Cruciform Shepherds for Resurrection Communities: The Transformation of Paul’s (and Our) Ministry Imagination

The task of faithfully pastoring a church so that its life together would embody Christ’s life and ministry has never been easy. It is even harder today in a deadly pandemic where some church people refuse to wear masks because it violates their “rights” while other church people are prepared to defend (even violently) their unacknowledged commitment to, or benefit from, white supremacy. Adding a few “leadership principles” to one’s ministerial toolbox will not suffice. Rather, what is needed is a transformation, or conversion, of our ministry imaginations. This is what Timothy G. Gombis writes about in his new book, Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry (Eerdmans, 2021).

Gombis, a New Testament scholar and church leader, offers his readers a Pauline theology of ministry that may also subtly reshape how they think about other aspects of Paul’s theology (e.g., justification). But the book is first and foremost a reflection for pastors/church leaders. It focuses on the dynamics of power and weakness in contemporary ministry in light of the dramatic Damascus Road transformation of Paul’s conception of ministry. Gombis’s laser-like focus differs from Scot McKnight’s broader focus on Paul’s pastoral ministry in his recent book, Pastor Paul: Nurturing a Culture of Christoformity in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019), but they complement each other well.

Chapters 1–4 form the primary biblical scaffolding of Gombis’s argument. Drawing on the canonical portrait of Paul’s pre- and post-conversion ministry (i.e., Acts and the thirteen-letter Pauline corpus), he argues that Paul’s initial encounter with the resurrected crucified Christ resulted in “the conversion of his ministry imagination” (6). The idea that Paul was engaged in “ministry” prior to the Damascus Road experience may sound odd. But the way Gombis starts his argument by describing Paul’s activities as a Pharisee (with acknowledged reliance on N. T. Wright [157]) as “ministry” is compelling:

Prior to his conversion, Paul was vigorously engaged in attempting to bring about resurrection life for God’s people on earth. He was trying to move God to save Israel, ejecting the Romans from the land and initiating God’s kingdom. This is how Pharisees would have understood “resurrection”—God fulfilling his promises to Israel, liberating them from their oppressors, pouring out the fullness of his restorative work on creation and setting up his rule on earth with Israel prominently situated at the center of God’s reign. (6)

Paul’s vigorous ministry based on his understanding of God’s purposes in Scripture resulted in prestige within his Jewish sub-culture. Moreover, his accumulated credentials (cf. Phil 3:4–6) would have signaled to others his legitimate claim to share in resurrection life on the final day. Coercive power was his mode of ministry. His “good” aim was to transform “sinners” in Israel into what a Pharisee would understand as Torah-observant Jews so that all Israel could finally experience God’s promised resurrection life. Such coercive power took the form of verbal and physical violence when Paul encountered Jews who proclaimed that Jesus, a “sinner” under God’s curse because of his crucifixion (Deut 21:23), had been raised as God’s Messiah in order to set resurrection realities in motion for Israel. But Paul’s coercive ministry campaign to rid Israel of such sinners was stopped in its tracks when he encountered the risen, cruciform Christ. Paul came to see that God had fully endorsed and “vindicated the life and ministry mode of Jesus” (40)—the one who came in weakness and gave himself to shame—by raising him from the dead. Thereafter, Paul “realized that his use of force and coercive strength, his pursuit of prestige, and accumulation of credentials set him in an anti-God direction, one headed for destruction rather than resurrection” (44).

From then on Paul’s mode of ministry was driven by a transforming logic: “since God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him based on his faithful obedience unto a shameful death, God would flood Paul’s life and ministry with resurrection power the more he lived and ministered from weakness and embraced the social shame that inevitably came his way” (56). In this mode of ministry, Paul sought to establish communities of resurrection life that, anticipating their future resurrection at the parousia, would embody the character of the risen Christ through cruciform behaviors, postures, and relational patterns. But—and this is key—“churches [and pastors!] can only enjoy God’s resurrection presence when they adopt cruciform patterns of life” (78). Not surprisingly, given Michael Gorman’s influence on Gombis (157–58) and the fact that he wrote the book’s foreword, this central claim resonates with the way Gorman describes life and ministry in Christ as “resurrection-suffused but cruciform in shape.”

Churches and pastors, writes Gombis, must adopt such cruciform patterns in the face of the cosmic powers ruling this age. These powers generate an enslaving matrix of idolatrous ideologies, mindsets, social injustices, prejudices, fears, and sinful patterns of life that keep God’s creation from flourishing. Often, for the sake of “good ends,” churches or pastors act coercively or competitively, seek social power and prestige, and demonize and dominate others. Such actions “stir up and radiate” the enslaving, oppressive dynamics of the cosmic powers rather than God’s redemptive, reconciling resurrection power.

As Gombis builds this argument in the first four chapters, he moves seamlessly between theological engagement with biblical texts and incisive cultural reflection on contemporary ministry. For example, already in chapter 4, he discusses cruciform practices of conflict resolution that “stir up and radiate” the reconciling resurrection power of God (81–84). More focused reflection on contemporary ministry issues (e.g., image cultivation/maintenance, credential accumulation, preaching and church discipline, the language of “leadership” or “responsible care”?) dominates chapters 5–8. But these chapters are still funded with rich theological interpretation of passages from the Pauline corpus and Acts.

This short book (160 pages) is both easy to read and, at times, hard to hear. It is easy to read because of Gombis’s engaging style. He peppers the book with thought-provoking, personal stories about his own failures that have stirred up and radiated destructive “this age” power dynamics. Such a vulnerable, cruciform posture may help expose our own unacknowledged pursuit of social status and coercive behaviors for what they are: the enslaving power dynamics characteristic of “this age.”

This book would work well as a supplemental text in an undergraduate or seminary class on Paul’s letters and would be a helpful addition to any pastor’s library. In fact, it might even be appropriately used for a time as the basis for one’s personal devotions/reflections. However, Gombis is careful to note that the way his arguments apply to readers in already marginalized positions (women and people of color) may differ from the way they apply to readers in positions of relative power. He is quite aware that the sort of argument he makes here, using the language of cruciformity, has sometimes been used in sinful ways to keep people of color and women in oppressive situations (149). He therefore maintains that the book will speak most directly to those who—like himself and me—inhabit social locations of privilege, i.e., white male pastors who have never had to justify our place in ministry.

I write these words one week after the insurrection at the Capitol, where many white Christians (especially evangelicals) and some of their pastors were in attendance. One wanted to “spill blood on the Senate floor in the name of Jesus” in order to support a president whose brutally coercive politics toward “outsiders” and relentless pursuit of power and prestige are legendary. This represents a diseased form of discipleship that ministry leaders like me have failed to treat. I don’t fully know what the cure is, but it must include a “conversion of the ministry imaginations” of many white church leaders and the churches they lead. A good dose of Paul’s transformed ministry imagination via a reading of Gombis might be a small first step toward treating this diseased form of discipleship.

