Saturday, April 16, 2011

Narrative, Womanist Theology and the Human Experience

On this lovely Saturday afternoon, I find myself mired in final paper projects which will occupy the bulk of this month and into the next. As fun as writing this blog can be, the margin of return diminishes sharply when most of my productive hours are spent typing in front of a computer screen. So, in order to avoid a month-long blogger strike, I will be issuing weekly excerpts from my current paper projects as posts. I'll try to provide a little bit of context for each to make them somewhat intelligible. Sorry for using 'thus' and other pretentious words too much.

The first follows the recent flow of our discussions of "othering," discrimination and related (counter)practices. I describe how Womanist theologians utilize the sharing of personal stories (testimony) and theological anthropology (religious understandings of what it means to be human) to counter prejudice and provide insights relevant to the realization of true human freedom by all. Personal stories of struggle are linked to biblical stories, bringing comfort and hope while challenging all of us to "image God" in our particular circumstances, whether of privilege or disadvantage.

The first portion focuses on a study of the use of testimony in black churches in Atlanta by Anne Wimberly, the second on Womanist commentary on the power of personal narrative, and the third on an excellent book about theological anthropology by Shawn Copeland called Enfleshing Freedom. Enjoy!

Anne Wimberly demonstrates how the liturgical practice of testimony continues to transform the personal narratives of black women, men and children into authoritative sacred stories as the practice evolves to meet the moral and spiritual needs of the contemporary church.

Ritual narrative performance “recaptures the rich African-American oral tradition that has its roots in African ancestry and the historical situation of slavery,” connecting the individual’s story to “the communal and larger societal narratives.” “The experience of re-membering, then, signifies that narrative takes on vital and transformative qualities when it becomes part of a dynamic process of story sharing and story linking.”

Through this experience, the communicant addresses God explicitly and/or implicitly and receives spiritual resources “‘to resolve situations incompatible with the happiness of the reign of God and its growth in our midst.’” Linking the personal narrative with scriptural narratives places the latter within the larger Christian story, fusing transcendent belief that one has “already” been saved through God’s Grace with eschatological hope in the “not yet” achieved perfection, liberation and divine unification.

Thus, the storyteller re-members and identifies with the community’s collective past, mediates the Holy Spirit to the congregation in the present, and orients the faithful toward the divine promises of the future. Her address to the community of memory “is a call waiting for a response and a response to God’s call.”

Wimberly’s discussion of the power of narrative in the formation of hopeful belief in Christian education highlights the supernatural efficaciousness of grounding narrative identity in a theological framework. This framework sacralizes the individual’s story with a prophetic power to convict and exhort the community (including the storyteller) to “struggle together with how to act in ways that reflect God’s reign in the midst of chaotic circumstances.”

This prophetic power is necessary to pursue the practice of counter-hegemony cultural radicalism. It is both ontologically and teleologically Divine, as its prophets are “blessed with resources and abilities and a divine mandate to use them with a spirituality that will not let go of that relentless sense of justice that can only come from a rock-steady God [emphasis mine].”

Thus, the individual is empowered to move beyond contributing to the formation of the community of memory to engage the whole society. The theological framework enables Womanist theologians to boldly proclaim their hold on “the standard and normative measure for true liberation” from “all forms of oppression for all people.”

The “mundane” personal narrative is powerfully transformed into a sacred story through theological anthropology. The tension of recognition—each individual as both fully equal and unique—is resolved through the cherishing of each individual as an imago Dei, a unique manifestation of the Divine. Thus, all of God’s children are invested with prophetic power to defend human dignity and particularity in the face of external oppressive powers which seek to dominate them.

Furthermore, the understanding of imaging God as a “daily ethical endeavor” directs this formative prophetic power back toward the individual through an ongoing dialogue with God. As Emilie Townes recognizes, “we must live our lives not always comforted by the holy, but haunted by God’s call to us to live a prophetic and spirit-filled life.”

Divine Truth and Power are thus mediated through embodied experience which dialectically negotiates the nuance of particularity and the infinity of the Ultimate. From this foundation of theological anthropology, “radical subjectivity” transcends the relativistic impotence of expressive individualism as proactive manifestations of Divine power or “emergent spiritual acts”: “testifying, telling the truth, and shaming the devil; making ritual space and doing holy acts; confronting evil forces with supernatural power; drawing on ancestral properties; and radically transforming oneself into the image of God.”

Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom is such an “emergent spiritual act;” heart-wrenching and inspiring narratives of black women’s and men’s struggles under slavery and segregation are sacralized through linking with the subversive story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection within a compelling theological anthropological framework. Copeland frames the project in terms of “culturally radical” individual empowerment: “to place their black broken bodies beside his crucified broken body is a condition for a theological anthropology that grasps the sacramentality of the body in the concrete as an expression of the freedom of the human subject.”

Yet her theological anthropological framework enables--indeed, compels--her to convict all peoples of conscious bias and include all human subjects within her project of liberation. Indeed, Copeland specifically rejects narrow identity politics in favor of a more inclusive proactive mission of human solidarity:

“In our agitation for social justice, whether in church or in society, we cannot surrender to the temptation to secure ‘gains’ only for ‘our’ specific group...Solidarity enfolds us, rather than dismiss ‘others,’ we act in love; rather than refuse ‘others,’ we respond in acts of self-sacrifice--commiting ourselves to the long labor of creation, to the enfleshment of freedom.”

Nonetheless, Copeland maintains the Womanist commitment to privileging the experiences of women of color as their realization of their sanctity as imago Dei “holds foundational, even universal relevance” concerning “authentic meanings of human flourishing and liberation, progress and salvation.” Within this compelling theological anthropological framework, black women’s narratives serve as a source of personal empowerment for Copeland and other women of color in the face of oppression and further human understanding of what it means to fulfill the “ethical task of imaging God.”

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Islamophobia and Coverage of the Middle East Uprisings

Reading the associated press coverage of the recent referendum to Egypt’s Constitution sent a disconcerting rumble through my abdomen. It was not consternation over the threat posed by an Islamist Egypt which gave rise to my quivering queasiness, but rather the fear of fear itself; fear that the current political unrest in the Middle East would feed longstanding fear of Islam in general.

The author of the AP article portrays the inspiring culmination of the January and February demonstrations against the Mubarak regime--18 million Egyptians freely casting ballots, the first of their lives for many--as overshadowed by the looming threat of an authoritarian Islamist regime and sectarian violence. The author cited “critics” who warn of a “nightmare scenario” in which the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak regime loyalists band together to establish a “fundamentalist state.” Such concerns may be legitimate, but a popular vote to maintain the preexisting relationship between Islam the Egyptian state and Islam should not be presented as foreshadowing such a turn of events.

The ambivalent tone of the article highlights both the anticipation and trepidation permeating Americans’ nervous observation of the recent powerful popular demonstrations confronting longstanding authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Jordan. While faith in representative democracy fosters hope for its propagation throughout the region, ignorance and misunderstanding of Islam sow fear.

My uneasiness over fear-mongering thrust of the article reminds me of how I felt sitting in the audience of a seminar addressing “The Challenge of Islam” led by former Georgia Tech professor Dr. Atif Debs at Cumberland Community Church in Smyrna several months ago. Dr. Debs painted a disturbing picture of a top-down, worldwide clerical conspiracy to wield Shari’ah to penetrate western civilization under the guise of “tolerance” and religious freedom, despite the fact that Islam does not have a centralized authority to coordinate such an elaborate effort.

Dr. Debs supported this theory with a litany of references to the Quran which seemingly sanction such an underhanded expansion of Islam. Muslims are exhorted to say and do whatever is necessary to further Islam, they are not to trust their Jewish and Christian neighbors, etc. From this perspective, the democratic rhetoric of the anti-Mubarak movement is merely clever maneuvering for an opportunity to impose a fundamentalist regime.

Having read an English translation of the Quran myself, I perceived his scriptural support to be highly selective and decontextualized. Alarmists like Dr. Debs point to the infamous “sword verses” of the Quran which seem to advocate violent opposition to all non-Muslims. Yet these verses emerge in the contexts of particular battles against the pagan tribal establishment which had persecuted the burgeoning faith movement. On the other hand, the Quran constantly emphasizes that the choice to “submit” to God is a matter of personal will. The text frequently exhorts Muslims to live peacefully among Jewish and Christian neighbors and allow God to judge between their differences.

Yet for the uninformed listener, Dr. Debs’s frightening presentation carried the seemingly irrefutable authority of a former Muslim. For many, Dr. Debs provided an official stamp of factuality on preexisting fears.

