VILLAIN or HERO? Ariel Castro, Charles Ramsey and Guantanamo Bay

abc_charles_ramsey_jef_130508_wblogGitmo prisoner“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them;
those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”
Hebrews 13:3 (NRSV)

After all the bad news we’ve been struggling with over the past several weeks, what a breath of fresh air to hear that Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight of Cleveland, Ohio, missing for over a decade, were found alive and restored to their families![1] According to initial reports, the three young women survived more than ten years of confinement, torture and repeated rape at the hands of Ariel Castro, a former school bus driver, homeowner, and longtime resident of the Cleveland neighborhood where the young women were found.

A neighbor, Charles Ramsey became an overnight hero when he heard Amanda’s desperate screams for help and went next door to Ariel’s house of horrors to help her get out, along with her fellow prisoners.[2] Both Charles and the neighbors were shocked by the revelation of this “dark side” of their trusted, and seemingly ordinary neighbor. In the plainspoken words of Charles Ramsey:

I barbecue with this dude. We eat ribs and whatnot, listen to salsa music, you see where I’m coming from? Not a clue that that girl was in that house, or anybody else was in there against their will… You got to have some big testicles to pull this off bro, ‘cause we see this dude everyday. I mean everydayHe’s somebody you look, then look away. He’s not doing anything, but the average stuff. You see what I’m saying? There’s nothing exciting about him. Well, until today.[3]

Cleveland Police Chief Michael McGrath insists that law enforcement officials did all they could to find and rescue the young women. But neighbors claim that police failed to respond to their reports of suspicious conditions at Ariel’s home – windows covered with boards and bags, pounding from inside the doors and even seeing chained naked women crawling around the back yard.[4]

We celebrate Amanda, Gina and Michelle’s extraordinary courage and perseverance in surviving the degrading brutalities of their captivity. We applaud Charles’ homespun heroism in helping with their rescue. And yet it is startling and troubling that Ariel could carry out his heinous hostage horror for more than 10 years in the midst of neighbors and under the nose of the police.

Neighbors said that Ariel Castro took part in the search for one of the missing women, helped pass out fliers, performed music at a fundraiser for her and attended a candlelight vigil, where he comforted her mother. [And yet at the same time] as recently as 2005, Castro was accused of repeated acts of violence against his children’s mother.[5]

As it turns out, even hero Charles Ramsey has a record of domestic violence in his past.[6] These ragged realities show us that good and evil coexist in the human heart – in the words of Martin Luther we are “simul justus et peccator” – both saint and sinner – at the same time.

Yet, in the case of Amanda, Gina and Michelle, we see Ariel as a villain and Charles as a hero—why?

In spite of his past, Charles responded when he heard Amanda’s cry for help. He stopped. He listened. He got involved. He intervened. Each step required more courage than the last – especially, as he so poignantly pointed out, as a black man (who had past dealings with the law) getting involved with a white woman. But he did what was needed, putting her need for help ahead of his need to play it safe.

Ariel, on the other hand, was the ultimate deceiver. For 10 years, he systematically kidnapped, confined, sexually assaulted, terrorized and sadistically controlled Amanda, Gina and Michelle – abducted at ages 16, 14 and 20, all the while presenting himself as a good neighbor, an ordinary guy. He satisfied his twisted need for control and self-importance by dehumanizing these young women.

How could he do it, we wonder?  A more searching question now confronting us as a nation is how can WE do it?

Eleven years ago, in the aftermath of 9-11, on January 11 2002, twenty captives of former President George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror” were taken as prisoners to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp at a U.S. Naval Base in Cuba.  By July 17, 2003, the prison population had swelled to 677.  The Bush administration asserted that detainees were not entitled to any of the protections of the Geneva Conventions governing global standards for the humane treatment of prisoners of war.[7] Though this executive directive was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2006, current and former prisoners have complained of abuse and torture at the hands of their U.S. captors:

Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have been subjected to Abu Ghraib-style torture and sexual humiliation in which they were stripped naked, forced to sodomise one another and taunted by naked female American soldiers, according to a new report. Some of the abuse has been captured on videotape. Based on the testimony of three former British prisoners who spoke with other detainees, the report details a brutal yet carefully choreographed regime at the US prison camp in which abuse was meted out in a manner judged to have the “maximum impact”. Those prisoners with the most conservative Muslim backgrounds were the most likely to be subjected to sexual humiliation and abuse while those from westernised backgrounds were more likely to suffer solitary confinement and physical mistreatment.[8]

In addition to sexual assault and physical abuse, Gitmo prisoners have undergone systematic torture techniques including sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, sensory bombardment, solitary confinement, mock executions, forced medication, temperature extremes, psychological abuse, intimidation with dogs, and being forced to watch the torture of other prisoners.[9] This torture is being carried out by U.S. military personnel, including doctors and medical staff stationed there.[10]

The Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have also been subjected to religious persecution. The Muslim holy book, the Quran, is routinely desecrated, even reportedly being flushed down the toilet.[11] Non-Muslim interrogators have reportedly thrown the Quran on the ground and stepped on it in front of prisoners. And sexual torture is designed to violate Muslim sexual taboos.[12]

In addition to sexual assault, physical abuse, systematic torture and religious persecution, the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have been denied their human rights under international law and their legal rights under U.S. law. Though a series of transfers over the years has reduced Gitmo’s population from its near-700 high in 2003 to 166 today, many of those remaining have been held for as long as eleven years with no hearing and no formal charges entered against them, or else declared “enemy combatants” by sham tribunals and sentenced by kangaroo courts.[13]  Although in 2008, the Supreme Court – by a one-vote majority- upheld habeas corpus – the right to contest their imprisonment[14] – for Guantanamo Bay detainees, not a single habeas corpus petition from a Guantanamo prisoner has been granted.[15]

Common Article Three of the Geneva Convention

…describes minimal protections which must be adhered to by all individuals within a signatory’s territory during an armed conflict not of an international character (regardless of citizenship or lack thereof): Noncombatants, combatants who have laid down their arms, and combatants who are hors de combat (out of the fight) due to wounds, detention, or any other cause shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, including prohibition of outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment. The passing of sentences must also be pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples. Article 3′s protections exist even if one is not classified as a prisoner of war.[16] (my emphasis)

These are the provisions that the Bush Administration in 2002 asserted did not apply to detainees at Guantanamo Bay. They asserted that U.S. military personnel at Guantanamo did not have to adhere  to these minimal protections. They insisted that U.S. military personnel had the right to treat the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay inhumanely, to commit outrages upon their personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.  They asserted that the U.S. military could pass sentences on the Guantanamo prisoners without a regularly constituted court, stripped of all judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable to civilized peoples.  And even since 2006, when the Supreme Court ruled that these minimal protections in the Geneva Convention did apply to the Guantanamo detainees, Gitmo has gone on with its ghoulish, criminal activity.

We are Ariel Castro. We have systematically rounded up, confined, sexually assaulted, terrorized and sadistically controlled the Guantanamo prisoners under the banner of the United States – presenting ourselves to the world as one of the most advanced and civilized nations on earth —  “the land of the free, the home of the brave, the champion of democracy, the leader of the free world.”

Instead of fighting in the “Global War on Terror” we have become the Chief Perpetrators of a United States War of Terror against the prisoners held in the hell-hole at Guantanamo Bay. We have been satisfying our twisted need for power and control by brutalizing and dehumanizing the Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

Denied every legal recourse of appeal and held in the horror of daily brutality and degradation, more than 100 of the remaining 166 prisoners of Guantanmo Bay have resorted to the only means of protest left to them – hunger strikes. In spite of the torturous forced feedings of their captors, they are offering up their bodies as a “living sacrifice” an expression of resistance, a desperate cry to the world for help. Like Amanda Berry, through their self-starvation, they are screaming out for a Charles Ramsey Coalition – international neighbors willing to stop, listen, get involved, intervene, take a risk, demand that justice be done.

