A Needed Challenge from a Black Friend

I have been reluctant in recent weeks to add my voice to the plethora of  commentaries on race and white supremacy. Careful listening, honest self-examination, and prayerful reflection have seemed a more appropriate approach.

I’ve tried to be attentive to the voices of the victims of racism and white supremacy. I have also attempted to probe my own experiences for residues of racism and participation in the benefits of being white in this culture.

White privilege has been my lot for almost eighty years, and I continue to reap the advantages of systemic racism.

Extricating myself from these sins has been a lifelong struggle.  I have made progress from my childhood days of segregation and Jim Crow. But, I still have work to do!

In the sermon I delivered at the worship service in which I was received as the bishop in Mississippi in September 2000, I acknowledged my own participation in systemic racism and white privilege. I called racism a diabolical sin from which I want to be delivered. I invited the clergy and laity present to confront me whenever they detected prejudice or racism in my actions, adding, “I may be embarrassed by your confronting me, but I’d rather lose face than lose my soul.”

Following the service, a Black member of the Cabinet pulled me aside. He affirmed my openness and commitment to justice and reconciliation. Then, he added, “But, bishop, we Black people can’t cure your racism. Don’t put that burden on us, too!”

He spoke the truth! Racism is a problem we White folks have created, and we must work diligently to root out this deadly personal and systemic sin.

For too long, we have put the responsibility onto Blacks. If they will only respond, behave, do, act, and believe as WE want or expect, then racism would disappear. Such an expectation or projection is clear evidence of our White privilege and presumed superiority.

A first step toward a solution to racism is for us White folks to humbly acknowledge that WE are the problem. We must get beyond our defensiveness and engage the long process of repentance, turning toward the “beloved community” where reconciliation rooted in justice is possible.

The Cabinet member and friend who refused to take responsibility to overcome my racism contributed to my ongoing healing. I am grateful to him!

I’ll continue to listen, learn, reflect, and repent. Perhaps I will share more about my ongoing journey toward the beloved community. I want to contribute to the solution rather than add to the problem.

 

 

God Works Through Science Too

In response to Dr. Anthony Fauci’s expressed concern about a prevalent “anti-science”  bias in our society, Franklin Graham posted on his Facebook: “Science isn’t truth—God is.

The evangelist’s comment was an attempt to discredit or minimize scientists’ warnings and guidelines regarding COVID-19. The comment reflects a long-standing effort to drive a wedge between science and religion.

Pitting science and theology against one another is one of religion’s most costly and deadly mistakes. The church persecuted and executed scientists in the name of defending God; and the current attempts to undermine epidemiologists and other scientific specialists dealing with the COVID pandemic is killing people.

I was privileged to serve as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in the 1980s. The congregation consists of scores of Ph.D. scientists and professional engineers.  Their intellectual brilliance, commitment to the pursuit of truth, devotion to contributing to the healing of creation, and humility in admitting their mistakes inspired me and broadened my own understanding of who God is and how God works in the world.

One of my Oak Ridge friends was Dr. William Pollard, a world-renowned physicist and Episcopal priest. He spoke and wrote often of how his science expanded his understanding of God and how his faith informed the purpose and use of his science. He reminded us all that God is the source of ALL truth, scientific and theological/Biblical, and that all truth must be approached with humility and mystery.

Franklin Graham is right: God is truth! He is wrong when he pits religious revelation over against scientific data. God’s revelation is contained within creation as well as the pages of Scripture. In reality, the creation itself is the first “Bible,” preceding the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures by millions of years.

From my perspective, science is one of God’s most generous gifts to humanity. Yes, it can be–and often is–misused, but no more than religion has been and continues to be used for devilish purposes. Both religion and science can also be arrogant and idolatrous.

But anti-science is a dangerous form of practical  atheism. It denies God’s sovereign presence and work in ALL creation and negates our stewardship of God’s gifts. Science is God’s gift over which we are to exercise stewardship in service to the healing of creation.

Albert Einstein put it succinctly: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” 

Tribute to Ted Jennings

Jennings-TedA virtual memorial service was held Saturday, June 27, for one of Methodism’s most provocative, challenging, and committed theologians, Theodore (Ted) Jennings. I was asked by his devoted spouse, Ronna Case, to speak briefly of Ted’s contribution to the church.

I first met Ted at a Symposium on Theology and Evangelism held, February 1992, in Atlanta. Later that year, I was part of a working group with him at the Oxford Institute of Methodist Studies. The theme of the Institute emerged from Ted’s recently published book, Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics.

When the Council of Bishops adopted the Initiative on Children and Poverty, Ted became one of the theological consultants. As a member of the task force for the Initiative, I worked closely with Ted. We became good friends, and the friendship continued until his death in March of this year.

Ted’s contributions to the church are those of a prophet in the mode of an Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, or Amos, ever prodding and challenging the church to be a beloved community of liberation for ALL people. I briefly name four specific contributions.

One, Ted challenged the institutional church’s captivity to the consumerist, capitalist culture and institutional triumphalism. Ted’s vision and loyalty transcended preoccupation with institutional prominence, membership statistics, organizational structures, and marketing strategies. His was a vision of a reconciled and transformed world where justice prevails, and all have access to God’s table of abundance. And, as one of his former students said, “Ted made sure that we knew Jesus was with the crucified, not the crucifers; the oppressed, not the oppressors.”

Two, he called the church to presence among the marginalized, the outcasts, the poor, the vulnerable. In his work with the Episcopal Initiative on Children and Poverty, he regularly pushed the bishops toward the overarching goal of the Initiative: the transformation of the church in response to the God who is among “the least of these.” He persistently reminded us of God’s preferential option for the poor and most vulnerable, not as objects of charity but as friends and means of grace.

Three, Ted helped to reshape Methodism’s interpretation of Wesley, from a mere revivalist who focused on personal salvation to Wesley as a catalyst of a movement for holistic salvation that includes personal and social transformation. He challenged much conventional Wesleyan scholarship and spurred a new generation of scholars and pastors toward a more holistic vision of the Wesleyan heritage. He saw the tradition as something to be constructively built upon rather merely defended.

Four, Ted prodded the Church to confront its hypocrisy by courageously challenging us to embody radical love for God and neighbor, and to include ALL within the circle of God’s liberating love.  He had little tolerance for pious pretense and personal or professional posturing, whether by academics, bishops, or pastors. Indeed, he modeled leadership as derivative of authentic Christian discipleship. As a colleague scholar remarked, “Above all, Ted loved Jesus!”

Ted’s contributions will multiply in years to come, for he helped to form two generations of pastors and church leaders in the United States, Mexico, Korea, and beyond. Those leaders now form congregations as outposts of God’s present and coming reign of justice, generosity, and joy!

I give thanks to God for Ted Jennings’s devoted life, his faithful witness to Resurrection faith that liberates and transforms, and his enduring friendship.