Paul and the Power of Grace

In 2015, Pauline scholars were eager to read the much-anticipated study by John M. G. Barclay entitled Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans) and it did not disappoint. It quickly became a widely influential study, critiquing both the “New Perspective on Paul” as well as the Reformation perspective on Paul. I continue to hear my colleagues dub Paul and the Gift the most important work on Paul since E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Fortress, 1977). Paul and the Gift was written for scholars and offers academic arguments in favor of Barclay’s “gift perspective” on Paul (which we will explain below). At over 600 pages, though, Paul and the Gift was rather technical for non-specialists. Thus, Barclay has now written a simplified and condensed version called Paul and the Power of Grace. Not only does he cover the same ground, but he adds some further reflections on and responses to some criticisms of his earlier book. Paul and the Power of Grace is about a third of the size of Barclay’s original tome and much easier to consume for pastors and students interested in his discipline-shaping work.

What is Barclay’s “gift perspective”? It’s all about grace. Sanders, over forty years ago, argued that Christian scholarship had largely misjudged Jewish literature of the Second Temple Period. It was common in the early and mid-twentieth century for Christian scholars to label Jewish literature as legalistic and oriented towards works-righteousness. Sanders presented a thorough reexamination proving the opposite—God’s grace was a significant factor. This insight catalyzed the New Perspective on Paul, with N. T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn, for example, carrying Sanders’s insights into fresh studies of Romans and Galatians.

Barclay desires to reconsider grace language. As he wrote in Paul and the Gift, “Grace is everywhere; but this does not mean it is everywhere the same” (319). What is unique about Paul’s concept of grace? Barclay approaches this through six possible “perfections” of gift-giving. These are distinguishable connotations or nuances of grace: superabundance, singularity, priority, incongruity, efficacy, and non-circularity. Today, we sometimes think a true “gift” is one that expects no return (non-circularity). But Barclay shows that we might call someone gracious for other reasons, such as the size of their gift (superabundance). When it comes to Paul, Barclay argues that he focuses on the perfection of incongruity, the idea that God gives gifts and grace to mortals without regard to the worth of the recipient. From there, Barclay develops, what we might call a social economics theology.

The Reformation perspective analyzes Paul’s theology through questions about atonement, imputation, and how salvation “works.” The New Perspective has concentrated on the mission to Gentiles. Barclay’s approach is distinctive. Like the Reformation perspective, Barclay concentrates on the nature of God, but unlike the Reformation perspective Barclay also focuses on the social effects of God’s graciousness. Like the New Perspective, Barclay does not present Christianity as the opposite of Judaism. Unlike the New Perspective, Barclay seeks to connect Pauline sociology more closely to a theology of divine grace. It is hard to sum up Barclay’s “gift perspective,” but he comes close to it towards the end of Paul and the Power of Grace:

Paul’s message of grace was the opposite of [modern Western individualism]: incongruous and circular. The Christ-gift was given to the “ungodly”—in the absence of worth—and it was given to all, without regard to any reconstituted worth of gender, ethnicity, status, or success …. [I]t was given in order to transform the human recipients and to establish a permanent relationship: the recipient of this gift is necessarily expressed in gratitude, obedience, and transformed behavior. This grace is free (unconditioned) but not cheap (without expectations or obligations). Those who have received it are to remain within it, their lives altered by new habits, new dispositions, and new practices of grace. (149)

To aid non-specialist readers, Barclay has divided this short book into thirteen short chapters. After agenda-setting introductory chapters on the nature of gift-giving (ch. 1), his “perfections” approach (ch. 2), and the historical context of Paul and Second Temple Judaism (ch. 3), Barclay gives special attention to Galatians and Romans (chs. 4–9). In ch. 10, he expands his outlook to examine 1–2 Corinthians and Philippians briefly. While one may have hoped for a more balanced and comprehensive coverage of the Pauline canon, it was beneficial to have Barclay’s thoughts on Galatians and Romans, almost like his own running commentary on these texts.

Chapter 11 looks at how the life of the church reflects grace and gift-giving. Barclay then quickly compares his “gift perspective” to major readings in scholarship (i.e., Protestant, Catholic, New Perspective, and “Paul within Judaism” perspectives [ch. 12]). The thirteen chapter wraps up with his concluding thoughts.

I concur with the many Pauline scholars who have found Barclay’s work refreshing and insightful. He has offered a new approach to many of the tired, old debates about the apostle’s theology. One quibble: Barclay seems to pitch his “gift perspective” as an alternative to the New Perspective on Paul. I don’t think it is. I view them as complementary. Barclay’s summary of the New Perspective was a bit reductionistic. If someone read Paul and the Gift alongside Dunn’s Theology of Paul the Apostle (Eerdmans, 2006), I think they would see far more agreement than not. In any case, Paul and the Power of Grace is a must-read book of 2020 and John Barclay has gifted us with a book that will impact a wider audience. For that, we are in his debt!

Kindness Is Not a Random Act

I was loading my newly purchased gardening supplies into my car when two earnest teens approached me and volunteered to return the cart I was using. I accepted their offer, thinking they had use of it, but they informed me they were just doing a random act of kindness. As it turned out, they’d accepted a challenge in youth group to spread kindness through a host of suggested activities: compliment five people, hold the door for someone, wave at a stranger, etc. They had decided to make that parking lot the base of their operations that morning. They were considerate and carefree, and I wished them well as they cheerfully rolled the cart away. Yet, as I drove away, I found myself wondering what—and hoping that—the youth minister had more in mind with the kindness project than keep the youth entertained for a few hours.

There was nothing wrong with what they were doing. In many ways, the experience of being on their own without adult supervision allowed them to gain some valuable social interactions as young adults. I had no complaint with them or their youth leaders. I just wondered about the nature of their kindness project. Was it to respond to a challenge or just to give them something to do on a Saturday morning? Was there a larger purpose? Were their actions really kindnesses or were they pleasant, courteous social interactions with random strangers? I realized I was hoping for more for their morning of encountering strangers. I wondered how the youth leaders might help them debrief this experience, especially if it might lead to an opportunity to discern what it means to be polite and nice versus what it means to be kind.