One of President Obama’s 2008 election promises was to shut down Gitmo by 2009. Congress thwarted his plans and he has not fulfilled that promise:

The result, at the camp, is near-total stasis. No new prisoner has arrived since 2008; none has left for over a year. Parole-style hearings planned for the group not designated for either trial or transfer have yet to begin. Prisoners have lawyers, but there is little the lawyers can do for them. This bleak situation, says Mr. Stafford Smith, is worse than being on death row.[17]

Gitmo prisoners feel betrayed, forgotten by President Obama and the international community. Will we ignore their desperate cry? Will we let them die? Will we be villains or heroes, Ariel Castro or Charles Ramsey?

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”[18]

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”[19] Jesus replied,
“166 people were going down from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay, and fell into the hands of Ariel Castro, wearing the uniform of U.S. military personnel, who stripped them, beat them, and denied them basic human rights and a fair trial, leaving them half dead. Now by chance some ordinary American citizens were going down that road; and when those citizens saw those prisoners, they passed by on the other side thinking, ‘They deserve it for being radical Muslim terrorists and enemies of freedom and the American way.’

So likewise some other American citizens came to the place and saw them, and passed by on the other side thinking, ‘Hey, we’re just ordinary folks; We keep to ourselves; what can we do? Besides, we might get hurt or get in trouble getting involved in this. The President promised. That’s his problem. Let Congress work it out!

But a Charles Ramsey Coalition of the Concerned came near the hungry, tortured, desperate prisoners screaming for help; and when they saw them, they were moved with compassion. They realized this could be another ugly case of State-sanctioned or socially acceptable violence tolerated by default like our sad past national experience with the lynchings of the Jim Crow era, or the Japanese detainment camps of the World War II era, or the dogs and fire hoses of the Civil Rights era or the military rape culture of our current times.

So the Charles Ramsey Coalition got involved and saw to it that the Guantanamo detainees were properly cared for, transferred to their homelands or other receiving nations or given fair trials.  Rather than sanctioning the continued use of their tax dollars to fund or “refurbish” the exorbitantly expensive torture camp in Guantanmo Bay, they demanded that their tax dollars be used to bring an end to this shameful chapter in our shared American history.

When someone asked the Coalition why on earth they would go to such lengths to get involved in this Guantanamo issue, their leader, Charles Ramsey responded on their behalf  “We’re Americans, and we’re human beings. We’re just like you. We work for a living. These prisoners are in distress, so why turn your back on that?”[20]

Jesus says to us, “Go and do likewise.”


[2] http://youtu.be/kBJowiFQj_c Accessed 05/09/2013

[18] Luke 10:25-28

[19] Following is a contextualized paraphrase of the rest of the Good Samaritan parable found in Luke 10:29-37

CAN WE TALK? Bridging Ideological Chasms through Public Discourse

argument graphic“’Come now, let us argue it out,’ says the Lord.” – Isaiah 1:18 (NRSV)

In everyday use, the word “argument” usually signifies a verbal fight, a breakdown in communication, angry people shouting insults at each other. But ‘argument’ can also mean:

  1. discourse intended to persuade
  2. a coherent series of statements leading from a premise to a conclusion[1]

These meanings point to the legal use of the word  ‘argument’,  which refers to:

A form of expression consisting of a coherent set of reasons presenting or supporting a point of view; a series of reasons given for or against a matter under discussion that is intended to convince or persuade the listener.[2]

The scriptural phrase, “Come now, let us argue it out,” conveys this meaning of the word ‘argument.’ In the Hebrew language in which this phrase was originally written, the word translated ‘argue’ is yakah.[3] The Hebrew scriptures develop the meaning of yakah around situations of grievance or dispute, where fair judgment is needed to settle the case.[4]  Isaiah 1:18 is the most well-known use of yakah. In this case, God has a grievance with the people of Israel. In fact, God’s ancient grievance with the Hebrew people is remarkably similar to the grievance many folks have against religion and churches today—namely, that religious rituals have replaced real righteousness shown in seeking justice and caring for the poor, oppressed and defenseless of society. Just as record numbers of folks today have stopped going to church for this reason, God essentially says to the Hebrew people, “I’m tired of this foolishness! I’m not coming to your church anymore! SEE YOU IN COURT!”

No bolt of lightning is hurled down from heaven. No AK-47 materializes to mow down the opposition. No God-made bomb blows the defiant to smithereens. God doesn’t even cuss anybody out! Instead, God extends an invitation – an angry invitation – but an invitation nonetheless: “Come now, let us argue it out.”  “I don’t think you have a leg to stand on. But you present your argument and I’ll present Mine.” “Listen, O heavens and pay attention O earth!”[5]  We will each make our case.  You witness our arguments and be the judge between us.

Remarkable, isn’t it? In this prophetic passage God – an angry God – does not pull rank, does not resort to vigilante justice, but condescends to come to court and enter into a formal exchange with mere humans. God even defers to heaven and earth to judge the case.

In this scenario from scripture, ‘argument’ does not mean a shouting match, but a rigorous round of reasoning together. The goal is not venting and revenge but repenting – turning away from harmful, hurtful, alienating ways of thinking – and reconciliation – arriving together at a repaired relationship built on sound arguments and just actions. In this age of tabloid TV, when Divorce Court is sandwiched between Jerry Springer and Maury Povich; when trash talk, triggers, f-bombs and real bombs are used to “settle” conflicts, doesn’t Isaiah’s idea of argument sound like a good alternative?

Thanks be to God for the Techie Trinity -Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg[6]- who have made it possible to summon together heaven and earth with one click! Now in the Google universe of the worldwide web and in the Facebook space of social media, we have unprecedented ease of access the public square on a global scale.

Because of this, we can come into direct contact with a wider range of ideas and ideologies than ever before. And this contact is not abstract, passive or impersonal. We can actually concretely, actively engage the people behind the ideas. We can read an article, editorial or book and then, via web comments, Google, Facebook or e-mail, dialogue with the author and participate in public discourse about the author’s ideas. The court of public opinion has gone global.

Global access does not necessarily translate to quality communication. It still takes effort to rise above the rabble of raucous on-line voices having everyday arguments to engage in rigorous rounds of reasoning that can actually lead to deeper understanding, transformed thinking and even reconciled relationships. For all the pitfalls and limitations, there are amazing moments when these kinds of in-depth, illuminating, Isaiah-style arguments occur.  I stumbled upon one a couple weeks ago, courtesy of Facebook.

My Bible in the Public Square professor, Dr. Wil Gafney, posted on Facebook a link to a Huffington Post article by United Methodist pastor Morgan Guyton entitled  “Why is a Famous Evangelical Pastor Defending Slavery?”[7] Of course, that caught my attention! So I read through the article to find out more.  The pastor Guyton referred to is Douglas Wilson, an influential conservative Reformed Evangelical pastor, educator and author from Moscow, Idaho.[8] He published two controversial books, Southern Slavery, As It Was[9] and Black and Tan[10] in which he argues on Biblical principles (as he understands them) that the Civil War was a mistake of overly aggressive abolitionists that set off a cascade of moral decline and federal government over-reach that continues to this day. In his opinion, the Confederate South was one of the most Christianized communities of its time, most slaves and slaveholders had warm, close relationships, and these godly church-going slaveholders would have gradually emancipated slaves out of Christian charity with no need for war or federal intervention.[11]

As an African-American Pentecostal-Lutheran Christian and womanist theologian born during the Civil Rights era and raised and educated in the large urban centers of the U.S. Northeast Coast (Washington, Philadelphia, Boston), I am far removed from Wilson’s world and worldview. Geographically and ideologically, we are thousands of miles apart, though we both profess faith in Christ and hold the scriptures in high esteem. In the world before Facebook and Google, our paths would have never crossed. We could have each “preached to our own choirs,” parodying and pillorying each other’s positions with little opportunity for feedback in the public square. But now in the virtual global village, we are one click away from a question, a comment, an argument – that is, a rigorous round of reasoning – to probe more closely, dialogue more deeply and move toward a greater level of understanding.

