AGE OF ANXIETY
W. H. Auden
We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Now both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding. 3 And when they ran out of wine, the mother of Jesus said to Him, “They have no wine.”
4 Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come.”
5 His mother said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.”
6 Now there were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of purification of the Jews, containing twenty or thirty gallons apiece. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the waterpots with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And He said to them, “Draw some out now, and take it to the master of the feast.” And they took it. 9 When the master of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom. 10 And he said to him, “Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then the inferior. You have kept the good wine until now!”11 This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him.
Racism is not new, nor will it be eradicated in this age. The inherent belief that one race is superior to another is rooted in the worse kind of idolatry. It’s all a world of double standards, and they are a fearful thing. They allow you to hold diametrically aligned but contrasting views in the cradle of your mind with no moral angst whatsoever. It takes children a while to get the hang of it, but not long. The problem, of course, is that we all are guilty and remedy requires a hard lonesome fight against the resolute crowd.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was such a man. As Ken Kovacs said in his book Out of the Depths,
Throughout King’s ministry the dream was expressed in his vision of the Beloved Community. King said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” His words resound with the gospel; they echo Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God (or Kin-dom or Realm, even Empire of God). The beloved community is the dream—a dream that shapes our waking life. And if we’re going to enter into that community, if we are going to live from the dream, if we’re really going to get there and are serious about wanting to get there it will only come through change: qualitative change in our individual souls, in our hearts, change in the nature of our thoughts and feelings and quantitative change in our lives, in our actions, collective action strong enough that moves us off from dead center or the way things are. The status quo is often status woe, especially for those without power or privilege.
Why is it so difficult for us, both as a Church and as a nation, to talk honestly and openly about racism?
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Kenneth E. Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served congregations in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, New Jersey. Ken studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in practical theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also an analyst-in-training at the C. G. Jung Institute-Zürich. Author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011) and Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parson’s Porch, 2016), his current research areas include C. G. Jung and contemporary Christian experience. Ken has served on the board of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, is a current board member of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, and a book reviewer for The Presbyterian Outlook.
Ken’s weekly sermons at CPC can be found at http://kekovacs.blogspot.com/
D I G D E E P E R
A general definition of this social and personal vice can be framed as a belief that human groups can be validly grouped in races on the basis of their biological and cultural traits, which in turn determine their behavior and social value (Banks 74–75). The underlying assumption of this categorical organization of human groups by race is that some human groups are superior to others. This type of categorical distribution of human groups cannot (and should not) be understood without considering the connection between the social value assigned to each group and the social power of the group determining the categorical value—in this case, race. In other words, the roots of racism are found in the abuse of social power and location of the dominant group as, consciously and unconsciously, defining the value of certain human groups, categorized by race, by comparing them to the dominant group as the norm. In this way all other groups are judged based on the dominant group’s norm; thus, groups that do not fit the norm imposed by the dominant group are deemed inferior.
Interpretations of history and current practices show that some groups have had, and still have, unequal power in the decision-making process. For this reason, every decision made by the dominant group enhances, legitimizes, and reinforces their own norm, and in this case their categorical distribution of human groups by race disenfranchises, minimizes, and devaluates groups that do not fit the norm and/or are not part of the dominant group. Furthermore, the assumptions of the dominant group are not only false and morally pernicious; in a devastating way its evil manifestations also affect the identity and self-understanding of those who are considered inferior. Individuals in their process of self-construction and self-identity develop a picture of themselves primarily informed by their interaction with their social environment. Occasionally groups of individuals will be identified, either voluntarily or involuntarily, in subcategories, often named “ethnic” groups. A biblical example of this process is the naming and value distribution to the Israelites, Canaanites, Jews, and so on. In any case, persons’ social context and its interpretation heavily influence their identity and self-understanding. But when the interpretation of their social context is almost always defined and determined by the dominant group, the individual in this condition “accepts” this imposed reality and develops a self-consciousness, self-understanding, and identity of inferiority.
Sadly, Christians whose social location and power have placed them in a privileged position are not exempted from this self-centered and socially located practice. A clear example of the consequences of racism has been the use of the Scriptures in the affirmation of slavery as a valid Christian practice. This example shows that biblical interpreters and scholars, as well as Christian communities, are not exempt from falling into the trap of abusing their power and social location to determine the meaning and moral value of the Scriptures. They thus provide interpretations that affirm the practices of the dominant group and their self-centered motivations. Interpretations like these are often justified by allusions and exegetical work that intend to capture the “original” meaning of the text, by placing it in its social context and providing a careful examination of that context. But this approach does not consider the reader’s and interpreter’s social context and location, consequently imposing their own biases, and in this case their own categorical distribution of human groups by race. Perhaps a good way to avoid this self-centered practice is to spend the same amount of time and energy in exploring the social context and location of the person(s) in charge of the interpretative task, and in fostering reciprocal and meaningful dialogue with readers and interpreters from the global Christian community. In doing so, perhaps, one will become self-aware of one’s own limitations and bias.