Kindness and being nice are not the same thing. Niceness is a social convention, a politeness. Something that is nice brings pleasure. It is often fleeting and ephemeral. Kindness may mean being nice. But being kind does not always mean keeping things nice. Sometimes, being nice does not mean having to be truthful, particularly if that truth is not particularly rosy or encouraging. Kindness, though, may mean that a difficulty must be faced, that a problem needs to be surmounted. It can mean offering helpful correction. There is a graciousness to kindness that makes it more than just a social convention. Kindness, after all, is a virtue.

For the Christian, virtues, or the fruits of the Spirit, are nurtured through divine grace. Virtues are those interior qualities that characterize our disposition and actions. Practicing kindness has to start somewhere, but there is more to it than doing some random act for a stranger. It is a call to cultivate Christlike character. It is a call to deeper discipleship. It’s not just a matter of the things we do as Christians. It’s also about the manner in which we do those things as an expression of our love and dependence on God. We don’t just do kind things; we do them in kind ways.

Kindness is central to the fruits that Paul lists in Galatians 5:22–23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. To bear fruit, kindness must be practiced, nurtured along with the other virtues. And while I am sure it is argued that none of the fruits of the Spirit can be extracted easily on their own, I am often struck that I seldom see kindness off on its own. In his exposition on love in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul again precedes his mention of kindness with patience. And lyrics to a song by Paul Field I first encountered on a retreat to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne has kindness nestled in the midst of esteemed Christian attributes: “Be righteous. Speak truthfully in a world of greed and lies. Show kindness. See everyone through heaven’s eyes.” If kindness is to be part of our character, it must be deeply rooted, supported, and encouraged by other virtues.

Kindness does have to start someplace. The teens I encountered were stepping out in faith to discover what it means to try being kind to those who least suspect it. They were doing it with the support and the encouragement of a youth leader who had challenged them. Unloading my potting soil and fertilizer at home, I realized how unkind my internal questions might be in the scheme of things. And, as I dug around in the soil the rest of the afternoon, repotting plants, I began praying for them and for me. I repented for my uncharitable attitude and I prayed for them that they might, in time, grow in Christlike kindness towards others. It seemed the kindest thing I could do.

Kindness Is Not a Random Act

I was loading my newly purchased gardening supplies into my car when two earnest teens approached me and volunteered to return the cart I was using. I accepted their offer, thinking they had use of it, but they informed me they were just doing a random act of kindness. As it turned out, they’d accepted a challenge in youth group to spread kindness through a host of suggested activities: compliment five people, hold the door for someone, wave at a stranger, etc. They had decided to make that parking lot the base of their operations that morning. They were considerate and carefree, and I wished them well as they cheerfully rolled the cart away. Yet, as I drove away, I found myself wondering what—and hoping that—the youth minister had more in mind with the kindness project than keep the youth entertained for a few hours.

There was nothing wrong with what they were doing. In many ways, the experience of being on their own without adult supervision allowed them to gain some valuable social interactions as young adults. I had no complaint with them or their youth leaders. I just wondered about the nature of their kindness project. Was it to respond to a challenge or just to give them something to do on a Saturday morning? Was there a larger purpose? Were their actions really kindnesses or were they pleasant, courteous social interactions with random strangers? I realized I was hoping for more for their morning of encountering strangers. I wondered how the youth leaders might help them debrief this experience, especially if it might lead to an opportunity to discern what it means to be polite and nice versus what it means to be kind.

Kindness and being nice are not the same thing. Niceness is a social convention, a politeness. Something that is nice brings pleasure. It is often fleeting and ephemeral. Kindness may mean being nice. But being kind does not always mean keeping things nice. Sometimes, being nice does not mean having to be truthful, particularly if that truth is not particularly rosy or encouraging. Kindness, though, may mean that a difficulty must be faced, that a problem needs to be surmounted. It can mean offering helpful correction. There is a graciousness to kindness that makes it more than just a social convention. Kindness, after all, is a virtue.

For the Christian, virtues, or the fruits of the Spirit, are nurtured through divine grace. Virtues are those interior qualities that characterize our disposition and actions. Practicing kindness has to start somewhere, but there is more to it than doing some random act for a stranger. It is a call to cultivate Christlike character. It is a call to deeper discipleship. It’s not just a matter of the things we do as Christians. It’s also about the manner in which we do those things as an expression of our love and dependence on God. We don’t just do kind things; we do them in kind ways.

Kindness is central to the fruits that Paul lists in Galatians 5:22–23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. To bear fruit, kindness must be practiced, nurtured along with the other virtues. And while I am sure it is argued that none of the fruits of the Spirit can be extracted easily on their own, I am often struck that I seldom see kindness off on its own. In his exposition on love in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul again precedes his mention of kindness with patience. And lyrics to a song by Paul Field I first encountered on a retreat to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne has kindness nestled in the midst of esteemed Christian attributes: “Be righteous. Speak truthfully in a world of greed and lies. Show kindness. See everyone through heaven’s eyes.” If kindness is to be part of our character, it must be deeply rooted, supported, and encouraged by other virtues.

Kindness does have to start someplace. The teens I encountered were stepping out in faith to discover what it means to try being kind to those who least suspect it. They were doing it with the support and the encouragement of a youth leader who had challenged them. Unloading my potting soil and fertilizer at home, I realized how unkind my internal questions might be in the scheme of things. And, as I dug around in the soil the rest of the afternoon, repotting plants, I began praying for them and for me. I repented for my uncharitable attitude and I prayed for them that they might, in time, grow in Christlike kindness towards others. It seemed the kindest thing I could do.

Contemporary Systematic Theology: An Embarrassment of Riches

In The Architecture of Theology (Oxford University Press, 2011), a must-read for any serious student of systematic theology, A. N. Williams observes that while Christian theology is inherently systematic the number of comprehensive “systematic theologies” is comparatively small. In other words, for all the volumes of, e.g., Christology that also take into consideration, at least implicitly, the doctrine of God, ecclesiology, liturgics, pneumatology, and so on, there are far fewer projects like Karl Barth’s multivolume Church Dogmatics or even Geoffrey Wainwright’s single volume Doxology.

So it is remarkable, if not astonishing, that in the decade since Williams published The Architecture of Theology, three theologians, all from the Anglican tradition, have begun multivolume essays in systematic theology. So far, two of the three have yet to publish more than the first volume of their essays, yet all three forays invite serious consideration from theologians of all stripes.

The first to publish in that decade was Sarah Coakley, with her God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity” (Cambridge University Press, 2013). Coakley introduced her book as “the initial segment in the larger systematic project, to be entitled overall, On Desiring God” (xv), but though she has yet to deliver a second, this first “segment” generated sufficient attention on its own. (It was included in a Catalyst recommended reading list for summer 2014, accessible here, by two different John Wesley Fellows, and you can read a longer review by one of them, Beth Felker Jones, here.) Coakley labels her approach théologie totale: contemplation, prayer, art, and human embodiment are all considered essential to the work of theology. This approach will resonate with many Wesleyan theologians, for whom the phrase “systematic theology” all too often conjures intellectualist projects with little or no relation to the preferred “practical divinity” of our namesake.

