Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Honoring William Wilberforce

On WNYC (NPR) this morning, we heard that 68% of white New Yorkers think the police treat all races fairly and equally and 14% of African-Americans think so.

What's wrong with this picture?

How could white people think this if they are paying any attention to the news? More to the point, how can white people--from our privileged position--possibly know whether the police treat all races fairly and equally or not?

The excitement about the Wilberforce movie, Amazing Grace, and the commemorations in England of the 200th anniversary of the end of the slave trade, are encouraging signs. However, the pressing question is, what will be our response? Most of the action so far seems to be centered on world-wide slavery, still very much with us. Yet there is a self-congratulatory tone in much publicity about this--see how much we Christians care about slaves overseas! It seems to me that it is equally, if not more, important for our souls (speaking as a white American) for us to see, acknowledge, and take steps to repair the continuing hurt feelings of our black neighbors right here in our own cities and towns. For 68% of whites simply to refuse to see what their black neighbors are experiencing is very disappointing. Whether the police are fair to blacks or not is not for whites to determine. We can only understand what others experience if we see them and listen to them.

An article in Christianity Today, headlined on the front cover as "Black Evangelical Despair," describes the pain of blacks who were hired (doubtless with the best of motives) by white-dominated evangelical agencies, only to quit after enduring dismissive, insensitive, and patronizing treatment.

This is an issue that cries out for the attention of every one of us whites no matter where we are. Paying attention to the grievances and feelings of others is surely one of the most obvious callings of a Christian. Even if we cannot do anything, we can at least acknowledge how African-Americans feel.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Who was Jesus of Nazareth?

Fifty years ago when I was a young inquiring Christian, research concerning the historical person Jesus of Nazareth (as distinguished from Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity) was largely confined to academic circles. Ordinary churchgoing believers were not much troubled by these speculations in the 40s and 50s. Today, it seems there is a supposed "discovery" appearing almost literally every day. Most of these books and television documentaries purporting to reveal new truth about Jesus are meretricious, exploiting the public thirst for sensation with "theories" masquerading as "scientific" evidence. The Da Vinci Code and its progeny are grounded in the P. T. Barnum school of what the public wants, with over-the-top financial rewards. (Does it really need to be said that no one who cared two cents about accuracy would call the great artist "Da Vinci" instead of "Leonardo"? That would be like calling our third President "Of Virginia," instead of "Jefferson.")

I have been re-reading the Church Fathers for several months. What a wonderful experience it has been. It is often said that the gathering of great minds in the American colonies at the time of the Revolution was a sort of miracle. This could equally be said of the assemblage of thinkers who carved out the shape of the orthodox Christian faith in the first four centuries after the Crucifixion and Resurrection. One marvels at the sheer intellectual firepower of these figures, and at their numbers spread all over the Mediterranean world. Moreover, many of them suffered all sorts of indignities, being deposed, exiled, or anathematized on account of their unflagging efforts. Their disputes were ferocious and often vicious, as is unfortunately typical of human controversies, but the final product is a firm anchor in a safe harbor for the believer in these difficult times.

This does not mean that orthodoxy is timid, fixed, or reactionary. Quite the contrary. I found a wonderful summary of the right use of the "Chalcedonian Definition" for us today (lay people reading this, fear not! You don't have to understand it to appreciate it and be grateful for it). The esteemed Anglican patristics scholar, Richard A. Norris, explains its right use in the Church today[note that "Christology" simply means, the study of who Christ is]. Here is what he wrote:

"This formula [the Chalcedonian Definition], the final product of the classical christological controversies, is essentially a rule of christological language. Its terms are not calculated to picture the way in which Jesus is put together. Rather, they are calculated to explain how it is proper to speak of him. Orthodoxy consists in the acknowledgment that Jesus is one subject, who is properly spoken of both as God -- the divine Logos -- and as a human being. To give an account of Jesus, then, one must talk in two ways simultaneously. One must account for all that he is and does by reference to the Logos of God, that is, one must identify him as God acting in our midst. At the same time, however, one must account for him as a human being in the ordinary sense of that term. Both accounts are necessary. One cannot understand Jesus correctly by taking either account independently, even while recognizing that they really are different accounts. There is a sense, therefore, in which it is true that the Council of Chalcedon solves the christological problem by laying out its terms. Its formula dictates not a Christology but formal outlines of an adequate christological language."

