Seminary and the Curse of Ham: On the need for Diverse Faculty

 

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Noah damning Ham, 19th-century painting by Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov.

 

Part I: Seminary, the Sons of God, and the Curse of Ham (if all you care about is the interpretation of the curse of Ham feel free to skip to Part II below)

I went seminary to learn the Bible. I think all of us who become clergy or professors are drawn in part by our curiosity about the Scriptures. We are driven by a desire to know. At our best, we want to take that information and use it to preach God’s word faithfully to those he has entrusted to us. For me, this desire to know took me far from the south of my childhood. But I was willing to brave the snowstorms and New England culture that was so alien to me if it meant understanding the Scriptures better by the end.

So I did as I was told. I learned my Greek and Hebrew. I studied paradigms and learned (at least partially) how to diagram sentences. But the more time I spent in exegesis and theology courses, the more I realized that my interests and those of my caucasian colleagues diverged at a variety of points, none more so than in the issues that received extended discussion in class.

I remember being told that everybody had to be able to answer questions about the following text, as it was sure to come up during the course of our pastoral ministry:

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years (Gen 6:1–3).”

Who were these sons of God? Fallen Angels? The descendants of Seth? If memory serves, we were all required to write a paper on the topic. I honestly cannot recall what I said. Before seminary, I had never given much thought to who these sons of God might be and since seminary, no one has asked me about them.

From childhood, I had known about the curse of Ham. I knew that it meant I was supposed to be inferior. Thus, black slavery in the past and our present second-class status was a manifestation of the will of God. I remember looking forward to dealing with this text in detail at some point in seminary.

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He is Everything or He is Nothing: The Resurrection and the Claims of Jesus

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To be quite honest, the Easter Sunday Mass has never been my favorite. I have always been drawn to the evening services of Holy Week. Each year I am struck by the stripping of the altars on Maundy Thursday when the altar, divested of it’s glorify, mimics the stripped and beaten body of our savior. Then there is subsequent departure in silence. Have you been there? Have you seen it? Have you felt deep within in your soul that we share in failure of the disciples who abandoned Jesus at his hour of great need? That was the hour of darkness when the Son of Man was handed over to sinners.

On Good Friday I am stirred by the entry in silence. No hymns, no incense, no altar hangings, just the bare wooden altar that symbolizes the cross that awaits our king. Then we venerate the cross. The church, the whole of it, gathers one by one to glory in an instrument of death that has become our life. In the American church, we conclude the Good Friday liturgy with a prayer that says

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set
your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and
our souls, now and in the hour of our death.

That’s it isn’t? The Son, who has authority to cast us away into darkness, the judge of the living and the dead, is the one who intercedes on our behalf. Good Friday says it plainly: set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls.

The last of the evening services is the Great Vigil of Easter. If any celebration can lay claim to being the summit of the Christian year, it is this one. Have you been to one of these services? Have you begun outside the church in the dark of the night and heard the cantor proclaim the light of Christ? Have you heard the exultet: Rejoice now heavenly host and choirs of Angels! Have you heard the repeated refrain this is the night each time more urgent:

This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children                                                  of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt.

This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered                                            from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness
of life.

This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell,                                       and rose victorious from the grave.

But when we turn to the morning – Easter Sunday – the church has no special liturgy for this day! I find that shocking. There is a collect celebrating the resurrection, but otherwise the liturgy of Easter is almost indistinguishable from any other Sunday. It is almost as if the church has said, we have given you our testimony. He has died, he is risen, and we are filled with joy. It seems that the church recognizes that we cannot fit the entire story of the Christian faith into a Sunday morning and so it does not try. In fact, the liturgical experts will tell you the services of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are not three services, but one. We take three full days to reflect on the death and resurrection of our savior and even then we only skirt the edges of the mystery. There is a lesson in this.

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Give me your feet and I will give you mine: Footwashing amongst the Baptists and Episcopalians

 

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Image by © Homer Sykes/CORBIS

 

I can say with confidence that I have washed more feet than any Episcopal priest that I know. This is not because my previous parishes enthusiastically embraced Maundy Thursday. No, I make this claim this because I was raised as a member of the Primitive Baptist Church. In that tradition, once per month as a part of our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we washed each other’s feet. I am not speaking about the pastors washing the feet of the elect. The whole church joined in this work. Well, at least the faithful who stayed after the main service concluded to share in “the Supper and Footwashing” as we used to call it.

I recall looking at my mom  with pleading in my eyes when that faithful Sunday rolled around. “Can we please go home? The football game is about to start.” Before you judge me for my lack of piety, keep in mind that by this time I would have already been at church since 10:30 (9:30 if we made it to Sunday school). By the time the main service ended, we would be knocking on the door of 1:00 pm. The Lord’s Supper and footwashing, when added to the small talk that inevitably followed, would move our departure to something north of 2:00 pm. As often as not, we stayed and I endured.

