During the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness, the people grumbled against the Lord (as usual). To punish them, God sent a plague of fiery serpents among the people. The people cried out to God in repentance and at God’s command as a remedy for the plague, Moses made a bronze serpent. The serpent was to be lifted up on a pole, and those who would look on it would live (and that’s where we get the song Look and Live from). It is quite the story; full of theological significance.
Much later, 2 Kings 18.4 records an obscure event related to this same bronze serpent. It is of the destruction by King Hezekiah of the bronze serpent that Moses had made. You see the people had been burning incense to the serpent – worshipping it, and it had become a distraction and a distortion of the whole event in their history. Instead of the bronze serpent being a reminder to them of how far they had come, of their sins and need for repentance, of their dependency on God, it had become nothing more than another object of false worship: a monument to a memory.
It was in this vein that I made comments that I was ‘over’ MLK Day.
Please, don’t get me wrong (and I know some of you will anyway). I have a deep appreciation for the price paid by many during and after the Civil Rights movement, exemplified by Rev. King. I remember the stories my parents told of going to school in under resourced, segregated schools. My family was the first Black family to move into an all-white, working class (to put it nicely) neighbourhood in the late 1960’s in the south. Let that sink in.
They bought a house.
In an all-white, lower working class neighbourhood.
In the south.
My mother walked my elder brother through angry crowds of not-too-pleased white neighbours to kindergarten that was only just beginning to be integrated.
Our neighbours children broke into our house, stole our video camera and shot movies of themselves insulting the ‘n*ggers’ that lived next door to them. …. Next door.
They never reported it to the police because…why bother? They would still be living next door to them and why ask for more trouble.
When we moved from there, we moved again to be the first Black family in an all-White (slightly better-off) neighbourhood. We lived there for 30 years. The neighbours, being mostly of the ‘decent church-going Southern White folk’ were a far sight better than the ‘po white trash’ we left behind. They were the kind of folks who loaned eggs and sugar to each other over the back fence. Miss Woodard, (who said she never married because her fiancé found out she couldn’t cook) would say to her friends on the phone while she was keeping an eye on us after school before Mom got home from work, “the little coloured boys from next door are here.” She is the first person I remember taking me to McDonalds. Mr Bradshaw confided to my father about the mental decline of his wife who would ask him again and again, “Les, you want some coffee?” while never bringing him any. And Miss McCarty, who loved her dogs, baked excellent cakes, gave me overripe bananas anytime she saw me because I once told her I liked them (I was just being polite), and who asked my sister every year to come over and help her turn her mattress (or some such chores). Mrs Louellen brought us a batch of brownies when my Momma passed away. We were probably the first Black family any of them had ever had close contact with and likely the first White people my parents learned to have a measure of trust with. They’ve all died now; maybe I’ll meet them in heaven.
Meanwhile my mother was finding “A N*gger Application for Employment” placed on her desk where she worked at a school in an ‘upper class’ neighbourhood across the street from Vanderbilt University.
My father was dealing with the small and large slights of racism day in and day out on the job.
And we (the kids) were learning to navigate a post-civil rights world where dirty snot nosed stringy haired White kids somehow though they were better than us because of skin color. Where police found a reason to roll up and surround 3 young teenaged boys with 5 squad cars playing basketball at night in the park… 100 yards from my home. And where in first grade at my upper middle class school in the middle of White suburbia, the teacher managed to find a way to isolate the only two Black children in class – one of whom (me) was always being sent to the office because he already worked through all the workbooks for the class, and read all the assigned materials. Yeah… I was punished for being too smart.
Flash forward to university and you find me chairing the MLK committee, planning the march, speaking at the MLK Day program (because the vaunted ‘Civil Rights veteran showed up late’). You’ll find me defending soul food being served in the cafeteria, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X in one weekend because I want to read the book before I see the movie, and coordinating the university’s Kwanzaa programme.
And now? 20 years onward, I look at the celebration of MLK Day and I see what King Hezekiah saw. I see a memory, in this case the person of Rev. King, being made into a monument. I see people making speeches, planning marches, posting inspirational quotes.
And in a few weeks, there will be another young Black man shot dead. Someone else a victim of police brutality. Another stereotyped movie with a shallow script and shallower acting. Another 1000 Black children born out of wedlock or aborted in the womb. Another twerking video.