In fact, an African American Reformed Evangelical pastor and theologian, Thabiti Anyabwile, has already engaged Wilson in a vigorous public argument about his views. Carried out online via blog and comments supplemented by e-mails and phone calls, Anyabwile has taken the time to recapitulate Wilson’s position and scriptural exegesis, probe its underlying social assumptions and scriptural convictions, and present an alternative social interpretation and scriptural analysis from within their shared Reformed Evangelical theological framework. Wilson was so impressed with Anyabwile’s careful and respectful reasoning, that he wrote: ”Almost he persuadeth me to be an abolitionist. His kind of one, anyway.”[12]

A log of links to the entire, extended public argument between Wilson and Anyabwile is posted on another blogsite, The Wartburg Watch, started by two Reformed Evangelical women, Dee Parsons and Deb Martin.  They established the blog to create a safe space for public discourse across ideological chasms. As they write:

This blog exists to explore various trends within the Christian faith. Along the way, we have discovered that many people have been the victims of legitimate spiritual abuse at the hands of pastors and churches. Some have experienced rejection because they do not march lock step with the current “thing du jour.” We view this blog as a community of the faithful, of those who are not so sure of the faith and of those who outright reject the faith… It is our hope that this blog will develop a diverse community that is interested in dialoging and learning from one another. In the end, we may disagree but we believe that love and respect should be end result of our discussions.[13]

Across the ideological chasm between liberal and conservative Christians, Guyton blogs a response to Wilson’s views in his Huffington Post article, bringing the tools of historical criticism into the arena. Guyton argues that Wilson’s views are warped because he fails to consider the historical, social and cultural context of the scriptures that speak about slavery. Far from trivializing or dismissing scripture, exegetical tools like historical and literary criticism provide ways of taking scripture seriously, digging more deeply into its meaning and discerning how these ancient texts speak to us today. Guyton writes:

I think that Doug Wilson’s perspective and mine represent the two basic possible choices for how to approach biblical interpretation if you’re going to do it consistently: with context or without context. Many Christians choose an inconsistent path in between based on whatever ideological identity they’re staking out with their mixture of positions.[14]

Amazing, isn’t it? By means of the internet and social media, an extended argument about the place of slavery in the Bible and in American history is being carried out between a Reformed Evangelical pastor in Idaho, an African-American pastor in the Bahamas, two Reformed Evangelical women in North Carolina, a United Methodist Pastor in Virginia!

After reading through several rounds of the argument, I added my voice to the discourse with the following post as a comment to Guyton’s Huffington Post article:

“One unspoken misconception of Doug Wilson’s argument is that the United States is a Christian congregation rather than a geopolitical nation. National economic and political interests got us into slavery and national economic and political interests ultimately got us out. Abolitionists created political pressure to end slavery through public witness and civil disobedience. But abolitionists did not initiate the Civil War. It was Southern states’ secession from the United States – in protest to Lincoln’s refusal to extend slavery to new U.S. territories- that fomented the Civil War. Confederates fired the first shots in the war, which claimed 600,000 American lives. If Confederates held the scriptures in such high regard, how could they defy Romans 13 requiring submission to civil authorities as servants of God, authorized to “bear the sword” and “execute judgment” on wrongdoers? Martin Luther built his “Two Kingdoms” teaching on this precept, arguing that Gospel principles apply within the context of Christian congregations, but that God authorizes secular governments to impose law and order to restrain anarchy and sustain a civilized society. This makes “gospel gradualism” an oxymoron. And Wilson applies the concept selectively. If the “discipleship of the nations is a gradual process,” why weren’t Native Americans “gradually discipled” rather than killed off and conquered by “Christian” settlers? And what of the 13 “Christian” colonies who violently rebelled against British rule? In the world of secular politics: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. ” (Frederick Douglass- African American Abolitionist)” [15]

It’s tempting to think this argument is an esoteric exercise with a fringe fanatic holding to a preposterous proposition about slavery and the Civil War.  I overcame the temptation to dismiss Doug Wilson’s argument as irrelevant when I recalled Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s remarks earlier this year as part of an oral argument in the Court characterizing the Voting Rights Act as a “racial entitlement” that should be struck down.  He based his argument on a 1979 law review article that he wrote prior to joining the Court. [16] I wonder if he has engaged in any meaningful debate on his argument over the 34 years since he wrote his law review article?

Like Judge Scalia, Doug Wilson’s opinion represents the views of a significant part of our American community. Through his writing, speaking, teaching and pastoring, he is using his platform of authority to push his position in the public square to influence the direction of our country.  Leaving his argument unchallenged is like giving silent assent and yielding ground to his position. Since he has published his position in the public square, vigorous public discourse is healthy and needed to bridge ideological chasms, challenge flawed arguments, and move toward greater understanding for the common good. “Come now, let’s argue it out.”


[4] TWOT 865 in  http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=03198 Accessed 05/01/2013

[5] Isaiah 1:2a (NRSV)

[6] Founders of Google ( Page and Brin) and Facebook (Zuckerberg)

[9] Douglas Wilson and Steve Wilkins. Southern Slavery, As It Was. (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1996 )

[10] Douglas Wilson. Black and Tan. (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2005)

WAR AND PEACE- Women Theologians in Public Dialogue

Image“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” – Ephesians 4:15-16 (NRSV)

The Bible in the Public Square has helped me find my voice as a public theologian and emboldened me to lift my voice in public dialogue. Recently, I joined a LinkedIn network of Women Clergy and Leaders who engage in on-line discussion about topics raised by group members. The growing group is currently comprised of 865 members. Most members are White American women from major U.S. metropolitan areas (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Minneapolis- St. Paul to name a few). There is also a smattering of international women  and women of color from as far away as Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, India and Australia. The core group of women is senior pastors and other clergy from Mainline Protestant denominations (Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Methodist, United Church of Christ). There are also women from other vocations (educators, counselors, entrepreneurs) and denominations (Roman Catholic, AME, Baptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Evangelical). Any group member can begin a discussion to which other group members are free to respond to respectfully. After observing a few of the on-line discussions, I took the plunge to contribute to one that I found particularly provocative.

One of our group members, Connie Giordano, posted the following quote from a podcast she has started for the internet radio program of her organization, Walking in Truth Ministry:

“You are in a battle. The Anointed of War has a word for you today. That word is – ‘Do not fear.’ The Lord your God is with you.”[1]

An exchange ensued between Connie and two group members responding to her post. The first respondent, Lorie Adoff,  wrote:

“Please do not include me in your ‘war.’ We need peace, not war.”[2]

To which Connie responded:

“You cannot have peace unless you have Jesus! As long as you are in this world, you will be in a war. Only in Jesus is there peace.”[3]

A second respondent, Patricia Ludwig, wrote:

“I agree with Lorie—I would prefer the word challenge…the word WAR and BATTLE are words that remind me of anger and hostility and rage…why can we not, as women, use words that move us toward peace and reconciliation and actions that bring about the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, to quote a man of peace?”[4]

Though unstated, each group member’s remarks reflect her Christian context. Connie is a white American minister ordained by the Fellowship of Ministers and Churches of Christ For The Nations Institute, an interdenominational three-year Bible Institute based in Dallas, TX and affiliated with Oral Roberts University a charismatic Christian organization founded by evangelist and faith-healer Oral Roberts.  In her public profile, Connie identifies herself as “Full-time Bible Teacher and Evangelist – called by God to teach His Word to His people over the Internet and around the world. My GREATEST PASSION is to see a BIBLE REVIVAL hit this world.”[5]

Lorie, the first respondent, serves as Spiritual Director of Hospice Care for a men’s prison “train[ing], and support[ing] inmate volunteers who companion dying inmates. I also support & counsel inmates in the hospital with life limiting illness.”[6] She studied at University of Detroit Mercy, Michigan’s largest Catholic University.[7]

Patricia, the second respondent is a retired clergy member from the Buffalo New York area who served UCC and Baptist congregations. She received her M.Div. from Bethany Theological Seminary, a Church of the Brethren institution located in Richmond, IN.

