Avoiding Deep Change: Racism and the Ineffectual Church, Chapter 1
A year ago, October 1, 2021, I made a calendar note, “Write about this next year!” A year ago today, I had just read of another “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” workshop planned by a denominational group. My heart sank. One could find dozens of such events planned — and, no doubt, there were consultants who were happy to have the work!
Please understand. I am not against “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” commitments. A good thing this. I’m not as enthusiastic about workshops, training events, webinars, etc. that are unhinged from engagement in the communities nearby where undiscovered neighbors, real people, live and work. Workshops can become tools of avoidance, especially as stand alone, one-off, efforts. Without a deeper look at institutional and cultural strata shaped by racism over decades there are well intentioned but shallow responses. Tragically, they sometimes result in representational leadership (a minority person promoted to a leadership role) without addressing the deeply embedded patterns upon which institutions function.
Let me confess that I delayed a year in writing this because I didn’t want to be reactive. Perhaps, if I waited, something would emerge to assuage my doubts. Or, I could give a more measured response than simply concluding most church leaders would prefer to avoid, delay and placate all the while appearing to make progress by offering training sessions. Perhaps I would see real, deep and sustainable change. As of a year — I still wait for something substantial to address the racial injustice in which we are mired. Even worse, in this year it appears white nationalism sentiments have grown, sadly often within congregations.
A year ago, following the murders of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor I had been involved in several conversations, web seminars, zoom meetings and the like, where I attempted to share research that showed education and sermons were not sufficient to bring enduring change. I attempted to argue that DEI workshops would not be enough — they would be ineffectual. I even warned pastors “Don’t preach that sermon” until you have in place a way to work with neighbors on antiracism measures in your setting. This advice was not based on a hunch, but on research on addressing racism that had been done decades earlier as part of a program called Project Understanding. That research made it clear that real and enduring change to address racism at a root level involved action with others who brought their differences, as well as education.
A true addressing of racism involves deep change in the ways our institutions understand, and act differently based on their financial and cultural options. There are instruments designed to address institutional racism. These were not requested. There was work to be done beyond training sessions — work to support minority owned banks, address racial discrimination in housing, business, and real estate. Any true addressing of racism in the church would take more than sermons, minority clergy serving as pastors in predominantly white settings or pulpit exchanges once a year with a racial ethnic congregation down the street. There were concrete, measurable ways congregants could be deeply involved, spiritually alive and committed to take common action with persons of different racial and religious groups — action for fundamental change.
The year has past… Surely some good has resulted. Please share this in the comments section. Even so, I don’t hear much being reported that is substantial and sustainable. I write a year later of my concern and will in the next few postings offer again insights regarding other approaches. I will share insights from saints who are nearing the end of life or have now passed on — persons like William Pannell at Fuller Seminary, Thomas Broden at Notre Dame, Joseph Taylor and LaVerta Terry at Indiana University, Gilbert James at Asbury Seminary and Jicelyn Thomas who was a gifted preacher and theologian taken from our earthly fellowship too soon, too soon.
Recently while sorting though an old file, I found the letter from Professor Gilbert James written in 1970. I had taken a leave from my formal seminary education in Kentucky and was in a year-long intership, teaching at the United Methodist School IPA, in the Republic of Panamá. Professor James at Asbury Seminary and I exchanged correspondence during the year. I was taking a reading course from him while away from campus.
In the letter I recently discovered, Dr. James asks that I not share its contents because “if expressed openly on campus would be considered high treason.” Hyperbole is all too comon in the academy. However, I think Gilbert was quite serious. His comments in the letter would have created problems and perhaps even censure.
My spouse, Elaine, and I were in Panama. Back in the U.S. Gilbert was confronted with a “spontaneous revival” which had begun at the college across the street. Others have since spoken and written about the 1970 Asbury College Revival in positive terms. There are, indeed, powerful stories of persons finding emotional and physical healing and being restored in their faith.