It’s as if the whole point has been forgotten. And I wonder… did my dad skip school to go to a Civil Right march so that getting educated and speaking proper English can be considered “ack-in’ White”? Did Rosa Parks sit down on a bus so that we can watch videos of Black people fighting on the bus? How many more speeches will it take before we stop talking about White racism and deal with the huge crime problem in many of our communities?
That’s why I’m ‘over it’. Not because I don’t love and appreciate the history but because I do appreciate it so much. I have 2 young boys – who will soon be men. They need to know this history, so that they grow up to stand up as men on the shoulders of the giants that have preceded them. So that they don’t waste the lesson by using it as an excuse for failing to excel. So that they don’t show up telling me some stories about how they couldn’t keep from getting in a fight because they needed to keep it real.
I’m done with talking about the dream and I refuse to make a monument out of a memory.
In response to my recent post, Disputing About the Body, one my friends commented, “you cannot separate theology from history.” I wholeheartedly agree. If theology can be characterised as ‘faith seeking understanding’, history is the study of that which has come to shape both the faith and the understanding of the one who is seeking it. Both the historical and theological enterprise are shaping and defining endeavours and the one necessarily includes the other. The historian who refuses to account for God loses the thread of meaning that ties all of history together and this results in its own perversions. History takes its full meaning only within the framework of Gods’ action in the affairs of men. For the moment however I will confine myself to the theological side of things. The theologian who fails to come to terms with his history, and the history of his community cannot truly do theology. The term ‘his history’ is key here, because the theologizing task is not a disinterested study of whys and wherefores, but is an intensely personal endeavour wherein man and God stand, as it were, face to face in dialogue; a dialogue that necessarily includes all that is in, of, and about the past of the theologian. It is an ongoing engagement and not an antiseptic analysis. In fact, theology without this history collapses into ultimately meaningless philosophy; a fate I suspect far too often befalls both students and faculty of theology schools.
When the separation of theology from history is translated into preaching, pastoring, and liturgy, it begets all manner of deformities of practice and ultimately fails to address the real essence of the human person in his socio-historical, cultural and spiritual reality. It is this failure that I term, ‘theo-cultural amnesia’; a term by which I intend to capture the notion that Gods’ action in the particular affairs of this that or the other cultural group has been forgotten. This theo-cultural amnesia is particularly potent in religious communities that have, through choice or force, been alienated from their theological and historical heritage. Such alienation occurred by choice in the case of American Evangelicalism, which is at least part of the reason for its current crisis, for Americans generally, in seeking to carve out their own way and new identity, have always disdained and dishonoured history. Consequently the American church has been simultaneously innovative and faddish (which is perhaps two ways of saying the same thing), and is now increasingly becoming irrelevant to the population at large.
This alienation has been particularly pronounced in the Black American church which has, because of the legacy of slavery and segregation, been more or less forcibly cut off from its pre-American roots. While there is an exceedingly rich legacy of theological engagement with the cultural realities of Black life in America, much of that legacy is handicapped by the lack of a pre-slavery historical consciousness on the part of Black peoples. This is not to say that pre-slavery (i.e. African) cultural modes were entirely extinguished by slavery and racial oppression. Certainly not. There is still a substantial, though often unacknowledged and even unconscious, continuation of African cultural ‘DNA’ within the practices of the Black church. What I mean to suggest is that most of the formal theologizing of the Black church is dominated by the discourses arising from the social, economic, and political consequences of slavery and post-slavery America. This is true to a lesser extent in other post-colonial contexts where, at least from a Euro-Western perspective, the prime contributions to theology are ‘Liberationist’, a term that implicates the realities of colonial and neo-colonial political and economic systems. However valuable this contribution to the global theological conversation, it is necessarily deficient because it is still theology done in the context of modern, Euro-Western frames of reference, albeit negative ones and does not deal effectively enough with the divine-human engagement prior to the European encounter.
