The lynching tree–so strikingly similar to the cross on Golgotha–should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’ death. But it does not. In fact, the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections about Jesus’ cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion. The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. In the “lynching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly 5,000 black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.
As Jesus was an innocent victim of mob hysteria and Roman imperial violence, many African-Americans were innocent victims of white mobs, thirsting for blood in the name of God and in defense of segregation, white supremacy, and the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race. Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists—the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, and tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment. In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place.
The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar that one wonders what blocks the American Christian imagination from seeing the connection.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 30-31
Groaning vs. Grumbling
I received some help some a surprising source last week. This is a sin that affects me deeply, even if not frequently. Usually I do a good job of managing things so that I stay in control. In those circumstances where things get beyond me, I resort first to grumbling, and then Stoicism. This paragraph nailed me:
There is a critical difference here we need to note. Groaning is not grumbling. When we groan, we must learn to do it without grumbling, trusting in the faithfulness of God and his promises
Groaning and grumbling can seem similar, but biblically they are quite different. Both are responses to suffering, but their sources and their direction are different. Groaning is a response to the weight of suffering, and it is directed toward God as an honest expression of pain, grief, and sorrow. Grumbling also reflects the weight of suffering, but it springs from anger and resentment toward God. It lacks a memory of his past faithfulness. Groaning expresses an element of hope in God, despite current sufferings, but grumbling reflects a lack of hope and faith and is accompanied by a sense of doom. In the Bible, we see that God responds to groaning with mercy, but he responds to grumbling with anger and discipline. Still, even when we grumble there is hope. God is slow to anger, he does not forget his promises, and even in his discipline his goal is to draw his people to him in grace and pardon.
Benjamin Mast, Second Forgetting, 84-85
“A Friendly Conversation”
It’s exam week. As usual, Karl Barth has words to keep everything in perspective:
No one should study merely in order to pass an examination, to become a pastor, or in order to gain an academic degree. When properly understood, an examination is a friendly conversation of older students of theology with younger ones, concerning certain themes in which they share a common interest. The purpose of this conversation is to give younger participants an opportunity to exhibit whether and to what extent they have exerted themselves, and to what extent they appear to give promise of doing so in the future. The real value of a doctorate, even when learned with the greatest distinction, is totally dependent on the degree to which its recipient has conducted and maintained himself as a learner. Its worth depends, as well, entirely on the extent to which he further conducts and maintains himself as such. Only by his qualification as a learner can he show himself qualified to become a teacher. Whoever studies theology does so because to study it is (quite apart from any personal aims of the student) necessary, good, and beautiful in relationship to the service to which he has been called. Theology must possess him so completely that he can be concerned with it only in the manner of a studiosus.
“How are Things in Your Heart?”
A word for theologians, (and theologians in training):
The story if told that the once famous Professor Tholuck of Halle used to visit the rooms of his students and press them with the questions, “Brother, how are things in your heart?” How do thinks stand with you yourself?–not with your ears, not with your head, not with your forensic ability, not with your industriousness (although all that is also appropriate to being a theologian). In biblical terms the question is precisely, “How are things with your heart?” It is a question very properly addressed to every young and old theologian!
The question might also read: “Adam, where are you?” Are you perhaps–in your interior and exterior private life–fleeing from the One with whom you as a theologian are pre-eminently concerned? Have you hidden yourself from him in the shrubbery of your more or less profound or high-flown contemplation, explication, meditation, and application? Are you perhaps living in a private world which is like a snail’s shell?
There is no avoiding the fact that the living object of theology concerns the whole man. It concerns even what is most private in the private life of the theologian. Even in this sphere the theologian cannot and will not flee this object. If this situation should not suit him, he might, of course, prefer to choose another and less dangerous discipline than theology. But he should be aware that it is characteristic for the object of theology to seek out every man in every place sooner or later (see Psalm 139). It will seek him out wherever he may be and pose to him the same question. Therefore, it would probably be simpler to remain a theologian and learn to live with God’s claim upon even the most intimate realms of the theologian’s humanity.
Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, pp. 83-4
“Avengers of Their Grandfathers”
More Barth, on how to view our theological fathers:
Time and time again, the community grows used to living from what was said in it and to it yesterday: as a rule it lives from the Christian knowledge of yesterday. In the meantime, it is to be hoped, theology has advanced somewhat further, and what it supposes to know, what it ventures to think and to say today, will only seldom agree completely with what the fathers of yesterday thought and said. The far greater likelihood is that the newer theology will vigorously take exception to the fathers, especially to the immediate fathers. Even if this tension is justified by the vigorous nature of theological science, theology will still do well to keep in contact with its predecessors.
By no means will we drop the problems which concerned them; instead, we will pursue them further, repeatedly considering the very problems they posed, although at the same time no doubt putting them in the right perspective. Otherwise, theology might find the sons of today proving tomorrow to be enthusiastic rediscoverers and perhaps avengers of their grandfathers. The work of overcoming past weaknesses and errors, a work which was perhaps only apparently completed, would then have to begin all over again. Ma the good Lord preserve us from that!
Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, pp. 46-7
“Totally Involved, Seriously Engaged”
After yesterday’s quote, in which he reminds us to keep our eyes on the purpose of theology, Barth counters it with some particular advice for the student. As one who has “flung himself beforehand into all sorts of Christian activities,” this is something to think about:
Theology is an enterprise in whose performance one question can all to easily be forgotten: For what purpose? Of course, this question may and should be set aside for the moment. Study is impossible when a student supposes he has to know and impatiently ask along every step of the way: Why do I need just this or that thing? How shall I begin to put this to use? Of what value is this to be in the community and the world? How can I explain this to the public, especially to modern men? He who continually carries such questions about in his heart and upon his lips is a theological worker who can scarcely be taken seriously either in his prayer or in his study. He who never lets himself be totally involved, or at least seriously engaged, by theological problems as such, but who concerns himself with them only in order subsequently to elevate himself by means of ready-made and patent solutions, will definitely not be able to say anything proper to the people. Much less will he be able to say the one thing that is fitting. The one right thing will be said only after the theologian’s first endeavor has been to make personal acquaintance with something that is relevant, right and proper. And he had better not immediately thereafter glance furtively at this or that practical application. The theological beginner should concentrate on his study in its own right during his few years at the seminary or university, for these years will not return. It is no doubt unwise, if not dangerous, when, instead of such concentration, the beginner flings himself beforehand into all sorts of Christian activities and ruminates on them, or even stands with one foot already in an office of the Church, as is customary in certain countries.
Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, pp. 186-7
“A Uniquely Fascinating Science”
A warning from Karl Barth on forgetting the real purpose of theology:
The first thing to be said about the character of theological work as service is that it cannot be pursued for its own sake, in the manner of “art for art’s sake.” Whoever is seriously engaged in theological work knows that such a temptation lurks in many corners. Theology, especially in its form as dogmatics, is a uniquely fascinating science, since its beauty irresistibly elicits the display of intellectual architectonics. As inquiry into both the bright and the dim, or dust, figures and events of Church history, theology is at every point highly exciting, even from a purely secular point of view. And as exegesis, it is equally exciting because of the way in which it calls in equal measure for both minute attention and bold imagination.
The service of God and the service of man are the meaning, horizon, and goal of theological work.
Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, pp. 185-6
“We Ourselves are the Church”
Karl Barth on the need for the whole Church in the theological enterprise:
To participate in this, and therefore to accompany even the work of erudite theology in the sticter sense, is the task of the community and therefore of each individual member. The Christian is not free to adopt any current religious idea, to espouse his own private philosophy, and then to urge this upon the community. On the other hand, he is both free and yet also summoned and obliged to reflect not he Word which underlies the community and is to be declared by it, and to give responsible expression to his reflections. No one will do this obediently unless he is prepared to let himself be stimulated, advised and guided by others, including professional theologians. No one will do it obediently if he is not in dialogue not only with God but also with his fellow-men and fellow-Christians. The freedom at issue is freedom int he community and not a foolish freedom on one’s own responsibility and on the basis of hopeful or defiant private inspirations. No one, however, can be content at this point to be a mere “layman,” to be indolent, to be no more than a passive spectator or reader. No one is excused the task of asking questions or the more difficult task of providing and assessing answers. Preaching in the congregation, and the theology which serves its preparation, can be faithful to its theme and therefore relevant and adapted to the circumstances and edifying to the community, only if it is surround, sustained and constantly stimulated and fructified by the questions and answers of the community. With his own questions and answers in matters of right understanding and doctrine, each individual Christian thus participates in what the community is commanded to do. If he holds aloof, or slackens, or allows himself to sleep, or wanders into speculation and error, he must not be surprised if sooner or later the same will have to be said about the community as such and particularly about its more responsible members. How many complaints about the “Church” would never be made if only those who make them were to realize that we ourselves are the Church, so that what it has or has not to say stands or falls with us!