What were these controversial comments in the letter? Gilbert writes of his dismay watching folks “getting high on ‘mass enthususiasm.'” As a social scientist, educated in both sociology and psychology, what he observed was a religious fanaticism, interpreted with narrow fundamentalist language, and celebrated with “abysmal Biblical ignorance.” Only that!
Some saw in the enthusiastic fervor at Asbury College in 1970 a great time of spiritual renewal. Gilbert noted there was good, but expressed concerns rooted in his years of experience with such spiritual awakenings. There is irony in the fact that Gilbert James had spent much of his life as an evangelist, attending and preaching in many camp meetings and revivals. Between 1946 and 1960 he was the Superintendent of the Department of Interracial Evangelism for the Free Methodist Church. He knew the genuine article and celebrated it. In 1970 he also was troubled.
Knowing my teacher as a world class provocatuer, I suspect that his fear of being accused of being a traitor to the faith is correct. He might have been charged with something like “high theological treason” in that particular time and place five decades ago — and in many places still today. He saw some of the fanaticism of the events at the college across the street, spilling over into the seminary. My guess is that during the 1970 Asbury Revival his wife, Esther, had to tone him down each evening; although, I suspect she shared many of his perspectives.
With some discomfort I recall that Gilbert was a revivalist. He believed in seeking both personal and institutional renewal. My discomfort is primarily due to the fact that his breadth of theological vision seems to be in short supply in today’s world. Evangelism has been given over to a narrow set of understandings. It has been limited to only a change in an individual — who is being introduced into thinly disguised social and political understandings. Unlike the revivals in the Second Great Awkening, where a wide array of societal saw as injustices were addressed (poverty, slavery, voting rights for women, etc.), there is scant focus on institutional practices that need transformation, apart from a short list that includes fights against abortion and homosexuality.
Gilbert, the evangelist, believed in personal conversion — in transformation, possible through faith in Christ. Such change is affirmed in the letter — but he knew of an evangelism that was much deeper and wider. And he knew of the threats of individualism and fundamentalism that were at play. There were troublesome signs for him in the events surrounding the 1970 Asbury Revival that I don’t believe have been made public before.
So, here, 52 years later I offer this insight into his perspective of the 1950 Asbury Revival. I have highlightedin bold some passages mentioned above, the underlining was his.
Letter from Dr. Gilbert James – March 31, 1970 – Wilmore, Kentucty To: Phil and Elaine Amerson – Republic of Panamá
Dear Phil and Elaine,
“Thanks for your good letters and your patience with me… “ [Professor James then writes a few paragraphs about a reading course for Phil.]… The letter then continues speaking of the 1970 Asbury Revival.
“I am sure you have read of the revival and all of the excitement around here with teams going out in all directions – classes suspended – and the academic quarter an educational shambles.“
“There were some remarkable individual examples and changed lives and I am grateful for every one of them. There has been, however, I must in all honesty confess, a great deal of shear non-sense that was nothing more than “getting high” on mass enthusiasm. I have never witnessed in my life more expressions of atrocious theology and abysmal biblical ignorance than I heard from the “witnessing” lips of those college students. As a result, we underwent the usual “exorcism of demons” at the college until it was suppressed and now we have the most frightful outbreak of “tongues” at the seminary that we have ever suffered. The word is out that Asbury Seminary is the “Mecca” for the tongues movement. I am just sick about it. The most remarkable aspect of the whole affair is not that it occurred, but rather that as much good was accomplished as was with all the inane and disrespectful antics that went on with it.“
“Please do not write back to anyone about this, for what I am writing to you, if expressed openly on the campus would be considered high treason.” I repeat, I am glad for the work of a sovereign God, in spite of man’s ignorance and sinfulness, but I predict it will be years to fully recover from the unfortunate results that have damaged the reputation of Asbury and reflected on the sound biblical basis of her message.“
“I am right in the midst of the elaborate planning necessary for the Chicago program. We received $50,000 from Lilly for the experiment, and this is our big chance to try to seek some new directions in theological education. After a full day’s consultation with the Minister’s Study Board director of the NCC. He said, in great seriousness, “This is one of the most exciting and unique experiments in American theological education. He has agreed to direct our evaluation of the program and we hope to get a monograph out of it.“
“Love to you both – I must close. Write soon about books you want. Pray for me – please.“
Teaching in Panamá, I was thousands of miles away from the spiritual, emotional, psychological cyclone richocheting in and around Wilmore, Kentucky. I was far from the events my teacher, Gilbert, saw at close proximity. However, a “spiritual awakening” was continuing for me at the time in Panamá. There I saw more clearly the injustice, racism and violence of institutions and nations. Gilbert James had been insturmental in alerting me of similar structures in the U.S. in my earlier years as his student. In Panamá, these were brought into even sharper relief. I saw, up close, what it was like to live in a nation suffering under a dictator who was propped up by the U.S. I saw the racism institutionalized in the practices of the Canal Zone and the abuses of so called “aid projects” privileging of wealthy, both in Panamá and the U.S. I saw hungry children dumpster diving to have something to eat. And there was the corruption of young women sold into sexual arrangements as teenagers. Evangelization needed to be wider and deeper than “individuals getting high on mass enthusiasm.”