The Black American case is worse though, for while Asian, African, and South American theologians still have access in most cases to their pre-European theo-cultural experience, Black Americans are almost entirely cut off from their own pre-slavery history. Efforts to revive that connection have been limited mostly to secular academics and thus of little theological consequence. Others, seeing Euro-Western Christianity as complicit in the destruction of African peoples and cultures, have rejected Christianity entirely as inimical to the interests of Black peoples and a barrier to cultural reconnection and have consequently embraced other religious / spiritual practices perceived to be more compatible with their Black identity. Still others, the vast majority in fact, ignore the need for exploration of the connection, instead clinging to a very ‘Bible focused’ theology with roots no deeper than the modern era while continuing to half-embarrassedly retain some pre-slavery African derived and influenced cultural practices. In other words, we’ll shout, jump, and dance, but lack the theological language and historical self-consciousness or cultural confidence to talk about it. Those who attempt to do so often fail embarrassingly.
I will add that a similar dynamic seems to obtain within the Asian American church which is dominated by a very conservative Protestant theology that has left little room for extensive engagement with the history of the divine-human encounter in the Asian past, except to reject it as ungodly and idolatrous. Unlike the Black church however, the existence and continual engagement with broad, diverse, and well established non-Christian religious and philosophical traditions means that the Asian American church cannot as easily import Asian cultural practices into the church without seeming to threaten compromise of the faith itself. When the demands of culture do intrude, as with certain holiday observances, the ‘culture’ is forced to stand alone, and separated from its full religious and philosophical foundations – such dichotomization itself a modern Euro-Western phenomenon foreign to Asian cultural consciousness. So while the Black church exists in a theological universe where the Black man as homo-religiosus did not exist prior to slavery, the Asian American church lives with her religious past locked shamefully away as one would an elderly racist relative – invited to join the family during the holidays but forbidden from talking about certain topics.
So what are the consequences? If, as Kwame Bediako (of blessed memory) says, conversion entails the ‘turning to Christ and turning over to Christ of all that is in us, about us, and round about us that has shaped us when Jesus meets us so that the elements of our cultural identity are brought within the orbit of discipleship’, then the conversion of Black Americans and Asian Americans may be said to be incomplete insofar as those churches live with an unconverted past. The past cannot be turned over to Christ if that past is locked away as a relic of a shameful non-Christian past or if it is defined only in terms of the realities of slavery and post-slavery America. It is no wonder then that Black churches and Asian American churches, while thriving in so many ways, have such struggles. They exist theologically, without any history separable from the European encounter, thus leaving them adrift and consequently subject to the varied currents of contemporary culture and unable to effectively engage the onslaughts of post-modernity, ghetto nihilism, materialism, and cultural decay among others. This is, as I’ve said, not unique to them for we see the same thing in the broader American church except in that case there seems to be a lack of awareness that there is anything in the past that needs converting. The recognition that conversion is an ongoing process seems to be a lesson too frequently applied by Western theologians only to individuals and not to cultures, at least not to their own – as if the whole fabric of Euro-Western history and culture is intrinsically Christian and has thus already been turned to Christ.
Practically speaking all of this leaves the church weaker than it might otherwise be. To renew our strength it is necessary to seek for the old paths, to inquire more diligently into what it means that God… in ages past spoke to our ancestors through prophets, and that he speaks now to us through Christ. What was the human – divine conversation and what does that conversation mean for us today? Who were we, who are we, and where are we going? If the Black church and the Asian American church in particular are to effectively fulfil their mandate of the declaration of the gospel, we cannot afford to ignore our histories and the lessons our ancestors have passed to us.
Jude 1:9 Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation…
Recently there has been quite the kerfuffle in the media in reaction to Megyn Kelly’s comments about white Santa (and Jesus). Quite a few folks have written in response reaction and amongst those social media folks I call friends, most of the reaction has been rather negative.
The whole episode of course called to mind images of Jesus from my own childhood, which were all of white men. Interestingly, one of the most beautiful and memorable of those images was one of Jesus knocking at the door; an image meant evoke Revelation 3:20 (‘behold I stand at the door and knock…). However, since that particular picture hung over the entrance to the washrooms in our church, the image evoked the rather less sublime notion of knocking on the door before entering the toilet, thus avoiding embarrassment for everyone – something I was quite convinced that Jesus would want us to do!