Joining the discussion, I contributed the following post:

As an African American womanist theologian, I believe the scriptures and life experience give us a rich, complex and nuanced understanding of war and peace, battle and victory. We do need peace. But the reality of life in the world today is that we are in a battle, a struggle, a conflict. I’m thinking of women in my urban congregation who are struggling to maintain sanity, find or keep employment and cover living expenses on less than a living wage, struggling with sub-standard housing, negligent landlords, decaying and violent neighborhoods, mass incarceration of black men that has decimated marriages, families and communities, struggling with abusive relationships and overcoming the psychic trauma of being violated by a father, uncle or other “trusted” family member as a child, struggling to raise their own children and find meaning and purpose in their lives, struggling to overcome in a culture that tells them they’re ugly, lazy, promiscuous, worthless.

And these experiences of African American women in the urban “struggle class” don’t even scratch the surface of the global struggles of women confronted with culturally-mandated genital mutilation, patriarchal systems that do not acknowledge their personhood apart from their relationship to a man, those manipulated into the violence and degradation of the sex industry with promises of education and a better future- those infected with AIDS by husbands toiling far away in diamond and coal mines, cocoa and oil fields, sleeping with other partners and bringing the disease home, those struggling with hunger, displacement by war (and its ritual rape), walking miles every day to find clean water.

Just saying “we need peace” does not adequately acknowledge the pain, suffering and trauma of women at home and around the world who are daily living the reality of war.

War? Battle? Anger? Hostility? Rage? YES!!! — This is what these women (and men and children) who are struggling through these tortured realities are experiencing. These traumas and responses have to be ACKNOWLEDGED in order for the Gospel message of Christ to have any relevance or credibility.

I believe that God in Christ did acknowledge and participate in the struggle of life through the incarnation. Rather than insulating Himself from the ragged realities of the battle of life through class, economic or racial advantage, God came to us in Christ as a helpless child born into a poor family from a subjugated, despised people living under a harsh military regime that – through Herod – imposed a massive act of genocide (WAR) against children to kill Jesus before he was two years old — driving his family from their homeland as refugees in Egypt.

I believe Jesus acknowledged the realities of war and struggle in life, AND the power He provides to overcome and find peace through Him. In His aggressive actions in the Temple, driving out the money changers with whips, He showed His anger, hostility and rage against the greed and injustice that barred people from God’s house- a house of prayer for ALL people. (Mt 21:12-13)

The actions that “move us toward peace and reconciliation… [to] bring about the Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven”, do not glide across frictionless conflict-free tracks. Jesus said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence,and the violent take it by force.” (Mt 11:12) — acknowledging that, like John, our witness of Christ and our stand for justice and mercy will often be met with resistance, even violent resistance — such as that now experienced by persecuted believers in places like Sudan, China, N Korea, N Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran.

In some of His final words before meeting His violent, unjust death Jesus presented a portrait of peace that penetrates conflict: “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (Jn 16:33) [8]

Though there was no response to my post from Connie, Lorie or Patricia, two more group members subsequently joined the discussion. Modise J. Tebogo[9], a Minister of Religion at Church of the Nazarene in South Africa “liked” my comment. She received her training at Nazarene Theological College in South Africa, “a tertiary level institution of higher education of the Church of the Nazarene… [whose mission] is to prepare men and women, laity and clergy, in the African context for ministry and leadership in the local, district, and global church. NTC promotes a Christian lifestyle and is distinctively Wesleyan-holiness in orientation.”[10]

Karen Wellman, Assistant Curate at Church of England in Reading, England[11], posted the following comment:

Context is all. In a week when a homemade bomb in Boston killed three and wounded so many more I was forcefully reminded of the troubles which I lived through in the 70s and 80s. The bombs and shootings killed men, women and children in the name of religion.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Troubles

Men and women of courage brokered a peace treaty that has held and peace and reconcilliation are now at the fore in Northern Ireland.

That war had its origins in the 17th century and my church has scars from that war as well (holes in the walls from musket fire) and only today I was at a ministers meeting where a protestant minister boasted about seeing off the old guard – good faithful Christians from a more catholic heritage. Whilst I absolutely respect my fellow Christians use of battle imagery, it is not helpful to all of us.[12]

I was encouraged to see that my comment broadened the discussion internationally and racially to include a woman of color from South Africa and an Anglican from Northern Ireland, putting context on the table as a factor to be consciously considered and brought into public dialogue. I’m learning from this public forum experience that remarkable diversity exists even in a group as specific as Women Clergy and Leaders. I believe our perspectives contribute to a richer, fuller understanding of how Christ is at work in the world today.


[1] Connie Giordiano. “No Reason to Fear.”  http://www.spreaker.com/user/5652386/no_reason_to_fear Accessed 04/17/2013

[2] Lorie Adoff.  http://lnkd.in/hNhNnA  Accessed 04/17/23

[3] Connie Giordiano. Ibid.

[4] Patricia Ludwig. Ibid.

[7] www.udmercy.edu Accessed 04/29/2013

[8] Yvonne Lembo. http://lnkd.in/hNhNnA Accessed 04/18/2013

[9] za.linkedin.com/pub/tebogo-j-modise/47/102/894/ Accessed 04/29/2013

[10] http://nazcol.ac.za/about-us/ Accessed 04/29/2013

[11] uk.linkedin.com/pub/karen-wellman/50/aa3/464/ Accessed 04/29/2013

[12] Karen Wellman. http://lnkd.in/hNhNnA Accessed 04/18/2013

WELCOME FOR THE WEARY- What Does the Bible Offer the “Nones?”

Searching Silhouette“The Lord God has given me the tongue of one who is taught, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning [God] wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” Isaiah 50:4 (NRSV)

For those who are listening, I believe God is teaching us something these days.

In a 2012 report, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported a record-breaking rise in the numbers of adults in America who are not affiliated with any religious group:

One-fifth of the U.S. public—and a third of adults under 30— are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics… as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation.”[1]

Colloquially referred to as the ‘nones,’ because of their typical response to survey questions about their religious affiliation, this group of Americans has been growing steadily while the ranks of U.S. Catholics, Mainline Protestants and Evangelicals such as the Southern Baptists, have seen significant drops. [2] [3] [4]

Some see this trend as a harbinger of “the end of religion as we know it,”[5] warning of “religious apocalypse.”[6] For others, the rise of the religiously unaffiliated heralds the secularization of America, following the pattern of Western Europe[7], an inevitable process that goes hand-in-hand with modernization and economic progress[8] [9].

But as the Pew report points out, the religiously unaffiliated are not a monolithic group. And their refusal of religious affiliation does not necessarily equate with rejecting God or reneging on spirituality:

…many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’ (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.[10]

The term “spiritual but not religious” zeroes in on those religiously unaffiliated who still pursue or embrace some form of spirituality, while not espousing a fixed dogma or denominational creed. A minister with 24 years of pastoral experience with “SBNR”s describes some of the salient characteristics of this emerging group:

“People who identify themselves as SBNR are very skeptical of hard and fast theological constructs about God… The SBNR tend to be post-modern and thus are extremely suspicious of any ultimate truth claims… They want to consider religious and theological beliefs from a variety of perspectives… They gravitate toward spiritual explanations grounded in experiences rather than toward theological explanations grounded in rational speculation… By virtue of being “spiritual,” they seek an experience of God, not thought about God or rituals that feel devoid of God…They see the practice of religion as inhibiting the pursuit of the spiritual, and of a direct relationship with God, the Divine, the Higher Power…[11]

For those who are listening, God is teaching. Those weary or wary of being part of a religious group are nonetheless seeking and finding Divine connections through experiential encounters, personal faith in God, environmental stewardship and communion with nature, and adhering to select spiritual principles and practices, including prayer.