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Two Boats, One Gospel: Black History Month and the Church’s Witness

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(Orthodox icon of the Church as boat)

 

And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, “For we are also His offspring.” from the Acts of the Apostles

I have learned three histories in my lifetime. In school, they focused on the exploits of the descendants of the Mayflower. Theirs is a story of triumph over every obstacle that hindered an inevitable rise to greatness. It glories in America’s interventions at turning points in world history. The heroes in this tale do not look like me. My ancestors are relegated to the background, only invited forward to speak on the equality that should exist on the other side of our suffering. But that suffering itself must be forgotten. This is a past that gets omitted from the retelling. If some want to hold to their most cherished narratives, it stands as a sign to be contradicted.

I learned the full story of the survivors of the Middle Passage on my own. The twenty-eight days of Black History Month were insufficient to cover it. That tale had its own esteem, but it initially produced anger. Resentment is understandable when you discover that the neighborhoods and schools that still press hard against the dreams of the children who reside there — places that you too had to survive — did not arise by happenstance or the laziness of your ancestors. They were legislated. I can’t unread W.E.B. Dubois. The poets and novels of the Harlem Renaissance reshaped my imagination, and I live in the aftermath. But what shall I do now? Do I use my history as a weapon of mass destruction and locate evil in the flesh of those caused us pain?

That is not the path I choose to take. A third and deeper story has intervened. Before there was an “America,” before the slave ships arrived on the shores of West Africa, we were — all of us — profoundly loved by the one who gave his life in order to welcome us to his father’s home. In the midst of my anger, Jesus has come and spoken words of peace. I now see that our destinies (black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Native-American) are united, caught up in the one story of the one people of God. America’s story is only important as a witness to the gospel’s power to bring beauty out of pain and estrangement. We are penultimate.

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Blaming the Africans: Cultural Imperialism and the Meeting of the Primates

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Sally Struthers was the first to introduce me to Africa. She told me that while 70 cents would garner me a coke, that same two quarters and four nickels could feed an African. My next memory of Africa comes from watching the rise and fall of that famed warrior Shaka Zulu. In the movie,  his story ended in a doomed war against colonialist invaders. These two images, Africa as starving and in need of American salvation and Africa as primitive and violent, shaped my initial view of “the dark continent.” I wished that I could say that time has changed the way that Africa is presented in the West, but recently my seven-year-old son came home from school and asked me whether Africa had cities.

Memories of this paternalistic and monochrome view of Africa returned as I observed the response of some members of the Episcopal Church to the recent meeting of the Primates. I have listened as we lambasted “the Africans” as if they form one country that spoke one language and shared one view of the world: apparently uninformed bigotry.[1] We have pretended that they are not a multi-cultural continent with the same mix of good and bad that is indicative of all societies. I must say this as plainly as possible: If Korea, Japan, India, and China shared a similar view on human sexuality would we blame –implicitly and explicitly – Asian culture? Would we speak about them as a monolith? Would we assume that they are unthinking and “behind” America and the West? This smacks of cultural imperialism. It is cultural imperialism.

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Finn and the imagination of little black boys

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I do my best to raise my children in the Christian faith. As a good Anglican, I dutifully instructed my kids about Advent and the coming of the child who would be king. I even managed to sneak in a discussion of the Second Advent when Jesus shall come again to swallow up death forever.

But if I want my son’s eyes to glimmer with expectation, I need only mention Star Wars. He has as much faith as a seven-year-old can muster, but he longs to see Hans Solo. Martin Luther King Jr. is wonderful, but sometimes little boys want to fly.

We were in the midst of yet another discussion of Star Wars when I asked him which character he liked best. I assumed he would choose Luke Skywalker. Although I named him after the gospel writer, the bearer of the light saber has often gained the upper hand. He exclaimed that he wanted to be Finn because, “he looks like me.” This declaration led to a victory dance that climaxed with a “Yeah, yeah, yeah!”

Then, once again, my son thrust me back in time to my childhood. I went through my catalog of heroes searching for another ‘Finn.’ There was Storm from the X-men, but she was rarely the lead. The X-men belonged to Wolverine and Cyclops. Every now and then our sports heroes were transformed into cartoons. I recall Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan showing up to save the day, but the real world saving belonged to the professionals. None of them led me to engage in a celebratory dance of identification.