In fact, Dr. Debs’s sources supporting his conspiracy theory are all second-hand and anecdotal. I believe Dr. Debs to be a sincere and enormously intelligent man, but his privileging of questionable sources is obviously rationalized by his personal experiences.

Throughout the presentation, Dr. Debs emphasized that Islam is more than a religion, it is a “complete system of life.” Indeed, the mid-20th century Lebanese society where he was born and socialized is far more “traditional” than our own: religion, politics, economics and education remained integrated as they have been throughout human history. Dr. Debs arrived in a much more differentiated U.S. context as an adolescent. Through hard work, he enjoyed a top-notch education, considerable economic success and enhanced political freedoms while drifting away from the luke-warm religion of his youth. In mid-life he made a voluntary, life-changing commitment to evangelical Christianity which framed the Islam of his childhood in a whole new light.

In Dr. Debs’s eyes, the social “backwardness” he experienced in youth is essentially Islamic, a view reinforced by the author of the AP article. Yet there are millions of Muslims who have achieved the American dream and made similarly substantial contributions to our society while maintaining their commitment to Islam.

History suggests that the violent scriptural interpretations and narrow religious prejudice do not arise from the inherent moral inferiority of particular traditions, but the concentration of dogmatic power amid widespread poverty and ignorance. A millennium ago, Muslim Arabs were at the cutting edge of science, mathematics and reigned over what was arguably the world’s most free and prosperous empire. Within this empire, Christian and Jewish minorities enjoyed legal protection and some limited autonomy. Meanwhile, the theocratic papal regime roused the destitute rabble of Europe to a “holy” invasion of the "heathen" Middle East with promises of plunder in this world and salvation in the next.

Christians like myself are quick to dismiss this skeleton from our closet on the grounds that such brutality is clearly contradicted by Jesus’s teachings that the peacemakers are blessed, the meek shall inherit the Earth, and the Kingdom of God is not a political entity. Yet the Old Testament is chocked full of bloody holy wars led by God’s anointed kings against inferior infidels in order to (re)claim the promised land. Consequently, Pope Urban II had little trouble shepherding his predominately impoverished and illiterate flock to war.

Poverty and desperation persist in the Middle East, increasing the potential for violence and radicalism to win the day. Yet the explosion of proactive public demonstration and democratic participation is clearly linked to the expansion of an educated middle class throughout the Muslim world. These inspiring movements of public power have been facilitated by informed, engaged Muslims Tweeting, Skyping and YouTubing on smartphones obtainable thanks to decent incomes. Rather than an impending “clash of civilations,” we may have what Martin Indyk of the Bookings Institution celebrates as “an unusual confluence of our values and interests.”

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Elevated "Other"

What images does the name "Tibet" conger up in your mind? Dramatic Himalayan vistas? Colorful prayer flags? Chanting robed monks? The Dalai Lama's peaceful, smiling face?

Over the past two weeks we have discussed "othering" as the practice of negatively stereotyping and distancing groups of people we deem different. We also imagine and exaggerate differences we perceive to be positive and essential. Perhaps no group is so thoroughly "othered" in almost exclusively positive terms as Tibetans.

Throughout the 20th century, novels and films such as Lost Horizon and 7 Years in Tibet have helped to establish a "Shangri-La" image of Tibet as a pristine, quasi-mythical land where Westerners can escape and seek adventure, revitalization and enlightenment. In recent decades, the "Free Tibet" movement popularly promoted by Hollywood actors and famous musicians has provided opportunities for Americans to flaunt their cosmopolitan compassion and express passive aggressive opposition to Chinese expansion. Meanwhile, Multiculturalists have lamented the Chinese "endangerment" of the beautifully distinct Tibetan culture and made efforts to preserve it.

Many have argued that Americans' fascination with and support of Tibet has much more to do with our desires and needs than those of Tibetans.

Tibet, of course, is closely associated with Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is a unique blend of ancient Tibetan folk religious traditions and the three major Buddhist "vehicles" or traditions--Theravada, the "foundational" or "orginal" vehicle, Mahāyāna, the largest and most diverse of the three, and Vajrayāna, or "Tantric Buddhism." If we tried to imagine a rough Christian equivalent, we might conceive of an African-American Episcopal church with Catholic liturgy, Protestant theology, Charismatic/Mystical practices, and African-American folk culture sensibilities.