These values resonate closely with many of the major faiths, including Christian scripture and tradition. Yet many of the religiously unaffiliated have experienced a disconnect between these spiritual ideals and standard practice in religious congregations:

The Rev. Mike Baughman, a United Methodist minister who runs a Christian coffee shop in Dallas, tells Greene that the church is indeed sending the wrong message. “If the church was known more for our efforts to welcome the stranger than keep them out, I think the church would have greater credibility with rising generations,” says Baughman. “For example, on immigration policies, we’ve taken the wrong stance on that, and they know. The thing is they’re smart enough. A lot of them have grown up in the church and then rejected it. They’ve read the scriptures that talk about the importance of welcoming the stranger, they’ve read the scriptures about the importance of caring for the poor, and when they see that no longer on the lips of those who are in religious authority, they see that the God we present is bankrupt, and that we’re theologically thin in our ability to even speak our own story.”[12]

How can those of us who are insiders, connected to religious groups, attune and orient ourselves and our faith communities to see and hear and reach out and welcome in these spiritual wayfarers of our time? Can we learn anew “how to sustain the weary with a word” and heartfelt deeds of kindness that genuinely embody and convey the Welcome of our God?

In Baja Mexico, a welcome mat has been woven for American expatriates and ex-church-goers in the form of a Sunday gathering called “Not Church”:

“Many of them long ago gave up on traditional religious institutions. But they function as a congregation often does–engaging one another in spiritual conversation and prayer, delivering food when someone is sick and working together to serve the poor…”[13]

The group began as a monthly discussion group led by a young ordained Presbyterian minister, Erin Dunigan.  In a message drawn from God’s call to Samuel in I Samuel 3, she likened organized religion to “supermarket tomatoes–flavorless and tough. That isn’t a reason to give up on religion, or tomatoes, but instead to find a fresh, local version worth cultivating.”[14]

In Denver, CO, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber extends her extravagantly-tattooed arms to welcome weary travelers to the House for All Sinners and Saints, a congregation created to “provide a connection or a bridge to the traditions of the church [for]…urban post-modern folks.”[15]  Though House for All follows the “ancient liturgy of the church,” their gatherings are far from “flavorless and tough.”

“…The liturgy is led by the people who show up.  The pastor offers the Eucharistic prayer and (most times) the sermon; all the other parts of the liturgy are led by people from where they are sitting.  As a matter of fact, even the music is made by the community… the liturgy is a capella.  So, all the music you hear in liturgy comes from the bodies of those who showed up…. There’s also some innovation.  We always include poetry and a time called “Open Space” in which we slow down for prayer and other opportunities to actively engage the Gospel; writing in the community’s Book of Thanks, writing prayers, making art or assembling bleach kits for the needle exchange in Denver.”[16]

House for All is currently the spiritual home for about 180 folks including “married couples, young families, Baby Boomers and a few folks in their 70s, [plus young adults between ]the ages of 22 and 42 and single.  Maybe a quarter of us identify as Lutherans; the rest are post-Evangelicals, Methodists, agnostics, Reformed, Episcopalian, and the ever-popular ‘nothing’.”[17]

These examples illustrate a couple of the most innovative efforts of mainline denominations – those losing ground most rapidly to the rise of the religiously unaffiliated – to reclaim a generation who has disengaged from their venerable traditions and institutional religious protocols.

In other parts of the American Christian landscape, where innovation, participation and experiential encounters with God have been part of religious tradition and ethnic culture, the faith is persisting, even flourishing. For example, in contrast to the widespread fall-off in religious affiliation among White Americans of all regions and socio-economic strata, the “nones” phenomenon has not affected African American and Latino communities:

When it comes to race, … the recent change has been concentrated in one group: whites. One-fifth of (non-Hispanic) whites now describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, up five percentage points since 2007. By contrast, the share of Blacks and Hispanics who are religiously unaffiliated has not changed by a statistically significant margin in recent years.[18]

And whereas mainline (historically white) denominations have experienced precipitous decline over the past generation, Pentecostalism, a highly experiential expression of Christian faith, has experienced explosive growth in the United States and around the world, particularly among African Americans, Latinos and other global peoples of color:

Pentecostalism and related charismatic movements represent one of the fastest-growing segments of global Christianity. At least a quarter of the world’s 2 billion Christians are thought to be members of these lively, highly personal faiths, which emphasize… spiritually renewing “gifts of the Holy Spirit”… Even more than other Christians, Pentecostals and other Renewalists believe that God, acting through the Holy Spirit, continues to play a direct, active role in everyday life.

Pentecostalism, and its related “renewalist” or “spirit-filled” movements, was one of the most influential developments in global Christianity in the 20th century, and it is poised to have an even greater influence in the 21st century. Nowhere is this more evident than in the “global South,” where Pentecostalism is reshaping the social, political and economic landscape of many countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.[19]

Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity’s experiential emphasis, free-flowing worship, and personal encounter with God via the Holy Spirit fit part of the profile of what today’s “Spiritual But Not Religious” are looking for. But these movements have been weighed down with the baggage of rigid fundamentalism, social conservatism, and anti-intellectualism that refuses to wrestle with some of the complex questions confronting those seeking spirituality in the post-modern world. To gain long-term traction among the religiously unaffiliated, these deficiencies in Pentecostal-Charismatic faith have to be addressed and overcome.

On this front, progressive mainline denominational congregations have the edge and point the way forward. As House for All elaborates in their core values:

House … is experimenting with new ways to do church which make sense to urban postmodern folks. It is a place where:

The Gospel matters, liturgy is recontextualized, and we are free to reclaim the word “Christian”

Scripture is honored enough to be faithfully questioned and struggled with

We no longer have to culturally commute or bracket out parts of ourselves to be in Christian community

We are co-creators of liturgy, [not] just passive participants. Aesthetics and theology both matter

The community is both intellectually and spiritually stimulating   (my emphases).[20]

The Bible gives us a great story of how Jesus modeled welcome for one weary “none” of His time:

Zacchaeus… was aZacchaeus chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.
For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” [21]

Like Zacchaeus, the “nones” of our time are pursuing a wide range of vocations and often amassing substantial material resources. For all their professional success and personal wealth, however, there is still a yearning for meaning and significance that these post-modern pilgrims are seeking. Like Zacchaeus, these seekers are “trying to see who Jesus is” in a way that speaks to their experience and makes sense in the postmodern world. “But on account of the crowd” of denominational, institutional, creedal and outdated religious cultural barriers, Jesus is obscured. Individual spiritual pursuits inevitably come up “short” in providing sustainable spiritual nourishment which, even in this age, takes place most effectively in community. Running ahead of institutional lethargy and ingrown denominational insensitivity, the spiritual wayfarers of our time are ferretting out a wide array of spiritual systems and practices to get a better vantage point on the Divine than the tired platitudes of the past. Whether through communing with nature, community service or prayer and healing practices now associated with so-called “Eastern religions” (and which were part of primal Christian faith – itself once an ancient Eastern religion), the Spiritual But Not Religious, like Zacchaeus, are going to great lengths in pursuit of Divine encounter.

When Jesus came to the place where Zacchaeus was, “off the beaten path,” he looked up. Jesus observed. He noticed. He stopped. He looked. And He engaged Zacchaeus right where he was, extending him an empowering Word of Welcome: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus didn’t have a house. So he created space for Zacchaeus to welcome Him to his house. For those of us tightly aligned with religious groups, this is the approach we need today. Rather than expecting the religiously unaffiliated to come to us in the fortress of our “houses of worship,” we can create an opportunity for encounter by moving out of our comfort zones, where we rule, and coming as guests into the living (and working and socializing) spaces of those who don’t or won’t come to church.  Zacchaeus was happy to welcome Jesus, because Jesus was happy to come to him. Though our religious sensibilities may grumble at the thought of being the “guest of one who is a sinner”  and encountering God outside the box of our accustomed liturgical paradigms, Jesus shows us that this is just where the action is.

In his own space, Zacchaeus showed Jesus his heart. His philanthropic actions showed the sincerity of his intent and pursuit of God. Likewise today, many “nones” encounter the Divine and show their spirituality through their giving, their community service, their social action.  Jesus recognized that Zacchaeus’ actions showed evidence of his “salvation” – a changed heart, a changed life, a changed relationship with the Almighty. Jesus claimed Zacchaeus – despised by religious insiders – as a son of Abraham – part of the family of believers. And Jesus identified Zacchaeus – and those like him who were “lost” – not to God, but to the religious establishment – as the heart of His mission in the world.

