Black Faith: A “Pythian Madness”

            James Cone, in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, quotes AME Bishop Bishop Daniel Payne who wrote in 1839,

“Sometimes, it seems as though some wild beast had plunged his fangs into my heart, and was squeezing out its life blood. Then I began to question the existence of God and to say, “If he does exist, is he just? If so, why does he suffer one race to oppress the enslave another, to rob them by unrighteous enactments of rights, which they hold most dear and sacred?…Is there no God?”

            Cone writes that W.E.B. DuBois “called black faith a “pythian madness” and “a demonic possession.” In a country where Black people are marginalized and cast aside, many white evangelicals call on their God, which seems quite different from the God on whom Black people have had to call and lean on in order to survive the poisonous fangs of white supremacy.

            This struggle with understanding God’s role and place in helping marginalized people is not new; indeed, Moses questioned God in the same way, challenging God in Exodus 5:22-23:

Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.”

In spite of that complaint and the pain he was as he wrestled with the “whereness of God,” Moses continued his assignment of leading the Israelites out of captivity, but it was a journey fraught with questions that could not be answered. His faith was, as WEB DuBois would say generations later, a “pythian madness and a demonic possession.”

            Many of us try to pretend that everything is all right when so often, it is not. We cannot see. We cannot hear or even feel “the way” from chaos to peace, from confusion to clarity, from pain to peace. Some of us wail and call out the name of God, but others of us temper our crying to God so that it is a faint whisper. We know the testimonies of others; we have heard them say that when they have looked back, they have seen that God was with them, and so they sip on the memory that brings brief moments of numbing from the pain of not feeling God in their here and now.

            Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who broke from the ranks of the Republican Party to vote for the conviction of the former president, got a letter from his family that said that because he had spoken and acted like he did, he had disappointed his family …and God. The sentence stopped me cold. The God of his family was a God who apparently was all right with the uprising at the Capitol, yes, but was also all right with the white supremacist mind-set and beliefs that were the foundation of that uprising. The God of Kinzinger’s family is, apparently, a God is is not only all right with white supremacy but perhaps created it. 

            It is because of the practice of a religion by some that having faith in this country has a peculiar quality. How can we believe in one who has done “nothing,” as Moses said, “to deliver” the marginalized people in this country? What has been done has been done under pressure and duress, and many who follow the God of Kinzinger’s family would probably say that it would be OK to take away what gains marginalized people have made.

            Cone says that “black people’s struggle with God in white America …left a deep and lasting wound.” Black people have had to “trust and cultivate their own theological imagination,” he says, because the God of the majority of culture did not seem to have the desire to reach out to the marginalized, although God had created them as well.

            Tomorrow begins the season of Lent, a time where we have an opportunity to examine ourselves, including our souls, to see what we must work to get rid of – not just for 40 days but for the rest of our lives – in order to get closer to God. For some of us, that with which we will have to struggle is a troubled faith that is tinged with anger and anxiety because of the toxicity of white supremacy which is ever before us, and which is ever saturating everything that happens in this country.

            We would do well to be honest with God during these 40 days, laying before Her our faith in a way that exposes its tears and shredded seams. We will have to hold onto our faith, in spite of our questions and complaints against it, as did our ancestors, because our faith is the only thing that has kept and will keep us together as we will in a country that refuses to love us, as Doc Rivers said, God notwithstanding.

            Amen and amen.

On Pseudo-Christianity

I have long said that if a person cannot, will not, or does not follow the words of Jesus, then that person cannot call oneself a Christian. As Christians, we are called to imitate the way Jesus lived and to follow his words. Short of doing that, a “religious” person who attends a Christian church cannot claim to be a Christian. At best, he or she is a church-goer.

The president this week “disagreed” with Jesus’ lesson to us to “love our enemies,” and he doubted the faith of those who say they pray for their enemies. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trumps-politicization-of-the-national-prayer-breakfast-is-unholy-and-immoral/2020/02/06/529518e4-4931-11ea-bdbf-1dfb23249293_story.html) Jesus said for us to do that, most starkly in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, the president rejected the words and teaching of Jesus as his “enemies” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Senator Mitt Romney listened,

It has been interesting to listen to people marvel at African Americans voice forgiveness for the persons who have killed their loved ones. The most recent example of a black person forgiving someone was Brandt Jean, who publicly forgave the white police officer who shot and killed his brother as he sat in his own apartment. (https://www.npr.org/2019/10/03/766866875/brandt-jeans-act-of-grace-toward-his-brother-s-killer-sparks-a-debate-over-forgi) His act did not endear him to many; in fact, many Christians – black especially but others as well – have scoffed at Jesus’ directives to forgive, to “turn the other cheek,” and to treat enemies with respect.

But if the truth be told, had not the words of Jesus been pounded into the psyches of black people, we as a people would have been long gone. We did not have any support for our lives and our rights – not from white people, not from the system, including Congress and the US Supreme Court, and we did not have the same access to weapons as did white people. Nonviolence saved protesters on the street; struggling to “do” the words of Jesus saved the souls and spirits of protesters as they continued to fight their enemies on a daily basis.