About two years after God, Sexuality, and the Self, Katherine Sonderegger released Systematic Theology, vol. 1, The Doctrine of God (Fortress, 2015). Enthusiastically endorsed by Wesley Fellow D. Stephen Long at its publication, Sonderegger’s book reexamines the traditional attributes of God (omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience) in a treatise on the One God that conjures up descriptions such as bracing, daring, exhilarating, and idiosyncratic. Hers is a scholasticism in the best sense of the word: fresh, alert, and bold. Wesleyan theologians will admire the relentlessly scriptural character of her Systematic Theology, such as her grounding of divine omnipotence in a reading of the book of Numbers. There is also something significant in her preference for speaking of God, in the language of the Book of Common Prayer, as “Almighty God.” Moreover, Sonderegger has already completed a second volume; her Systematic Theology, vol. 2, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons (Fortress, 2020), was just released in late fall. Among its enticements is an entire section, roughly 130 pages, on Leviticus and Trinitarian holiness.

Third, then, is Graham Ward’s How the Light Gets In: Ethical Life I (Oxford University Press, 2016). Readers may find the subtitle misleading, since there is very little discussion of what usually passes for “ethics.” Instead, this is a classic example of prolegomenon, an extended preface that introduces the “what” and “why” of later volumes. The “what” Ward labels as “engaged systematics,” echoing Coakley’s théologie totale, and the “why” is Ward’s emphasis on a participatory account of Christian theology that understands all life happens coram Deo, in the presence of God. Wesleyans will appreciate Ward’s acknowledgement, appropriation, and modification of Methodist Geoffrey Wainwright’s work on lex orandi, lex credenda (the law of prayer is the law of belief, and vice versa). Ward’s easy fluency with popular culture as well as continental philosophy (Avatar and Merleau-Ponty) is also impressive, though it does sometimes ask a lot of readers. (In a review in Modern Theology, Stanley Hauerwas mentions that references to The Blair Witch Project passed over his head; for us mere mortals, the continental philosophers are more likely to provoke consternation, or at least careful re-readings.) Like Coakley, Ward also has not yet released subsequent volumes.

I hope that does not sound like a critique. Presenting a thorough portrait of the Christian faith is a daunting task, and in these systematic theologies we have an embarrassment of riches. If all we ever have from Coakley, Sonderegger, and Ward are these already-published volumes, we should be grateful for them. And we must also consider that these were completed while the Anglican Communion has been in the throes of global acrimony and division. Rather than throwing in the towel on their tradition, Coakley, Sonderegger, and Ward do their best both to present it winsomely and to breathe new theological life into it. Along with the substance of their systematics, this effort itself should be instructive for us in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition who face similar challenges—and, it appears, opportunities.

Discipleship after COVID-19: Family Worship

I wish I could say that COVID-19 has been good for my patterns and practices of worship. I’ve kept up with times of prayer, Bible reading, and other spiritual reading. I’ve also had some Christian conversation, both in person and on Zoom. When it comes to worship, though, I must admit that my formal worship life has suffered. Instead of preparing for Sunday worship, many a late Saturday night was filled with streaming episodes of the Tiger King at the beginning of the epidemic and more recently the umpteenth episode of The Voice. While I still attended Sunday morning worship virtually, the digital experience, at least for me, was neither as consistent nor as formative as the face-to-face version that, in part, defined the previous fifty-one years of my life. I know I’m not alone in my preference for worshipping in person with my Christian community, but the longer we’ve had to endure this COVID-19 pandemic the more I realize that I’ve become too dependent on my local church for facilitating my worship.

This never would have happened in early Methodism. We don’t talk about it much anymore, but field preaching, class meetings, society meetings, and serving those in need were not the only ways Methodists supported each other in their search for perfection. Another key practice of the early Methodists was family worship or family prayer.

Have you heard of family prayer? John Wesley wrote at one point that it was the indispensable Methodist practice (Works, 3:270). The idea of family worship, or family prayer, is that every home is the spiritual heart of a person, couple, family, or whoever makes up a household at any given time. The point of family prayer is to gather everyone in a household, at the end of the day to pray, sing, read Scripture, share a testimony, and typically included a time of teaching or even preaching (Works, 2:99). If it was a Sunday, then the focus was specific reflection on the morning’s sermon in worship.

Early Methodists emphasized the smaller, more personal times of Christian formation. While Methodist history books rightly emphasized the important role of Methodist field preaching as well as society and class meetings, what is often downplayed if not ignored is the synergetic relationship between these larger groups and the more personal conversations that took place in one-on-one visitation and in family worship. Methodist practice was built on the belief that smaller and more personal settings, with the people we know the best, are often the best times to have deep conversations about the questions, doubts, and joys that run through life and faith. But family worship was about more than conversation about faith. It provided a place where people who are more mature disciples can mentor those in the earlier stages of faith, be they children or more recent, adult converts (Works, 7:81). In early Methodism, the broader Christian community certainly plays an essential role in Christian formation. But the role of household or family formation is just as critical.

I wonder sometimes if we modern Christians outsource some of our personal responsibility for family and household formation to our Christian communities. Our churches can help facilitate some of our formation, but Methodists are also called to take an active role in helping nurture those closest to us as disciples. For “godliness” as the early Methodists believed, is best nurtured through the “constant use of family prayer” (Works, 5:19). As we begin this new year, and, prayerfully, as COVID-19 moves more into our past than our future, let us reclaim this Methodist practice. May we help our churches see that their role is not only to teach and nurture us, but to train us to teach and nurture each other in our family units.

What Role Should Experience Play in Christian Spirituality? (1)

I have heard pastors counsel people, “Don’t seek experiences, seek truth found in the Bible!” While excessive emotionalism can be a problem for some, who determines what excessive emotionalism is? The expression of emotion varies with culture, ethnicity, race, gender, and personality. Certainly, those of white European decent are not the only arbiters of healthy emotional expression.

True, one should not allow one’s emotions or feelings to be the sole guide to one’s life. Emotions can be unstable, fluctuate, and untrustworthy. However, the dismissal of experience, feeling, and emotion is problematic for a number of reasons. First, humans are not just “thinking” beings. They also will, emote, and act. Second, mind, will, and emotion are holistically connected to our physical bodies. Actually, they cannot be separated. Third, one of the purposes of reading the Bible is to encounter the God revealed in the Bible and to actually experience the things the Bible talks about, like forgiveness, assurance, and holiness. We are to be transformed by the Word so that we embody the Word and become the Word to those who have not met the Word. We can only do that through experience.