May those of us who have been enriched by the scriptures and traditions of our historic communities of faith seize the “teaching moment” of this time. The religious and spiritual transition in our nation and world has given us a golden opportunity to re-align ourselves with the agenda and approach of Jesus so that we – and those we’ve “lost” along the way—may awaken afresh and discover anew the sustaining power of God’s living words for the weary.


[11] N. Graham Standish. “Shepherding SBNR Sheep: How to Create a Church for the Spiritual But Not Religious” in Congregations. Issue 1, 2013 pp 6-9.

[14] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[21] Luke 19:2-10 NRSV

Prayer in the Public Square: Heartbreak Hill and Heartfelt Prayer

facebook prayers

“…My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them besides those already gathered”
Isaiah 56:7-8 (NRSV)

I learned about the Boston Marathon tragedy through the post of a Facebook friend, who shared an article from www.myfoxboston.com  that first appeared as breaking news, shortly following the explosions. In response, I posted the following extemporaneous prayer on Facebook as a comment to the article:

yvonne facebook imageYvonne Lembo · Works at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia

God have mercy on all those involved. Help those first responders who are attending to those injured. Grant your peace, strength, courage and healing presence among all those effected. Shine your light of truth to reveal the cause of this tragedy and bring justice and restoration. And may this horrible tragedy not mark the end of this longstanding good will event that has brought together people from all over the world to participate and support. As the athletes have prepared themselves for this test of endurance, may those who oversee the Boston Marathon also prepare themselves to endure and overcome this Heartbreak Hill.

Later that evening, returning to Facebook, I was astounded to find 1700+ likes and nearly 100 comments on my post! Only two of those responses were from people in my network of Facebook of friends. The other 1,800+ likes and comments were from people I’ve never met or heard of before – people completely beyond any of the circles I’m familiar with, and in some cases part of causes that I question —  a used car dealer from Framingham, MA; a Hyatt Regency staff person in Scottsdale, AZ; a faculty member at the University of Toronto; a Sr. High student from Garden City; a Tea Party supporter from the University of Leeds, an NRA supporter from Gun for Hire-America’s Urban Defense Institute!  Responses came from South Dakota, Alaska, Hawaii, even a commenter from Israel! Complete strangers, we were now strangely linked in a worldwide web of prayer, courtesy of Fox News! Indeed, God works in mysterious ways.

There were thousands of likes, hundreds of Amens! and many affirmations and words of encouragement. There were also peppery words of dissent, anguished, angry cries of doubt, despair, disgust and damnation – heartfelt expressions of lament. Together, these responses formed a living breathing tapestry of prayer, pulsating with human expression, experience, emotion housed in the presence of the Living One.

It was a holy encounter. I felt as if God were showing me a microcosm of the living dynamics of prayer – how words uttered to God know no boundaries and have far-reaching ripple effects in human hearts, how our words of blessing or cursing resound on earth and in heaven. How, as public theologians, our words impact the public square, giving voice for the voiceless, consoling, empowering, provoking – invoking God as part of the conversation.

God’s dwelling place houses prayer for all people. God receives prayers from people from every station of life; people of every race and place, people of every party and persuasion, people who say Amen! and even those who say God damn! Through the Boston Marathon tragedy God gathered us who were scattered threads, alien to each other’s lives, outcast from each other’s communities — into a living web, a holy fabric, a network of human interaction with the Divine.

If you’d like to browse through the comments and likes you can find them on my Facebook page here:  https://www.facebook.com/yvonne.lembo or on the Boston Fox News website here:

http://www.myfoxboston.com/story/21982342/apparent-explosion-hits-near-finish-line-of-boston-marathon.

White Smoke: The White Jesus Smokescreen. What it is. What it does. Why it’s time to clear the air.

Image“…The house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Isaiah 6:4b-5 (NRSV)

Shortly after 7:00pm local time Wednesday (March 13), billows of white smoke emerging from the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel chimney announced to the world that the conclave of Roman Catholic Cardinals had elected a new pope. Jorge Mariano Bergoglio, who will be known as Pope Francis I, is the son of Italian emigrants and a native of Argentina in Latin America. Though ethnically Italian, this Argentine Jesuit priest is the first pope of non-European nationality to be elected in more than a millennium.[1] This milestone occurs amidst a global Roman Catholic Church body that is now comprised of predominately non-white believers from Latin America together with other parts of the Global South, such as Africa and Asia.[2]

The sight of the white smoke that announced a new white pope in white robes standing at the white balcony of the Vatican was a stark reminder that for the world’s largest Christian body – white might is still right. Though the body of Roman Catholic believers has grown darker and more diverse over the past two centuries, with record growth in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the head of the Church—the Vicar, or earthly representative, of Jesus Christ—remains ethnically European and visibly white.

Pope Francis’ homeland—Argentina – is 97% white, the product of systematic colonial-era ethnic discrimination, displacement, disenfranchisement and slaughter of Amerindians[3] and massive 19th and 20th century social and ethnic engineering through European immigration.[4] The vision of Argentina’s founding fathers was to create a country ruled by white European-ethnic elites.[5] What will be the vision of the Roman Catholic Church’s new white “papa” for the future leadership of the worldwide Church’s 1.1 billion members?

White smoke not only heralds the new white Vicar of Jesus Christ for the Roman Catholic Church, but a white smokescreen continues to shroud the identity and mission of Jesus Christ Himself. Cloaked in a robe of white flesh and perched on a pedestal of white power, the White Jesus, worshipped worldwide by most of the 2.1 billion followers of all Christian traditions, continues to rule an ever growing, darkening and diversifying Global Body of believers[6], displacing and distorting the Biblical Jesus and disenfranchising other depictions of the Christ.

Just this week, riding to work on a bus route used predominately by African Americans, Image
I encountered  a tract entitled “One Man Died for All,”  featuring White Jesus. There he was with his idealized European features – perfectly coiffed light brown hair (cut and blow-dried, not long and flowing!), perfectly clipped light brown beard, perfectly pale skin, perfectly narrow nose and lips, and sincere, penetrating light brown eyes framed by two perfectly-shaped light brown eyebrows. He beckoned me, pale hand outstretched, with a Mona-Lisa-like smile gently traced across his thin lips. He emerged from a ghost-like background of past white ancestors progressing in evolutionary fashion from ancient whites clothed in veils to more modern whites clothed in European garb. Surrounding him were throngs of smiling white followers, with a flourish of non-white ethnics from Asia, Africa and Latin America swirled in for color.  (Maybe that’s why he beckoned me – to add a little more color to his entourage!)

The tract asked three questions about White Jesus:

1)       Who is this man?

2)      How does his death help us?

3)      Why is it important that we remember him?

I will offer brief answers to these questions, drawing on the Bible, history and the reflections of several leading scholars and theologians of the 20th-21st centuries.

1)      Who is this man?  Let’s start with who he’s not. The man in the picture- White Jesus – is not the Jesus of the Bible. The four Gospels describe Jesus by what he said and did, not by what he looked like. In fact, there is no physical description of Jesus’ every day human appearance in the entire New Testament.

The Synoptic Gospels describe Jesus on a mountain in a transfigured state in which “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white,”[7] paralleling Moses’ transfiguration in the Hebrew Bible.[8] The book of Revelation recounts a vision of a glorified Jesus whose “…head and …hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze…”[9]  These are not racial or ethnic descriptions of Jesus’ normal appearance. They are visionary descriptions of Jesus in an altered, glorified state. As with Moses, the brightness of Jesus’ countenance and clothes reflect Divine Light, not racial whiteness or European ethnicity.

