Tuesday, March 31, 2015

REPENTANCE, RECONCILIATION, AND BAPTISTS: Re-Imagining and Embracing the Subversive Gospel of Jesus in the 21st Century

©Wendell Griffen, 2015
MARCH 24, 2015

Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me,
Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.
Break me, melt me, mold me, fill me.
Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.[1]

Dean Williford, learned faculty, faithful staff members, and aspiring students of the learning community known as Logsdon Seminary, reverend clergy and laity, sisters and brothers.

          I dare not open this final submission in the two-part lecture series you have graciously allowed me to present without expressing my gratitude for the invitation you extended and the hospitality you have lavished on me. 

I was born September 23, 1952, and grew up in rural southwest Arkansas.  That history places me in the last generation of black people with firsthand experience of the version of racial apartheid in the United States known as Jim Crow segregation.  My now transcended parents and the other elders who nurtured my faith as I grew up in the Harrison Chapel Baptist Church of Antoine, Arkansas constantly told me and other children of our community that God would open doors and make a way.  They knew they could not spare us from the bitter taste and gnawing wounds of racism.  But they lived with and inspired in us a hope stronger than the oppression that threatened to wound and kill our bodies, enslave our minds, and cripple our spirits.  Your invitation and hospitality confirms that hope.  Thank you for confirming the hope Daddy, Momma, and my childhood elders faithfully affirmed and inspired me to claim as my own.  

          Today I will speak about Repentance, Reconciliation, and Baptists—Re-Imagining and Embracing the Subversive Gospel of Jesus in the 21st Century.  I intend to offer suggestions for Baptist engagement—denominationally, academically, congregationally, and personally, concerning social ethics drawing on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for a “radical revolution of values.  And I will suggest that re-imagining and embracing the gospel of Jesus in this “subversive” way, Baptist followers of Jesus will be inspired and empowered to confront racism, sexism, classism, imperialism, militarism, and techno-centrism.  While I recognize these are prevalent and entrenched causes of oppression today, I will conclude by affirming agreement with South African theologian Allan Aubrey Boesak, my dear friend and brother, and “dare” to “speak of hope.”[2]

          A year to the day before he was assassinated Martin Luther King, a Baptist pastor, publicly defined the war in Vietnam as a civil rights issue on April 4, 1967 in an address titled Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break Silence to a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam at Riverside Church in New York City.  In doing so, Dr. King uttered the following prescient statement.

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy-and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. … In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution.  … I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.  We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society.  When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.  On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act.  One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway.  True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial.  It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.  A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.  With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say:  "This is not just."  It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say:  "This is not just."  … A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war:  "This way of settling differences is not just."  This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.  A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. 
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values.  There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.  There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.[3]

Public reaction to King's message was swift and hostile.  A number of editorial writers attacked him for connecting Vietnam to the civil rights movement.  The New York Times issued an editorial claiming that King had damaged the peace movement as well as the civil rights movement.  Life magazine assailed the speech as "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi."  The Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American publication, charged King with "tragically misleading" black people.  And at the White House, President Lyndon Johnson was quoted as saying, "What is that goddamned nigger preacher doing to me?  We gave him the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we gave him the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we gave him the War on Poverty.  What more does he want?"[4] 

          Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee exactly one year after he delivered the speech written by Dr. Vincent Harding, a black historian and trusted friend.  Despite the hostile reaction to the speech, Martin King and Vincent Harding never disavowed it.  But Dr. Harding, who passed away last year, always believed the speech was the reason King was murdered.  “It was precisely one year to the day after this speech that that bullet which had been chasing him for a long time finally caught up with him,” Dr. Harding said in a 2010 interview. “And I am convinced that that bullet had something to do with that speech. And over the years, that’s been quite a struggle for me.”[5]
Nine years after his death Dr. King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by another Baptist from Georgia, President Jimmy Carter.  A federal holiday has been established to honor his birthday.  His statue has been placed in Washington, DC.  Numerous cities and towns have re-named major traffic arteries for him in the United States, and he is revered throughout the world as one of the most prophetic souls of the twentieth century, if not the modern era.  When President Barack Obama took the oath of office to begin his second term, he placed his hand on a Bible that belonged to Dr. King and alluded to him during his inaugural address. 

          Yet the veneration of Dr. King has not included any significant or serious effort by U.S. policymakers, social commentators, and moral leaders—including Baptist clergy, laity, associations, denominations, and educational institutions—to embrace the "radical revolution of values" King called for in A Time to Break Silence.  The "giant triplets" of racism, militarism, and materialism have not been confronted.  The U.S. currently devotes more of its budget on national defense and homeland security than on educating children, fighting disease, feeding the hungry and alleviating poverty. 