In my review of materials from the 1970 Revival and from reports I recall receiving from others at the time, there were many testimonies about giving up cheating, lying, gossip, drinking alcohol, smoking, sexual petting, premarital sex or persons having an “insufficient prayer life.” It is almost exclusively about individual sins or a shortcoming of one’s self. Where are the witnesses who say, “We must now speak out against racism, war, poverty or violence?”
I do not agree with all of Gilbert’s perspectives, including some in this letter. That would make him happy… and he would, no doubt, want to have a conversation about where we differ and what we might together learn. Even so, I very much believe his call to an intelligent faith that combines personal and social transformation, informed by careful biblical and theological work was right then, and continues to be right today.
I can already hear some saying, but you must begin with the individual, then “changed persons will change society.” My response: Where is your evidence? It has now been fifty years. If you disagree, please point me to how this “revival” made the kind of difference in our society that came from the revivals of the Second Great Awakening. The Cane Ridge Revival began forty-six miles from Wilmore and one-hundred-and-sixty-nine years earlier.
Other “Awakenings” or revivals involved more than an adjustment of personal pieties or individual behaviors and beliefs. For early Evangelicals like John Wesley or John Calvin, institutional changes accompanied personal change. For the Anabaptists, a new personal faith meant a commitment to pacifism and the persecution that ensued. There is the conversion of John Newton who wrote the lyric we now sing as “Amazing Grace.” Newton’s conversion led him to become an abolitionist, after serving as the captian of slave ships. More recently one thinks of the bombing of Coventry Cathedral in England and the ensuing spiritual awakening resulting in international work at peacemaking (See: Fire in Coventry, Varney, Stephen: Hoder and Stoughton Ltd., 1974). Dozens of other examples could be cited; the sadness is that even today Asbury College and Seminary have fallen into the narrow valleys of a tamed evangelism and pursue cultural stances that are more informed by reactionary political elites and shaped by categories of individualism.
Gilbert James was way ahead of me in 1970, and I suspect even now. When traveling with him for a seminary class in Chicago, New York, Detroit or Minneapolis, it was always amazing how he nudged us forward to see the broader ecology and the challenges of ministry in urban settings. It was even more astonishing meeting the people he brought to those seminars. Today I think of Letty Russell, Bill Stringfellow, Bill Pannell, George Riddick, Richard Leuke, Stan Hallett and George Weber, to name only a few.
A 1974 article by Gilbert entitled “The Use and Abuse of Power: A Study of the Principalities and Powers” demonstrates his understandings of the challenges Christians face in urban ecologies. He understood the need to seek transformation that is more than individual renewal (http://place.asburyseminary.edu/firstfruitspapers/15/).
My last visit with Gilbert was, I believe, in the fall of 1978. Having finished my doctoral work, I was asked to cover his seminary classes for a semester. My brilliant teacher was decending into early onset dementia. He would die in 1982 at the age of 66. I traveled to the seminary from my home at the time in Evansville, Indiana.
