“Who Is Jesus for Us Today?”  

This was the title of the sermon on September 9, 2018, by Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. (A photograph of the church with its new addition is below.)

Biblical Texts for the Day

 Psalm 8 (NRSV):

“O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”

“O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

 John 1: 45-51 (NRSV):

“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you get to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’”

 The Sermon[1]

 “The work of the Church is fundamentally a teaching task: asking questions, seeking answers, exploring possibilities – and then translating all of that into life between Sundays. . . .”

“Christianity is never settled for any of us, no matter our age or the extent of our involvement in church. The world is always changing. If our faith is not similarly dynamic, not living, not rising to the challenges we see all around us, not attuned to the context in which we live, it will slowly wither away. . . .”

“Actually there’s something appealing to the notion that what happens in churches can be hazardous to the status quo. Powerful worship is subversive; it wants to upend the dominant ethos. A church ought to be considered a place the world enters at its own risk. After all, we follow a Savior perceived to be such a serious threat that he was crucified.”

“But the Church is not only what happens inside these walls for a few hours each week. . . . Church mostly happens the rest of the week, out there. We – you and I – are the Church when we leave here and go out into the world. . . . “

“The faith we practice has always felt compelled to move out into the streets and ask, ‘What is God up to in this place and in this time?’ because we want to join that work. Call it public theology, or our witness in the world, or the pursuit of biblical justice – our faith has never wanted to sequester Jesus in the sanctuary, as if he might – we might – be sullied by the messy reality of what’s going on in the world around us.”

“We Come Together not to be sheltered in this sacred space, but, rather, to hear the call of God to go forth and be the Church. To do that, however, means we need to understand whom we follow out into those streets. . . .”

“The decision to follow Jesus, Professor Gail O’Day says, ‘Is inseparable from the decision one makes about Jesus’ identity.’ [New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) p. 534] . . . .”

“Who we think he is will determine the kind of Christians we become.”

“In the 1930s in Germany, the young pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself growing skeptical about the Jesus being preached in the churches of that land. As political rhetoric became more overtly racist and the culture increasingly supportive of extreme Aryan nationalism, most German Christian churches rolled over and acquiesced to all of that. They gave their Jesus over to the rising ideology of the times. It was expedient for them, convenient for them, to go along with the predominant and popular spirit of the land.”

“Bonhoeffer and his colleagues – Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller, and others – resisted, and some of them eventually paid for it with their lives. They wrote an affirmation of faith rejecting the distorted theology used to underpin racism and nationalism. They started an alternative church, called the Confessing Church, as opposed to the German Christian Church, which supported the ideology of the times.. They founded an underground seminary, as over against the schools of the German Christian Church, which taught theology that supported the direction the nation was moving. They preached and worked against the tide.”

“And behind all that work, according to Bonhoeffer, was a single, driving question: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? . . . .”

“Who is Jesus Christ for us today? That question will inform our worship at Westminster this fall, even as it informs our life as we move from this place out into the world . . . “

 “Eighty years ago in Germany was not the only time when Christians have resisted the prevailing winds. Forty years ago in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church wrote and adopted what became known as the Confession of Belhar. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church was the segregated denomination created for “mixed race” persons in the 19th century by the white Dutch Reformed Church, the denomination that eventually – by the mid-20th century – would develop a theological justification for apartheid, a theological basis for apartheid.”

 “The Confession of Belhar is a theological denunciation of the racist political system of South Africa of that time. It rejects the notion that God would accept the dividing of the human family on the basis of race or color. The Confession answers Bonhoeffer’s question, ‘Who is Jesus Christ for us today,’ by portraying Jesus as the one standing with those on the receiving end of the cruelties of history, those excluded from places of privilege and power by virtue of who they are or where they live or what language they speak or whom they love or the circumstances of their lives.” (Emphasis added.)

“Who Jesus is for us determines what it means for us to pursue his way – to be Christian in our time.”

.“Like the Germans of the Confessing Church, and like many in our land today, the ‘mixed race’ South Africans stood their ground . . .against those who would corrupt Christianity to make it supportive of the politics of exclusion and racial superiority. They declared that one could not be a follower of Jesus and, at the same time, a supporter of apartheid. Think of that in our time: it is not possible to a follower of Jesus and supporter of racism at the same time.” (Emphasis added.)

“Our denomination adopted the Confession of Belhar two years ago. . . .  We chose to adopt it to speak to our own historic and current racism in America, a system that has been in place for so many centuries.”

