Monthly Archives: June 2014
Go to Hell: Remembering, Reflecting, and Re-imagining Howard Thurman
Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Progressive Christian community here.
If a man is convinced that he is safe only as long as he uses his power to give others a sense of insecurity, then the measure of their security is in his hands. If security or insecurity is at the mercy of a single individual or group, then control of behavior becomes routine. All imperialism functions in this way. (Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 75)
The indomitable, late Howard Thurman was an influential African American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader. He was Dean of Chapel at Howard University and Boston University for more than two decades and wrote twenty-one books. In 1944 he provided principal leadership and was the first pastor of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, California.
Do me a favor. Quickly go back and read the quote from Thurman atop the page. Did you do it? Now read it again. Reflect on it. Now take time to consider the state of our planet in 1944. Militarism and fascism were the rule of the day as a consequence of World War II. Racial, economic, and political upheaval were embedded in every meaningful conversation in every country. Sociologists and historians were openly questioning the world’s ability to wade through this seemingly impenetrable malaise or “funk.” Yet, a black preacher from Daytona Beach, Florida who had the courage to pastor the world from a local context had the unmitigated gall to say:
Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion, and national origin? Is this impotency due to a betrayal of the genius of the religion, or is it due to a basic weakness in the religion itself? (Jesus and the Disinherited, Preface)
These (as well as the quote to start this essay) are the words from Thurman’s seminal work entitled Jesus and The Disinherited, a classic that grew out of a series of lectures Thurman gave to the leadership of the YMCA and a conversation he had on his initial trip to India in the early 1940s. Thurman was provoked by indigenous Indian leadership who thought him a traitor to his race for being Christian. It is widely known that Martin Luther King, Jr. always had the book with him in prison (alongside his Bible and William Styron’s The Confessions Of Nat Turner). The premise of this classic was simple: the religion of Jesus must always speak consistently to those persons who live with “their backs against wall.”
Peter Matthews is an author and speaker who has preached, lectured, or keynoted extensively throughout the U.S., Jamaica, England, Switzerland, and South Africa over the past two decades. He is currently serving as the first male African-American pastor in the 132-year history of Eden Chapel United Methodist Church (Saylor Park, Ohio), as well as the first African-American Executive Director/Campus Pastor in the 95-year history of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Cincinnati. He is the co-founder of Soul Emergence Media and host of the weekly online radio show Soul Emergence. Under Matthew’s leadership, his organization, Holistic, Inc., facilitated a direct response to the pressing needs of a greater Cincinnati, Ohio and beyond by initiating a market-based approach to community development.
What Happens When You Follow Jesus and He Leads You Out of Evangelicalism?
I guess it’s time to “come out”: I don’t identify as an Evangelical anymore.
That’s hard to write and put down in words, considering that I’ve grown up in the evangelical church and worked in evangelical ministries and churches for my entire adult life, but it’s something that I’ve been feeling and thinking for awhile now. I think it really crystallized during the whole World Vision debacleearlier this year, when thousands of Christians (primarily those who identify as evangelicals) dropped sponsorship of over 10,000 kids in poverty because they didn’t agree with a policy change that would’ve recognized the rights of Christian employees who were in gay marriages. I stayed away from blogging and engaging the issue on social media due to my penchant for getting in over my head in online debates and, honestly, because I wasn’t ready to come out as an ally of the LGBTQ community and marriage equality. I know that I’ll need to write a follow-up to this blog on my allied stance, but that’s not what this blog is about.
This blog is about how I’ve dedicated my life to following Jesus and I feel like Jesus has led me out of Evangelicalism. Eek. That brings up a lot of questions.
Let me state unequivocally that I still identify as a follower of Jesus, or, if you will, a Christian. I hope to frame my life and my will in light of the life of Jesus. However, there are certain decisions that I have come to about my faith in the past number of years that I feel remove me from the evangelical strain as it is currently being practiced in America. I understand that there have been statements and manifestoswritten, trying to untangle Evangelicalism from the political and cultural assumptions that have been created in the past decades, however, I feel that there are stereotypes and experiences of how modern evangelical is currently practiced that make me want to break my personal ties with the movement.
Some people might see my shifting faith perspective and identification as the product of a compromised moral compass or my secular, liberal education. And they might be right on the latter point a little bit. But I honestly believe that my shift out of conservative Evangelicalism is a result of my pursuit of truth as I follow the way of Jesus – to see the people around me, love them deeply, and work towards greater reconciliation and restoration of all things.
While I don’t have time in this blog to go as deep as I would like to on all the issues I have with modern evangelicalism, I would like to address a few of the biggies. These include an intense tie with the Republican party, a literal/fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible that ignores historical context, a view of women that I believe is misogynistic and repressive, and the earlier stated opposition to equal marriage rights.
First, I think that the evangelical church has been co-opted by Republicanism (and nationalism) to the point where I think Christian values have been supplanted by political conservatism and the church is no longer able to function in its prophetic calling in society. (To be fair, I feel that much of the church on the left has had the same thing happen with liberal politics.) This is most clearly seen to me in relation to patriotism, militarism, and harmful economic practices.