As I walked down a hallway in the seminary’s administraiton building, there was Gilbert heading toward the mail room. As he approached, we both began to weep. Then he gave me a hug and said, “I should know but I can’t place who you are.”
Ah, Gilbert, my friend, my beloved teacher, what is truly sad is that too few today remember who YOU are!
When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So goes the aphorism. Another version of this idea, attributed to Buddha Siddhartha Guatama, is: “Teachers are like enzymes. Nature’s go-to facilitators of change.” Even if only partially true, there is much wisdom here — at least in my experience.
By the late 1960s, my generation in the U.S. were “teacher-ready.” We watched as young men, many of them friends, were being shipped off to an inexplicable war in Vietnam. Too many returning in body bags. State governors stood in univeristy doorways blocking entrance to African American students. We witnessed the assinations of M. L. King, Jr. and the Kennedy brothers. Riots were breaking out in many cities and the emerging “counter culture” saw a growing interest in drug use. Given the availability of “the pill,” a sexual revolution was afoot.
Like other young men, my name was placed in the military lottery; I was one of the lucky ones with a high number, so after college I headed to Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. There I met Gilbert James. He was teaching courses on The Church in Society, Race Relations and Sociology of Religion. The teacher appeared and I was “ready.”
Gilbert James: Free Methodist pastor, sawdust revival preacher, boxer, university professor, union organizer, poet, brilliant social researcher, friend of the poor, worker for racial justice, comfortable in a corporate board room and on skid row. Great “teachers” are not limited to the classroom. Fortunately, for many of us, Gilbert offered graduate-level insights wherever you found him. He challenged us to learn, whether in a classroom, on a Chicago “L” train, in a Congressional office, or, on a street corner in Harlem. Socratic in approach, he would ask probing questions, frame a situation so that those within earshot began to teach and learn from one another. How does one cipher the complexities of this man?
Not far beneath the surface was Gilbert James’ commitment to an historic Wesleyanism that encouraged vital piety, valued knowledge and sought social justice. He was one of several teachers at Asbury Seminary in those years who found ready students. I think of Bob Lyon who helped us explore serious Biblical interpretation and modeled a faith that included deep commitments to nonviolent action.
Gil James spoke easily of personal conversion and Christian experience; after all, he had come to faith by such a personal spiritual journey. However, he was critical of an individualism that ignored the Biblical mandates to love God and the neighbor. He spoke of a church that might live in terms of a “Jubilee sharing” of resources with the poor. He was suspicious of fanaticism and cautioned against the abuses of those seeking power for power’s sake – especially in the church. He had seen enough chicanery in the church and beyond. He knew the dangers of fanaticism when mixed uncritically into the religious life.
Gilbert encouraged us to be “both faithful and forward leaning.” At the same time he wanted us to know our ancestry. James reminded us of the insights of Eighteenth Century Methodists (including Free Methodists, Wesleyans and others). Our legacy included those who opposed pew rentals privileging the wealthy, who supported abolitionist struggles against slavery, who welcomed women in leadership, who encouraged ecumenism and unity, and who practiced peacemaking — often as pacifists.
Gilbert knew of the dangers of individualistic theology and the drift away from a balancing of personal conversion with social justice. In my next blog, I will share a letter from Gilbert written 52 years ago in the midst of an extended revival at Asbury College (a neighboring undergraduate institution to the seminary, seperate in curriculum and faculty).
James knew of the marginalization experienced by religious conservatives and foresaw a time when greivance would spill over and could lead to a insatiable hunger for power and status unmoored from Biblical ethics. He noted the transformation of Fundamentalism into Evangelicalism — that brought a sophistication in the use of political power. It might result, he suggested, in danger for our nation and the ruin of our churches. I remember thinking, as we were reflecting on the writings of Reinhold Neibuhr, that James was being overly grandiouse. Today, I see how on target he was about this threat that faith could to be compromised by a lust for approval and blind acquisition of institutional power these fifty years later.