The other image that came to mind was a decidedly different one, of a handsome, muscular and dreadlocked Black Christ with his hands tied with rope while his gaze was directed towards the viewer. I’m unsure what exactly was meant to be evoked by that particular portrayal, but when the picture was hung, more than few of the sisters in the Christian fellowship I led seemed to suddenly acquire a new found appreciation for reflecting on his image. Whatever else was intended by that particular picture, I’m sure that images of Christ should not be the cause of our Christian sisters stumbling.
Upon more (and deeper) reflection however, theological and cultural issues began to emerge for me. I understand well the reason for the controversy. For many, Kelly’s comments, off-handed and unsophisticated, seems to reflect a White, Euro-Western proprietary stake in the person of Jesus; an assertion of ownership of Christ for her own culture and the implicit rejection of the claims of other cultures upon Christ. Such an assertion is made more problematic by the comments having been made on Fox News, the news network most popularly associated with all things right-wing and politically conservative. Her words were not, and indeed could not, be taken simply as a light-hearted statement of historical ‘fact’, but were culturally and theologically significant.
Kelly’s words were indeed a kind of assertion, though not necessarily one full of the intention ascribed to it. Her words, coming as they did in response to questions about the possibility of deracination of Santa Claus, were a kind of riposte intended to stake a historical claim as over and against efforts to deconstruct and reconstruct Christmas and its attendant imagery along politically correct lines. By stating that Santa AND Jesus were white guys, she was attempting to head off efforts to wrest the holidays from their moorings in Euro-Western history and culture. As a point of historical fact, neo-Africanist critiques aside, Jesus would likely have been counted as or considered ‘white’ if he were alive in contemporary America by the US Census Bureau definition and, depending on his actual appearance, would be treated that way. This fact, however, is not the point. Both her initial statement and the reactions she engendered were contestations over the cultural, historical and by implication, theological meaning of the Christmas holiday.
While admitting to my limitations, I want to suggest that part of the theological dissonance surrounding this teapot tempest is due to a failure of theological & cultural engagement.
The book of Jude contains an obscure reference to an event not recorded in any canonical scripture of a fight over the body of Moses; Moses being the iconic figure of Israel’s faith, the lawgiver who towered over the history of Israel like a colossus and whose law was the entire reference point for Israel’s theology. Although Abraham was the progenitor of the Israelite people, Moses was the author of their religious identity – a fact all too apparent throughout the New Testament in Jesus’ encounters with the scribes and teachers of the law, and in his follower’s wrestling with the meaning of Jesus and the cross in the shadow of the Mosaic Law. Indeed we can say that the whole of the New Testament is, in fact, a contestation over the body of Moses; over what he meant and what he came to do.
Just as Moses’ body was taken up by God himself and was never found by man so too was the body of Jesus, raised from the dead and taken up by God. And just as there was dispute and contest over the body of Moses, so too is their dispute and contest over Jesus’ body – over his race, his cultural identity, and what that means for us. This wrestling is good, necessary, and healing for the Church which has too often ignored these questions. And yet such wrestling, as we see in the controversy over Kelly’s remarks, falls short because of an impoverished theo-cultural imagination that is so Christ focused that the Father and the Spirit fall entirely from view.
The entry of God into the world that we celebrate at Advent is a necessarily limiting enterprise, for it is not possible for God to be incarnate as anything other than a particularity rooted in time and place. This statement may seem at first to affirm those who have pushed back against Kelly’s statement, for Christ did not enter the world as a person of privilege, nor does he belong to Euro-Western culture. This is of course true, but it is beside the point, for it misses the broader context of Christ’s coming. It is out of the redemptive mission of God that Jesus was sent. It is God’s reconciling initiative that gives birth to the mission of Christ and consequently to the incarnation. Contestation over the identity of Jesus threatens to turn the incarnation on its head, making it about our identification with God rather than about his condescension and identification with us. It is too Christo-centric, if I can dare to say so, for Christ’s coming into the world is not, in fact, about Christ.
Contestation about Moses the Lawgiver and the man Jesus Christ are inevitable and easy, because they are contests about particularity. The law of course is particular, dealing as it must with temporal and localised matter. The incarnation as I’ve said, cannot have been otherwise for it is not possible that God should be fully incarnate in anything other than particularity. So we fight over his image, contending for the legacy entailed in his ‘body’ and imagine ourselves somehow immune from the rebuke enjoined by Michael upon Satan. We fail to see that the legacy of Jesus is a thing of heaven rather than of earth.