It is important to define what we mean by experience. It is not simply emotion or feelings. What philosophers and theologians mean by experience may be categorized in the following ways:

  1. Empirical Knowledge (outer) is experiencing the world around us as we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.
  2. Experiential Knowing (inner) is the kind of knowing that only comes via experience, like playing a musical instrument or performing surgery. All practical skills are tethered to experience.
  3. Revelatory experiences like Moses at the burning bush, Nathan’s rebuke of David’s sin (2 Sam 12), Jesus’s prophetic revelations to the Samaritan woman (John 4), or Peter’s vision not to call anything unclean (Acts 10) can only come through experience.
  4. Regenerative/Conversion experiences are the beginning processes of the Christian life characterized by conviction, illumination, confession, and cooperation with God’s Spirit to a life of holiness—all of which are experiential in nature.
  5. Dark Night of the Soul (DNS) experiences have been attested to by many Christians throughout history. Essentially, the DNS experience is the experience of the absence of God in one’s life while seeking God with one’s whole heart, mind, and devotion.
  6. Mystical/Numinous experiences have also been attested to by numerous Christians throughout history. These include visions of the crucified Christ and a feeling of dread and awe of God that shakes one to the core.
  7. Extraordinary Revival Phenomena is recorded in many of the great revivals of history, including the Great Awakening in America and the Methodist revival in Great Britain in the eighteenth century, the Second Great Awakening in America in the nineteenth century, and the Pentecostal-Charismatic revivals in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These experiences include being “slain in the Spirit,” excessive loud crying or laughter, trembling, shaking, the “Jerks,” visions, healings, deliverances, intoxication by the Spirit, and more.

While William James wrote a significant book called The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), I think Johnathan Edwards’ book Religious Affections (1746) is more helpful for understanding the role of experience in Christian spirituality. Edwards, like John Wesley, encountered a wide variety of unusual religious experiences during the eighteenth-century “Great Awakening” in America. Critics charged that true religion was a matter of the mind and right doctrine, not that of the wild emotions on display during the revivals. This led Edwards to investigate the relationship been the mind, beliefs, emotions, and what he called affections.

The word affections is not equivalent to feelings, but affections usually involve feelings because they are strong inclinations. Edwards maintains that those who refuse any place for feelings and affections in true spirituality are making a mistake. He adds that the devil likes to persuade people that emotional spirituality is suspect because the devil knows that religion without any emotion is “a mere lifeless formality.” According to Edwards, once spirituality is stripped of all feeling and affection, it does not threaten the devil’s work. He contends that where there is light and truth without heat and fervor, the divine is absent.

The presence of religious feeling and affection does not prove that spirituality is true. However, the absence of religious feeling indicates that true spirituality is absent as well. Holy affections are not strictly feelings, but warm and fervent inclinations that include heart conviction as well as intellectual understanding. However, for Edwards, true spirituality is a matter of the affections. Kingdom people are moved by spiritual conviction that affects everything they are and do including their feelings, thinking, and actions.

How can we discern true from false religious experience? I will take this up in my next article.

Why Women Must Preach

A couple millennia after Jesus Christ himself directed Mary Magdalene to go and tell the good news of his resurrection to others, whether women should “preach” remains controversial in this world. In the twenty-first century, many of us are blessed to live in a so-called advanced society. Yet recently I was reminded that most of the world, including the majority of adherents to the Christian faith, piously judge that women should not preach!

This is exactly why women who are called by God to do so must preach. Those of us who are called to preach certainly must obey God, each providing a witness to the authority and extraordinary power of God amidst the discouragements, defiance, temptations, sinfulness, and frailties of human life.

This is reason enough for women to preach. No other defense is needed.

However, for those who are inclined to think further about this important subject, there are many reasons to complement the simple fact of God’s calling on certain women to prophesy, preach, and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Here are just a few.

  • If women called to preach do not do so, we demonstrate a belief that disobedience toward God is acceptable, which is an unacceptable prospect for true followers of Jesus.
  • If women categorically don’t preach, we (not God) have eliminated half of the world’s population, and more than half of the church’s population, from the possibility of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ that every nation needs to hear.
  • For those who claim that God’s condemnation of Eve’s sin is somehow a reason why no women since Eve should preach, we are reminded that God’s grace and forgiveness are sufficient for the sins of all humanity, including Eve’s, and Adam’s, and everyone else’s.
  • Jesus, born of God and a woman, most clearly teaches and demonstrates the truth of God’s amazing grace toward women: beginning his earthly presence in the womb of a humble, obedient woman and marking his resurrection by sending a humble, obedient woman to be the first to tell the good news to her frightened, discouraged brothers.
  • If God can speak through an ass, rocks, and even sinful men, God can certainly speak through women.
  • To say that women shouldn’t preach is a blatant transgression of the Golden Rule. Should not everyone do unto others what we would like others to do for us? What kind of bad theology would deny anyone the opportunity to give what is best to others by proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ?
  • For those who are caught up in the idea that women cannot “have authority” over men, we are reminded that God is the only authority for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is God alone who calls both women and men to the work of God’s kingdom.
  • Women, called by God, have already been preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ for centuries with innumerable results in converting and sanctifying sinners by the power of the Holy Spirit. Who besides the devil himself at any point in time would dare to suggest all this holy work of God should not have happened, or now should be undone or abandoned, simply because God has chosen and sent women as vessels of holy proclamation?
  • Most attacks on the subject of women’s preaching stem from the use of half-baked prooftexts from the Bible. These are readily obliterated by the solid examples of God’s call on women in both the Bible and the history of Jesus’s followers through the centuries not only to preach, but also to do whatsoever God directs, despite the presumptuous objection of naysayers.
  • However pious, the blatant opposition that exists in this sinful world toward God’s call on women to preach only adds weight to the necessity of correcting this blasphemous error of arrogance against the authority of God, not to mention the persecution of those anointed by God.

After all these years, it may seem as though we shouldn’t need a reminder to honor God’s call on women as well as men to preach the good news of Jesus Christ. However, human nature and disobedience toward God remain problematic in this world. It is still mostly a hostile place toward the gospel of Jesus Christ, let alone those who preach it, both women and men. Thus, it remains that all Christians, especially those called to the ministry of preaching, should go out of our way to support one another with prayer, mutual encouragement, and respect.

Finally, we should remember that proclaiming the Gospel is not about the messenger. It is about the salvation offered by God in Jesus Christ to all who will accept it, regardless of the imperfection of the vessels assigned by God to this work of holy proclamation.