Over coffee in the seminary cafeteriaI, I recall many informal “debates” with other faculty and students. Such exchanges were common and truly a gift. Students might be asked to “grab a cup and join the conversation.” I recall, one well-known faculty member offering up a common trope used at the time. Assuming the notion that there were two camps in American Protestant Christianity, this faculty member said that “Evangelicals were always rooted in ultimate authorithy of scripture, but Liberals always let the dominant culture set the agenda for their theology.” I recall Gilbert wriley smiling and responding, “Your culture does not set the agenda for how you read the scripture?”
Other exceptional teachers followed (Jackson Carroll, Earl Brewer, Gwen Neville) at Emory University. I then went on to my days of university teaching and Gilbert stayed in touch. In Atlanta, at Candler School of Theology, I helped him bring a group of Asbury students to that city, just as he had brought me as a student to Chicgo, Detroit and New York a decade earlier. He was still learning, teaching, making connections and demonstrating to students the ways a life of faith might be practiced among the institutions of the powerful and the gifts in low-wealth communities that were often hidden.
Gilbert James touched many lives and shaped the work of pastors and laity in diverse places. We found him to be a READY teacher and friend. Still, his concerns about the corruption of Evangelicalism ring true; and, are more applicable than ever. At his funeral in 1982 the great African American pastor and theologian James Earl Massey stood to speak of Gilbert and his influence. Massey summerized my teacher’s greatness in these simple words: He was a “practitioner of intelligent love.” It is my sense that we have a whole new generation of students ready to find such teachers today. May it be so.
Anocracy – an unfamiliar word becoming ever more common. It is used by those who study the health of democracys. Anocracies are places where democratic institutions are being diminished and autocratic practices are growing. In such states legal, electoral, economic and legislative functions shift to more and more autocratic behaviors. Sometimes referred to as illiberal democracies or reduced democracies, such governments, without countermeasures, move inevitably closer to full blown dictatorships and in many places civil war ensues.
I carry in my mind a 2017 image of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Czech Foreign Minister Ivo Sramek rowing a small boat on a lake in Kent. Considering the anocratic tendencies in Czechoslovakia of late — and for that matter Great Britain — one wonders if these two men at the time were pulling together or against one another as the currents of illiberalism were surging? The strength of democratic institutions is being challenged the world around. We see it up close in the United States.
An insurgent mob attacks the Capitol building a year ago seeking to block the installation of a new president; state legislatures pass measures to challenge voting rights and favor one set of citizens over another in electoral districts; school board meetings turn ugly with threats and name-calling substituted for honest debate; the ideological divisions evident in our media grow; health measures like vaccinations and wearing face masks to protect from the Covid-19 virus are turned into political wedge issues; and, even (especially) one’s religious perspective is tied to one partisian political agenda. Barbara F. Walter, political science professor at UC San Diego has studied the emergence of anocracies for years. She says “the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.” (See Dana Milbank, The Washington Post, 12/16/21)
Perhaps you have heard of the illustration of a person in a row boat who will only pull on one oar. Yes, as the metaphor goes, the rower will simply go around in circles. If one is to make it to a distant shore, both oars are necessary. In healthy governments, there needs to be the safe and secure contribution made by those who are in power balanced by the safe and secure participation of those who are being governed.
For years I have been troubled by the tendency to turn every issue into a dichotomy, a binary choice with little room for hearing, seeing or learning from another side. This is common in anocracies — forcing complex issues into simplistic either/or choices. My guess is that in times of change, fear or unrest, there is a tendancy toward this inability to see another view. In the process divisions increase and become even more accute. My brain scientist friends tell me this is the case. The prefrontal cortex takes over. The ability to see more broadly or think more clearly is reduced. It is fight or flight time.
What is true in nations, large systems, and community institutions is also true within persons. I recall the Joni Mitchell song “Both Sides Now.” Many singers recorded the song — my favorite was Judy Collins’ rendition. The lyric closes with:
Tears and fears and feeling proud To say, “I love you” right out loud Dreams and schemes and circus crowds I’ve looked at life that way But now old friends are acting strange They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed Well, something’s lost but something’s gained In living every day
I’ve looked at life from both sides now From win and lose and still somehow It’s life’s illusions I recall I really don’t know life at all.
