Saturday, July 16, 2016

Confessing & "white supremacy" The misuse of confession, the misuse of language

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) co-moderator, T. Denise Anderson, in her article, “Confession time: How white supremacy hurts white people,” on the Presbyterian Outlook web-site, calls on individual white people to personally confess their individual racism.

Anderson insists that all white people in the United States are involved in racism and white supremacy because the founders of America were colonialist and involved in slavery. Referencing Kelly Brown Douglas, Anderson writes, that the puritans contributed to white supremacy believing themselves to be “the pure remnant of the freedom-loving and exceptionally moral Anglo-Saxons.”

Anderson continues, “The idea of American exceptionalism is intrinsically linked to not only faith, but Germanic (and Norse) heritage. That exceptionalism necessarily excludes those not of that heritage.” She also writes:

“Let me be very clear: One does not have to be malicious or hateful to be racist. One needn’t even be intentional about it. White supremacy is so pervasive, insidious and thoroughly woven into the fabric of our society that it is quite easy to be racist. In fact, it’s difficult to not be racist.”

I was troubled by Anderson’s essay for at least three reasons. The first is historical. The nineteenth century saw a rise in some ideologies that produced racism. And they were based on religious viewpoints and historical views about Germanic and Norse exceptionalism, but they had nothing to do with the puritan’s beliefs about their place and purpose in God’s kingdom.

I was troubled by the use of the term “white supremacy.” Having studied and written a great deal on many of the racist groups in the United States I believe it is a misuse of language to attach the term white supremacy to all white Americans. White supremacy groups are known for their vileness, their hate and their ignorance. It does not help to write that “White supremacy is so pervasive, insidious and thoroughly woven into the fabric of our society that it is quite easy to be racist.”

No it is not easy, among moral people, to be racist. To say that and to say that all whites are racists is to partially eliminate the evil of racism. This is harmful to all ethnic groups. Surely Anderson would not say that because some Arab groups are terrorist all Arabs are terrorist! Or because some husbands have abused their wives all husbands are wife beaters!

But my greatest concern is the idea of personal confession. I have read one of those confessions and I was dismayed. It consisted of private matters that should have been confessed, not on social media, but privately to those hurt and most of all confessed to God. And this is where some in the church may misunderstand what it means for members of the church to confess the ills of society. It may be one person confessing but it must be for the whole church.  It is after all the Church which makes confession. In a sense those who ask for individual public confession are themselves tyrants.

Daniel’s beautiful prayer of confession is the biblical example. He confessed to God the sins of Israel including himself in the prayer. He did not say I did this or I did that, but the people of God, including Daniel, are the sinners confessing before God their sin.

Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant and lovingkindness for those who love him, and keep his commandments, we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly and rebelled, even turning aside from your commandments and ordinances. Moreover we have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, our fathers and all the people of the land.” (9: 4-6)

There is much more; read the whole ninth chapter.

Bonhoeffer, in his book, Ethics, lays out a confession for the church. And before he begins he explains that the prayer is not meant to be a time of pointing fingers at any particular group such as the “blacks” or the “whites” but rather it is the church speaking of their failures and sin. It is individual in that individual sin hurts the church. But it is corporate, as the church, because only in Jesus Christ can humanity recognize their guilt and find grace. [1]

Yes, there is racism, still, in the United States and the Church has a calling to eliminate that sin from their own institutions, displaying the beauty and goodness of Jesus Christ in their midst. But we will not display His beauty by accusing brothers and sisters of the vileness of the world.

[1]In 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution concerning racial reconciliation entitled, “The Resolution on Racial Reconciliation on the 150th anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention.” It was a time of confession. And the Presbyterian Church in America passed an overture on racial reconciliation in 2002. Both statements can be found in On Being Black and Reformed by Anthony J. Carter. I highly recommend Carter’s book.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The 2016-17 Horizons Bible Study "Who is Jesus? - a continuing review- "According to John"

Picture by Ethan McHenry

Judy Yates Siker, in the fourth lesson, “According to John,” of the Presbyterian  Women’s Bible study, Who is Jesus? What a difference a Lens Makes, seemingly gives the reader a truthful picture of Jesus. After all, she writes, “In this forth Gospel we will see a very different Jesus. It is here, in fact, that we begin to see that Jesus and God are one.” And she goes on to write about Jesus as ‘pre-existent, creator, lamb of God, I Am and Son of Man.

But still, there is that phrase in her sentence, ‘a very different Jesus.’ Different than what? Different than the Jesus of the synoptic gospels. Siker has already, in her other lessons, pictured Jesus as Prophet of God, (Luke), the Jewish Messiah who is teacher, (Matthew), and God’s Son who suffers (Mark). And as I pointed out in my review of the other lessons, he is all of that. But even in the other Gospels Jesus is God, a truth that Siker fails to include in her earlier lessons.

Added to this concern is Siker’s attempt to see the Gospel of John as careening too far away from a balanced view of the person of Jesus. She writes, “In this lesson, we will see how John reaches for as many titles and metaphors as he can gather, to portray Jesus as more of a divine figure than a human one.”