Contestation about Jesus fail in the same way that disputes about Moses did, for both are premised on the same error, which is that Moses and Jesus (the man) are somehow the point. Yet Moses, the arbiter of the old covenant, and Jesus the author (and finisher) of the new, both pointed beyond themselves to the Father who through Moses (temporally and incompletely) and through Jesus (eternally and completely) created and called a people to Himself. And Jesus pointedly made it clear that his mission was not about him, but was about the one who sent him. God, while he is particularized in Christ, remains unlimited and universal – a fact that is simultaneously comfort and terror. The angels who heralded his coming announced, “Glory to God in the Highest”, because the praise and glory of God is what Jesus’ coming really is all about.
The Israelites pleaded with Moses to speak to God on their behalf, so frightened were they at the awesome terribleness of his majesty, and yet years later divided into factions contesting the Mosaic legacy; seeking to make their claim of ownership rights. Christians too face the same temptation of contending over the image of Jesus, co-opting him to our cultural and socio-political agendas and laying claim to him as one of us. But he is not one of us, and we do not have stakes of ownership in his particularity, just as the Jews did not own Moses or the law. But God through Jesus lays claim to us in our particularity, speaking the word of rebuke to Satan on our behalf, and all of this for the praise of his glory.
Addendum: My former colleague has written about the culture wars that frame this whole discussion here: http://thewarrenpeace.wordpress.com/2013/12/24/the-prince-of-peace-and-the-culture-wars-a-lamenting-meditation/. It is a worthy read. Blessings.
I remember when I was a child reading on some placard or poster somewhere in the home of a relative the proverbial saying, ‘Only one Life; it will soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will Last’. I haven’t thought of that placard for many years but was reminded of it today as my pastor mentioned the passing of Mr Mandela in his sermon.
He said that Mandela was, by all human measurements, a great man. This sentiment is one shared by most people. His passing was noted, lamented, and mourned by people from various spots on the political spectrum – and rightfully so. From his origins as a firebrand freedom fighter, jailed for his terrorist activities against the apartheid government of South Africa, Mandela emerged early three decades later as a man who would pursue peace with reconciliation. The bloodbath that many thought to be inevitable upon the collapse of the apartheid regime was forestalled in large measure by Mandela’s efforts to work for reconciliation.
Some ten years after the end of apartheid, I travelled to South Africa, where I engaged with and learned from many of those who had served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that had been set up to deal with the demons of South Africans’ past. I also learned about the history of the Boers – later and better known as the Afrikaners who were nearly themselves ethnically and culturally destroyed during the Boer War – one of the most brutal wars in modern history – and how the development of apartheid was at least partially in response to that tragedy as the Arikaners sought a ‘never again’ solution to the disaster that had nearly overtaken them. I learned how the church in South Africa both fought against apartheid, and supported it, in either case overlooking either some critically important parts of scripture to justify their support or opposition. In any case, the South Africa of 2004 was moving ahead – a rainbow nation seeking to build a national identity cognizant of the wounds of the past, yet not captive to them.
Mandela was key to that.
And yet… as my pastor so inconveniently reminded me this morning, even as he expressed his hope that perhaps Mandela had come to know Jesus, it is ultimately not the applause or commendation of men that matters. However great Mandela may have been, and as men count greatness, he was indeed a great man, what matters is our heart towards God.
This tension lies at the heart of the evangelical, indeed the broader Christian dilemma. For we see many people who wear the badge of Christ as an ornament; something that merely decorates their life and deflects criticism, but whose lives are much less honourable than that of the late Mr Mandela. And there are many who know not Christ, and yet who publicly at least live in ways that are consonant with Christ – perhaps not following in measure, but rhyming at least with his ethics and his principles.
On the one hand the easy evangelical thing to do is to search out for some particular moment of conversion; a crisis event of decision wherein a man like Mandela ‘made his peace with God’, for such a moment would remove the shadow hanging over any celebration of the good things he was able to do.
