Thursday, January 18, 2018

"Life means to be significantly involved in a community of caring, meaning, and action." "That's why King knew he was going to win even when he lost by human sense."

In Bill Moyers' discussion with James Cone on his brilliant sermon, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, one of the most difficult passages was this:

JAMES CONE: The core of it is, is helping America get over its innocence. Helping America to see itself through the eyes of people from the bottom. And you see, America likes to think of itself as innocent. And we are not. No human being is innocent. And so, I-- that would be the book I would recommend him to read. But since he's a Christian, I would especially recommend that he reads Beyond Tragedy. Niebuhr tells us that Christianity takes us through tragedy to beyond tragedy by way of the cross to victory in the cross.


JAMES CONE: Meaning that the cross is victory out of defeat.

BILL MOYERS: And the lynching tree?

JAMES CONE: And the lynching tree is transcendent of defeat. And that's why the cross and the lynching tree belong together. That's why I have to talk about the lynching tree. Because Christians can't understand what's going on at the cross until they see it through the image of a lynching tree with black bodies hanging there.


JAMES CONE: Because what the Christian Gospel is is a transvaluation of values. Something you cannot anticipate in this world, in this history. But, it empowers the powerless. It is-- what do you mean by power in the powerless? That's what God is. Power in the powerless.

BILL MOYERS: But, the victims of lynchings are dead.

JAMES CONE: No. Their mothers and fathers aren't dead. Their brothers and sisters aren't dead. I'm alive. I have to give voice to those who did die. And all of us do. That's why we can't forget it.

BILL MOYERS: But, you know, Dr. Cone, I went online and-- and watched the video version of your speech at Harvard where you talked on Strange Fruit -- the Cross and the Lynching Tree. I must say that audience didn't seem very comfortable with that-- with that linkage, right?

JAMES CONE: No, they did not. No, because I said it at a divinity school. And that's mostly whites there. Blacks felt comfortable with it. They're-- they like that. They like that connection because it gives them a perspective on the lynching that empowers them rather than silences them. People who have never been lynched by another group usually find it difficult to understand why it is blacks want whites to remember lynching atrocities. Why bring that up, they ask? Isn't that best forgotten? And I say, absolutely not! The lynching tree is a metaphor for race in America, a symbol of America's crucifixion of black people. See, whites feel a little uncomfortable because they are part of the history of the people who did the lynching. I would much rather be a part of the history of the lynching victims than a part of the history of the one who did it. And that's the kind of transcendent perspective that empowers people to resist. That's why King knew he was going to win even when he lost by human sense.

One of the things I've learned about The Bible from reading authors such as Walter Brueggemann is that often the words used in Scripture have to be understood in vastly wider way than a narrowed sense of meaning, that to read them in a narrow sense can distort the full meaning of them in context and as the authors may have meant them.  One which I never noticed before but which I recently got from listening to a speech by John Polkinghorne is Genesis 1:24,

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.”

And it was so cited to make the point that the language of Genesis, not only was supportive of Big Bang cosmology at a time materialist-atheist cosmologists rejected and sought to suppress the idea but that that passage is entirely compatible with any claims made that life arose out of the chemicals and physical conditions found on the Early Earth or elsewhere, God made the Earth, itself, the physical and chemical stuff of the Earth give rise to life on Earth.  It's not compatible with a fundamentalist reading in the sense of "young Earth creationism" but it is entirely compatible with the idea that life arose and, especially as the next verse continues, its fecundity led to diversity - though the scriptures don't mention anything like that, though it is entirely compatible with that passage.   That kind of "intelligent design" is at no point incompatible with whatever the physical evidence of evolution can be, though that doesn't include the ideological imposition of science such as in the demand that science proves that evolution is by random chance events and that evolution is non-progressive (something no conventional Darwinist really believes even as they claim to) and that there is no directionality in evolution.  Which are ideological stands, not scientific ones.

But this is about this passage from Chapter 7 of The Bible Makes Sense in which Brueggemann points out that the Bible doesn't give the narrow, modern meaning to "life" and "death" that is commonly given to those ideas, now, it gives them a far broader meaning as a way to promote life over death, over human conduct that leads to life over deadly ways.

7 “From Death to Life”

Life Means Relatedness

The Bible has notions of life and death which are very different from those we have today.  Whereas we think of life as the continuing functioning of the individual organisms and death as the cessation of such functioning, the Bible understands life and death in covenantal categories  Life means to be significantly involved in a community of caring, meaning, and action  Death means to be excluded from such a community or denied access to its caring, meaning, or actions.   Life means a capacity to enter into covenants and the ability to make covenants which are also community-creating possibilities for others.  Life and death do not have to do, in biblical perspective, simply with the state of the individual person but with the relation between the person  and the community which identifies that person and which gives personhood.   A German scholar,  Jungel, has recently shown that life in the Bible means relatedness. Conversely death is to be unrelated.  Thus the Bible calls into question two of our dominant presuppositions:  (a) that life is concerned primarily with biological functioning and (b) that life concerns a personal unit in and of itself.

