are seen as vestiges of a time gone by. But our God changes not; there is no shadow of turning in Him. God is the same today, yesterday, and forevermore. We, too, must not change our devotion to the God revealed to us in the Lord Christ Jesus of Nazareth for God’s glory and for the good of all people.

Nevertheless this diversity would suggest that we, like our predecessors, would be cacophonous in our responses to the critical questions before us. When James Cone wrote his Black Theology and Black Power in 1969, who knew that it would bring about a revolution in academic theological studies? But there was a man of the church wrestling with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and the emerging black power movement and the deadening silence of white theologians who said nothing regarding what King called the Negro Revolution. Cone rightly pondered what did Barth, Tillich, Luther, Swingli, Calvin, and others mean for those whose backs were against the wall? Said differently, what import did academic theology have on blacks struggling for full enfranchisement when theology before Cone’s publication rendered black people and our struggle invisible? Furthermore, Christianity as he knew it was unable, or unwilling, to address the crisis of his soul and of the nation’s and that posed an existential angst in him. No theologian kissed by nature sun could write and teach theology without, as Barth said, having the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. The theologian must not only speak clearly about God and God’s way, the theologian must also interpret the times and seasons with prophetic insight. Cone did that in the 1960s. He had to in order for him to stay located in the church and anchored in Jesus. We were being called upon to do that again today—here and now.

But as with Cone, whose black liberation theology was met with praise and criticism both within the academy and the church, we would have our interlocutors. Those unfamiliar with the genealogy of black liberation theology are often naïve to the nuances and internal debates within and beyond the discipline. The lay theologian who picks up a Cone publication, reads it, and seeks to apply it to their context hasn’t done enough homework, hasn’t placed Cone in conversation with his contemporaries and others after him who would challenge his blindspots. For instance, Cone’s brother Cecil and J. Deotis Roberts critique Cone’s exclusionary posture (wherein he reads all of biblical revelation and the person and work of Jesus through blackness) and his inability to affirm both liberation and reconciliation, the Christian goal for beloved community. Womanists like Katie Canon and Deloris Williams interrogated Cone’s inherent sexism and the ways that his liberation theology was unintentionally oppressive for black women who had no voice in his project. Then there are those new kids on the block like J. Kameron Carter who honor Cone’s courage but say his work doesn’t go far enough and is thus not fully liberatory. Cone would have to revise his liberation theology and its ethical implications a few times as to respond affirmatively to the criticisms of peers in the academy.

And what about the church, the people Cone loved so dearly? The church engaged Cone’s work with varying degrees of receptivity, embracing its prophetic critique of America’s original sin of racism, the idolatry of white supremacy, and the invisibility of black life in the Western academic theological enterprise. Some churches, like Trinity UCC in Chicago (President Obama’s former church), readily embraced Cone’s contextual theology wholesale. Just as some churches were thoroughly Thomistic, Augustinian, or Calvinist, Trinity, for example, was thoroughly Conian. But many other churches had a more dialectical approach to Cone: accepting what they affirmed, throwing away what they didn’t, and bringing forth something new and appropriate for their context. Others found Cone’s work too angry, too academic, and thus too irrelevant for everyday people trying to negotiate the cultures of death with Christian dignity.

And there was the antagonism Cone experienced from the Caribbean and Africa. Many theologians from those native lands were dismissive altogether of Cone’s project, saying it was entirely American and not global enough, even “black” or “African” enough, to speak to the particular needs of the postcolonial worlds in which they lived. 

I labor to share this to say that black liberation theology isn’t monolithic. Different theologians and practitioners fall along a spectrum of thought and action. And just as it was with Cone and his contemporaries, so it was with the participants in the inaugural class of BTLI. We were different. We were along a spectrum. We come from different ministry contexts. But there we were, together, and having to work through our solutions to present problems. We were there because God entrusted to us ministries that must serve this present age. 