“Westminster has embarked on a pilgrimage to join the great effort in our nation finally, finally now wanting to come to terms with the original sin of this land, the enslavement – the buying and selling of human beings, the thinking of people as less than human – the enslavement of Africans to build up our nation. The legacy of that terrible time yet endures today. That journey for us, as followers of Jesus, starts with the question: Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” (Emphasis added.)

“Following Jesus is costly. The South Africans found that out. The Confessing Church in Germany discovered that. We will learn that, as well. The challenge to love in the way of Jesus should not be undertaken lightly. It will change each one of us and, hopefully, the world in which we live.”

“That’s why it matters what we do here in worship week after week. That’s why it matters that our children and youth are engaged in nurturing their faith. That’s why it matters who we are as a congregation in this city.”

The Confession of Belhar[2]

After the  sermon, the congregation read in unison the following extracts from the Confession of Belhar:

  • “We believe: that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world; that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker; that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells;
  • That the credibility of this message is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation hatred and enmity;
  • Therefore, we reject any doctrine which, in such a situation, sanctions in the name of the gospel or the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ.” (Emphasis added.)

Conclusion

This sermon provided at least a partial answer to the question, ‘Who is Jesus for us today?’ It d did so by referencing the creation of the Confessing Church in Germany and the Confession of Belhar in stating, “Jesus stood “with those on the receiving end of the cruelties of history, those excluded from places of privilege and power by virtue of who they are or where they live or what language they speak or whom they love or the circumstances of their lives.” [3](Emphasis added.) ==================================

[1] Sermon: Who Is Jesus for Us Today? (Sept. 9, 2018).

[2]  See The Confession of Belhar Is Adopted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), dwkcommentaries.com (July 21, 2016).

[3] The sermon went on to say that further answers to this question will be provided in future sermons and other discussions at Westminster.

 

 

Additional Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book, “Between the World and Me,” and his 2014 article, ”The Case for Reparations,” continue to draw attention and criticism. This blog already has criticized both the book and the article.[1] Here are additional reflections on these writings.

“Between the World and Me”

In November 2015 the New York Times named the book as one of the 50 notable nonfiction books of 2015. A week later the editors of the Times Book Review proclaimed that it was one of the 10 best books of the year with these words: “Structured as a letter to his teenage son, this slender, urgent volume — a searching exploration of what it is to grow up black in a country built on slave labor and ‘the destruction of black bodies’ — rejects fanciful abstractions in favor of the irreducible and particular. Coates writes to his son with a clear eyed realism about the beautiful and terrible struggle that inheres in flesh and bone.”[2]

Also in November the book won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for 2015. The citation stated the book is “a brutally honest portrayal of the plight of the African-American male in this country. Composed as a letter to his adolescent son, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes with chilling bleakness and precision about racism in America. This is no simple account of racism, but rather a concise attack on a system which has consistently rendered black lives worthless. Incorporating history and personal memoir, Coates has succeeded in creating an essential text for any thinking American today.”[3]

Coates dedicated this award to the memory of his friend, Prince Carmen Jones, a young black man who was killed by a policeman, saying, “I have waited 15 years for this moment. I’m a black man in America. I can’t punish that [policeman]. I can’t secure the safety of my son. I just don’t have that power. But what I do have the power to do is say, “You won’t enroll me in this lie. You won’t make me part of it. We are not enrolled in a lie. We are not part of it.'”

In January 2016 the National Book Critics Circle made the book one of five nominees for its 2015 award for criticism. The actual awards will be announced on March 17, 2016. [4]

Jonathan Orbell, a self-described white evangelical Christian and graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary, says the book “offers white evangelicals yet another opportunity to reflect on issues that have gone unaddressed in our congregations for far too long. . . black Americans’ subjugation to a regime of brutal and systematic racial injustice. “[5]

Not all comments about the book were laudatory. Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative National Review and columnist, called the book “profoundly silly at times, and morally blinkered.” Coates “has to reduce people to categories and actors in a pantomime of racial plunder to support his worldview. He must erase distinctions and reject complexity.” In his view, Coates “gives the impression of denying the moral agency of blacks, who are often portrayed as the products of forces beyond their control.” The book “feels nihilistic because there is no positive program to leaven the despair and the call for perpetual struggle.”[6]