For people of faith, especially for Christians and Jews, our scriptures are full of images that call us beyond simplistic illusions. Dualistic thinking tempts us to miss the mark. For example, there is the illusion that religion is primarily an individual’s experience and option. Others suggest it is soley a social engagement. Some seem to proclaim that faith is sufficient as a guide toward piety, while others see faith as only valuable if it focuses on social justice. Healthy, whole, and wholesome religiousity moves beyond such simplistic patterns of either/or toward the richness of inclusion, paradox, and a welcome to ever-new-unfolding-understandings of transcendence.
I was struck then, and deeply saddened, by a news article last fall of my alma mater joining in the efforts against a national vaccine mandate proposed to curb disease and death. As Kate Shellnutt writes in Christianity Today, Novmber 5, 2021 (Updated 12/20/21). Asbury Theological Seminary (joined Southern Baptist Seminary) in a legal challenge seeking emergency relief “from enforcement of the mandate, which asks businesses with over 100 employees to require COVID-19 vaccination, with any unvaccinated workers required to wear mask and undergo regular testing.”
Such “one-oared perspectives” endanger and misslead. They seem to miss entirely the gospel’s call of caring for the neighbor. One can almost overhear in this legal challenge the question of the young man to Jesus, “And, who is my neighbor?” One wonders if the seminary should not be returning the more than $780,000 from the federal government in the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) received during the pandemic.
No doubt, were the issue about “government interference” related to scholarship aid for the students or receipt of federal funds to keep the community roadways and railways safe, the seminary might decide there is a “greater good.” Did the seminary speak up when, only a few years ago, medicaid relief was denied the poor in Kentucky? Or, what about the current challenge to the child tax credit that has lifted millions out of poverty? Surely the seminary has spoken out about this injustice. Crickets… nothing on such “federal interventions” related to how our society treats the poor.
Sadly, it is transparent that Asbury Seminary’s opposition to public safety and the commonweal are more about joining school’s mission to that of the Republican Party. In the likelihood that Row vs. Wade abortion laws are overturned or made moot by upcoming Supreme Court decisions, the seminary’s support for individual freedom will no doubt melt away.
The seminary’s choice to prefer a political stance, “masked up” as individual or institutional freedom displays a tragic disregard for the health of the larger community. At a time when a witness could be offered to the love of neighbor, it is rather set aside for a political agenda. In so doing, the whole gospel becomes an illusion. A great opportunity has been missed — and a disregard for sharing and living the wider Biblical narrative is lost. A one-sided, dualistic choice, this political stance is evident. Sadly, such a narrow view is put to use by those who seek to diminish our democracy. It no doubt pleases many constituents whose theology and politics are shaped by believing the scriptures are simply about individual sin and salvation. It causes one to wonder where the wisdom of Luther or Wesley, who spoke of choosing the common good in times of pandemic, has gone. It is, to my great sadness, a contributor to the anocracy apparent in our nation.
There have been many in this Asbury family who taught that individual freedom always comes in clear linkage with social responsibility. I think of beloved professors like Gilbert James and Bob Lyon — and before them Claude Thompson and Bob Shuler II. (I will be sharing more about Gilbert James in the next blog.) In my time as a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we were still suffering from the de facto racial segregation that had kept Asbury institutions rowing around in circles — an important witness to the wider world lost. Only a handful of African American students were welcomed. Many at the time felt it was not the government’s role to encourage racial integration in schools. Fortunately, others at the school and in society saw a larger vision, one that cared for the whole and not just for the political advantage of the segregationists.
My prayer is that God’s spirit will allow the faithful at Asbury, and in other such settings where options are narrowed to simple dualistic choices, to remember and revise their message announcing the breadth of God’s care for all people, communities and creation – personal and social – Both Sides Now.