And serve it we must. But not simply as black Americans, but as theologians, or as in my case, pastor-theologians. In a world still distressed by racism, classism, and sexism, the question is “Is there a word from the Lord?” This is God-talk, this is theological. Our answer to that question makes all the difference. 

 

James Cone on his Black Liberation Theology:

 

 

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“Sorrowful Joy”: Reflections on the Black Theology and Leadership Institute (Part II)

I couldn’t have arrived to Princeton at a better time. After a long day of Saturday travel I came to the campus just in time for many of us to lament together the George Zimmerman verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder case. I’m not sure if we actually thought he would be found guilty of both counts; I know I didn’t think that. The prosecution presented a poor case and Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law legitimated under the law the senseless murder of an unarmed teenager. We’ve seen legal justice be unjust before. But I don’t know if we thought Zimmerman would walk. The nation swelled with anger, rage, and all the other emotions we are told to suppress but always spill out messily when travesties like that happen. Here we were, a group of fifty pastors, theologians, activists, and lay leaders having come to prestigious Princeton and the next day we would have to seek some kind of theological word in the presence of a national moment that reminded not a few of the lynching of Emmett Till and the subsequent miscarriage of criminal justice with the acquittal of his murderers. But this was exactly why we were there. We are leaders within a new generation that must provide fresh theological voice and Christian service to a nation imploding from injustice, inequity, and immorality.

The first day of the institute began with a mediocre breakfast and thoughtful fellowship. New friends got to know each other in superficial but promising ways. Sooner or later every table in the cafeteria was abuzz with questions and commentary regarding the Zimmerman verdict and its consequences for race relations and systemic change. There was an undeniable consensus that something should be done, not just in response to this verdict and particular situation, but as Christian intellectuals committed to a more just society where all people regardless of race, class, or gender can flourish and secure life, liberty, and pursue happiness. Little did we know then that our week together would attend to the intersection of theology and leading social transformation. Little did we know then that our time together, at that particular time, was due to God’s providential orchestration. Our time of Sunday morning worship would soon make this plainer, at least for me. 

Worship began with a period of praise and worship, a seemingly strange genre and sound for the Presbyterian seminary. The architecture of the chapel suggested that traditional congregational hymn-singing accompanied by a pipe organ was the order of the day. A high vaulted ceiling and the lack of carpet further alerted me to the fact that there was something transgressive about a group of gifted young people leading praise songs. Our bodies swayed, our hands clapped, our arms extended toward heaven in joyful adoration and selfless worship of the God of our weary years. Even in the presence of grief our souls gestured towards praise. Lamentation would soon arise and but for a transcendent moment we, God’s gathered people, worshipped with abandon, knowing—or rather hoping—that the Lord still held the whole world in His hands. 

Yolanda Pierce, a Princeton Seminary professor and our Institute’s convener, welcomed us with warm words that communicated her pathos in light of the Zimmerman verdict. She was angry, but not angry as those who have no hope. She was righteously indignant and saw our being there together as something God inspired. We needed each other—to wrestle together and to love each other and the world in need of healing. This dance of emotions—of joy and pain, or sadness and jubilation—was the kind of thing the Psalmists wrote about. There was nothing ironic or contradictory about it. It was biblical to hold these seemingly conflicting emotions in tension, to hold them and become intimate with them, and in some way transform them into dynamic power to work in what WEB DuBois called “the kingdom of culture.” Our preacher, the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, in a very pastoral way, led us in this negotiation and interpretation. Forgoing his prepared sermon, he was led by the Spirit to give a word of clarity and sobriety that humanized both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. The radical love ethic of Jesus calls us to do that. It’s this extremism of love—of loving people you don’t really want to and the ones the world deems unworthy of love—that was a reminder that being Christian is a rather radical venture. Forbes called us to sit in the emotion long enough for it to wash over us, but not long enough for us to drown in it. Others may, but we could not. Leaders must guide people from the whelming flood. How can we if we’ve drowned too?