Second, I have long had trouble with a literal reading of the Bible that deliberately ignores the historical, sociological, and religious contexts in which the various Biblical texts were written. This reading leads to an ignorant church, unable to intellectually or thoughtfully come to terms with how to interpret the text in light of modern scholarship. (NOTE: my father pointed out that my use of the word ignorant may lead to some thinking that I think that biblical literalists are ignorant. This would not be true. I know there are many thoughtful, intelligent people who choose to read the Bible in more literalist ways.) As a religion minor in college, I found myself unable to deal with the questions lobbed at me by my secular friends in relation to biblical inconsistencies and started doing my own wrestling with how to read and interpret the Bible in light of the religious theories that I was learning. Unfortunately, this caused my faith to be called into question by my friends and my then church community, and was one of the big reasons for me leaving that life/work situation.
Third, as a leader and as a woman, I found evangelicalism’s overwhelming complementarian view of male/female relationships to be less than adequate. I firmly believe that women are equally loved by God, called into ministry, and able of contributing to societies and families as their male counterparts. The repression of women in the church is something I think that is baseless when looking at the life of Jesus and even when looking at the rest of the New Testament in its historical context. The way I was treated as a female leader in my previous churches was another large reason for my split with them.
Finally, the LGBTQ issue. This is a change that largely came during my time at Colorado College. Attending a secular liberal arts college afforded me the opportunity to be around a population where I was able to interact with more from the queer community than ever before. I know many of my right-wing friends will tell me that just because you have friends who are sinners doesn’t mean you have to justify their sin. Well sure. However, I came to understand that my friends were not gay because they chose it or because they had been molested or any of the other things that I had heard growing up. It was because they were gay. As much as I was straight and white and had blue eyes, my friends were gay. And I just can’t imagine being told that I couldn’t love Jesus and walk in his way or get married or get a job or rent an apartment just because I had blue eyes. So, yeah, that changed me.
A number of months ago I applied for a position at a large Christian ministry in the Springs (to remain nameless) and was asked to write my own personal statement of faith as a part of the application process. I found this to be an exciting and challenging project as it required me to really think through and process the past number of years and the journey of my faith ideas. I based my statement loosely on a short faith motto that I had written down years ago, in an attempt to give my faith some structure as I was wrestling through doubts and confusion. This motto has come to shape my journey.
If I am to err in interpreting the Bible, which I probably will since I’m a human being, I would rather intentionally err on the side of more inclusion, acceptance, and generosity. I really can’t imagine Jesus saying to me, “You were too kind and loving and you didn’t put your foot down enough,” but I could definitely see him saying, “You didn’t take care of those around you and you alienated those that I love.”
To be forthright, I think that if I hadn’t come to a deliberate decision like this, I may have walked away from my faith entirely, like many in my generation of evangelicalism have. I think that making the decision for inclusivity has helped me keep my love for Jesus and the church. From that decisive core, I wrote this more expanded statement of faith that, while it will probably shift and change a bit, I can see myself holding on to for a long time. φ
My personal statement of faith is fairly simple. I base it on the commands as simplified by Jesus – loving God with every part of my being and loving my neighbors as I love myself. As Jesus defined it in the story of the Good Samaritan, my neighbor is anyone in need, anyone who I find myself in proximity to, anyone who bears the image of the Creator – so essentially everyone. This love compels me to be proactive in justice, mercy, reconciliation, and restoration as these are the things that I see God doing in the person of Jesus.
My faith is dynamic and progressive. I believe that in being called to use my mind to love the Lord, I am called to continual progress in how I think about life and the world around me. My heart is called to be more and more compassionate towards my friends and enemies. My soul is called into great spiritual depth and intimacy with God. My body is called into greater wholeness and health so that I can effectively be an ambassador of reconciliation wherever I may be called.
My faith is communal. Because I believe in the mystery of the Trinity, I understand that at the core of the universe is a community of mutual submission and eternal love. This compels me to live life in community, caring for those around me as siblings in the faith, a part of the same body of Christ, without whom I cannot know the wholeness of God.
I do think that this statement of faith removed my chances of getting a job that I was highly qualified for, but that is what it is. I know that there is much more to be explored and discussed in the coming weeks and months about my faith journey and what it means for the way I live my life now. (This is my commitment to blogging on a more consistent basis, at least once every two weeks.) It is something that I am still wrestling with, especially what it means for the kind of church community that I want to be a part of in the future. But this I know for sure: sometimes the places that Jesus leads you to are exactly the opposite of what you expected or imagined, and sometimes those places find you identifying in new and different ways. All we can do is continue to say, “Where you lead us, we will follow.”
Where is Jesus leading you? Is it anything like you expected it to be? If not, how are you dealing with the change and the transition from what is known to what isn’t?
thoughts on life, politics, church, and whatever else I want to talk about…