Geographically, the Jesus of history lived between West Asia and Northeast Africa, amid brown and black peoples of various ethnicities and language groups. Predominant among these are the semitic languages and the semite peoples.  The term “semitic” is derived from the Biblical Hebrew word  transliterated shem, which means name, reputation, fame, glory.[10] A related semitic root word – samu– is “generally regarded as meaning ‘dusky.’”[11]

Linguistically, semitic designates “a branch or subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages that includes Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Amharic, and such ancient languages as Akkadian and Phoenician.”[12] Ethnically, the semite people include “Arabs, Akkadians, Canaanites, some Ethiopians, and Aramaean tribes including Hebrews.”[13]

Bible history, geography, linguistics and ethnography all point to a dusky-colored Afro-Asiatic Jesus. The transfiguration of this Biblical Jesus into White Jesus has its roots in European and United States history, politics, and global ambitions.

In Europe, White Jesus emerged in the late Middle Ages as European nations entered the era of imperialist expansion, venturing beyond their narrow white borders into the wider world and its darker peoples.[14] [15] In antiquity, Europeans lived as savages while Afro-Asiatic civilizations flourished.[16] In the Bible, Christian faith expanded east to west from its Afro-Asiatic birthplace into the un-Christianized European frontier.[17] For the first thousand years of the faith, Christianity was firmly rooted and centrally seated in the Afro-Asiatic world.[18] But by the Middle Ages, Europeans flipped the script, designating the peoples of Africa, Asia and the Americas savages and “civilizing” them via subjugation, slavery, sexual exploitation and slaughter justified by the White Jesus.[19] [20] [21] From the 15th through the 20th centuries, Europeans re-created Christianity in the image of the white Western world and suffocated Biblical Jesus beneath a white smokescreen of forged ancient documents, fabricated relics, fanciful artwork and fascist racial fantasies depicting White Jesus. [22]

In the United States, from iconoclastic white Puritans to homegrown white Mormons[23], White Jesus has and does embody and ennoble the sacred ideals and secular ambitions of the white worldview:

By wrapping itself with the alleged form of Jesus, whiteness gave itself a holy face … With Jesus as white, Americans could feel that sacred whiteness stretched back in time thousands of years and forward in sacred space to heaven and the second coming … The white Jesus promised a white past, a white present, and a future of white glory.[24]

Even African Americans, who defied white rhetoric about the enslaving Jesus and forged faith in the liberating Jesus in the furnace of slavery and racist torment, nevertheless succumbed to the visual mystique of White Jesus, proudly displaying his Nordic image in their homes and churches as the object of their hopes and source of strength amid their struggles for freedom. For many African American Christians, the Master, alas, is still a white man.

White Jesus has proliferated across the global spectrum of Christianity today. His image reigns in United States sanctuaries, cities, towns and urban ghettos, in Latin American cathedrals and favelas, in African presidential palaces, houses of worship and rural villages, in Asian mega-churches , mega-slums and underground cell groups.

The problem with White Jesus is that he is a false messiah, a golden calf, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a powerful delusion. White Jesus is a false messiah [25] because he is not the Real Jesus depicted by the scriptures. White Jesus is an expression of white supremacy- protecting privilege for the white racial elite while exploiting and oppressing the non-white people of the world. White Jesus is a golden calf [26] – a false idol crafted from the treasured values of white European culture that obscures the genuine liberating mission of Christ on behalf of people in bondage. White Jesus is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. [27] Behind the benign smiling face and warm eyes of White Jesus is the devouring spirit of Western imperialism, confiscating lands, plundering peoples, destroying cultures and crushing the souls of colored folk around the world. White Jesus is a powerful delusion, [28] a modern expression of Docetism. Like the ancient docetic heresy, White Jesus denies the authentic enfleshed reality of Jesus- a dusky-colored Afro-Asiatic Jewish man—and replaces him with an illusion – a pale Nordic phantom who never lived, died or rose again except in the ethnocentric imagination of white supremacists and those beguiled by their lies.

Just as the white Vicar of Christ secures the institutional future of the Roman Catholic Church, White Jesus undergirds the future of institutional racism and global white supremacy.  But, inasmuch as White Jesus is human-made and not God-given, he will not reign forever. Now is the time to clear the air, lift the smokescreen, and fade the phantom. Now is the time to see Christ anew, expressed through His largely black and brown Body, emerging like Lazarus from the grave, looking for liberation from the restrictive white grave shrouds which have hidden His many-splendored identity. “Unbind him and let him go!”[29]

2)      How does his death help us? In the Hebrew scriptures, the prophet Isaiah declared “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord…”[30] The death of White Jesus helps all of us to see the Real Jesus more clearly!—the One the Bible tells us about – the One who experienced life from the bottom – born into poverty as part of a marginalized, disenfranchised people group struggling for survival under the oppressive weight of a cruel empire[31]; the One who experienced hunger, thirst, depression, loneliness, betrayal, torture  and the depths of human anguish without being destroyed by them[32]; the One known – not for how he looked, but for how he lived and died and lived again![33] – the One who came to “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor!”[34]

In Latin America, the death of White Jesus inaugurated the coming of Jesus the Liberator, champion of the poor.[35] In Asia, the death of White Jesus made room for the indigenous incarnation of Minjung Jesus in South Korea, pursuing justice, relief and liberation for the marginalized common folk of society.[36]  In Africa, the death of White Jesus revealed the Ancient African Jesus of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Tewahedo Church, established at the Biblical dawn of the Church era through the witness of the Ethiopian court official of Acts 8 and never ruled by white colonial powers [37] and the Modern African Jesus[38] who overturned South African apartheid and unleashed inculturated worship and explosive church growth across the African continent. In Black America, the death of White Jesus marked the rise of Black Jesus[39], Divine co-sufferer[40] and social justice revolutionary.[41]

“One Man Died for All.” The death of White Jesus shows that the Real Jesus did not come to condemn the world to white supremacy, colonial oppression and corporate greed for the profit of a few white elites, but he came that the world – the WHOLE world – those “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages”[42] could be liberated and lifted from oppression.[43]

3)      Why should we remember him? If White Jesus is so bad, why should we remember him?  Why not just bury that old image and move on with our modern multicultural expressions of Jesus?  We should remember White Jesus as a warning to all of us of the ever-imminent danger of narrowing the mission of Christ to our own kind. We should remember White Jesus as a warning to not deny the enfleshed humanity of the Real Jesus – a dusky-colored Afro-Asiatic Jew who experienced life from the bottom. And we should remember that White Jesus pales in comparison to the full-blooded, Spirit-empowered, insuppressible eternal witness of the authentic Jesus Christ, who continues to make Himself known as champion of the poor, liberator of the oppressed, true light of the nations, God with us, Word made flesh. Amen!


[3] Herzog, Tamar. Defining Nations: Immigrants and Citizens in Early Modern Spain and Spanish America.” New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003.

[5] Spektorowski, Alberto. “Collective Identity and Democratic Construction: The Cases of Argentina and Uruguay,” in Constructing collective identities and shaping public spheres: Latin American paths. Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 1998.

[6] Philip Jenkins. The Next Christendom: the coming of global Christianity. New York: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2011.

[7] Matthew 17:2. See also  Mark 9:3, which omits the description of Jesus’ face and focuses on the whiteness of his clothes: “…dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them”;  and Luke 9:29, which states: “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”

[8] Exodus 34:29-30 “Moses came down from Mount Sinai…with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand… Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.”

[9] Revelation 1:14

[14] Shawn Kelly. Racializing Jesus: Race, ideology and the formation of modern biblical scholarship. New York: Routledge, 2002.

[16] Thomas C. Oden. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African seedbed of Western Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007.

[18] Philip Jenkins. The Lost History of Christianity: the thousand-year golden age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia and how it died. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

[19] Bartolome de las Casas. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.  USA: ReadaClassic.com, 2009.  This is one of several English translations of this classic treatise by Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas (1474-1566), who emigrated from Spain to Hispaniola during Spanish expansion into the Americas. The hellishly horrifying scenarios he recounts in his Spanish American context were repeated by other European imperial powers expanding into the Americas and other parts of the world.

[20] http://www.africanholocaust.net/. This website is a voice of witness to the African Holocaust or maafa, another expression of European imperialist expansion in the name of White Jesus.

[21] http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Imperialism_in_Asia.html Accessed 3/15/2013. This Princeton University website documents European imperialism in Asia from the 15th Century.