This courage to lead, to love our way toward revolution, toward our collective agency to make the world just a little bit better than it was before we entered it, was our charge. 

 

Clergy

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Reflections on the Black Theology and Leadership Institute (Part I)

BTLI

 

God has a funny way of bringing opportunities back to you.

After much debate and discernment, I chose to go to seminary instead of law school when I graduated from college. When that difficult decision was finally made, I then had the laborious task of discerning where I would pursue my theological education. A friend of mine encouraged me to apply to Union Theological Seminary in New York, where James Cone, the progenitor of academic black liberation theology, is a distinguished professor. I applied and got accepted. But upon visiting the seminary in the winter of 2005, I immediately knew that this was a place too cold for me. It wasn’t just cold in terms of New York’s natural climate; it was cold in the seminary’s social climate as well. Here was the towering institution for liberal theological inquiry and social justice ministry, but everything about it seemed to betray its legacy. I would later find out that Union was that odd conundrum of American liberalism: it was theologically committed to the great ideals of liberty and justice but was nevertheless ensconced in institutional white supremacy and Northern elitism. The cold I felt was God’s way of saying that I—a black boy from Mississippi shaped by black evangelicalism and pentecostalism—was not fully welcome in this place of radical inclusion. 

Once I came to terms with this, I searched for other schools throughout this nation, looking into a dozen seminaries before settling on three to which I applied: Princeton, Duke, and Perkins at Southern Methodist University. I wanted to attend a divinity school or seminary that was related to a larger university, a place where I could interact across disciplines, and befriend folks from different fields of study. I also wanted a racially and theologically diverse faculty and a place that didn’t force me to subscribe to its worldview—whether that was liberal, moderate, or conservative. My initial prayer to God was that He would allow me to gain admission and financial scholarship to one of the schools and that would be a sign to me that I was ordained to attend that school. 

God has a sense of humor. I got into Princeton, Duke, and Perkins, all with scholarships! Now, the difficult part. I couldn’t attend all three, at least not at once. Each had its unique strengths and I was variably attracted to them all. But again I sought the Lord, went on a liquid fast for a week, and asked God to show me definitively where I was to go. When I intuited that Duke was my destination, I embraced it and moved on. But part of me continued to wonder what my theological education and experience would have been like if I went to Princeton. To be sure, if I had to do it again I would return to Duke. Nevertheless there’s a part of me that thought about the “what could’ve been” regarding Princeton. That question, though briefly, was answered for me when I attended the inaugural Black Theology and Leadership Institute at Princeton Theological Seminary in July. 

God has a funny way of bringing opportunities back to you.

I found out about the Inaugural Black Theology and Leadership Institute (BTLI) via Twitter, signaling the impact of social media on the present outreach of colleges and universities. After visiting the website I discovered that the Institute was an opportunity of a lifetime. The prestigious and competitive “weeklong intensive continuing education event” was accepting only fifty participants from around the nation and world. Fifty. Thousands would apply. Only fifty would be accepted. 

I determined that I wanted to be one of those fifty. So I took a leap of faith. I had no idea if I would get into the institute, but how would I know if I didn’t try? So I sat in front of my office computer and typed up an application essay that detailed my call to the pastoral vocation and my then present context of ministry, leading the oldest historically black congregation in Mississippi’s capital city. It may have been the latter that won me admission into the program, and again to Princeton Seminary. When I received my acceptance letter via email, I was overjoyed and humbled by the amazing grace of God. I never take for granted such blessings. As someone nurtured in a small Mississippi railroad town deemed to be incapable of producing giants, I never, ever take these blessings for granted. God has endowed me with an inquisitive mind, an insatiable appetite for knowledge, and an openness to new ideas and adventures, but all of that has been the giftedness that has presented me before great people and opportunities. Such was Princeton and the BTLI. Only God could have chosen me out of thousands of applicants. I would discover upon arrival that I was the only one out of fifty from Mississippi. 

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