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In Praise of Christmas Music During Advent

 

 

Anglicans love to remind less liturgically oriented Christians that early December marks the beginning of Advent, not Christmas season. Thus, the very claim of a war on Christmas is a misnomer. The true season under siege by the retailers and Christians of questionable taste is Advent. Blame it on the zeal of a convert, but I remember my early attempts to keep my Advent season pure from the taint of Christmas music. I was one of those wearisome Christians who used to say, “We are supposed to be getting for Christmas! Jesus is not here yet, can’t we wait until the actual 12 days of Christmas to celebrate the birth of the Messiah?”

Strangely enough, I do not remember critiquing my fellow Christians for singing about the crucifixion outside of Good Friday nor do I recall limiting the celebration of the resurrection to Easter. But I digress.

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Mourning and the Kingdom: Paris, Beirut, Nigeria.

images-2Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted –Jesus Christ

One of the central tenants of the loosely organized movement labeled “black lives matter” is the idea that black lives are not as highly prized as others. It was never, at least in the Christian appropriation of the term, meant to negate the idea that police lives matter. It was never intended to dispute the fact that all lives matter. It is not really a movement so much as an expression of a sentiment or a feeling, the feeling that sometimes black lives and deaths were viewed differently than whites in the United States. It was a call to mourn so that one day that mourning would be far less frequent.

I thought about this as the inevitable comparison was made between the lament over lives of the people slaughtered in Paris, Beirut, and Nigeria. The inequality of attention is not a matter of dispute. It is clear. What comes after the rhetorical points have been scored? How should we pray?

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The Christian call to prayer is more than a mere expression of grief. It is an declaration of our pain before the throne of the God who can act to heal and save. We pray for the coming of the kingdom because Jesus’ just rule is the hope for the nations. When our call to prayer is a not so thinly veiled call for advocacy it betrays a hope for the wrong type of kingdom. All governments matter and the laws that expand freedom and opportunity should be the subject of the Christian’s concern, but these concerns are penultimate. When things are at their worst and different cultures look askance at one another, when declarations of war and retribution bloody our thoughts, when the Muslim is described as subhuman, it is the death and resurrection of Jesus that pulls us back from the brink.

Continue reading “Mourning and the Kingdom: Paris, Beirut, Nigeria.”

White Privilege and Denominational Choice (a partial response to Bishop-Elect Sumner, Fr. Hylden, and Fr. Voets)

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Over the last few days, I have observed many within in the Episcopal Church (hereafter TEC) rightly praise the recent entry in the Living Church Covenant blog by Bishop-elect Sumner. My own alma mater, the Nashotah House, distributed it to a list that I assume included all its current and former students. If my read of the positive response is correct, many view his proposal as viable path forward for traditionalists in TEC. What follows is an attempt to think through the implications of his proposal for a group that rarely enters these discussions: ethnic minorities who hold a traditional perspective on human sexuality. I do not speak for all minorities in what follows. These thoughts are my own.

While I found much to praise in the piece, especially its clarity of thought and irenic defense of orthodoxy, I also felt a sense of discomfort. Because the idea of white privilege causes some of my brothers and sisters to experience a discomfort of their own, let me be clear about what I am not saying. I am not asserting that the bishop elect’s article was racist. God forbid! Bishop-elect Sumner appears to be a godly and wise leader who will serve the body of Christ well. I am stating the obvious fact that our life experiences influence the way that we view the world and they shape how we respond to the problems that plague society and the church. Solutions that may seem viable to one group (white traditionalists in TEC) may place burdens on others (black traditionalists in that same church) that the author may not have considered. I believe that failure is rooted in the privilege of not having to consider such problems. For example, many blacks weary of telling their white colleagues that the statement “I do not see color” embodies a privilege that blacks cannot afford.

If I understand him correctly, Bishop-elect Sumner speaks to two audiences. He wants to help conservatives understand their place in the church. They are theological minorities. Second, he wants to help progressives find a way, from within their own tradition, to embrace the minority status of conservatives. His article definitely does more than this, but this is the part I want to engage. How does the proposal offered by Bishop-elect Sumner that  traditionalists should embrace the role of a theological minority (in exile no less) and lean on progressive theology’s own value of diversity, as evinced in the work of F.D. Maurice, sound to a black traditionalist? For this one, it is daunting for a variety of reasons.

First despite the theological divide that exists in the Episcopal Church, it is relatively culturally cohesive. It is largely upper-middle-class, Caucasian, and politically left-leaning. Thus, while the white conservative in TEC may be theologically alienated from the majority of the church, social life is not always a challenge. Many Episcopalians went to the same colleges and seminaries. They can enjoy NPR together. There is a certain overlap in tastes of music, film, and food. These may seem to be small matters, but sermon topics, illustrations, movie references, and small talk emerge from a cultural milieu that determine the feel of a local congregation. Most of these congregations feel alienating to minorities, as the attendance sheets will tell you.

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