In other words, the Church Fathers left markers for us, like those that guide skiers downhill. There is great freedom in this. The purpose of the markers is to tell us that we may enjoy a great range of exciting trails at various speeds, observing only the boundaries that say "beyond this, you will be off-piste" -- which may be exhilarating but may also mean a badly broken leg or even death.

Above all we may rejoice and marvel at the truth newly proclaimed in every generation: Jesus is "God acting in our midst."

For a delightful Christian Century article on this subject here's a link:

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Great stuff about Wilberforce and "Amazing Grace"

When I visited Westminster Abbey some 25 years ago I was so bowled over by the inscription on the tomb of William Wilberforce that I copied it down, brought it home, and printed it in the Grace Church (NYC) bulletin Here it is:

"To the memory of William Wilberforce (born in Hull August 24th 1759, died in London July 29th 1833); for nearly half a century a member of the House of Commons, and, for six Parliaments during that period, one of the two representatives for Yorkshire. In an age and country fertile in great and good men, he was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times; because to high and various talents, to warm benevolence, and to universal candour, he added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life. Eminent as he was in every department of public labour, and a leader in every work of charity, whether to relieve the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow-men, his name will ever be specially identified with those exertions which, by the blessing of God, removed from England the guilt of the African slave trade, and prepared the way for the abolition of slavery in every colony of the Empire: in the prosecution of these objects he relied, not in vain, on God; but in the progress he was called to endure great obloquy and great opposition: he outlived, however, all enmity; and in the evening of his days, withdrew from public life and public observation to the bosom of his family. Yet he died not unnoticed or forgotten by his country: The Peers and Commons of England, with the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker at their head, in solemn procession from their respective Houses, carried him to his fitting place among the mighty dead around, here to repose: till, through the merits of Jesus Christ, his only Redeemer and Saviour, (whom, in his life and in his writings he had desired to glorify,) he shall rise in the Resurrection of the just."

With regard to the movie Amazing Grace, I was particularly struck by the very last scene (an epilogue, really), which shows a modern bagpipe band marching in front of Westminster Abbey, playing the hymn "Amazing Grace." Very clearly shown in the background are the ten statues over the great front door that were unveiled in 1997. The statues depict Christian martyrs of the 20th century. One of them is Martin Luther King, Jr. It seemed wonderfully fitting as a way to end the Wilberforce film.

The Westminster Abbey website has information on all the statues of the ten 20th century martyrs, as well as a picture of the Wilberforce monument. (Both William Pitts, the Elder and the Younger, who was Wilberforce's friend, are buried in the Abbey also. It is amazing to realize that Pitt the Younger was only 24 when he became Prime Minister. Wilberforce was 21 when he first went to the House of Commons.)

In addition, I discovered another Abbey inscription closely related to the abolition story:

"In grateful remembrance of Zachary Macaulay, who, during a protracted life, with an intense but quiet perseverance which no success could relax, no reverse could subdue, no toil, privation, or reproach could daunt, devoted his time, talents, fortune, and all the energies of his mind and body to the service of the most injured and helpless of mankind: and who partook for more than forty successive years, in the counsels and in the labours which guided and blest by God first rescued the British Empire from the guilt of the slave trade; and finally conferred freedom on eight hundred thousand slaves; This tablet is erected by those who drew wisdom from his mind, and a lesson from his life, and who now humbly rejoice in the assurance, that through the Divine Redeemer, the foundation of all his hopes, he shares in the happiness of those who rest from their labours, and whose works do follow them. He was born at Inverary, N.B. [North Britain] on the 2 May 1768: and died in London on the 13 May 1838."

And the Abbey website entry adds:
"Just under the bust is a medallion with the kneeling figure of a slave inscribed 'Am I not a man and a brother'."

There were great Christians in England in those days.