On the other hand (and increasingly common) is the temptation to simply place the actions of the man in the balance and declare them not just good enough, but exceptional, and thereby to say of men like Mandela, ‘well done good and faithful servant’.
In both cases, the desire is to claim such good people for ourselves – to co-opt their good work and append them to our own theological systems in order to validate our own frames of thought concerning salvation; a desire rooted perhaps (at least partially) in the fear that maybe those in the other camp may be right and we might be wrong.
The tension is not however intrinsic to Christianity. It is, I believe, a feature of Christianity that has been sieved through a long Western history of engagement with the Christian philosophical commitment, and more immediately, through a world wherein ‘Christianity’ is the frame in which everyone operates. In such a world, ironically, the sense of the immediacy of God is usually lacking, and Divine Sovereignty, while acknowledged theoretically, is relegated practically to the far outskirts of the consciousness of most Christians. Consequently God takes a back seat to our theologizing about governance and about the governors themselves.
The world of the Bible, and indeed of much of the contemporary world, is not such a world. The Christians of the early church would find no such tension in the celebration or mourning of a leader like Mandela. They were highly conscious of the immediacy of God and read every action through the lens of the unfolding of his sovereignty through history. A leader, whether thoroughly pagan or God-fearing, was seen and interpreted and vetted, as it were, through that lens. His righteousness or unrighteousness, or the consequences of his policies were seen in every case as tools through which and by which God himself was operating to effect his purposes in history, which purposes included always that purification and sanctification of his people. While they did not pray for persecution, and understood the ills of it, they also well knew the history of the people of God, and prayed that they would be worthy to stand the testing of the Lord that was being manifest through the persecution. When the leader was benevolent towards them, they saw it as a grace from God and an opportunity. In every case, they viewed themselves as pilgrims, as aliens, as sojourners to earth whose real citizenship was heavenly.
Which brings me back to Mandela and his death. So far much of what I’ve seen and read even by Christians on his death, hark to what he did for South Africa and the example he set for the world. These are not to be discounted. But little that I’ve read has hearkened to the question of what did Mandela do for Christ for – whether personally Christian or not – the value of his life and the applause of it are measured ultimately by their utility to the service of the sovereign Lord. The temporal and ephemeral nature of our world (and especially of the 24 hour news cycle) lends itself to a dismissal of the court of the heavenly king, before which we all must appear and receive from his hands the judgment due. Mandela was great, as men count greatness, yet Mandela too is a servant – a clay pot in the hand of the eternal potter, and it is before that master that his determination as an object or mercy or of wrath is determined. The accolades and applause of men are meaningless in that eternal trial and our works, whatsoever they be, will be tried by fire and if found wanting, they will be consumed. We too, if found wanting, will likewise be consumed. As my mother would say, there is no big ‘I’ and little ‘you’ before God. Mandela will stand on the same ground to be judged as you and I, as the pope, and the president.
History is, academically speaking, my first love – a fact that gives me perhaps a melancholic view of life. Seen through the long span of time, a thousand years hence, Mandela will probably not merit even a passing mention in any history book. After all how many people aside professional historians know of King Pepin the Short or Gustavus Adolphus? But what is done that merits the applause of Christ, that which passes his judgment, and receives his commendation, will last eternally.
My response to my Friends response to Rachel Held Evans response to Dave Ramsey (or reason No. 145 why RHE annoys me…)
My friend and former ministry colleague Grace Biskie recently penned an angry rant-y, hot-mess response to Dave Ramsey getting lambasted by Christians. The lambastation (that’s not a word I know) first came to my attention via a link to something Rachel Held Evans wrote in response to a post Dave Ramsey had on his website.
(Edit: Grace has made it clear that her post was not in response to RHE. I’m not suggesting that it was…)
My reaction to the critique of Ramsey was not quite as rage-filled as Grace, but it was strong… very strong. Grace writes of Dave Ramsey:
FOR GOD’S SAKE PEOPLE, he is NOTHING like Joel Olsteen and why I can’t think of any single comparison for the ENTIRE LAST YEAR that has offended me so terribly much. And how I think the people who have made that comparison have very little experience with ACTUAL prosperity preachers or have had to sit and trenches with or disciple people trying to break free from the EVIL of prosperity preaching & false gospels in general. And how if they had, they WOULD NEVER compare a man like Dave Ramsey who FREE’S people from the bondage of poverty & bankruptcy compare those two…or Dave Ramsey to ANY prosperity preacher. As someone who’s discipled countless students away from the bondage of prosperity preaching I am repulsed by this unhelpful comparison. REPULSED.