[22] Colin Kidd. The Forging of Races: race and scripture in the Protestant Atlantic world 1600-2000. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

[24] Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey. The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the saga of race in America. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

[25] Matthew 24:23-24

[26] Exodus 32:1-7

[27]Matthew 7:15

[28] 2 Thessalonians 2:8-12

[29] John 11:44

[30] Isaiah 6:1

[31] Howard Thurman. Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1976.

[32] John 16:33, Hebrews 4:15

[33] John 10:17-18, Revelation 1:17-18

[34] Luke 4:18-19

[35] Jon Sobrino. Jesus the Liberator: a historical-theological reading of Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Orbis Books, 1993.

[38] Ogbu Kalu. African Christianity: an African story. Africa World Press, 2007.

[39] James Cone. A Black Theology of Liberation.(Fourtieth Anniversary Ed.)  Markyknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010

[40] Jacquelyn Grant. White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus. Atlanta, GA: American Academy of Religion. 1989

[41] Obery Hendricks. The Politics of Jesus. New York: Three Leaves Press. 2006

[42] Revelation 7:9

[43] John 3:17

True Love in Action

ImageMy children, our love should not be just words and talk;
it must be true love, which shows itself in action.
I John 3:18 (GNT)

Lots of words and talk have been emanating from the “big boys” in Washington these days. Some of the highlights include House Speaker John Boehner’s crass, caustic, contrived call for the Senate to get off their asses to avert this Friday’s self-imposed sequester[1] and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s retrograde amnesiac remark today (February 27) that the Voting Rights Act is a “perpetuation of racial entitlement” for African Americans[2] (who as recently as the 2012 Presidential election have been systematically disenfranchised by discriminatory voting laws reminiscent of those that provoked Voting Rights Act of 1965)[3]. There’s no love lost in these words and talk from two prominent leaders of our land. Their word-filled lack of love is underscored by stifling inaction on legislative and judicial matters that will deeply impact the well-being of American citizens who are governed by these leaders.

In I John, the Bible endearingly urges us away from the false love flatulence of hot air words and talk that leave nothing but a bad odor behind. By contrast, “true love…shows itself in action.”

As Black History Month concludes with our nation bracing for the financial shock of the radical and reckless spending cuts of the sequester and at least one Chief Justice dismissing a pillar of our nation’s painful Civil Rights struggle as nothing more than unnecessary “racial entitlement,” I would like to hold up the life of one unencumbered courageous Black woman as a contemporary example of “true love, which shows itself in action.”

Oseola McCarty[4] was born on March 7, 1908 in Wayne County Mississippi near the little town of Shubuta. She was raised by her mother, Lucy McCarty, who worked as a cook and moved the two of them to live with relatives in Hattiesburg, MS when Oseola was a young girl. Oseola attended Eureka Elementary School in Hattiesburg until the sixth grade, when she dropped out to care for her aunt who was hospitalized with an illness that made her unable to walk. By the time Oseola’s aunt recuperated, “All my classmates had gone off and left me, so I didn’t go back [to school]. I just washed and ironed.”[5] For the next 78 years, Oseola faithfully washed and ironed washed white people’s laundry using a pot and scrub board, earning just a few dollars per load.

 “The white people would come and bring us their clothes. They used to not bring them. You had to go get the clothes. We washed them in a cast iron wash pot and a tin tub and rubbed the clothes with a rub board and threw them in the pot and boiled them, rinsed them, pinned them to the line, hung them up. We had starch pieces to starch them…We didn’t charge much– sometimes two dollars, sometimes a dollar and a half. After the War, it began to pay more… We worked all the time. We were never without work. There was plenty work to do.”[6]

Along with learning the value of hard work, Oseola learned the value of saving money from a young girl. “I’d put the money away and save it. When I got enough, I went to First Mississippi Bank and put it in. The teller told me it would be best to put it in a savings account. I didn’t know. I just kept on saving.”[7] When her mother died in 1964 and her aunt died in 1967, Oseola added the small sums of money they left her into her growing savings account. “I put the money in place instead of drawing it out. I let it stay so it would grow. That’s what they told me … ‘If you don’t take it out, it will grow.’”[8]

Oseola’s life was free from many cash-consuming responsibilities, encumbrances and indulgences. She lived in the same house where she grew up. Her uncle gave her the property as a gift in 1947.  Devoted to her grandmother, mother and aunt, Oseola never married or had children. She chose to live a simple life of thrift, walking rather than buying a car, declining to upgrade from her black-and-white television, and doing without air conditioning until late in life, when she bought a window unit so visiting guests would be comfortable in the summer months. Oseola essentially sequestered herself in a frugal lifestyle during her working years in order to build wealth to bless those who would come after her.[9]

Eventually, bank personnel noticed her sizeable savings and helped her invest in Certificates of Deposit (CDs) and conservative mutual funds to further augment her savings.  Even as her assets grew, Oseola was not a hoarder. She had a heart to help others. “I decided I had too much money, more than I’d ever use. And I didn’t have no sisters, no brothers, no children- nobody. All my family was dead. So, in the place of giving it to my relatives, I thought I’d divide it out so that all of them could get some of it—relatives and them what wasn’t relatives – everyone…anybody.” [10]

In a meeting with her bank officers, Oseola expressed her desire to leave something from her estate for her cousins and her church, with the largest share allocated to establish a scholarship fund for African American students with financial need at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM). To confirm her intent, her lawyer laid out ten dimes to represent percentages and wrote out slips of paper with the names of the parties Oseola identified to receive a share of her estate. He asked Oseola to place the dimes next to each slip of paper to designate what percent of her estate she wanted each party to receive. Beside her congregation, Friendship Baptist Church, Oseola put one dime, a tithe of her estate. Beside her three cousins, Oseola put one dime each. She put the remaining six dimes next to USM, to establish a scholarship fund.[11]

I opened up the scholarship …[and] I decided on USM (University of Southern Mississippi). Long years ago, nobody didn’t go to that school but whites. And now colored go there just like the whites do. And I thought it would be a good thing to put it out there… since this was my hometown university, [to] give them the money and let them do what they know how to do with it.[So I told them] I wanted a scholarship.[12]

Through her thrift, Oseola built up a legacy gift totaling $150,000 for USM, presented to the school’s leaders on July 26, 1995. It was the largest gift from an African American in the university’s history. Her example of true love in action created ripples felt round the world. 
In Hattiesburg, the business community was so stirred by her unselfish generosity, that they matched her founding contribution, raising the scholarship fund to $300,000. Harvard University awarded Oseola an honorary doctorate degree in tribute to her extraordinary example of philanthropy. In September 1995, then President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal and, together with the Congressional Black Caucus, honored her with a dinner at the White House. Eschewing airplanes, Oseola traveled to Washington, DC for this honor by train in her first trip outside the South in 50 years.[13]

The final four years of Oseola’s life after The Gift (as her act of generosity is referred to in Hattiesburg), were marked by celebration, appreciation, fellowship and sharing. This quiet, diligent, simple courageous woman of faith and love in action became a celebrity. Her world opened up to new people, new places and new experiences. She enjoyed traveling and meeting new people. “I used to wouldn’t talk. I hardly ever said anything. I lived by myself and didn’t have anybody to talk to. But I really enjoy talking now, and I’m more braver than I was.”[14]

Oseola’s words are worth hearing. They have been seasoned by her long decades of silence, working hard, caring for others, saving faithfully, and building a legacy to pass on to those coming after her.  Oseola’s words are not hot air, but fresh air, filled with simple wisdom, practical faith and true love in action.

Since her decease in September 1999 at 91 years old, Oseola’s wisdom lives on in the book she published Simple Wisdom for Rich Living.[15] Her generosity lives on in the Oseola McCarty Endowed Scholarship Fund at the University of Southern Mississippi.[16] And her example of true love in action lives on in the hearts and lives of people around the world who have been inspired by her life. At this tense juncture in our Nation’s history, may Oseola McCarty’s life story call us collectively to order, to unity, and to true love in action.

 


[5] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[14] Ibid