Another pointed criticism of Coates was leveled by a columnist for the New York Post, Kyle Smith, who accused Coates of “harboring . . . suspicion, fear, mistrust, distaste, and unease about [all] whites.” Yet “Coates has found himself crowned America’s leading civic thinker.”[7] Coates himself is baffled by this positive reaction by many white readers. He said, “I don’t know why white people read what I write. I didn’t set out to accumulate a mass of white fans.” Indeed, he said he did not want “the burden [of explaining the ills of black people to white people]—it alienated him. And so he writes with a tone that is blunt, authoritative and unapologetic” while harboring “no malice toward white people, and that he speaks to them from the heart.” [8]

An African-American writer living in Paris, Thomas Chatterton Williams, says Coates left out “an essential part of the story of black life today – the only black life I have ever known. . . . The capacity of humans to amount to more than the sum of a set of circumstances is ignored. The capacity to find gratification in making a choice – even if it’s the wrong one – is glossed over.” Williams concludes, “The crisis of the black intellectual now, if there is one, isn’t that he lacks the means or the platform to represent his people but that it is too easy to cleave to a sense of resentment and indignation – even now that he has found himself, after all these years and all this struggle, in a position of strength.”[9]

Coates has said that the book is a “complete rejection” of the notion that the   current plight of blacks in the U.S. “is not really tied to our long history . . . of policy directed toward African-Americans .. . [and that it] is our fault, or partly our fault. . . .[It] may well be our responsibility, but it certainly is not our fault.” The book, he said, reflects his “process of getting conscious . . . [which] was a very, very uncomfortable, disturbing and sometimes physically painful process.” Yet “black experience is big and it’s nuanced and it’s broad, and no one person should be the spokesperson for that experience, or no one person should be the oracle or be the articulator.”[10]

Darryl Pinckney, an African-American novelist, playwright and essayist, places Coates’ book into a broader perspective. Pinckney asserts, “The black struggle in the US has a dualist tradition. It expresses opposing visions of the social destiny of black people. Up, down, all or nothing, in or out, acceptance or repudiation.” According to Pinckney, Coates believes “it’s too late [for an end to America’s racial nightmare], given the larger picture. He speculates that now that the American Dreamers are plundering “not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself,” “something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas.” Coates in this book refuses “to expect anything anymore, socially or politically. Coates is . . . fed up, but his disillusionment is a provocation: it’s all your fault, Whitey. This is a rhetorical strategy of the [black writer’s] tradition but to address an audience beyond black people is to be still attempting to communicate and enlighten.”[11]

“The Case for Reparations”[12]

My earlier post argued this Coates-article was not well written; that he hid in generalizations; that his discussion of black contract-for-deed discrimination was sloppy and perhaps erroneous; that he mentioned certain scholarly discussions of how reparations might be implemented without endorsing any of them; that he failed to mention U.S. presidential l and congressional statements about reparations as well as other countries’ approaches to reparations; and that his grand conclusion was the mere urging adoption of a bill for a federal study of the issue of reparations without examining the details of the bill or the arguments advanced for the bill by its author, Rep. John Conyers (Dem, MI).[13]

Immediately after the release of Coates’ article, David Frum, a neoconservative commentator and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, pointed out that Coates “disavows any consideration of the single most important question about the restitution he has in mind: How would it work?” In addition, Frum asserts, “Coates’s essay is built on an unstated assumption that America’s racial composition is essentially binary, a white majority that inflicts inequality; a black minority that suffers inequality.” Coates thereby ignores the probability of groups other than blacks’ making similar claims for reparations and of the many financial and political problems that would create.[14]

“Another huge problem with any reparations program [for Frum] would be who qualifies.” For example, would a mixed-race individual qualify? A new immigrant from Africa? And so on. In addition, any program would create side effects, anticipated and unanticipated.

The next day, Coates responded to Frum’s criticism by arguing that reparations for African-Americans would not expand to other groups because the actual reparations for Japanese-Americans who had been interred in World War II did not expand to other groups. Coates concludes his response with these words:

  • “The problem of reparations has never been practicality. It has always been the awesome ghosts of history. . . . In other times banishment has been our priority. The mature citizen, the hard student, is now called to choose between finding a reason to confront the past, or finding more reasons to hide from it. [Frum] thinks [the congressional bill to create a study commission] … commits us to a solution. He is correct. The solution is to study. I submit his own article as proof of why such study is so deeply needed.”[15]

Rich Lowry in his previously mentioned article also has harsh words for Coates’ opinion on reparations. Lowry asks the rhetorical question of whether any recipient of “a modest, roughly $1 trillion program of reparations, which would be more than $20,000 for every black person in the country, regardless of his or her family’s personal history or current financial circumstances” would be transformed. Lowry’s answer to this question is a resounding “No.” Instead, Lowery says, “For poor blacks to escape poverty, it would still require all the personal attributes that contribute to success. So Coates is selling snake oil. Even if he got his fantastical reparations that he has poured such literary energy into advocating, real improvement in the condition of black people would still require the moral effort that he won’t advocate for.”