On Preaching God’s Beauty and Goodness

Many recent books on preaching are topical and contextual, seeking to address a problem or suggest tools or practices to help busy pastors address the many challenges facing the church and our world. These books seek to help pastors streamline their sermon preparation, heal divisions, embrace technology, grow their churches, and nurture diversity. Such books have their place.

The Beauty of Preaching is not a book on method or homiletical problem-solving, but rather seeks to offer a healing balm to help restore the soul of mainline and evangelical pastors and congregations through renewed virtue in preaching.

In The Beauty of Preaching (Eerdmans, 2020), Michael Pasquarello III invites us to listen for the beautiful voice of God summoning us through the din of cultural “background noise,” reminding us weary preachers of the inspiration behind proclamation and calling us to recenter and “delight in the ‘disarming beauty’ of the living God, who is with us in our preaching of the crucified Christ, the risen Lord of all that is” (19, 24).

Pasquarello’s well-researched book is arranged with chapters that dialogue with biblical texts and theologians both historic and contemporary, along the theme of the goodness and beauty of God, whose being calls forth proclamation and makes possible human response. His introduction recalls the event of Pentecost, which initiates preaching through God rather than human action. His call to restore the beauty of God’s glory in preaching invites readers to attune their sermons to God rather than primarily the rhythms and issues of a world that increasingly does not know God. Preaching should seek to honor our eschatological situation of living as God’s “pilgrim people” between the advents of Christ. (10) In an often-indifferent world, our call is to preach the beauty and goodness of God.

Chapter one addresses God’s “saving beauty” by engaging with Scripture, from Isaiah to the Gospel of Mark, to Romans. Beginning with Isa 52:7, Pasquarello emphasizes the doxological and imaginative qualities of the text. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” Prophetic preaching need not be reduced to only “social analysis and political critique.” To know, praise, and enjoy God is itself prophetic, since the central affirmation of Scripture can be summed up as “God is” (30). Scripture reminds us of God’s faithfulness.

Read typologically, the widow who gives selflessly in Mark 12 prefigures Jesus’s own selfless giving. Small signs of selfless love are also signs of the inbreaking of God’s realm. The gospel calls disciples towards the paradoxical “rich poverty” of life with Christ (39). Such selfless giving is beautiful and reminds us that vulnerable and unassuming people without power and prestige often bear witness to God’s reign in ways that display “the strange, fragile beauty” of God (43). Humility is also a worthwhile virtue for preachers. Preaching that seeks to set aside self to be fully available for God’s agenda may not be understood or encouraged by worldly measures, but the widow’s story reminds us that “God sees” (42).

Engaging with Israel’s Scripture as living word through the lens of encounter with the risen Christ deeply shaped the apostle Paul’s witness. Paul address the church in Rome as a “fellow believer.” They are called to live in such a way that their lives display “the gospel they believe and confess” (52). Christian community can manifest God’s glory.

Chapter two focuses with some depth on the unnamed woman in Mark 14 who anoints Jesus with costly perfume. This extravagant act can be understood typologically as a window into God’s own extravagant and costly love. The woman’s action was purely for the delight and celebration of Jesus, the desire to give everything out of sheer love. A church focused only on utility forgets this precious gift. The poor have need but can only be truly seen and engaged with by communities of the Holy Spirit shaped by “prayer and praise whose delight is participating in the Son’s offering of himself back to the Father in undivided love” (62). This text is instructive for pastors in holding together worship as the “most fitting context for perceiving and proclaiming the beauty of the gospel” (73).

Chapters three and four turn to the early Christian tradition through engagement with Augustine, particularly his journey of conversion portrayed in Confessions and his preaching and writing about preaching in De doctrina Christiana. Augustine’s journey moved from speeches that sought to call forth praise from others to doxological proclamation. His own quest and longing for beauty ultimately found its purpose in God who pursued him in love. For Augustine, formation for preaching consisted primarily of loving God in a deep and consuming way, and secondly, loving Scripture as a witness to the triune God. Preaching is a rhetorical act, where “the beauty of preaching is displayed by speaking the truth of God as aesthetically pleasing, accessible and clear” (112). Human proclamation is inspired by God’s truth, which “draws listeners to the beauty of divine love as manifested, although partially and incompletely … as a ‘sign’ of Christ” (116). The wisdom for present preachers here involves allowing the Spirit to cultivate our own virtues rather than focusing on perceived deficits in listeners.

Chapter five will warm the hearts of Methodist readers as he moves forward in time to explore the “simple beauty” of John Wesley’s sermons (136). Wesley’s understanding of God’s plan for reformation and renewal was through preaching scriptural holiness. Wesleyan sermons and hymns are “living reminders” of human responses to the Trinity’s love (138). Above all, Wesley sought to make his sermons accessible to those who needed to hear them. “Wesley proclaimed the beauty of the gospel plainly and with conviction and compassion: justification by faith, the sanctification of life, the new birth, and the assurance of salvation’s fullness in communion with the triune God” (140). Preaching for Wesley was not a discrete task, separate from the holiness of Christian vocation, the community of faith, and the path of sanctification through means of grace and good works.

Chapter six turns to the beauty of preaching in the work of Martin Luther. For Luther, the fallenness of humanity is complete; therefore, the Word comes to us externally through scriptural preaching and sacrament. To be saved is to have God share divine beauty with us. In Christ, “God absorbs the ugliness of sin and shares his beauty with sinners” (168). Luther’s own engagement with the Psalms and the range of expressions of praise and lament reflect his commitments in preaching that speaks “in the darkness, despair, and bitterness of a world filled with sin and suffering” (185).

Pasquarello guides readers towards the beauty of Christ revealed in the gospel and preaching that brings glory to God. Pasquarello calls preachers “to embrace our vocation of bearing witness to divine and human beauty in an age of ugly” (xvi) and to expand our vision beyond ourselves and our preoccupation with utility. While chapters feature portions of sermons by Augustine, Wesley, and Luther, working pastors may have appreciated present-day sermon examples or excerpts that show possibilities for integrating the wisdom of Pasquarello’s conversation partners with the particularities of weekly preaching.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many congregations have been and still are worshiping online. When worship is stripped of singing together, physical touch, communal celebration of sacraments, and the ritual of physical pilgrimage to a designated worship space, the sermon arguably has greater weight. In this challenging season of uncertainty and monumental changes in the ways we worship, The Beauty of Preaching is a timely read.

Embracing the New for the Sake of Mission

Think of a time when you went through a significant transition to something wonderful and new. Maybe it was moving away from home for the first time and getting your own place. Maybe it was starting a new job and moving to a new city. Maybe it was getting married and beginning a new life together. We can celebrate the new thing while appreciating the old that has passed. The old situation prepared us for the new opportunity. However, the new opportunity would not have been possible if we remained in our old situation. We see this lesson in Scripture when it comes to mission and evangelism.