Last week was "Tibet Week" at Emory University, an institution that actively promotes Tibetan Buddhism through institutional partnerships, campus events, research projects and course offerings. This intimate relationship is certainly a bit odd for a postmodern secular research university in the American South. However, it has drawn few serious critiques due to the widespread romantic, cultural, religious and political fascination with Tibet.

The "Emory-Tibet Partnership" brings honorary faculty member His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama to campus every 18 months or so. Tibetan Buddhist Faculty member Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi teaches courses in Tibetan studies and nurtures the university's relationship with the Drepung Loseling monastery in Atlanta. Scholars from around the university are engaged in a massive neuroscience research project assessing the neurological nature and value of Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices. Several scholarships make it possible for Tibetan Buddhist monks to study a variety of subjects (primarily sciences). On campus, the monks' ankle-length maroon robes signify their "otherness" to the rest of the Emory population, as does "Tibet Week" itself.

Although Emory's Tibetan Buddhist contingent participate actively in the "Tibet Week" festivities, 5 of the 6 meditation events were lead by Americans. This demonstrates how thoroughly Americans have appropriated Tibetan Buddhist practices and how fascination with Tibet facilitates their promotion and propagation.

One of these meditation sessions was lead by Dr. Tara Doyle, Senior Lecturer and Director of the Tibetan Studies Program. Dr. Doyle spends half of her life teaching Emory undergrads about the wonders of the many Buddhist traditions and communities scattered throughout the world in the classrooms of the Atlanta campus and the other half immersing them in the community of Tibetan Buddhist exiles in Dharamsala, India through a study abroad program associated with the wider Emory-Tibet partnership.

Dr. Doyle was one of the more serious, intelligent and dedicated among the thousands of hippies who went "East" in the '60s. Folks like Dr. Doyle found Eastern cultures (including Tibet, Nepal, India, etc.) a radical and welcome alternative to the rat-race of American consumer culture. She readily admits to being drawn by a over-romanticized image of the exotic East as young adult. Most of her fellow travelers eventually found there way back home and more or less fell back in line. Not Tara.

Last semester, I took a course on "Buddhism in America" with Dr. Doyle. I found that a significant portion of her students are not only intellectually intrigued by Buddhism, but spiritually inspired. Dr. Doyle struck an incredible balance between dispassionate (and often critical) social and historical analyses of Buddhist traditions and a transparent reverence reflecting her own Buddhist practice.

Many would view such bias as problematic. After all, Christian bias has been gradually and systematically eliminated from most of our colleges and universities; famously heralded by the changing of Harvard's motto from "Veritas Cristo et Ecclesiae” (“Truth for Christ and the Church”) to simply "Veritas" (Truth) in the late 19th century.

Dr. Doyle, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, is well aware of the double standard. While she is able to lead meditation exercises, similar Christian practices would not be welcome in Religion Department courses. They're hardly welcome in the Theology School classroom!

Dr. Doyle has actively encouraged me to bring my own Christian faith into her classroom and my scholarship in general. In her view, the diverse spectrum of personal religiosity and spirituality should be welcome in religious scholarship and college university. Personal piety provides us with a deeper, more textured appreciation and understanding of religious traditions. Certain forms should not be privileged or excluded based on the appeal of stereotypical images to Americans' romantic and aesthetic sensibilities.

Dr. Doyle actively seeks to debunk her students' romanticized, exotic images of Tibetan Buddhist culture specifically and Buddhism generally in favor of a more balanced view. In her view, such elevation of the "other" is almost as dehumanizing as the fearful demonization of Muslims discussed last week. Thus, it is important to counter images of Tibetans as essentially gentle and helpless with an appreciation of violence in Tibetan history, including opposition to the Chinese annexation.

Dr. Doyle illustrated the problematic nature of such positive "othering" through an anecdotal experience of one of her Tibetan Buddhist friends. After giving a speech to a receptive audience, the man was approached by a woman from the crowd. "I just love Tibetans," she exclaimed. "You're the dolphins of the human race."

This awkward and offensive attempt at a compliment illustrates the issue at hand. The man did not want to be a "dolphin of the human race." He would rather be treated like a human being, no more, no less.

What minorities or cultures do you characterize as having positive essential differences? Might these views be problematic? How can we admire and appreciate other cultures and their differences without imposing essential stereotypes on them in restrictive ways?