Coates responded to these criticisms by meekly saying he was offering a “case” for reparations, not a “plan” for such a program and that he had mentioned–without endorsement–several plans proposed by academics. Now he points to what he calls an “excellent paper” on the subject by Sandy Darity, a Duke economist and “tireless reparations proponent.” [16]

Last month the issue of reparations resurfaced with Bernie Sanders’ comment that he did not favor reparations for slavery because there was a nil chance of congressional approval and because it would be “very divisive.” [17]

Coates responded by saying that all of Sanders’ own proposals for economic and financial reform had a nil chance of congressional approval. Moreover, “[o]ne of the great functions of radical candidates [like Sanders] is to war against equivocators and opportunists who conflate these two things. Radicals expand the political imagination and, hopefully, prevent incrementalism from becoming a virtue.”

Conclusion

I do not find Coates’ responses to these criticisms convincing. I still am uninspired with his writings and arguments. I do not think his many awards are justified.

In contrast, I applaud the amazing work for social and racial justice being waged by Bryan Stevenson, an African-American attorney and advocate. As discussed in an earlier post, Stevenson has obtained release from prison and death row for African-Americans who had been unjustly convicted. He also is creating various ways to remember and honor victims of lynchings and other crimes and to inspire others to join the effort for social and racial justice.

======================================================

[1] Reactions to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” (Aug. 13, 2015); Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory Case for Reparations (Oct. 18, 2015).

[2] 100 Notable Books of 2015, N.Y. Times Sunday Book Review (Nov. 27, 2015); The 10 Best Books of the Year, N.Y. Times Sunday Book Review (Dec. 3, 2015.

[3] Nat’l Book Foundation, 2015 National Book Award Nonfiction; Alter, Ta-Nehisi Coates Wins National Book Award, N.Y. Times (Nov. 18, 2015); Dwyer, Adam Johnson, Ta-Nehisi Coates Win National Book Awards, NPR (Nov. 19, 2015).

[4] National Book Critics Circle, National Book Critics Circle Announces Its Finalists for Publishing Year 2015 (Jan. 18, 2016); Manly, National Book Critics Circle Announces Award Nominees, N.Y. Times (Jan. 18, 2016).

[5] Orbell, Why Christians Need Coates, Sojourners (July 29, 2015).

[6] Lowry, The Toxic World-View of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Politico (July 22, 2015).

[7] Smith, The Hard Untruths of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Commentary (Oct. 1, 2015),

[8] Coates, Ta-Nahisi Coates On Why Whites Like His Writing, Daily Beast (Oct. 25, 2015).

[9] Williams, Loaded Dice, London Rev. of Books (Dec. 3, 2015).

[10] Ta-Nehisi Coates On His Work And The Painful Process Of Getting Conscious, NPR (Nov. 23, 2015).

[11] Pinckney, The Anger of Ta-Nehisi Coates, N.Y. Rev. of Books (Feb. 11, 2016).

[12] Lowry, The Toxic World-View of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Politico (July 22, 2015); Martin, Ta-Nehisi Coates on His Work and the Painful Process of Getting Conscious, NPR (Nov. 23, 2015).

[13] Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory Case for Reparations (Oct. 18, 2015). Kevin Drum, a liberal American blogger and columnist, was similarly unimpressed with Coates’ mere calling for a study of the issue of reparations. Drum, Should Bernie Sanders Support Reparations? Mother Jones (Jan. 19, 2016).

[14] Frum, The Impossibility of Reparations, The Atlantic (June 3, 2014).

[15] Coates, The Radical Practicality of Reparations, The Atlantic (June 4, 2014).

[16] Coates, The Case for Considering Reparations, The Atlantic (Jan. 27, 2016).

[17] Coates, Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations? The Atlantic (Jan. 19, 2016).