The central life-death moment in the biblical perspective is entry into and participation in a community of identity and mission.  Birth is embrace of covenant community, whether we speak of birth or rebirth.  And death is departure from the community, either by force or by choice.  Thus to “choose life or death” (Deuteronomy 30:19) means to decide upon relationship for or against the life-giving community.  

In the Old Testament, such an embrace of life means incorporation into the covenant community whereby people are invited in and take vows of allegiance and oaths of fidelity (Exodus 24:1-8, Joshua 24:1-38).  In the New Testament, such a dramatic, intentional act is likely to be identified with baptism which means “putting off an old nature”  and coming into life in “ a new nature” (Ephesians 4:1-24).  The community of meaning and destiny thus has it within its power to give life and consign to death.  In the earliest community this had to do with the pronouncement of blessings and the declaration of curses (especially Leviticus 26Deuteronomy 28).  While this may strike us as primitive, it is psychologically and sociologically correct, given a biblical understanding of personhood, that life is the experience of being identified with community and that death means exclusion, banishment, excommunication.  The key issue is relationship, and the primal events are dramatic (liturgic) adts of inclusion and exclusion.  While this sounds alien to us, the same dynamic is clearly operative for a teenage who does not get included in a peer group, a young boy not chosen for a team, a small child rejected by a parent.  The breaking of a significant relationship is an experience of death.

The key to understanding, along with actually reading what the Scripture says instead of ideologically motivated distortions of it, is to understand that when it talks about "life" and "death" it isn't "PRIMARILY" or "SIMPLY" what we mean when we assign words those merely biological significance, the Bible uses those in far deeper, far richer, far more meaningful but related denotations and connotations because its interests are far broader than biology or even the social sciences Brueggmann mentions, it use them in the ultimate context of them to mean all of those and, in addition to that, the wider ramifications of life and death in community and in covenant with each other and God. 

I think in the context of Martin Luther King's holiday and the struggle over immigrants' rights to justice, dignity and a place in our community,  it's a useful coincidence this overview got here today.
It how how fractured large parts of the Jewish-Christian-Islamic* religious populations are and how alienated we are from the substance of what we profess.  That's certainly true in the United States for the past thirty years. 

* All three traditions teach the moral obligation of hospitality to the stranger among us, the alien and acceptance of them on equal terms, I wouldn't hesitate to say that I think Islam, today, focuses on that entirely more than Christianity does - with exceptions both ways in both groups.   The Republican "Christian" orientation is at a particularly low nadir of fulfilling that moral obligation, or so it would seem, these days.  Trump and the Republicans, people like Kevin McCarthy, John Kelly, are total heretics in that regard.   And that's not to mention the racists and other bigots among the Bible thumpers who apparently don't read it closely.


  1. Relatedness was the foundation of the English common law. The law of assault, for example, afforded protection to subjects of the Crown and crimes of assault were prosecuted by the Crown because to damage another subject of the Crown was to damage someone protected by the Crown. The legal basis was unfortunately similar to the laws against poaching animals on the King's land. Such animals belonged to the King, not to anyone and everyone. So the King protected individuals because they were his subjects; just as he ruled over them, he also protected them.

    Which gets to the term "outlaw," which once meant literally outside the protection of the law. It was a form of death, because the community would not protect you. The King had turned his back on you, and whatever happened to you was your lookout. You couldn't even be murdered, because a murder victim was protected by the Crown, and to be "outlaw" meant you had no protection from the Crown at all.

    We spent a lot of time in seminary talking about the importance of community and covenant.....

    1. Too bad that in an alleged democracy we weren't all taught that neglect and attacks against other people was an assault on the community that belonged to The People.

      I am convinced that the failure of real liberalism in the United States was a moral failing and that the way to turn that around is through King's Blessed Community, though it won't work if conceit and leaving people out because they've got cooties and aren't kewel is going to be the standard plan of liberals. I'm tempted to make a side trip into Robinson's essay about Moses.

      All the time I wasted on Marx and other such thinkers, I could have understood this if I'd read Brueggemann in the 70s or others in the 60s. It pisses me off that I was encouraged to waste my time on crap by the lefty magazine writers and my university teachers. Or maybe I should have gone to seminary, too.

  2. For all that my pastoral career came to (nothing, basically), I am who I am and have whatever wisdom I have due to seminary. Some of the best years of my life, and the most beneficial. I should have gone earlier in life, but there you are.

    1. I'm trying to make up for my lack of the same.

      I guess I could consider that in my case it would have been a Catholic seminary, I'm not exactly sure of what the theological regimen of it would have been in the 60s-early 70s or so but it would have been different. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to go during the pontificate of John Paul II and Benedict XVI or under the regimen of the US Catholic Conference they installed. They were the the years of "pray, pay and obey" style of pastoral practice.

      I wouldn't say that nothing came of it, you do a pretty good blog that has pastoral characteristics. I doubt I'd be reading the Protestant theologians I've been reading if I didn't read it, though some of that was Marilynne Robinson's essays, too. Writing can have a pastoral effect, sort of. I figure you even occasionally get Simels to read something, or, rather, skim it.