The Bible is full of incidents in which people are invited to leave the old for new possibilities. In Matt 9:16–17, Jesus tells his hearers that it is time for something novel and different by talking about old and new wineskins. This seems to be out of place, at first glance, since he was asked about the spiritual practice of fasting. However, a closer look reveals an important lesson about serving the kingdom of God.

First, a little background on first-century wine making: When grapes were harvested for wine, they were first pressed and placed in a large vat. When the sugar from inside the grape interacted with the material on the skin, the fermentation process began. After a few days, the new wine was placed into a new wineskin. These wineskins were made from animals, perhaps from a single organ or the skin of a whole animal.

Wine must ferment with little or no exposure to oxygen, or it will turn to vinegar. To prevent this, the skins were sewn up tight. The fermentation process produces carbon dioxide, which gets trapped in the skin. Because the animal skin has a natural elasticity, it expands with the increased amounts of carbon dioxide. However, these skins cannot stretch indefinitely. If they have been used as a wineskin once, they cannot be used a second time. If asked to stretch again, they will reach their breaking point. In doing so, both the skin and the wine of the new batch—and all the work that went into it—will be lost.

The imagery Jesus conveys is rich. He did not come to merely patch up or refill the old religious system. His purpose is to demonstrate something new. He came to fulfill all of the commands of God and show all the kingdom of God made known in his teaching, miracles, signs, and deeds.

As I said, this incident may look out of place at first glance. However, when considered in its larger place in the text, there is a particularly important lesson about opening up to the new things God is doing in order to realize God’s greater purposes. Consider the miraculous and life-changing events in this chapter:

  • 9:2–8—Jesus heals a paralyzed man
  • 9:9–13—Jesus calls Matthew to follow him
  • 9:18–26—Jesus raises a dead girl back to life and heals a woman
  • 9:27–31—Jesus restores the sight of two blind men
  • 9:32–34—Jesus restores the ability to speak in a man who was mute

Embedded in all of these accounts is the teaching on wineskins. In each of these instances, a radical transformation occurs. Jesus asks people to leave behind the old and embrace a new, life-giving future that God gives them. Blindness, paralysis, chronic conditions, even death itself, are all left behind. Through the power of Jesus, they are all made new and brought new life. Now, imagine if they each went home and tried to put this new life, this new wine, into those old skins. What if the once-paralyzed man continued to lay on his mat each day? What if the once-dead girl crawled back in bed? The idea is ludicrous.

Keep reading through the end of chapter 9 and into chapter 10 to really see the power of this. After all of these new, miraculous things Jesus tells his disciples that there is a plentiful harvest before them. He then gathered the Twelve and told them to go and to teach and to heal. It is important not to miss this powerful lesson: The mission of the kingdom of God moves forward when God’s people embrace the new. Only when Christians allow Jesus to put away the old and fill us with new life are we able to able to fulfill Christ’s mission. When Jesus calls his followers out of an old situation, he prepares new places and spaces in which to proclaim the kingdom of God. Those wishing to serve in the kingdom of God must put away the old that Jesus wants to remove. Only then may we embrace the new and follow him in his mission of bringing good news.

The Power of the Apparent Powerless

Because my mother died at a relatively young age, my main link to her family came through my great aunt, Flossie Johnson. I became close to Aunt Flossie during my nearly eighteen years of pastoral ministry in Washington, DC, the city where, on a streetcar in 1946, she met Clifton Johnson, her husband of over sixty years. Sometime in the 1930s, as part of the Great Migration, Flossie moved from rural South Carolina with one of her older sisters, Josie (my grandmother), and Josie’s daughter, Loetta (my mother). I never learned all the circumstances behind these women’s trek north, but the decision to leave home is never easy. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Random House, 2010) makes clear how the Great Migration was largely due to domestic terrorism from hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, directed toward African Americans. Also, life in the northern states held the promise of lucrative employment opportunities. Not long after the movie, The Help, circulated in theaters, I had a conversation with Aunt Flossie about how the movie resonated with her own life. She had no desire to see the movie, saying, “Dennis, don’t you know all the females in your family did domestic work for white people?”

I will never fully know or appreciate the mess these women had to face: the verbal abuse they took, the segregation they endured, the humiliation of having to clean up other people’s mess, and the thankless task of cooking other people’s meals while caring for other people’s children. Then on top of that, to have to cook, clean, and care for their own families! What a burden these women carried for years upon years. Yet there are so many of us who could say that with all the injustices that these women—and men—had to endure, there is also a legacy of great faith.

A few years ago I participated in the funeral service for Aunt Flossie (Clifton had passed away a few years earlier, but both lived well into their nineties). The eulogist was a retired federal judge, having been one of few African Americans in such a role, and a fellow member of Aunt Flossie’s church. He had been held in Aunt Flossie’s arms shortly after he was born, and grew up living across the street from her. The eulogy, while acknowledging some of Aunt Flossie’s difficult life journey, emphasized her virtuous character. “She lived according to the Golden Rule,” the judge declared. All present knew how true that was. Flossie Johnson had lived a humble life in arguably the most powerful city in the world, demonstrating faith more tenacious, and love more generous, than many professing Christians with power and status in that same city.

Christians have been taught—obviously as well as subtly—that only the powerful in society have the ability to teach anything of substance. And the lessons from the marginalized are only for other marginalized people, not applicable to the dominant culture. Yet, what Scripture and experience demonstrate is that oppressed and marginalized people are our most powerful teachers of what it means to follow Christ, if only we are ready to listen and learn. My recent book, Might from the Margins: The Gospel’s Power to Turn the Tables on Injustice (Herald Press, 2020), describes how those who are powerless in the eyes of the world do not deserve pity, but attention and honor as teachers of the Jesus Way. We see Jesus, a marginalized Jew, in the lives of those society disregards, minimizes, and silences. As the apostle Paul told the Corinthians, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:26–29 NRSV).

The Power of Diaspora People

Perhaps the main question the letter 1 Peter addresses is: How should Christians think and act within a culture that is hostile toward them? First Peter addresses Christians who are alienated by the broader culture. Peter writes to people who do not have the luxury of prominence or high status in their society. Peter writes to people who are under scrutiny. Peter writes to people whose lives are in a precarious position. At the time of his letter, Peter’s readers are facing hassles, slander, alienation, judgment, and social isolation because of their faith. His readers are suffering.