Church Dogmatics III/4: The Doctrine of Creation: The Command of God the Creator, §55.3 p. 498
Modifying Career Goals for the Kingdom’s Good
David Clark, from his fantastic book on theological method. As a younger man at the front end of my life, thinking about goals and trajectories, the academy and the church, this was a very thought provoking quote. I wonder what ‘community-based scholarship’ looks like in practice. It also reminded me of this post and my follow-up on academia, amateurism, and envy.
It seems obvious that theology should access the personal and communal experience of many Christian believers. This means that actually retrieving the unity of theology is the work of the entire corps of evangelical scholars, pastors, and believers, not just of individuals. Vestiges of modernist academic values–the individual scholar, free of external constraint from bishops and creeds, protected by academic freedom and tenure, objectively viewing some small range of data–remain in evangelical academic contexts. But this model will not serve the church well. Actually achieving a unity of the theological disciplines requires a humble recognition of the various gifts within the body of Christ. No one person can read everything; no one person has all the best thoughts or insights; no one person has all the revealing experiences. When Christians with varied gifts and different areas of competence genuinely listen to each other in dialogue, their respective horizons can be pushed back and their perspectives unified. A community-based model of scholarship may require that those in the evangelical academy temper their individual quests for (academic) fame and fortune and modify their own career goals for the Kingdom’s good.
To Know and Love God p. 191
“A Certain Carefree and Joyful Confidence”
Karl Barth with a fantastic metaphor for the main problem with 19th century theology:
The key problem arose from the conviction that the guiding principle of theology must be confrontation with the contemporary age . . . Obviously theology has always been to some extent open toward and related to the world. It should be so . . .
Theology, however, went overboard–and this was its weakness–insofar as confrontation with the contemporary age was its decisive and primary concern. This openness to the world meant (1) that through the open windows and doors came so much stimulation for thought and discussion that there was hardly time or love or zeal left for the task to be accomplished within the house itself. With all its energies captivated by the world, 19th-century theology achieved surprisingly little in terms of a new and positive understanding of Christian truth and truths in themselves, a primary necessity at all times.
The winds were enthusiastically welcomed and allowed to enter freely through the outside doors. This meant (2) that not a few doors inside were slammed which should have been kept open as well. Nineteenth-century theology ascribed normative character to the ideas of its environment. Consequently it was forced to make reductions and oversimplifications, to indulge in forgetfulness and carelessness, when it dealt with the exciting and all-important matters of Christian understanding. These developments were bound to threaten, indeed to undermine, both theology and the Church with impoverishment and triviality.
The outside winds brought not merely fresh air, but also notoriously foul air. This meant (3) that fatal errors blew in, were admitted, and made themselves at home. These errors, far from being simply tolerated, enjoyed birthright, even authority. Countereffects to be sure were not lacking, but there was no fundamental agreement about the absolute primacy of the positive tasks of theology in and for the Church, over against the secondary tasks of relating to the various philosophies of the times.
Finally, we miss a certain carefree and joyful confidence in the self-validation of the basic concerns of theology, a trust that the most honest commerce with the world might best be assured when the theologians, unheeding the favors or disfavors of this world, confronted it with the results of theological research carried out for its own sake. It did not enter their minds that respectable dogmatics could be good apologetics.
“Evangelical Theology in the 19th Century” published in The Humanity of God, pp 18, 19-20