Furthermore, contrary to this self-centered categorical distribution of human groups by race, the biblical creation narrative provides a solid ethical foundation for the affirmation of all humans. In the creation narrative it is clear that humans were created equal (Gen. 1:26–27). As bearers of God’s image, humans have the capacity and responsibility to reflect divine moral attributes in every action and decision, but particularly in relating to each other. In the same way that the three persons of the Trinity relate to each other in a harmonious and egalitarian relationship we, as humans, are called to reflect this type of relationship as we relate to each other. Additionally, God’s creation is a concrete expression and reflection of God’s goodness and holiness, in which humans and God live in perfect harmony and humans reflect God’s character by living in an egalitarian and harmonious relationship with each other. Humans, male and female, are blessed and given equal responsibilities to care for the earth, preserving and replicating God’s harmonious relationship with it (Gen. 1:28–30). Humans are created and called to enter into a just and equal partnership with God and with each other, in this way providing a living testimony and a reflection of God’s character. Thus, harmony and equality are signs present in God’s creation and implicit in the image of God imprinted in all humans.
When these signs and values are pursued and embraced by humans and expressed in their relationships with one another, they are striving to reflect God’s character and image as depicted in the creation narrative. But when these signs and values are ignored and/or neglected, global harmony and equality are replaced with systematic and structural oppression of certain groups by the dominant group. For this reason, racism is an anticreation tendency and a reality that has become inherent to our human condition and a manifestation of our sinful nature—selfishness and self-centeredness.
Nevertheless, the biblical narrative offers a solution to this inherent human tendency, by providing sufficient teaching that affirms the value of all races and the importance of equality among them, condemning self-centered interpretations and racial discrimination. Not only in the creation narrative do we find these affirmations; they are also present throughout Scripture and particularly in the morally shaping and formative stories. In the story of Abram’s call, God promises him and his descendants that all nations will be blessed through them, not few nations or certain ethnic groups but all nations. Isaiah, later quoted by Gospel writers, reminds Israel that the temple, the house of prayer, should be called a house of prayer for all nations, a statement that is later affirmed by Jesus in the cleansing of the temple. Perhaps the conclusion of this trajectory and affirmation of all races and ethnic groups as equal and valuable is found in Gal. 3:28 and Eph. 2:11–19. There Paul clearly follows the trajectory that begins in Genesis and culminates in Revelation with the eschatological gathering of all nations before the Lord. In the light of this holistic narrative projection, some of the passages that seem to provide a justification for slavery and racism (ironically Paul’s writings) should be read. Therefore, by exploring our own social-context location, by dialoguing with the global Christian community, and by following the trajectory of the all-nations-centered biblical narrative, we will be able to avoid the pitfalls of racist biblical interpretation. We will also be challenged to promote racial equality as we reflect God’s character and holiness—by living in harmony and treating with respect and dignity all humans, regardless of their ethnic and cultural background.
Bailey, R., and T. Pippin. “Race, Class, and the Politics of Bible Translation.” Semeia 76, no. 1 (2001): 1–40; Banks, J. Teaching Strategies for Ethnic Studies. Allyn & Bacon, 1991; Emerson, M., and C. Smith. Divided by Faith. Oxford University Press, 2000; Feagin, J., and H. Vera. White Racism. Routledge, 1995; Feagin, J., and C. Booher Feagin. Racial and Ethnic Relations. Prentice Hall, 1996; Felder, C. H., ed. Stony the Road We Trod. Fortress, 1988; Horsman, R. Race and Manifest Destiny. Harvard University Press, 1981; Mosala, I. “Race, Class, and Gender as Hermeneutical Factors in the African Independent Churches’ Appropriation of the Bible.” Semeia 73, no. 1 (2001): 43–57; Pagan, S. “Poor and Poverty: Social Distance and Bible Translation.” Semeia 76, no. 1 (2001): 69–79.
Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al., eds., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (London; Grand Rapids, MI: SPCK; Baker Academic, 2005), 657–658.