So, for the moment, putting aside the main sections of Siker’s lesson four, I intend to answer a question that has been troubling me and perhaps troubling my readers. Why is Siker presenting her material in this manner, and how is it that she acknowledges the truthfulness of Jesus as God in the Gospel of John but does not acknowledge it in the other Gospels? What is the foundational teaching that under girds such a view of the Gospels? And where does the view that there are different variations of Jesus in the different Gospels lead?

In three places within the fourth lesson a book is recommended to the reader. First, Siker writes, “It is evident from the start that John’s [Gospel] is a different sort of story. John’s Gospel has been called—and rightly so—a “maverick” Gospel, for here is a portrait of Jesus unlike any of his three predecessors.” In a side note about the difference between John and the synoptic gospels there is this suggestion, “I suggest reading Robert Kysar’s book, John, the Maverick Gospel.” In another note about the separation of the early Christians from the Jews there is, once again, a reference to Kysar’s book. And finally in both the endnotes and the bibliography John, the Maverick Gospel is listed.[1]

This isn’t the place to write a whole review of the book but it certainly clarifies where the author of Who is Jesus? What a difference a Lens Makes obtained some of her central ideas.

Kysar, in his book, gives an explanation about the Christology of the New Testament as well as how the material of the Gospels was formed. And his view of the Christology of John is confusing to say the least.

Kysar believes there are three types of Christology in the New Testament. There is “Adoptionistic Christology which as Kysar puts it “suggests that Jesus was a man who, because of his obedience to God, was adopted as God’s Messiah.” He believes this is the earliest view of Jesus but is only “faintly” found in the New Testament. He offers Acts 2:36; 3:13; and Romans 1:3-4.

The second type Kysar sees as Agency Christology and believes it is more common. Jesus was sent as a representative “to perform a revelatory and saving function.” He finds this even in John. The third type is Incarnational Christology which is “to claim the divine nature of Christ and at the same time to claim that this divine Christ has taken a human form.” So Kysar, like Siker, believes that each Gospel holds differing views of the person of Jesus.

But Kysar’s view of the incarnational Christ is certainly problematic, although he, like Siker, takes the time to consider all of Jesus’ identities in the Gospel of John.  His final view of John’s Christology is a long quote but it is important even though confusing. I place it here:

“The evangelist recognizes that the founder is the Father’s Son. All the statements that assert the divinity of Christ are qualified by the fact that he is the Father’s Son, not the Father’s own self. This author is no systematic theologian but she or he is theologically sophisticated enough to make clear that Christ is not to be confused with God. Christ is divine and participates in the very being of God, but is distinct and subordinate to the Father. He is the expressive dimension of God’s being, or the Son who is fully obedient to and sent by the Father. Our author recognizes that whatever the incarnation of the Logos means, it cannot mean that a human being is in every way fully the being of God. …” (Italics mine) (68)

Kysar goes on to state that in John’s Gospel Christ is the functional equivalent of God.

Kysar commits two miserable actions with his words. He demotes Jesus, yet designates him God in word and action for the ‘community.’ Jesus, although called divine, he makes less than God and the community no longer encounters the living and personal God in a real way. Instead of being the Church hidden in Christ and therefore embraced by the Father, it is a community who encounters a lesser divine being who is related to and sent by God. Because Jesus is fully human Kysar does not reckon him to be fully God.[2]

And how do the various Gospels shape their stories about Jesus? Kysar, writing of the Gospel of John and believing that an oral tradition about Jesus had already been formed, states:

“This is to suggest that the creation of the literary gospel form was not so much the genius of the author of the written material (the Gospels of Mark and John) but the gradual and less-than-deliberate effort of the early Christian community to preserve the materials that it had at its disposal. The oral tradition, then based on historical recollection of Jesus of Nazareth, shaped itself into gospel. By filling out the historical material with legend, myth, and new teachings from what they believed to be the living Christ, the early Christians gradually shaped the gospel form in the preliterary tradition. (30)

So it is the various early Christian communities who supposedly had differing views of Jesus. According to Kysar the Johannine community’s faith experience of Christ and their search for identity informed their Christology. Kysar writes, “In a faithful and creative way, the author of this document rethought the answers to fundamental questions regarding the nature and function of the Christian movement. In this way, the Fourth Evangelist did what each constructive religious thinker must do in every new period of history and what we are called to do today.” (69)

Here then is the outcome of a view of the New Testament’s understanding of Jesus that includes multiple variations on his identity rather than affirming the unity of the scriptural portrait of Jesus. Believing that it is the community and its experience and needs that shaped the Gospels the door is open for reshaping the good news in different times and cultures. And this is seemingly one of Siker’s understandings as the reader will find when they reach the last lesson, “According to contemporary Cultural Interpretations.”


[1] Robert Kysar,  John, the Maverick Gospel, third edition, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2007).
[2] It should be noted here that Kysar is attempting to split the two natures of Jesus, fully human, fully divine. I explained this problem in my first review. Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully God. Those two things cannot be separated when speaking of Jesus.