I feel you. I was pissed too, and not just because I personally have benefited from Ramsey’s principles (though I have) and not just because the critique lodged against him were shallow, uncharitable, and unfair (they were. In fact her second line, “he makes his living telling other evangelical Christians how they can get rich, too.” is a flat-out lie, but anyway…). It is because I think I ‘get’ Dave Ramsey and his ministry. I ‘get’ his sarcastic humor. Let me explain.
In a strange way Dave Ramsey is living the life I envisioned for myself. He and I are both Tennesseans. We both went to the University of Tennessee Knoxville and both majored in Finance. Dave made a fortune in real estate, which was exactly my life plan. Dave lives in my hometown. If I wanted to, I could go to church with him. I know how to get to Financial Peace Plaza without looking it up on Google Maps. And like Dave is doing now, I had hoped to get rich and also find a way to help people (especially low and middle income people) manage their money. Dave and I are also both fluent in sarcasm. God however, called me in a different direction.
But there is something else besides. Dave taps into something that I think is at least part of why Grace reacted so strongly, and also something that is often misunderstood or misinterpreted. Dave understands, like Grace understands, and like I understand that there is a kind of poverty of spirit that traps people in a pernicious web. He and she and I understand that a person can be so degraded, worn out, and worn down by their circumstances – whether circumstance of financial mismanagement, of family history, of abuse, of dysfunction – that ALL your sense of personal agency is destroyed. You feel powerless, hopeless, trapped, scared.
And then someone like Dave Ramsey comes along and meets you, as Dave says, ‘eyeball to eyeball’, and tells you the hard truth, ‘Yep you screwed up. Yep, someone else messed you up. Yep, the system is stacked against you. Yep, that was a stupid decision. But you know what? You don’t have to live there. There is a better option. YOU have power. YOU have choices. YOU have agency.
And the sarcasm? The snarkiness? It shocks your system. It shocks you because almost all the people who have come to help you before don’t talk like that. They listen to you, let you cry on their shoulder, sympathise with you, and agree with you that, yeah you were done wrong, and that’s about it. Why isn’t Dave more sympathetic? He’s so mean, etc., etc.
And then after you get over the shock at his approach, and the anger, and the frustration, and poking out your lip, you realize he’s right. That while you can’t do everything, you can do something. You realize that your life really doesn’t have to be one of failure, of despair, of constrained choices, of inevitability, of abuse, of dysfunction. And you wipe your tears, and you start where you are. And people like Dave and Grace and others hold your trembling hand and walk you through it. It’s ain’t about getting rich.
If you’ve never been there, or you don’t personally know people who live there, you probably have a hard time understanding that. I know those people. Some of them are my relatives. People who take their children on vacation only to come back to the lights being shut off. People who are afraid to answer the phone because of debt collectors hounding them. People who have never known what it is to have money left over at the end of the month or to have a savings account with more than the $25 minimum required to keep it open. People who make enough, but never have enough and so spend recklessly because they figure that they never will have anything so they may as well enjoy life while they can. Or so that they can forget.
I’m not sure folks like RHE who so easily critique Ramsey understand really what it feels like to live in a world where money is your master and not your servant. Where prosperity preaching is appealing in exactly the same way that the lottery is: because it offers a false hope. Where you are enslaved to habits of materialism and consumerism and yet you are afraid to even open your bank statement, much less reconcile your check book. Where debt collectors hound you morning and night for money that you have no idea how to pay back. Where the biblical statement that the borrower is slave to the lender doesn’t feel at all theoretical, but real.
The thing is, Dave Ramsey doesn’t have to do what he does. He’s rich. He’s a financial whiz. He’s made money, lost money, and made it again in real estate. He doesn’t need this gig. And he understands that it isn’t really about money anyway, because the ‘only way to have real financial peace is to walk daily with the Prince of Peace, Christ Jesus our Lord.’