          We may never learn the true financial cost of the tragic military misadventure known as the war in Iraq.  As the tenth anniversary of the war in Iraq approached Reuters reported on a study by a team of academicians which tallied the cost of the war at $1.7 trillion, a figure that did not include $490 billion owed to Iraqi war veterans for disability benefits.  The study projected that expenses related to the war in Iraq could grow to more than $6 trillion over the next four decades.[6] 

          At the same time U.S. leaders—including Baptist and other religious leaders—are venerating King's memory they have ignored or rejected his call for the United States to use its wealth and prestige to lead the world in a radical revolution of values that rejects war as the preferred means of resolving differences.  President Barack Obama could not have been guided by the vision of the Baptist preacher whose Bible he used for his second inauguration.  Although President Obama could not persuade U.S. officials and global allies to embrace a military response to Syria the way President George W. Bush did concerning Iraq, U.S. militarism continues to cast an ominous cloud over the world and hinder efforts to address glaring problems at home. 

Jonathan Tran's 2012 essay about the war policies of the Obama administration reminds us that President Obama has articulated what Tran termed "a theology of war."[7]   It is more than sadly ironic that the first African-American to hold the office of President of the United States currently oversees a policy of killing American citizens by using armed drones.  The militarism King criticized is also evident in the virulent response by President Obama and other U.S. leaders to the disclosures by Edward Snowden that the U.S. engaged in wholesale spying on American citizens and others throughout the world—including the leaders of nations considered its allies.  

          Forty-four years after Dr. King was murdered by a gunman the nation witnessed the massacre of twenty children and six adult staff members of Sandy Hook Elementary School in New Town, Connecticut by a gunman who had already killed his mother and later killed himself.  The militarism that drives U.S. global policy seems to have turned on our own children.  The response to the Sandy Hook massacre has not been, however, to confront the giant of militarism.  Firearm manufacturers and their lobbyists, like defense contractors and their lobbyists, now hold more influence than ever before.  

          Sadly, devotion to corporate profit-making continues to hamstring efforts to make our society and the world safe.  Thus, militarism has joined forces with materialism so much that American schools run the serious risk of becoming fortresses.  We somehow are blind to the stark moral and ethical contradiction of singing Let There Be Peace on Earth while arming school teachers and cheering people who openly brandish handguns. 

          The moral and ethical disconnect between the rhetoric used to venerate Dr. King and the persistence of entrenched racism in American life continues to afflict us.   Policymakers refuse to acknowledge the plain truth that the "law and order," and "war on drugs" mantra used by every U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson has actually produced the mass incarceration of millions of people who are disproportionately persons of color.  Thanks to the not always covert racism of “law and order” and “war on drugs” enthusiasts, more black people are politically and socially disenfranchised in the United States in 2015 than were enslaved in 1850, ten years before the Civil War began, a fact Professor Michelle Alexander has forcefully presented in her 2010 book titled The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-Blindness.[8]

Oppressive law enforcement policies that gave rise to civil unrest during Dr. King's lifetime still operate against people who are black and brown.  Six years after President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder became the first black persons to hold their respective offices, the terrorism of racial profiling is as prevalent today as when Dr. King was assassinated, if not more so.     

Insensitivity to the insidious racism that poisoned the United States when Dr. King was killed has not changed.  Trayvon Martin,[9] Oscar Grant,[10] and Amadou Diallo,[11] like Martin Luther King, Jr., were black men shot to death by people who claimed the moral and legal right to take their lives.   The racism and militarism Dr. King deplored in 1967 were major factors in causing the August 9, 2014 death of Michael Brown, Jr., an 18-year old un-armed black teenager shot to death by Darren Wilson, formerly of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department.  That racism and militarism also accounted for the killing of Eric Garner, who was choked to death on July 23, 2014 by Daniel Pantaleo while other New York Police Department officers pressed their knees on Garner’s torso despite his repeated statement “I can’t breathe!”  Plainly, the United States has not become more informed about or responsive to racial injustice since Dr. King died.  We have simply militarized the injustice in brazen ways.

          We have not confronted or corralled the giant triplets of militarism, materialism, and racism.  Rather, we have added sexism (including homophobia), classism, and techno-centrism to the mix.  The triplets are sextuplets now! 