In a book I wrote some years ago, Forgive WHO? The Struggle to Obey God’s Awful Command, I examined this directive given to us by Jesus. It is as distasteful as it is difficult. It makes one feel weak because the natural human inclination is to fight stones with stones, and yet when the playing field is so uneven, it is a given that the powerful have more stones they can access, and therefore to wipe out their opposition.

The power of Jesus’ words is their ability to empower and strengthen people, who show a weird love – the love of God – and stand in front of their oppressors in spite of their pain and anger. It is doubtful that anyone “forgives” his or her enemies right away; that seems humanly impossible, but the words of Jesus become seeds in bruised souls and begin to sprout even as the victim of evil works to breathe through their pain. The act of forgiving first helps the one who has suffered an attack or affront from any number of sources. It is the highest, most supreme show of strength one can exhibit.

Those who do not, cannot, or will not forgive display what hatred and anger and resentment does to one’s spirit. The president is an example. He only wants revenge; the desire is eating at him, so intense that even in a “prayer breakfast,” where supposedly devout Christians have gathered to honor God, he cannot hold his pain within him, and he openly disavowed the words of Jesus the Christ.

And the Christians-in-name-only applauded him and laughed, which says at least to me that something is awry in their souls as well.

There is much confusion about forgiveness. Forgiving doesn’t mean you become best friends with the one who hurt you (no need to set up a time for “tea and crumpets), but it does mean that you lose the visceral reaction you experience when you even think of what the person has done to you. It frees you even as your abuser drowns in bitterness and anger.

What we have seen this week in this president and in the religious nationalists is a love of power, not of Jesus. We have heard – and will continue to hear and see – his words of anger and contempt for those who he deems as being his enemies, and he will spew his venom all over this country and everything he touches.

He and others might claim to be “Christian,” but they cannot be. They adhere to something that can only be called “pseudo Christianity,” something which has no foundation and teaches nothing about how to be one’s best self in the face of abject evil and attacks.

Those who fight with fists claim that they are strong. Dictators, who cannot stand to be criticized or challenged, and who kill and/or destroy anyone who does either, also claim to be strong,  But their quest for absolute power, and their willingness to put God and the instructions for life given by Jesus the Christ on the periphery of their lives, makes them the weakest people of all.

A  candid observation.

The Weird Peace of Faith

I wrote a book called Crazy Faith: Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives, in which I describe how “crazy faith” can and does propel people to do amazing things.  Faith doesn’t make sense, it is not logical, but it brings stability to unstable situations and gives sight where the circumstances at hand would beg blindness.

Then, this morning, I heard Rev. Lance Watson describe “courageous faith,” a faith that made the Biblical character Joshua tell the sun to stand still so that the Israelites could face their enemies. Whoever heard of such? And yet, courageous (crazy) faith makes people staunchly believe in something greater than themselves, and in standing on that belief, beat incredible odds.

Faith, it seems, gives people courage, the “courage to be,” as Paul Tillich describes. The very last line of his book, The Courage to Be, reads: “The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”

The anxiety of doubt comes when we are in the midst of the most scary, the most traumatic situations of our lives. We wonder where God is, if God hears, if God cares …I imagine the slaves in America wondered about the presence and goodness  of God as they endured that horrible institution; I imagine, as well, that Jews, suffering under the brutality and insanity of Adolph Hitler during the Holocaust, wondered the same thing…”Would God allow such evil?”

And yet, it seems, God does allow evil, and the courage to be means that one is able to hold onto his or her belief in God “in spite of” one’s situation.

As a pastor, I have seen many a person struggle with the whole notion of the goodness of God, the presence of God, and the purposes of God. Why would God allow an innocent child to die of brain cancer, or a beloved mother to die an early and brutal death? Years ago, I watched a young mother struggle with her idea of God as she mourned, in excruciating pain, the death of her teen son who was murdered in a drive-by shooting. In the recent unrest in the Middle East, I can imagine mothers and fathers both in Gaza and in Israel wondering why God would allow such evil – the evil of war caused by people who will not listen to each other – to exist and to flourish.

God does allow evil.  That is a bitter pill to swallow.

But there is something weird about faith, because even in the midst of going through and suffering through abject evil, those who have faith experience a “weird” peace, the “peace that passes all understanding.”  After a while, the person filled with faith has an ability to surrender doubt into the unknown. He or she is not aware of where the anxiety of doubt is going; one only knows that yesterday, he or she was upset and worried, and today, the worry, the anxiety, is gone.

And that is in spite of the fact that God allows evil to be.

We might feel better if God put a hand in front of all evil and all discomfort that confronts us, but God doing that would not necessarily increase our faith. Faith actually comes in the enduring and survival of, evil in our lives. Evil comes at us like a giant Tsunami, sometimes stunning us in its ferocity and intensity, and if we can find ourselves standing when the giant wave of evil passes back into the sea, we find that our faith in God increases. Somewhere in the midst of the fury of the evil that sometimes boxes our spirits, if we get to that place of weird peace, we are able to ride the evil and not allow ourselves to be consumed by it.

Evil is strong and distasteful, but God is greater than any evil. That does not mean that God prevents evil; we have already established that God allows evil, and we may never understand why …but in the end, God really is greater than evil.

Maybe that’s why faith is so perplexing. Anyone who has experienced a weird peace in the midst of adversity knows exactly what I am talking about …

A candid observation …