The first readers of this letter carried the status of alien, stranger, and members of the diaspora—a status that indicated their conflict with non-Christians. These people could not be at home in the world because the world became hostile to them. That’s the precarious situation of anyone on the margins. Alienated, diaspora people are the ones who suffer. And when they are also people of faith, those oppressed believers can teach us what the NT sometimes calls hypomonē: endurance, faithful perseverance. For example, Peter addresses the enslaved (2:18–25) and women (3:1–6), people who have historically been the most vulnerable and marginalized. The believing wives demonstrate a needed method of evangelism: how to win over unbelievers without a word (3:1); and the enslaved who hear Peter’s letter and follow his instructions, are in the blessed position of walking the way Jesus walked (2:23–25), providing a poignant example for the world. God has made it so that if we want to see Jesus, we don’t look to the powerful; we look to the apparent powerless! First Peter shows us that those who have been oppressed are the very ones who teach us the way of Christ.

The Power to Discern Injustice

Over seventy years ago, the poet, mystic, and theologian Howard Thurman presented a problem that, to a large degree, remains with us. In his classic, Jesus and the Disinherited (Abingdon, 1949), Thurman notes:

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I have heard a sermon on the meaning of religion, of Christianity, to the man with his back against the wall. It is urgent that my meaning be crystal clear. The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? The issue is not what it counsels them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what religion offers to meet their own needs. The search for an answer to this question is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life.

Contemporary expressions of Christian faith focus on the powerful, the popular, and the prestigious, who are overwhelmingly white. In fact, white evangelicalism has enjoyed a degree of social hegemony in the USA. Consequently, it is often hard for white people to understand how the practice of Christianity can be oppressive for those on the margins. Those who, as Thurman puts it, “live with their backs against the wall,” struggle to flourish in a society that was not constructed for them. To make matters worse, some of the most zealous Christians in the country are reluctant to recognize the injustices marginalized people deal with on a regular basis. Charles W. Mills, in The Racial Contract (Cornell University Press, 1997), points that out with standpoint theory: “in understanding the workings of a system of oppression, a perspective from the bottom up is more likely to be accurate than one from the top down” (109). Those who occupy society’s lowest caste position are the best to diagnose society’s injustices and to discern a more righteous path.

Consider, for example, the exodus story of Israelites enslaved under an unnamed Pharaoh’s ruthless regime. God demonstrated liberative power to free the Israelites and rebuke Pharaoh’s oppression. The freedom of the once-enslaved Israelites becomes not only an example of God’s power to deliver, but also an affirmation of how a relatively small and apparently insignificant group of people can shame the world’s most powerful nations.

The Power of Love

Books on justice and reconciliation often discuss the need for love. I agree that love is necessary, provided we understand love as more than sappy sentimentality. In my experience, people demand love at the expense of justice. Oftentimes white people want to hear and see Black people be quick to forgive injustice. After all, there are plenty of examples—even in recent years—when Black people have been killed and members of the family or larger community have forgiven the white killers. For some white people, the proof that Black people have the capacity to love is our apparent ability to forgive quickly. I’ve had white friends assert that one essential thing that Black people teach them is the beauty of forgiveness. I wish our main lessons didn’t come from our oppression. We have so much else to teach.

Of course forgiveness is biblical and is Christ-like. But forgiveness need not obscure injustice. Forgiveness isn’t a performance. Forgiveness, however, releases our souls from the burden of hatred, which ultimately destroys. When we love ourselves, we can demand justice as well as unburden our souls through forgiveness.

Jesus recited the OT command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18; cf. Matt 19:19; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27). The apostle Paul echoes the same command (e.g., Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14). Loving ourselves helps us to know how to love others. But oppressive systems often make it difficult for marginalized people to love themselves. I’m old enough to remember James Brown singing, “Say it Loud, ‘I’m Black and I’m proud.’” We needed that anthem. Data had shown that African Americans internalized some of the negative messaging we’d received over centuries. We needed to convince ourselves of our own worth in the eyes of God and others. We needed to embrace our beauty, intelligence, ingenuity, and creativity. We needed to love ourselves.

Even today we struggle to help our children to love themselves. When a simple slogan, such as “Black Lives Matter” is denied, scrutinized, and even vilified by vocal white Christians, it becomes increasingly necessary to assert that God loves us and to grow in love of ourselves. As we grow in love for ourselves, it will become easier to face the challenge of loving our enemies. After all, our enemies are not just ideological, they are empowered with lethal weapons and legal protections. Some of our number have been killed by police—even with some deaths being ruled as homicides by the authorities—only to have no one held responsible. But love has power. It has the power to embolden us, motivate us, and sustain us in the fight against injustice.

Who Gets Centered?

The fictional nation of Wakanda is central in Marvel’s Black Panther universe. Ostensibly a simple agricultural society, Wakanda is really home to advanced technology. In the blockbuster Black Panther movie, Wakanda, mixing science with its spiritual traditions under its leader, King T’Challa, manages to stifle a threat against the world’s safety and ongoing security. During a critical scene in the movie, when King T’Challa is incapacitated, an entourage seeking assistance approaches Chief M’Baku and his Jabari tribe. As the entourage draws near, the white CIA agent, Ross, begins to explain the predicament. Right then, M’Baku pounds his staff repeatedly and barks loudly. The rest of the Jabari tribe begins barking so persistently that Agent Ross is drowned out. When I saw that scene in the theater, I could barely remain in my seat! I wanted to cheer loudly because I have had countless experiences of white people presuming to speak for me. The white elite, even when outnumbered (as in the fictional Wakanda and non-fictional South Africa) have grown accustomed to minimizing non-white people. White people—including Christians—are accustomed to being the central focus of practically all conversations. Consequently, Might from the Margins is not primarily addressed to white Christians. I write for other marginalized people to encourage us to exercise the power that we already possess. We do not have to wait to be empowered by white people or to receive permission from white people to speak, write, or act as we dismantle systems of injustice and demonstrate genuine faith in Jesus.

Furthermore, just as Agent Ross was an ally of the people of Wakanda, there are white people who see themselves as allies of marginalized people in our country. And in the same way that Agent Ross had to know when to be silent and not speak over—or even for—the people of Wakanda, white allies today do well to know the value of listening and not speaking for people who have their own voices.

Conclusion

People like my Aunt Flossie have more to teach us than we might first imagine. What she and others like her do is demonstrate the faithfulness, love, and upright character of Jesus. Marginalized people know the path of suffering is the path of Jesus. Marginalized people know that suffering doesn’t simply “teach us a lesson”; it connects us uniquely to Jesus, the “man of sorrows.” Jesus stands in solidarity with the marginalized. Consequently, we find power to serve the Lord in challenging times. We find might from the margins.

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