The painful truth is that political, commercial, and even religious leaders are comfortable bestowing platitudes on Dr. King's life and ministry while actively and deliberately disregarding his warnings and call for repentance.  Our leaders play on (some would say pimp) Dr. King's moral authority for their own benefit at every opportunity.  However, they question the relevancy of his teachings and warnings for our time. 

          Such contradictory behavior amounts to what I have called “re-assassination” of Dr. King.  King’s ministry and message is being re-murdered by drone warfare, NSA surveillance, a militarized law enforcement culture, and our support for regimes that use military force to oppress minority populations in this society and elsewhere in the world (militarism), and by the half-truths and outright falsehoods uttered to defend those actions. 

Dr. King is re-murdered by fiscal policies that promote the corporate interests of investment bankers over the lives and fortunes of workers, homeowners, retirees, and needy people (materialism). 

King's dedication to attack and eliminate the causes of systemic poverty is currently being re-assassinated by policies that widen the glaring income inequality between the super-wealthy and the poor (classism). 

King's righteous indignation against injustice is murdered by proponents of the so-called "prosperity gospel" and those who use religion as a weapon to deny civil rights to people who are homosexuals, poor, immigrants, women, or otherwise vulnerable (racism and sexism). 
King’s call for a radical revolution of values is murdered when we profess to honor his memory while bowing to the techno-centrism responsible for poisoning community aquifers through fracking for natural gas. 

When we honestly assesses the mood and conduct of U.S. leaders and the public at large—including Baptist and other religious leaders—since Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, it becomes clear that we have not chosen to embrace the "radical revolution of values" Dr. King articulated.  We have not weakened the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism.  We have nourished, bred, and multiplied them.    Religious leaders such as Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. who have followed Dr. King's model of prophetic criticism and congregational leadership have been rejected and condemned in much the same way President Johnson responded to Dr. King. 
          Dr. King was correct when he observed, "America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values.  There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities…"  Sadly, we seem unable to realize that by rejecting his call to reorder our values and priorities—in other words to engage in the Biblical imperative of repentance—we not only "re-assassinate" King.  By rejecting his values while pretending to venerate King as our greatest prophet we are destroying ourselves and  risk forfeiting any moral authority we claim as agents for peace, justice, and truth in the world.  Sooner or later, those who feed a death wish find a way to destroy themselves. 

Baptists have a moral and ethical obligation to re-imagine and embrace the subversive gospel of Jesus Christ in the prophetic way King did.  Our pastors and Christian educators must lead the way.  Our congregations, associations, state conventions, and other fellowships must lovingly and honestly embrace our calling from God to be prophetic agents of divine love, truth, and justice about the wickedness of racism, sexism, materialism, classism, militarism, and techno-centrism. 

I am periodically moved to re-visit Ezekiel 2:1-7 and be reminded what God has called me to be and do.  I invite you to also ponder our ministry efforts as scholars, students, pastors, denominational leaders from that perspective.

He said to me:  “O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you.”  And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me.  He said to me, “Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day.  The descendants are impudent and stubborn.  I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD God.’  Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.  And you, mortal, do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words, though briars and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions; do not be afraid of their words, and do not be dismayed by their looks, for they are a rebellious house.  You shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear; for they are a rebellious house.”

The issue now is whether we will be prophets of God’s love, truth, and justice to the “rebellious house” where racism, sexism, materialism, militarism, classism, and techno-centrism rule with oppressive force.  Are the men and women who answer to the name of Jesus prophets calling “the rebellious house” to repentance?  Are we, like King, pleading with our society and world to embrace “a radical revolution of values” away from what now are giant sextuplets of injustice?  Are we nurturing this prophetic consciousness and determination in congregations, associations, and other Baptist fellowships?  Or are we unwilling to take up the prophetic cross of Jesus Christ because we’re afraid doing so means we must somehow suffer and die? 

We have been sent to a “rebellious house” to be prophets for God, not counselors to or cheerleaders for the principalities and powers responsible for sextuplets of racism, sexism, materialism, militarism, classism, and techno-centrism. 

We are called by God to be prophets to the “rebellious house” of principalities and powers that believe in profit regardless to the cost to the creation or the health and safety of workers and communities.

We called by God to be prophets to the “rebellious house” where capitalism is worshipped above God and the mindset of Walmart is preferred to the Spirit of Jesus.