Several times in recent days I have thought about posting this or that thing on my blog in response to issues. Well it should be obvious that I have found reasons not to post. I think it is time though to wade back into the world of public discourse for two main reasons.
Firstly, it is a discipline of stewardship for me. The discipline of writing forces me to engage more fully with the intersection of issues of culture & faith, and sharpens my thinking in the process. It is also a way of being responsible with the use of the intellectual gifts God has entrusted to me. By sharing my thoughts in a public way, there is the possibility at least of interaction, of critique, of response that hopefully sharpens, refines, and humbles me.
This leads to the second reason for re-engaging, which is one that feels a bit presumptuous to articulate. That is, I think I may have something worthwhile to contribute. I don’t harbor any illusions or pretentions that my small blog will draw any audience or set the internet ablaze. Nor do I imagine that the thing I share will really be that significant or impactful to anyone. Yet still, I believe at this point in life and ministry, I have developed some insights that could be useful for people to hear.
It is interesting that the second reason is more challenging than the first, especially given my chosen response to the Divine vocation of minister of the gospel. For the last 20 years the declaration of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ — a task I’ve endeavoured to be faithful to, though I have failed at many times — has been my calling. Yet to write my thoughts and share them in a public way feels differently (though I have actively blogged before).
This brings me to the reason why it has been hard for me to re-engage. As I have read, and continue to read, studied theology, reflected more on scripture and life, begun married life and the task of child-rearing and, perhaps most critically, moved outside the US context, my views on a number of issues have shifted, in some cases, significantly. If I am honest though, I don’t know how much my views have shifted as much as they have been increasingly clarified and I feel less reluctant to share them than previously.
In any event, my wife suggested that I should indeed re-engage. My blog was one of the tools she used to ‘vet’ me during our long-distance courtship prior to our marriage and though I don’t believe in submitting to my wife, I am choosing to re-engage
I am not Asian-American. So when I read the Open Letter from the Asian American Community to the Evangelical Church I did not immediately rush to sign the letter. It seemed to me impertinent to do so, not to mention presumptuous. How can I sign a letter written from a community of which I am not a part, regardless of how strongly I feel myself to be in agreement with the sentiments expressed therein?
As I reflected further however, I thought of my children. Well, my children are very brown — they look more ‘Black’ than ‘Asian’, but they are as fully Asian as they are Black and who are Asian-American, who understand Mandarin Chinese almost as well as English, whose kitchen pantry is filled with ‘exotic’ foods and spices used to make the yummy food that will always smell like ‘home’ to them, who, when they grow up, may be asked, depending on the setting, ‘where are you from?’, or ‘what are you?’. Because of how they look, they may miss some of the more egregiously negative experiences of being Asian-American, but that doesn’t change their heart.
I thought of my ministry. The Christian fellowship I planted for Asian-Americans, the Bible study group I led for Korean graduate students, the 2nd generation English Ministry congregation I served for more the 5 years as the pulpit supply pastor and interim youth director, the Asian-American fellowship I served for several years. I thought of their struggles and their triumphs, their fears and longings.
I thought of my Korean-American friend, the godfather of my eldest son, who feels equally at home pigging out at a soul food restaurant as at a Korean barbeque.
I thought of my wife, who really does have an answer to satisfy the curious who ask, ‘where are you from’ since she wasn’t born in the US and has lived a lot of her adult life outside of it, but who still deals with the assumptions and stereotypes that go along with her sex and ethnicity.
I thought of my colleague Kathy Khang who always seems to be in the thick of these things; pushing, advocating, pointing out — sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently, but always with a desire to see the whole body of Christ do more and be better. I thought of many other friends, family members, colleagues.
And then I thought again about my sons. My beautiful, biracial, bi (multi?) cultural sons. Of course, it is not just about them. But the connection to family brings the abstraction of the pain and frustration and futility that so many others talk about into concrete form. That my sons will have challenges sorting out their racial / ethnic / cultural identity I have no doubt. After all their father is a Black American from the southern US, their mother is a 1.5 generation Chinese-American with Malay roots, and they are currently growing up in West Africa. Of course they will have challenges. But for their sake, and for the sake of the integrity of Christ’s witness in the world through his church, I pray these challenges and burdens will not be added to by those same brothers and sisters in the church.