Yet, prophets are not only God’s voices of holy protest to “the rebellious house.”  Prophets are God’s agents of hope!  To borrow from South African theologian Allan Boesak I now ask if we dare to speak of hope in the face of the principalities and powers responsible for racism, materialism, militarism, sexism, classism, and techno-centrism. 

Yes!  We must dare to speak of Hope even while engaging in prophetic protest about the systemic causes of injustice and suffering because of the gospel of Jesus. 

We must dare to speak of Hope, but only while confronting and suffering, with God, the wounds of racism, materialism, militarism, sexism, classism, and techno-centrism. 

Allan Boesak calls us to dare to speak of Hope, but only if we speak of Anger and Courage, what Saint Augustine of Hippo called the beautiful daughters of Hope.  “Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the same.”[12]

We must dare to speak of Hope and struggle and grieve with God against the principalities and powers responsible for the giant sextuplets.[13] 

We must dare to speak of Hope, but not without prophetically calling our society and the rest of the world to turn from our addiction to violence and war by embracing peace.[14] 

We must dare to speak of Hope, audaciously, despite the fragility of our faith.[15]

We must dare to speak of Hope and dream, to borrow from the words of Nelson Mandela, “that there has emerged a cadre of leaders in my country and region, on my continent and in the world, which will not allow that any should be denied their freedom, as we were; that any should be turned into refugees, as we were; that any should be condemned to go hungry, as we were; that any should be stripped of their human dignity, as we were.[16]

We are prophets called by God to confront our “rebellious house” with the moral necessity and ethical imperative of repentance.  But we are not doomsayers.  We are prophets of the gospel of Jesus, a gospel that does not stop with Calvary and Good Friday. 

We are prophets of the gospel of Jesus, a gospel that does not pretend to be blind about evil yet will not flinch when confronting it.  We are prophets of Jesus, the Resurrected One. 

We are prophets of Resurrection Hope!  We are prophets of Resurrection Joy!  We are prophets of the way-making and empire shaking God!  We are prophets of the extravagantly merciful God!  We are prophets of Hope because God loved us, saved us, and called us through the life of Jesus Christ. 

We are prophets of Hope.  Shameless Hope!  Audacious Hope!  Fragile Hope!  Angry Hope!  Courageous Hope!  Wounded Hope!  Dreaming Hope! 

God has called us.  God sends us.  God is counting on us to make a prophetic and hopeful difference in God’s world as followers of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit! 


[1] Daniel Iverson (1890-1977), Spirit of the Living God, African American Heritage Hymnal, #320 (Chicago:  GIA Publications, 2001).
[2] Allan Aubrey Boesak, Dare We Speak of Hope?  Searching for a Language of Life in Faith and Politics, (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2014). 
[3] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break Silence is among the writings of Dr. King compiled by James Melvin Washington and published under the title A Testament of Hope:  The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1986).
[4] For reactions to Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break Silence see http://www.milestonedocuments.com/documents/view/martin-luther-king-jr-beyond-vietnam-a-time-to-break-silence/impact.
[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/22/us/vincent-harding-civil-rights-author-and-associate-of-dr-king-dies-at-82.html?_r=0
[6] http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/14/us-iraq-war-anniversary-idUSBRE92D0PG20130314.
[7] JONATHAN TRAN, Obama, War, and Christianity:  The Audacity of Hope and the Violence of Peace (Christian Ethics Today, Spring 2012).
[8] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-Blindness, (New York: The New Press, 2010).
[9] Trayvon Martin was a seventeen year-old black male who was shot to death by George Zimmerman as Martin was returning to his father's residence from a convenience store in Sanford, Florida the night of February 26, 2012.  Zimmerman was acquitted by a jury on the charge of manslaughter.
[10] Oscar Grant III was fatally shot in the back at point blank range by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle during the early hours of New Year’s Day of 2009 in Oakland, California.  Mehserle was eventually convicted by a jury of involuntary manslaughter, served two years in the Los Angeles County Jail, minus time served.
[11] Amadou Diallo was a twenty-three year old Guinean immigrant who was shot and killed by four New York City Police officers who fired 41 bullets, 19 of which struck Diallo, outside his apartment in the Bronx.  All four police officers were later acquitted of criminal charges related to Diallo's death. 
[12] See Allan Boesak, Dare We Speak of Hope?  Chapter 2.
[13] Dare We Speak of Hope? Chapter 3.
[14] Dare We Speak of Hope?  Chapter 4.
[15] Dare We Speak of Hope? Chapter 5.
[16] Dare We Speak of Hope?  Chapter 6.  

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